Gyanvapi Mosque: The Struggle in Varanasi Today Is A Legal and Civil Debate, Not a Debate over an Established History

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Since April 2022, the city of Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has been the legal and moral battleground of a lawsuit plaguing India and Hindus around the world. At the center of the transaction is the Kashi Vishwanath temple, built in 1790 adjacent to its predecessor, whose remains can still be seen in the structure of the Gyanvapi mosque. Gyanvapi, meaning “well of knowledge” in Sanskrit, was built on the ruins of the previous Kashi Vishwanath temple, which was destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669.

Varanasi is the ancient seat of Shiva, one of the main figures of Hinduism and a member of the “trimUrti” loosely translated as trinity. This article could not begin to address the nuances of Shiva or how we Hindus conceptualize the divine. Shiva, like all our deities, manifested himself in Bharat, the ancient Hindu homeland that today consists mainly of India. The twelve regions, especially the jyotirlingas, are deeply connected with Shiva and his worship. The holiest of the 12 jyotirlinga is Vishvanath in Varanasi and sits in the temple that historically shares its name.

The city and Shiva worship are believed to have existed continuously since the 2nd millennium BC. The 7th-century record of the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang tells us that worship flourished in Varanasi for thousands of years at the time of his visit.

As Islam was pushed out of the Arabian Peninsula, Arab, Turkish and Persian armies flocked to India, pushing the boundaries of the Islamic world even further, beginning with the 8th century attack on Sindh (modern-day Pakistan). Iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images considered heretical, was common practice, and the destruction of temples was used as a means both to steal the wealth of indigenous Hindus and to humiliate them through acts of desecration. Famous Iranian poet Amir Khusru vividly described Malik Kafur’s sack and desecration of the great Tamil temple city of Chidambaram in 1311; Before the heads of the temple priests were cut off, cow meat was hung around their necks. Later, the temple’s gold was looted and destroyed, showing that these actions were intended to bring about more than simple economic disruption.

The Kashi Vishwanath mandir was first destroyed by Persian invader Mohammad Ghori between 1192 and 1195. It was quickly rebuilt in an adjacent location and it is said that Shivalinga or Shiva’s murti was hidden during this attack and replaced in the new temple. Murti is irreverently translated as “idol” in English. Several more destructions followed, and Lord Vishwanath’s stewards tried their best to save the murti from a series of attacks. Murti’s persistence is part of the Varanasi legend, the story of Hindu resistance and Shiva’s eternal existence. The final destruction in 1669 devastated the Hindu community. It wasn’t until 1780 that Rani Ahilyabai, queen of the Marathas, built the gold-encrusted temple seen in Varanasi today.

While we cannot keep the figures of the past by today’s moral standards, Aurangzeb’s acts of disrespect and cruelty to Hindus were prolific. Most Hindus, and Indians for that matter, see it as a cautionary tale of religious fanaticism. The fight in Varanasi today is not a deep-rooted historical debate, but rather a legal and civilizational one. There was once mainstream skepticism as to whether the Gyanvapi mosque was built on top of a destroyed temple. As further calls were made to address the blatant anti-Hindu bigotry, that claim vanished – today the mosque’s rear wall is a literal Hindu structure that protrudes strangely from the mosque’s otherwise white brick facade.

Varanasi is our eternal city, the city of Lord Shiva and where many Hindus have sought to die for thousands of years in hopes of attaining moksha or liberation. It is this collective longing that connects the American Hindu to Rani Ahilyabai, or countless Hindu devotees to honor Lord Vishwanath over time.

The 2021 petition was submitted to the Varanasi district court by five Delhi women who demanded the right to worship Shiva’s wife, Shingar Gauri, for a year, whose temple survived the destruction in 1669. Since 1996, a court order has forced the mosque to allow Hindu devotees. To worship the goddess in the building of the mosque once a year during the festival of Navaratri. The petitioners in the 2021 case advanced their case, and in April 2022, the court ruled that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct a filmed survey of mosque buildings. The petitioners claimed that while the Gauri murti was outside the mosque, the few murti needed for their worship inside the mosque were more robust.

The Gyanvapi mosque’s inspection committee initially opposed the court’s orders and angered local worshipers and community members for blocking ASI’s access to the mosque. Notably, the court ordered Muslims to maintain access to the prayer area inside the mosque outside of the time slots devoted to the ASI survey. The case circulated in the courts for several more weeks, until a May 12 decision signaling that the ASI investigation would progress and the mosque’s governing body softened. The survey was completed on 17 May and the final reports were submitted to the district court on 19 May.

However, while this was going on in the district court, the Muslim community petitioned the Supreme Court of India. Kashi did not claim that Visvanath was never destroyed by Aurangzeb, he did not deny that it was built from the ruins of the Gyanvapi mosque. Heck didn’t even deny that Hindus still worship the area on which the mosque stands. The case before the Supreme Court alleges that the ASI research and the Hindu community’s call for access to the ruined temple violated the 1991 Places of Worship Act.

This Parliamentary resolution, hastily drawn up during the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid dispute in the 1990s, stated that places of worship would retain the religious character they had on 15 August 1947, India’s independence day. The spirit of the law sought to avoid revisiting any wounds of the past. However, a few lists of exceptions also included monuments under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Relics Act 1958. This law defined ancient monuments as any structure, carving, or ruin that is more than 100 years old as of 1958. In short, many point out that the Gyanvapi mosque may not be covered by the Places of Worship Act as it was built between 1669. -1670.

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But lawyers are of secondary importance to me as a diaspora Hindu. I’ve been stuck with my laptop ever since this case hit the headlines because of what Varanasi means to me. Varanasi is our eternal city, the city of Lord Shiva and where many Hindus have sought to die for thousands of years in hopes of achieving moksha or salvation. It is this collective longing that connects the American Hindu to Rani Ahilyabai, or countless Hindu devotees to honor Lord Vishwanath over time. This is not an edge move. We have never left our sanctuaries, we have never ceased to pray at Kashi, Mathura, or the myriad other sanctuaries we have lost to Abrahamic supremacy.

The Kashi Vishwanath issue is a land issue, an indigenous community fighting to continue worshiping in its sanctuary just as the indigenous people of Mauna Kea, Alcatraz, or Standing Rock are fighting for in the United States. This mosque is just a place of worship. It is not a holy monument and this mosque has no religious affiliation with the land on which it sits. The land should be returned to the Hindu community. In return, the Varanasi Muslim community should be given land to build a new mosque on the site of Gyanvapi.

Photographs from the colonial period show the detailed courtyard and interior of the mosque complex. These images show scenes that can be found in Hindu temples in India. The most striking sight is the bull Nandi, carved in stone and found in Shiva temples around the world, overlooking Shiva. Gyanvapi Nandi faces the last great Kashi Vishvanath temples built in the 16th century, with its back facing the modern temple built in 1790. Hindus around the world say they are patiently waiting for Lord Vishvanath. I too will have to patiently wait for the Varanasi district court to publish the ASI poll results. Until then, I won’t speculate on definitive findings. The truth is worth it.

Sing hymns to the lord of the universe, the Lord of Varanasi.

Sandhya Devaraj enjoys reading Indian and Hindu history. She loves trying new plant-based recipes and sipping on delicious teas her husband has collected.