By Tapesh Yadav
Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi are in the news these days. They are among the seven most sacred ancient cities to Hindus. Part of India’s sacred geography, Varanasi is significant to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists.
‘The Luminous’ in Sanskrit – Kashi, or Banaras to locals, the city lines the banks of the Ganga. Vividly eulogized in Sanskrit literature, it is an ancient college hub where the Hindu medical classic, the Sushruta Samhita was penned in 600 BC.
Buddha delivered his first sermon, ‘The Wheel of the Dhamma’ at Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi. The 23rd Tirthankara of Jainism was born in Varanasi.
In the 1st millennium, Chinese Buddhist pilgrims visited Varanasi leaving glowing remarks in their memoirs. In 632 AD, Hiuen Tsang – also known as Xuanzang, wrote, “Varanasi is densely populated, the families are rich, people soft and humane, and they earnestly study.” He saw “a colossal Shiva statue, numerous Hindu temples and ascetics who rub their body with ashes.”
Mahmud of Ghazni invaded India in the 11th century from Afghanistan. With him came the polymath Al-Biruni who stayed on and wrote about India. To him, Varanasi was the city of “high sciences”.
In 1033, Ahmad Niyaltigin and his army plundered Varanasi. This was to be the first of many waves of desecration Varanasi faced. From then on, Varanasi emerged as one of the earliest strongholds of Hindu resistance.
In the 11th Century, the Gahadavala dynasty moved their capital to Varanasi, proclaiming themselves protectors of the Indian tirtha (holy pilgrimage places). Their defence lasted till the late 12th century when Muslim troops killed the King of Benares.
Islamic historian Hasan Nizami wrote of those times. The troops of Qutb al-Din Aybak, he wrote, plundered Varanasi and “destroyed nearly one thousand temples” (Bakker,1996). Nizami also mentions that on the foundations of destroyed temples, mosques were raised.
“From the 13th century”, writes Bakker, “the Hindus had to share Varanasi with the Muslims, who selected the Hindus’ most holy spots to build their mosques, and this has been a source of endless conflict until today”.
The Hindus continued their pilgrimages to Varanasi. Several Hindu kings resisted, recaptured the city and rebuilt the temples. The Sena king of Bengal went to Varanasi and installed a victory pillar in 1212 AD. Around 1236, the city was reoccupied and Razia built a mosque.
In 1296, Hindus rebuilt a Visvesvara temple near what is now called the Gyanvapi site. This was torn down in the first half of the 14th century, and the temple parts moved to Jaunpur to build the Lal Darwaza Mosque.
Shortly after that, Hindus rebuilt yet another Kashi Visvesvara temple. That too was destroyed in the first half of the 15th century, some of the ruins moved, and more mosques were built from temple parts by Sharqi sultans in Jaunpur.
In 1585, Hindus rebuilt again, this time their most magnificent Kashi Vishveshvara temple in Varanasi, according to Diana Eck. This was the famed temple destroyed by the Mughals on Aurangzeb’s order in 1669. In its place, the Gyanvapi mosque was built using the temple foundation, pillars, and one of the temple’s walls.
The Gyanvapi mosque used the desecrated temple in ways every Hindu pilgrim and future generations could see. Hindus continued to complete their pilgrimage, circumambulating the ruins and Gyanvapi mosque in a clockwise manner.
From Marathas to Sikhs, the Mughals under Aurangzeb faced many wars. The Mughal empire collapsed after Aurangzeb’s death. Ahalya Bai Holker, the Queen of Indore, based about 1000 kilometres south-west of Varanasi, reclaimed the sacred site in 1777. She built a new Shiva temple immediately next to the Gyanvapi mosque.
About 60 years later, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Empire, based about 1200 kilometres north-west of Varanasi, gold-plated the spire of this Hindu temple built by Ahalya Bai.
Varanasi and Gyanvapi’s turbulent history attracted the attention of Christian missionaries and colonial-era European scholars. Among them was the polymath James Prinsep who is most remembered for brilliantly deciphering the Brahmi script in 3rd century BC Ashoka inscriptions. Prinsep lived in Varanasi in the 1820s and 1830s for over 10 years. He worked at the Royal Mint. As a hobby, he teamed up with the locals to paint, measure, and sketch what he saw in Varanasi. These he published as “Benares Illustrated”, a three-part series. With each plate, he included some useful details, historical notes, or cultural commentary.
James Prinsep was fascinated by the ruins scattered around Gyanvapi mosque and the appropriation of a Hindu temple wall by the mosque. He surveyed it and created floor plan drawings of the entire complex. This he published in Part 2 of his series.
Prinsep also published a lithograph of the temple wall on the west side of the Gyanvapi mosque. This included scattered ruins he saw: a desecrated Nandi, a broken pillar part, the bricked door on the western wall of the mosque, and two tombs near the bricked door.
The Prinsep drawings provide context and leads on sections of the temple that were destroyed and sections that were appropriated. It also offers insight into the recent dispute about the “Wuzu tank” at Gyanvapi mosque. For example, if we rotate and overlay the Prinsep floor plan on a satellite image of the Gyanvapi mosque complex, the mosque appropriated many parts of the temple.
Prinsep drawings show that the mosque did not appropriate the outer wall of the original Hindu temple. Rather, the mosque’s western wall was the western mandapa’s inner section adjacent to the sanctum. The destroyed temple must have been much larger and an architectural masterpiece.
Prinsep notes that the mosque dome was created by cutting and reusing a Hindu-style dome. Further, the overlay suggests that one of the Hindu temple’s mandapa fits exactly where the Wuzu tank now stands. This makes it more likely that the Wuzu tank used the temple mandapa’s sacred structures and sections.
Prinsep writes that the principal Mahadev lingam of the destroyed temple stood inside “an ornamented reservoir. “The temple artisans had included a drain for the ritual Ganges water poured over this lingam by Hindu pilgrims, day and night. Those who built the “mosque and wazukhana tank” for Aurangzeb, may have found the temple’s drain for Shiva Linga convenient.
The Prinsep drawings show a highly symmetric square floor plan temple with four entrances from the cardinal directions. The central garbhagriya, or sanctum, had the largest space.
It was connected to four mandapas or antechambers. 1. Gyan, knowledge; 2. Mukti, liberation; 3. Shringara, celebration-decoration; and 4. Aishwarya, glory.
At the corner were four shrines for Ganesha, Bhairava, Dandapani and Tarakesvara. A grid mandala, this lost Hindu temple complex must have had nine picturesque spires rhythmically rising towards the sky.
The Archaeological Survey of India published a detailed survey of the Gyanvapi mosque recently. It confirms that the mosque reused temple pillars, inscribed slabs, and other temple parts as masonry.
The Gyanvapi site and Varanasi have long been cherished by Hindus. As Reverend Sherring wrote in the 19th century:
Benares is a city of no mean antiquity. Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added lustre to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory. […] Not only is Benares remarkable for her venerable age, but also for the vitality and vigour which, so far as we know, she has constantly exhibited. While many cities and nations have fallen into decay and perished, her sun has never gone down; on the contrary, for long ages past it has shone with almost meridian splendour. Her illustrious name has descended from generation to generation and has ever been a household word, venerated and beloved by the vast Hindu family.
The Gyanvapi site is thus more than an exhibit of India’s traumatic history. It is a living site that has never been abandoned by Hindus, despite the repeated destruction. It is a source of sorrow, a reminder of religious persecution and historic injustice. It makes them ask, “What about our human rights, our religious rights?”
The Gyanvapi site raises profound ethical questions.
Some politicians say, with understandable passion, “My people must have access to their historic mosque.”
But shouldn’t the same politicians also ask, with the same passion, “My people must have access to their historic temple?”
Some wonder, is Gyanvapi a mere property dispute, and shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones? But what is Gyanvapi, if not a temple violently appropriated and reshaped into a mosque on an ancient Hindu sacred site? Shouldn’t communities have a right to their sacred sites, ancestral heritage, to religious traditions, to freely assemble at their historic landmarks of worship, and lovingly transmit their ancestral heritage to future generations?
If all we want – or need – is a space to pray or spiritually introspect, we should be able to sit together peacefully and in a civil way, cooperate to undo historical injustice, find alternative sites, and together build beautiful buildings.
If Mecca is cherished by Muslims and we should not entertain its desecration, and if the Vatican is cherished by Catholics and we should not entertain its desecration – then Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs too deserve the same protections and same rights at their cherished temples and sacred sites.
Eck, DL. (1982). Banaras, City of Light. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. USA: New York
Singh Rana P.B. (2009). Banaras, Making of India’s Heritage City. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. UK: Newcastle Upon Tyne
Author: Tapesh Yadav born in a small village near Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi is a Hawaii-based serial entrepreneur. He earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He runs two charitable foundations: one to support skills schools for the youth, and another for initiatives on Indian Heritage sites.
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