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What is the dispute around the Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath temple complex in Varanasi?

The original temple to Lord Shiva was destroyed on the orders of Aurangzeb, and a mosque was built on the site. A century later, the present temple was built adjacent to the mosque.

gyanvapi mosque explainedThe present Kashi Vishwanath Temple was built in the 18th century by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, immediately to the south of the mosque. (Express file photo by Renuka Puri)

The Varanasi District and Sessions Court on Monday (September 12) rejected the plea of the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid, which manages the Gyanvapi mosque complex, challenging the maintainability of the civil suits filed by five Hindu women seeking the right to worship Maa Shringar Gauri on the outer wall of the complex.

The petition filed by the Hindu women was maintainable, District Judge A K Vishvesha ruled. The management committee of the mosque, which stands adjacent to the historic Kashi Vishwanath temple, had argued that the land is Waqf property.

The case before the court

The Hindu side had argued that the mosque was built on the site of an older temple, while the Muslim side pleaded that the mosque was built on Wakf premises, and that The Places of Worship Act of 1991 barred the changing of the character of the mosque. (See last section below)

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The case was initially heard by the Civil Judge (Senior Division), Varanasi, but it was transferred by the Supreme Court to the District Judge on May 20 this year on grounds of the “complexity of the issues involved in the civil suit”.

The District Judge began hearing the matter in-camera in June, and in July, the Supreme Court said it would wait for the district court’s decision on the mosque committee’s application before intervening in the matter.

The mosque in Varanasi

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

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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 important wall in a mosque that faces Mecca. Material from the destroyed temple was used to build the mosque, evidence of which can be seen today.

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 to Lord Shiva

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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.

Longstanding 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.

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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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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”.

First published on: 12-09-2022 at 15:10 IST
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