The new flashpoint

The new flashpoint

Ziya Us Salam,
Pilgrims en route to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. The Gyanvapi mosque is in the background.

There is growing discontent in Varanasi as the government goes ahead with the demolition programme despite stiff resistance from almost all sections of people around the temple-mosque complex.

At the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi struggle, it was not unusual to hear Bajrang Dal-Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists raising the slogan “Ayodhya toh sirf jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai” (Ayodhya is just a trailer, Kashi-Mathura is still left). Back then, not many took the slogan as anything more than a rant of the disgruntled. Now, it seems, for right-wing forces it is time for Ayodhya-II, with the medieval-era Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi as the new flashpoint.

On the night of October 25, an Uttar Pradesh government contractor demolished a small platform at gate No. 4, which provides entry to the temple and the mosque situated in the same complex. The platform was the property of the Sunni Central Waqf Board of the State. It was claimed then that the platform was demolished to facilitate the development of a tourist corridor around the temple. The action was resisted by local residents, who staged a protest outside the local police station. They alleged that the decision to demolish the platform was part of a larger plan to turn the Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque into Ayodhya-II. Claiming that the administration was getting centuries-old houses around the masjid-mandir area vacated to isolate the masjid, the residents said the State government planned to acquire more than 200 houses to develop a Ganga corridor, connecting the riverfront to the temple. However, with the temple being thus expanded, the fate of the lone mosque remains uncertain.

In the late 1980s, a cleric of the mosque claimed that the mosque was built during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar and renovated during Aurangzeb’s rule. His argument does not seem to be backed by history. Several people maintained that the mosque was built during the time of Aurangzeb, around 1669, probably to quell a local rebellion. It may be recalled that Aurangzeb’s almost 50-year-long rule was notable for a series of rebellions, which he put down with a heavy hand.

Says noted the author-historian Audrey Truschke, whose book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth made waves a little more than a year ago: “My understanding is that the Gyanvapi masjid was indeed built during Aurangzeb’s reign. The masjid incorporates the old Viswanath temple structure—destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders—as its qibla wall. While the mosque dates back to Aurangzeb’s period, we do not know who built it.”

In her book, Audrey Truschke wrote: “Mosques were erected on the former sites of both the Vishwanath and Kesavadeva temples although they were built under different circumstances. The Gyanvapi masjid still stands today in Benares with part of the ruined temple’s wall incorporated into the building. This reuse may have been a religiously clothed statement about the dire consequences of opposing the Mughal authority. Convenience may also have dictated this recycling. While the Gyanvapi mosque dates to Aurangzeb’s period, its patron is unknown and the structure is not mentioned in Mughal documents.”

Aurangzeb’s reaction

Catherine Asher, in Architecture of Mughal India, is more forthright. She argued: “The destruction of Raja Man Singh’s famous Vishvanath temple in Benares was largely to punish Hindus, especially those related to the temple’s patron, who were suspected of supporting the Maratha Shivaji. Many of these temples, desecrated by Aurangzeb, including the largest and most notable among them, had been built by Mughal amirs. In each case, Aurangzeb reacted to the violation of a long-established allegiance system binding the emperor and nobility by destroying property maintained previously with Mughal support. Thus in a sense Aurangzeb destroyed state-endowed property, not private works. Some of Aurangzeb’s alleged destruction is more legendary than real.”

Catherine Asher contended that Aurangzeb demolished temples for political reasons but also gave generous grants to others. She wrote: “Tradition still perpetuated in Benares blames Aurangzeb for destroying many of that city’s temples, even though imperial documents indicate that he long had been concerned with maintaining harmony between the Hindu and Muslim communities there. In fact, there is evidence only for his demolition in 1669 of the Vishvanath temple, built almost certainly by Raja Man Singh during Akbar’s reign. Aurangzeb’s demolition of the temple was motivated by specific events, not bigotry. One was rebellion of zamindars in Benares, some of whom may have assisted Maratha Shivaji in his escape from Mughal authorities. It widely was believed that his escape initially had been facilitated in Agra a few years earlier by Jai Singh, Raja Man Singh’s great-grandson, thus explaining the destruction of this particular temple. Another was reaction to recent reports of obstructive Brahmins interfering with Islamic teaching. The demolition of the Vishvanath temple, then, was intended as a warning to anti-Mughal factions, in this case, troublesome zamindars and Hindu religious leaders who wielded great influence in this city. Moreover, the temple had been built by a Mughal amir, some of whose successors recently had abetted the emperor’s most persistent enemy.”

The fact that Aurangzeb issued a firman in 1659, soon after ascending the throne, wherein he pulled up Mughal officials who were accused of harassing the Brahmins of Varanasi lends credence to this view. With consistent faith in the goodwill of the Brahmins, Aurangzeb wrote: “You must see that nobody unlawfully disturbs the Brahmins or other Hindus of that region, so that they might remain in their traditional place and pray for the continuance of the Empire.” Around a decade later, the emperor confirmed the land grant to the Umanand temple of Guwahati in the east, and to the Jain community in Gujarat in the west. In Varanasi, in 1687, Aurangzeb gave a piece of land near the ghat to Ramjivan Gosain to build residential dwellings for Brahmins and holy faqirs.

In a nishan sent to Rana Raj Singh, the Hindu Rajput ruler of Mewat, in 1654, Aurangzeb expressed his views on how a good ruler should behave. “Persons of great kings are shadows of God. The attention of this elevated class, who are the pillars of God’s court, is devoted to this: That men of various dispositions and different religions should live in the vale of peace and pass their days in prosperity.”

The well-known scholar-activist Ram Puniyani reiterated the argument. “Aurangzeb did demolish the Kasi Viswanath temple. But he gave grants to the Mahakaal temple in Ujjain, to the Bhagwan Krishna Mandir in Vrindavan. Aurangzeb demolished mosques too—for instance, the mosque in Golconda—because the local nawab did not pay taxes and instead hoarded the wealth in the mosque. Why do we only focus on Aurangzeb’s destruction of temples? Why do we forget his grants to temples or destruction of mosques? His attacks were based on political considerations.”

That was more than 300 years ago. Today, the Gyanvapi masjid looks at an uncertain future. Along with the mosque, the fate of the age-old havelis (mansions) in the vicinity is far from settled. Meanwhile, harking back to the city’s famed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (tradition of a shared past), some influential Hindus of the city are resisting the move. Among them has been a seasoned journalist who threatened to commit suicide early this year if the house his ancestors had occupied for close to 200 years was demolished.

Another Varanasi resident insists: “This is all political gamesmanship. It is for the residents to realise the political motives and counter them to live peacefully. In every mohalla, Hindus and Muslims stay together, sharing a common wall. It is not like Gujarat.” It should stay that way in Varanasi.