Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Gyanvapi Case and Places of Worship Act 1991

Written By Darshan M (Grade 10)

Armies of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb undoubtedly destroyed several temples replacing them with Mosques. The Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1669 was called the Adi Vishweshwar Temple at that time. Written pieces of evidence exist in the form of Aurangzeb’s official records, which were maintained by Saqi Mustad Khan in his chronicles Maasir-I-Alamgiri which covers the last four decades of Aurangzeb’s rule until he died in 1707.

The destroyed temple was renamed Alamgiri Masjid after Aurangzeb. Other temples destroyed by him in Banaras were also given the same name and to differentiate them, this one acquired the name Gyanvapi. Vapi means well, and Gyan means Knowledge – “The well of Knowledge”. A strange coexistence of a Sanskrit name for the symbol of an Arabic faith stands as a testimony to the intermingling of people and cultures at that time.

Aurangzeb however was not the first one to destroy the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Qutubuddin Aibak destroyed it in 1192. Almost 400 years later in 1585, it was rebuilt by a Nagpur brahmin by the name of Narayan Bhatta. Ironically it was rebuilt under the patronage of Emperor Akbar whose great-grandson Aurangzeb destroyed it. A 100 years later when Ahilyabai Holkar became ruler of Indore, She constructed the temple as you see it today with the foot-high stone statue of the Nandi bull gifted to her by the Rana of Nepal, and she rebuilt it right next to the Gyanvapi Mosque, leaving the original well between the 2 holy places.

This site holds great importance to Hindus as it is believed that this is the very spot where Lord Shiva cast his celestial beam of light. A Jyothirlinga was found after a survey conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. On orders from a Varanasi court based on a petition filed by 5 women in August 2021, who were seeking daily permission to worship, Shrinagar Gauri, a deity that exists on a part of a temple wall that was never demolished and which today acts as a back wall of the mosque.

Before the petition, as per tradition, Hindus were praying here only one day a year on the 4thday of Navaratri, a practice that is going on for over 400 years to which Muslims had never objected. But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, to maintain peace this area was blocked by the government. The structure was a temple far more obvious that the case of Ram Janmabhoomi. 

So even if a Shivling were to be found inside the mosque, it wouldn’t have been a novelty as the history of Gyanvapi is an accepted fact. Except, such a find, helps build sentiments to return the mosque to its original owners, The Hindus. But blocking it is the Places of Worship Act 1991 passed by the Narasimha Rao government at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, over the objections of a weaker BJP. 

An act that seeks to preserve the religious character of any structure as it existed at the time of independence. A Law was reiterated at the time of the 2019 Babri Masjid – Ram Janmabhoomi Supreme court decision. Under the changed sentiment, it is, therefore, an irrelevant argument to say that the claimed Shivling in Gyanvapi, is a water fountain.

A 1937 judgment by Allahabad high court gave the entire compound mosque complex to the Muslim Waqf, because to Hindus, the destroyed temples are old wounds one can scratch and inflict pain. 

Seeing differently from a Hindu perspective, Mughals were destroyers, British were suppressers, when Hindus were finally free they are now restrained under the Places of Worship Act. Not entirely, however, during the height of partition, many mosques were forcibly converted into temples. 

So other than religious fervour, there appears to be more to the demolition than meets the eye. Sources suggest one reason could be in retaliation against local Zamindars who were supporting the rising Maratha power. Whatever the reason was, maybe what India needs now is a court-like body like it was set up in South Africa in 1995 to help heal the country by uncovering the scope of temple conversations that had taken place during Muslim rule in India. With an emphasis on bringing about a reconciliation, rather than penalizing a minority of part crimes committed centuries ago. 

Featured Image Courtesy – The Times of India


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