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Gyanvapi Mosque: The Fight in Varanasi Today is Not a Dispute Over Well-Settled History, But Rather a Legal and Civilizational One

Gyanvapi Mosque: The Fight in Varanasi Today is Not a Dispute Over Well-Settled History, But Rather a Legal and Civilizational One

  • We have never abandoned our sacred spaces, never given up hope to pray at Kashi, Mathura, or the countless other sacred spaces we lost to Abrahamic supremacism.

Since April 2022, the Indian city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh has been the legal and spiritual battleground of a court case that has gripped India and Hindus across the world. At the center of the proceeding is the Kashi Vishwanath temple, built in 1780 adjacent to its predecessor, whose ruins are still visible 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 destroyed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1669.

Varanasi is the ancient seat of Shiva, one of Hinduism’s main figureheads and a member of the “trimUrti” loosely translated as the trinity. This article could not begin to address the nuances of Shiva or how we Hindus conceptualize the divine. Shiva, like all of our gods, has manifested himself across Bharat, the ancient Hindu homeland that is primarily made up of India today. Twelve sites, in particular, the jyotirlingas, are deeply linked to Shiva and his worship. The most sacred of the 12 jyotirlingas is Vishvanath in Varanasi, historically seated in the temple that shares its name.

The city, as well as Shiva worship, is believed to have continuously existed since the second millennium BCE. The 7th-century account of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang tells us that worship had been prospering in Varanasi for millennia at the time he visited.

As Islam pushed outwards from the Arabian Peninsula, Arab, Turkic and Persian armies poured into India starting with the 8th-century assault on Sindh (modern-day Pakistan), further pushing the boundaries of the Islamic world. Iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images considered heretical, was a common practice and the destruction of temples was used as a tool both to rob the indigenous Hindus of their wealth and humiliate them through acts of desecration. Famous Persian poet Amir Khusru described Malik Kafur’s 1311 sack and desecration of the great Tamil temple city of Chidambaram vividly; cow flesh was hung on the necks of temple priests before they were beheaded. The temple was then raided of its gold and destroyed, showing that these acts were meant to inflict more than simple economic disruption.

The Kashi Vishwanath mandir was first destroyed sometime between 1192-1195 by the Persian invader Mohammad Ghori. It was quickly rebuilt at an adjacent location and the Shivalinga, or murti of Shiva is rumored to have been hidden during this assault and replaced in the new temple. Murti is irreverently translated as “idol” in English. Several more razings followed, and Lord Vishwanath’s stewards made every attempt to save the murti from a series of onslaughts. The murti’s persistence is part of the legend of Varanasi, a tale of Hindu resistance and Shiva’s eternal presence. The final destruction in 1669 devastated the Hindu community. It wasn’t until 1780 when Rani Ahilyabai, queen of the Marathas, built the gold-coated temple seen in Varanasi today.

While we cannot hold figures of the past to today’s moral standards, Aurangzeb’s acts of desecration and persecution of Hindus were prolific. Most Hindus, and Indians for that matter, see him as a cautionary tale of religious fanaticism. The fight in Varanasi today is not a dispute over well-settled history, but rather a legal and civilizational fight. There was once mainstream skepticism over whether the Gyanvapi mosque was ever constructed over a destroyed temple. With greater calls to address blatant anti-Hindu bigotry, this claim is extinct – the back wall of the mosque today is literally a Hindu structure, jutting oddly from the otherwise white brick facade of the mosque.

Varanasi is our eternal city, the city of Lord Shiva and the place so many Hindus have sought to die in for millennia hoping to attain moksha, or liberation. It is this collective longing that ties the American Hindu to Rani Ahilyabai, or the countless Hindu devotees across time to honor Lord Vishwanath.

The 2021 petition before the Varanasi district court was filed by five Delhi women, demanding the right to year-long worship of Shringar Gauri, Shiva’s consort whose shrine survived the destruction of 1669. Since 1996, a court order forced the mosque to permit Hindu devotees onto the premises of the mosque once a year during the festival of Navaratri to worship the goddess. The petitioners in the 2021 case pushed ahead with their case and in April 2022, the court ruled that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct a filmed survey of the mosque premises. The petitioners claimed that while the Gauri murti was outside the mosque, there were several more murtis still intact inside the mosque that were essential to their worship.

The Gyanvapi mosque’s oversight committee initially balked at the court’s orders and riled up its local worshipers and community members to block the ASI’s access to the mosque. Of note, the court ordered that Muslims should maintain access to the prayer space inside the mosque aside from the time slots dedicated to the ASI survey. The case bounced around courts for several more weeks until a May 12th ruling that signaled the ASI survey would go forward, and the mosque board relented. The survey was completed on May 17th and the final reports were submitted to the district court on May 19th.

But, while this was going on in the district court, the Muslim community filed a petition to the Supreme Court of India. It did not allege that Kashi Visvanath was never destroyed by Aurangzeb, it did not deny that the Gyanvapi mosque was built from its ruins. Heck, it didn’t even deny that Hindus still worshiped the space the mosque stood on. The case before the Supreme Court claims the ASI survey and the Hindu community’s call to access the ruined temple violated the 1991 Places of Worship Act.

Hastily put together during the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid dispute of the 1990s, this act of Parliament stated that houses of worship would retain the religious character they possessed on August 15, 1947, India’s day of independence. The spirit of the law sought to avoid revisiting any wounds of the past. Among the list of several exceptions though were monuments covered by the 1958 Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act. This law defined ancient monuments as any building, carving, or ruins greater than 100 years old as of 1958. In short, many are pointing 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 the legalese is of secondary importance to me as a diaspora Hindu. I’ve been glued to my laptop since this case made headlines because of what Varanasi means to me. Varanasi is our eternal city, the city of Lord Shiva and the place so many Hindus have sought to die in for millennia hoping to attain moksha or liberation. It is this collective longing that ties the American Hindu to Rani Ahilyabai, or the countless Hindu devotees across time to honor Lord Vishwanath. This is not a fringe movement. We have never abandoned our sacred spaces, never given up hope to pray at Kashi, Mathura, or the countless other sacred spaces we lost to Abrahamic supremacism.

The issue of Kashi Vishwanath is a land-back issue, an indigenous community fighting to continue worshiping in its sacred space, just as indigenous people in Mauna Kea, Alcatraz, or Standing Rock fight for in the U.S. This mosque is simply a place of worship, not a sacred monument, and this mosque has no religious ties to the land it sits on. The land should be returned to the Hindu community. In return, the Muslim community of Varanasi should be given land to build a new mosque to replace Gyanvapi.

Colonial-era photos show the detailed courtyard of the mosque complex, as well as parts of its interior. These images show scenes that could be found in Hindu temples across India. The most stunning view is of Nandi, the bull, carved into stone and found in Shiva temples across the world facing Shiva. The Gyanvapi Nandi faces in the direction of the last great Kashi Vishvanath temples built in the 16th century, with his back to the modern temple built in 1790. Hindus across the world comment that he has patiently been waiting for Lord Vishvanath. I too will patiently have to wait for the Varanasi district court to release the ASI survey results. Until then I will not speculate on the exact findings. The truth is worth it.

वाराणसीपुरपतिं भज विश्वनाथम् Sing praise to that lord of the universe, who is the Lord of Varanasi.


Sandhya Devaraj enjoys reading Indian and Hindu history. She loves to try new plant-based recipes and sip on the delicious teas her husband collects.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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