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Court order on Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque site in Varanasi: history and context

A Varanasi court has ordered that the video survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque located next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple be resumed and a report submitted by May 17. A look at the mosque, the temple, and the claims

Written by Divya A | New Delhi |
Updated: May 13, 2022 6:16:28 pm
Express Explained, Express exclusive, Kashi Vishwanath temple, Gyanvapi Mosque, Varanasi, Indian Express, India news, current affairs, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News, Indian Express India NewsThe Gyanvapi Mosque, with the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple in the foreground. Renuka Puri

A Varanasi court on Thursday ordered that the video survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque located next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple be resumed and a report submitted by May 17. The court had ordered the inspection last month on a petition by five Hindu women seeking round-the-year access to pray at “a shrine behind the western wall of the mosque complex”, but the exercise had been halted after allegations of bias were made against the official in charge.

The site is currently opened for Hindu prayers once a year — on the fourth day of the chaitra navratri in April. The petitioners have also sought permission to pray to other “visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex”.

The mosque

The Gyanvapi Mosque is believed to have been built in 1669 during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ordered the demolition of the existing Vishweshwar temple and its replacement by a mosque. This is also mentioned in the 1937 book History of Benares: From the Earliest Times Down to 1937 by AS Altekar, who was head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Banaras Hindu University.

The plinth of the temple was left untouched, and served as the courtyard of the mosque. One of the walls too was spared, and it became the qibla wall, the most ornate and important wall in a mosque that faces Mecca. Material from the destroyed temple was used to build the mosque.

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The name of the mosque is said to have derived from an adjoining well, the Gyanvapi, or Well of Knowledge.

An old sculpture of the Nandi bull inside the compound of the present Kashi Vishwanath Temple faces the wall of the mosque instead of the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. It is believed that Nandi is in fact, facing the sanctum sanctorum of the original Vishweshwar temple.

The temple

For more than 100 years after the mosque was built, there was no temple at the site. The present Kashi Vishwanath Temple was built in the 18th century by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, immediately to the south of the mosque. Over the decades it emerged as one of the most prominent and revered centres of the Hindu religion.

Many Hindus have long believed that the original lingam of the erstwhile Vishweshwar temple was hidden by the priests inside the Gyanvapi well during Aurangzeb’s raid — which has fired the desire to conduct puja and rituals at the sacred place where the mosque now stands.

The claims

From time to time, petitioners have laid claim to the mosque, saying it remains the original sacred place of Hindu worship. The VHP’s Ram Temple movement aimed to “liberate”, apart from the Ramjanmabhoomi Temple-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi mosque site and the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura as well.

The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 — which mandates that the nature of all places of worship, except the one in Ayodhya that was then under litigation, shall be maintained as it was on August 15, 1947, and that no encroachment of any such place prior to the date can be challenged in courts — applies to the disputed complex in Varanasi.

In April 2021, Fast Track Court Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ashutosh Tiwari ordered the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India to “get a comprehensive archaeological physical survey” done of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque complex to “find out as to whether the religious structure standing at present at the disputed site is a superimposition, alteration or addition or there is a structural overlapping of any kind, with or over, any religious structure”.

The mosque is not an ASI-protected site, and the ASI has no role in its maintenance or upkeep.

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