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Modi has Destroyed More Temples than Aurangzeb: Vishwanath Temple Mahant

Ajaz Ashraf |
Those who want to tailor history to suit their political agenda never mention Akbar built Vishwanath Temple—only that Aurangzeb destroyed it.
Kashi Vishwanath Mahant

The Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy in Ayodhya rocked India for over three decades, leading to riots and bloodshed in which hundreds perished. The Supreme Court’s 2019 judgement on the contentious issue handed over the disputed site in Ayodhya to the Hindus. Although the judgement was much criticised, there was hope that India would refrain from raking up disputes lingering from the past and press ahead to repair the gaping tears in the social fabric.

This hope was belied earlier this year, when five women petitioned a lower court in Varanasi that they be allowed to worship daily the image of Maa Sringar Gauri sculpted on the western wall of the Gyanvapi mosque, instead of once a year. Their petition claimed the mosque was not a mosque but a temple.

Their argument was that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb demolished the Vishwanath temple and built the Gyanvapi mosque on a portion of the plinth of the demolished temple. They claimed that, over the centuries, Hindus continued to worship “visible and invisible deities”, including Maa Sringar Gauri, seemingly present there, even though the Vishwanath temple had been rebuilt a few meters away from the mosque in the 18th century. The lower court ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi complex.

The Masjid Intezamia Committee, responsible for the upkeep of the Gyanvapi mosque, opposed the petition, arguing that the court could not provide relief to the petitioners as the Places of Worship Act, 1991 debarred a change in the religious character of the place of worship as it had existed on 15 August 1947. The matter went to the Supreme Court, which said the 1991 Act did not debar the “ascertainment” of the religious character of a place of worship and asked the district court to decide whether the five women’s petition was maintainable. Yes, said the district court in early September.

These litigations are closely linked to the building of the Vishwanath Temple Corridor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, which provides unfettered access to the temple from the banks of the Ganga. When historical buildings and temples were demolished to clear the space for the corridor, there were many who thought the Gyanvapi mosque would be targetted—and an attempt was made to claim it for Hindus. A version of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is all set to play out.

Why has the Gyanvapi mosque suddenly become a hot-button issue? Why didn’t the Gyanvapi’s past and location close to the Vishwanath temple agitate the people of Varanasi and India earlier? Did the Mughals, particularly Aurangzeb, hound the Hindus there centuries ago? 

To answer such questions, NewsClick turned to Rajendra Prasad Tiwari, the mahant of the Vishwanath temple, whose forefathers supervised this revered abode of Lord Shiva for centuries. He dips into the memory of Hindus, recorded or otherwise, about the Mughal rule and the fluctuating fate of the Vishwanath temple to present a fascinating picture of the past and the present. Excerpts from an interview conducted in Hindi, whose edited translation was seen by Tiwari:


The Vishwanath temple that Aurangzeb demolished in 1669 was built by Maratha Brahmin scholar Narayan Bhatt and Mughal noble Raja Todar Mal under the patronage of Akbar in 1595. Why is this fact not ingrained in India’s and Varanasi’s popular memory?

Popular memory is largely determined by what the system inserts into it and what the system wants people to remember.

What do you mean by the “system”?

The system comprises those who study and teach history—and who create the very architecture of remembering. Among them, there are those who take into account all aspects of the past as is known to us. Then there are those whose approach to history is shallow. They pick and choose from past accounts and evidence to tailor history to their current agenda

For the latter group, the history of the Mughals starts with Aurangzeb ordering the demolition of the Vishwanath temple in 1669. Nothing before and nothing after the demolition of the Vishwanath temple exists for them. They will never speak of Akbar building the Vishwanath temple. This is because their motive is to construct a narrative for creating an anti-Muslim atmosphere—and exploit the sentiments of Hindus to gather votes. 

Four or five hundred years ago, you had badshahat, or the rule of the emperor, which, by definition, implied autocracy. We are now in the era of democracy and the rule of law. Today’s ruler must adhere to the Constitution. They have come to power because the people elected them, but their actions are reminiscent of the rule of the emperor. To trample upon the Constitution, they want to create an anti-Muslim atmosphere.

I suppose the word “they” here stands for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh?  

Yes, it is, after all, they who are in power. 

Did Akbar’s patronage enhance the importance of Vishwanath?  

The Vishwanath shivling is a swayambhu [self-generated] shivling. It was there from time immemorial. Its importance was always there. But it was Akbar who built a big temple to house the shivling. It is this temple that became historic—and it was this temple which Aurangzeb destroyed.

I will like to go into the history here. Shahjahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh, Akbar’s heir apparent, came to Varanasi to study Sanskrit and the ancient Hindu religious texts, the shastras. The descendants of the family which taught Dara still live in Varanasi. 

Really? Who are they?

The family is that of [late Congress leader] Kamlapati Tripathi. One of his forefathers taught Dara Shikoh, who, as guru dakshina, gifted his kothi [house] in Aurangabad, a locality in Varanasi, to the Tripathis. 

By the way, I still have Dara Shikoh’s patta (deed) given to our family.

What does this patta pertain to?

Dara Shikoh, through the patta, handed over the Vishwanath temple to my forefathers, saying they are the luminaries of the Shaivite sect and that the temple and its ritual tradition would be secure with us. 

What did your family do after Aurangzeb defeated Dara and killed him?

Once Aurangzeb ascended the Mughal throne, he targeted all those who he thought were Dara’s supporters, or had helped him in any way, or had warm relations with him. Aurangzeb considered them his opponents. This is how our family memory explains Aurangzeb’s decision to order the demolition of the Vishwanath temple. 

Our family was not powerful enough to take on Aurangzeb. When it became apparent that the temple would be demolished, my forefathers took away the shivling with them in order to keep it secure. The shivling in the Vishwanath temple is precisely where my ancestors installed it.

Was there another temple there?

No, the shivling was kept in our house. We did not disclose to the people the whereabouts of the shivling. This led people to say that the mahant of the demolished temple had jumped into a well with the shivling. It became a part of Varanasi’s folklore. Nothing of this kind had happened. After Aurangzeb died in 1707, our family spread the word among the people where the shivling was. People thronged our house for darshan. 

Ahilyabai Holkar [of the Holkar royal family; 1725-1795] was a Shaivite. She had a dream wherein she was instructed to build a new temple to house the shivling. She requested our family to hand over that part of the house where the shivling had been installed. We did. A new temple was built. A stone tablet at the current site of the Vishwanath temple notes the past of the temple. Thankfully, the tablet was not uprooted or destroyed, as so many temples were, during the construction of the Vishwanath Corridor

On 28 February 1658, Aurangzeb issued a farman, still in possession of the Banaras Hindu University, that old temples and Brahmin priests should be protected. He did a U-turn and demolished the Vishwanath temple. Yet, in later years, he supported the Jangambadi math, the establishment of a new monastery, Kumaraswamy math, and allowed the renovation of the Kedar temple. Does today’s Varanasi… 

Aurangzeb granted four-five bighas of land to the Jangambadi math and a grant from the royal treasury so that the Lingayat sect could carry out their worship of Lord Shiva and study Sanskrit texts. Aurangzeb’s patta is still there with the math. When [Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister] Yogi Adityanath visited the math in 2018 or 2019, the Jangambadi math people told me he wanted the patta to be removed from there. This is a document of history. It cannot be removed from the historical record, or even from our memory, just because Adityanath desires so. 

The Jangambadi math incident tells you it is all about creating a narrative. History has projected Aurangzeb as a dictator, as a tyrant. It is easy to do so. He had, after all, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. The Vishwanath temple was destroyed during his reign. The BJP-RSS has combined Aurangzeb’s image with the destruction of the temple to target him—and through him, the Muslims of India. Demonising Aurangzeb is their dream project to implement the Hindutva agenda. (Laughs)

In other words, you are saying that Aurangzeb’s reign was not all black, not all evil.

Let us see it in another way. During Aurangzeb’s reign, a temple in Varanasi was destroyed. Historians will agree that it is unlikely he personally came over to destroy the temple. Yet its destruction is ascribed to him. There is much tumult over it today. 

Likewise, for the construction of the Vishwanath Corridor, several ancient temples were destroyed. This destruction should be ascribed to Modi. Around 286 shivlings were uprooted and tossed around. Some of these were thrown in drains. Out of these, only 146 shivlings were recovered. I, obviously, did not see Aurangzeb demolish the Vishwanath temple. But I have seen Modi’s team mishandle, with complete disregard for Hindu sentiments, the shivlings installed in historic temples. He is no Hindu; he and his party only trade in Hinduism. Let me be very frank: Modi has destroyed more temples than Aurangzeb did. 

Where are those 146 shivlings?

Those shivlings are in the police station of Lanka [a locality in Varanasi]. Daily pujas are conducted at the Lanka police station. 

After the temple was demolished, the Gyanvapi mosque was built on a portion of the plinth of the Vishwanath temple and one of its walls became the qibla wall (that is, the wall facing Mecca) of the mosque. It is claimed that the puja continued on the remaining portion of the plinth, and an idol was installed under the Peepal tree growing there. Is this true?

There were four Peepal trees in the maidan outside the Gyanvapi mosque. There is only one Peepal tree left. The other three were cut down during the construction of the Vishwanath Corridor. Under one Peepal tree, there was a shivling of Maheshwar Mahadev, but they had it broken and thrown away. They never mention the destruction of temples they themselves carried out. They only mention what is to their benefit.

Why were you so opposed to the Vishwanath Corridor?

I am not opposed to development. I am opposed to the destruction carried out in the name of development. The corridor has effaced Varanasi’s ancient identity and destroyed what you can call the spiritual-religious infrastructure of the city. Let me put it more simply: I am opposed to temples being made to appear as malls. I can never accept that.

Did you not try to get courts to stop the demolition of historic temples and houses wherein idols were installed?

The construction of the corridor gained momentum in 2018. Petitions were filed in courts to save the more important temples. These petitions were not heard. The court did not demonstrate the kind of diligence and speed we are seeing in the petition regarding the Gyanvapi mosque. The court’s approach has been contradictory regarding the petitions filed by Muslims and Hindus. 

Did Hindus ever worship inside the masjid?

No, never. The namaz was and is still done inside the mosque. Puja-paath, including Ram Lila, were carried outside the mosque, in the Gyanvapi maidan, which has now been made part of the Vishwanath temple complex, as the mosque also has been.

But five women had filed a petition in a lower court of Varanasi pleading they be allowed to worship Maa Sringar Gauri daily instead of once every year. They claimed that Hindus have been worshipping Hanuman, Ganesh and other “visible and invisible deities” from time immemorial.

There is a one-foot sculpture of Sringar Gauri on the outside wall—the western wall—of the mosque. It is not inside the mosque. Ever since I was a child, I had seen people come once a year, on the fourth day of the Chaitra Navratri [this year, it was on 4 April), to do her darshan and puja. In one way or another, most of these women are connected to the RSS and its outfits. Frankly speaking, they are lying. 

There is a great deal of hypocrisy all around. For instance, during the demolition undertaken to construct the corridor, they decided to destroy the Chappan Vinayak [Lord Ganesha] temple. We opposed it. There was a petition filed by Ramesh Upadhyaya, a Varanasi resident, and some lawyers. The plea was that they have the right to worship Chappan Vinayak daily, a right which, too, had been in existence from time immemorial. [If the petition had been upheld, it would have stalled the demolition of the Chappan Vinayak temple.] 

The district judge promptly issued a notice to the administration. Within a couple of days, he was transferred out. He was replaced by another judge. Now, this new judge told the petitioners that their plea cannot become an obstacle in development!

The petition filed by the five women makes the same plea as those who had in the Chappan Vinayak case—that they be allowed to worship a deity daily. The Supreme Court transferred the case from the lower court to the district court, which opined that their suit did not come within the ambit of the Places of Worship Act, 1991 and is maintainable. Do you get my point? The plea of one set of Hindus was denied; the plea of another set of Hindus has been found acceptable and maintainable. This is an example of two different principles being applied to two cases similar in nature. I don’t need to say more, do I? 

Varanasi’s lower court had a survey conducted on the campus of the Gyanvapi mosque earlier this year. It was claimed there is a shivling in the water tank meant for ablution. 

They should show us where the shivling is. The water tank was cleaned up four or five times in my lifetime. A shivling was never found. 

The Muslim side says what is claimed as shivling is only a fountain.

Forget my views. Let us approach the issue analytically. The survey commissioner said he inserted a seekh [thin stick of wood or iron] into a hole that was there in the vertical structure [which the Muslims describe as the fountain] inside the water tank. The seekh, according to him, went all the way till 63 cm [24 inches]. Shivlings do not have holes. If the structure, indeed, is a shivling, then it should have an Argha. Shivlings cannot be without Arghas. They need to investigate what it is precisely—and the truth should be told to the people. They should not be spreading rumours just to fool people. 

The rumour was deliberately spread to create a narrative. Just because some surveyor says it is a shivling, are we going to believe him? Are we going to believe it is a shivling just because the media says so? Now, tomorrow, if the media says Modi is Bhagwan Ram’s avatar, are we going to accept it? 

You seem to believe the media takes the BJP’s side? 

The media is in the BJP’s pocket. It is their media. Do they ever ask a question of the BJP? Even when the Modi government lies, the media tries to establish that it is the truth.

Are you still opposed to the corridor?

I was opposed to the corridor at the time it was conceived and when the construction started. My opposition has been established. But now that they have built the corridor, what meaning does my opposition have? They have misused their power to achieve their mission of building the corridor.

Why didn’t the people of Varanasi support your movement against the corridor?

They have brainwashed the collective mind of Hindus. But do not think the people did not support us. Along with the late Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, we organised a massive Dharam Sansad in 2018-2019. Instead of listening to our objections, the entire media kept accusing the Shankaracharya of being a Congressi. 

Wasn’t pressure applied on you to relent?

Enormous pressure was exerted on me. They dug up trenches around my house. They asked me to sell the house and shift to another location. And this, when my house did not even fall in the corridor. Ultimately, my house was destroyed. I guess they feared that if I stay there, I would create barriers in their task of building the corridor.

No threats?

Many threats were issued to me over the phone. Even Adityanath visited me before the Lok Sabha elections. We spoke around 30-45 minutes. He spoke to me with respect, which is how they are face-to-face. But it was not as if my objections were heeded. 

When the corridor was under construction, did you, like many others, think then that the Gyanvapi mosque would be targetted?

Months before the judgement in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid came in 2019, I had said at a press conference that the disputed site at Ayodhya is likely to be handed over to the Hindus. Since this would deprive the BJP of the issue which they had milked to get votes, they would come to Varanasi with their temple-mosque agenda. I have been proved right.

When the Vishwanath Corridor was conceived and the plan unveiled, I had told an office-bearer of the Masjid Intezamia Committee, which is responsible for the upkeep of the Gyanvapi mosque, that they needed to take a clear stance against the corridor—or else they would get entangled in the BJP-RSS net. This too has been proved correct.

Are you saying Muslims kept quiet over the plan to build the corridor?

The administration, in order to keep the Intezamia Committee happy, was giving them respect and assurances. It was, in some ways, natural for them to keep silent, as the mosque was not earmarked for the demolition. Perhaps they thought why they should take up an issue not relevant to them—and face the administration’s onslaught.

In the prevailing anti-Muslim atmosphere, they possibly thought it prudent to remain silent.

When you get scared even before the battle begins, you cannot possibly fight. They also put a lot of pressure on me, but I kept fighting. Today, I am the only one who still speaks out against the Vishwanath Corridor. Even those who were with us in our movement against the corridor have fallen silent. Fine, I wasn’t successful in my fight, but at least history would remember that there was one person who steadfastly opposed the demolition of ancient temples to build the corridor.

Will not the BJP’s attempts to reclaim sites where temples were supposed to have stood once, complicate our future? For instance, archaeologists have documented that many Buddhist stupas were converted into temples. Will not setting right the wrongs of our history give a fillip to more and more disputes emerging over places of worship?

You can never undo the wrongs committed in the past. From history, you can only learn lessons, whether good or bad. Those who want to right the wrongs of history do not write a new history. They only add fuel to the fire; they inject poison into society. In case you want to repeat Aurangzeb’s mistakes, you cannot be better than him. Does it make sense to bring back an issue 300-400 years old? Tomorrow, someone will want to raise an issue from even a distant past. Think what will happen to society then. All of us need to ponder over and work to improve the current conditions of our society. No nation can progress where social harmony is not present, is zero

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