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Contested Place of Worship: History and context of the Gyanvapi Mosque imbroglio

New Delhi, May 21, 2022- In an India that boasts of secular ethos, there stands a mosque bearing a Sanskritised name. Gyanvapi (meaning ‘well of knowledge) is a mosque in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, yanked into limelight for a dispute over its prevailing religious status, notwithstanding its established history.

The resurrection of a medieval episode of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s desecration of one particular temple in the ancient city of Kashi (Varanasi) makes it necessary to revise the sequence of developments that precede the edifice that stands as Gyanvapi mosque, adjacent to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple situated on the western banks of river Ganga.

The history of Gyanvapi site

What existed there prior to this temple is debated by scholars, but before this mosque came to be, on its ground stood a Vishweshwara temple, dedicated to Shiva. This temple, as per records, was built in the 16th century under Akbar’s reign by two people: Todar Mal, Akbar’s finance minister and a premier noble in the Mughal Empire; and Narayana Bhatta, the head of Kashi’s predominant Brahmin family.

Going further back, popular sources inform of the claims that the original temple that stood at the site of the present-day mosque was destroyed by Qutb al-Din Aibak in 1193-94 CE after defeating Jayachanda, the ruler of Kannauj (a region in Uttar Pradesh).

Few years later, the Razia mosque was erected in place of the original temple. However, during the reign of Iltutmish (1211-1266 CE), a Gujarati merchant rebuilt the temple but it was demolished by Hussain Shah Sharqi (1447-1458) or Sikandar Lodhi (1489-1517).

According to yet another claim, the temple was reconstructed by Raja Man Singh during Akbar’s reign, only to fall prey to Aurangzeb’s cultural pillages this time.

It is said that Aurangzeb had the temple destroyed around 1669 and constructed a mosque in its place. The plinth of the temple was largely left untouched and remained in use as the courtyard of the mosque. The structure went on to have several other features of the Mughal architectural style that remain to this day.

However, oral accounts suggest that despite destroying the temple, Brahmin priests were permitted to reside within the mosque complex and exercise privileges regarding matters of Hindu pilgrimage as the Gyanvapi site, especially for its surviving plinth, remained popular among Hindu pilgrims.

Records indicate that after Auragazeb razed the original Vishwanath temple and built Gyanvapi mosque over it; the current structure of Vishwanath temple was built adjacent to the mosque by the Maratha ruler, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, in 1780.

Several claims and counter-claims prevail regarding the historicity and sequence of events pertaining to the original temple site, but without attestation of historical scholarship.

It is a popular fact that foreign invaders looted temples but a lesser-known fact is that it was not just the Muslim invaders that pillaged temples but Hindu rulers too looted the treasury from temples in other territories.

However, “there is a difference in the way the Hindus and the Muslims looted temples”, points out professor Vipul Singh, historian and faculty at University of Delhi, while talking to IANS.

“Temples were identified with rulers of the region. There was nothing called India at that time. Much wealth was hidden in those temples,” the historian said, explaining the loot of temples by invading Hindu rulers, “But it was not looted the way Muslim invaders looted temples — they demolished the temples and used the materials to construct their own mosques over it.”

The Gyanvapi Mosque dispute in recent times

A petition was filed in 1991 at a Varanasi court whereby the petitioners, who were local priests, sought permission to worship in the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The petitioners maintained that the mosque was built upon the orders of Aurangzeb by demolishing a part of the Kashi Vishwanath temple during his reign.

The case was revived in December 2019 following the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya dispute when a Varanasi-based lawyer, Vijay Shankar Rastogi, filed a petition in the lower court claiming illegality in the construction of Gyanvapi mosque and sought an archaeological survey of the site.

The Varanasi court thus directed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to carry out a survey and produce a report. However, the body that runs Gyanvapi mosque, Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, along with the Sunni Central Waqf Board opposed the petition and the court’s order to survey the mosque.

When the matter reached the Allahabad High Court, it ordered an interim stay on the direction of ASI for conducting the survey. The high court highlighted that as per the Places of Worship Act, 1991, any change in the religious character of a place of worship from as it existed on August 15, 1947, is prohibited.

However, in March 2021, a Supreme Court bench headed by then Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, agreed to examine the validity of The Places of Worship Act.

Further, on August 18, 2021, five Hindu women filed a petition in the Varanasi court seeking permission to worship the deities (Shringar Gauri, Ganesha, Hanuman, and Nandi) regularly, in addition to restricting opponents from harming the statues inside Gyanvapi structure.

Context of the dispute

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque dispute was raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh during the campaign for construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya along with the Krishanjanma Bhoomi-Shahi Idgah Masjid in Mathura.

They claimed that all the three mosques were built after demolishing Hindu temples.

Popular sources indicate that the original Shivling at the temple was supposedly hidden by priests inside the Gyanvapi well at the time of Aurangazeb’s raids. Such a proposition validates the recent finding of a Shivling-like structure from the mosque’s premise, which the claimants on the Muslim side say is a defunct fountain head.

“As researchers, we have certain protocols to follow, we need evidence,” says professor Singh, commenting on the recent discovery in the mosque premises and the possibility of the Shivling actually stowed away there, “the only way to prove it is by a legal permit to carry out excavations at the site and then arrive at a conclusion,” he said.

Adding that “It’s a political issue, no one wants to listen to the historians; and there is nothing concrete about what we are hearing,” Singh asserted that “you can’t deny that many temples were indeed destroyed.”

Meanwhile, the Varanasi civil court on Tuesday removed Advocate-Commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra from the panel formed to survey the mosque. After he was ousted, Mishra said, “I’ve not done anything that reveals the secrecy of the matter.”

IANS reached out to a serving and a retired ASI official with an inquiry pertaining to releasing any information in the course of the survey and before its completion, or having any directive in this regard as a matter of protocol. They refrained from commenting saying that a legal expert may explain this better.

IANS then reached out to Delhi-based advocate Vinay Pandey to shed light on the matter. He explained that with respect to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, “There is no provision which categorically mandates the confidentiality of the interim findings of a survey until its conclusion. However, in the Gyanvapi mosque case, survey was conducted in compliance with the Varanasi district court order by a court-appointed advocate commissioner (which later was changed) and the same stood concluded on May 17, 2022. In any case, when the court is seized of the matter and orders any probe by way of survey or inspection, then it shall be the bounden duty of the person upon whom the responsibility is laid to execute the same in an utmost fair, impartial, secure, and neutral manner.”

Further, The Places of Worship Act, 1991 mandates to maintain the religious character of a place as on August 15, 1947 and disallows conversion of a place of worship. It is widely critiqued that this dispute over Gyanvapi mosque is a defiance of the law.

Advocate Pandey elucidates: “The main object and purpose for The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 came into force to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947.

“There are conflicting arguments from both the sides in this long-drawn litigation as one side is seen stating that the said Act is not applicable to the said mosque and it is covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, as mentioned under sub-section 3 of section 4 of the 1991 Act.”

Expatiating further, he added that “the other side is claiming that the mosque directly falls within the ambit of sections 3, 4(1) and 4(2) of the 1991 Act”.

He concluded by saying that “the justifiability of the debate surrounding the status of the mosque will ultimately depend upon the adjudication of the aforesaid primary issues”.  (Agency)

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