The temperature in Banaras this June hovered around 44°C, but Rekha Pathak’s zeal seemed immune to the weather. “I was born and raised in Kashi,” she said. “Praying in mandirs has always been a habit.” Temples are where Pathak finds solace and friends. Sitting across Lakshmi Devi, Sita Sahu, and Manju Vyas, Pathak speaks with ease and confidence. The four friends finish each other’s sentences. Sahu tells us it is their love for “darshan, bhajan, and kirtan” that made them a team; faith is their glue.
In April 2021, on the Chaturthi (fourth day) of Chaitra Navratri, the four women met outside the Gyanvapi masjid in the city. An outer wall of the mosque doubles up as a makeshift Hindu shrine. Ma Shringar Gauri, a form of Parvati, is worshipped here. “She is especially significant for married women, but they give us only one hour a year to worship her,” says Sahu. “Every year, women fall and get hurt in the melee.”
So they went to the courts, joining forces with Delhi-based Rakhi Singh in August 2021 for a petition demanding that they be allowed to worship Ma Shringar Gauri all through the year. The suit, however, went further. Arguing that the Shringar Gauri sthal was only a chabutra (platform), the plaintiffs also sought permission to worship “visible and invisible deities” inside the Gyanvapi precinct. “In 1669, Aurangzeb demolished the Vishweshwara temple to build this masjid. Our ancestors might have tolerated this injustice but we won’t suffer the same way,” says Vyas.
To their surprise, in May 2022, a local Varanasi court ordered that the Gyanvapi premises be surveyed. “We were not expecting the court to act so quickly,” says Pathak. Allowed to enter Gyanvapi with her lawyers, Lakshmi Devi remembers seeing temple motifs everywhere. The walls and pillars were engraved with bells, chains, conches, and maces. “The spires of the temple were intact,” she says. “The dome of the masjid is nothing but a topi that conceals the true nature of the building. They didn’t even bother to break down the temple’s walls completely.”
Vyas exults in their legal wins. “The truth is now out in the open,” she says. Sita Sahu calls the Gyanvapi masjid a “stain on Hinduism”, while Rekha Pathak says: “We’ll build a temple in a year or two. Ayodhya took time, but we are moving quickly.”
Division in the ranks
Then I mention Rakhi Singh. Listed as the main litigant in the suit that the four women first brought to court, Singh wrote a dramatic letter to Droupadi Murmu in early June, asking the President for permission to euthanise herself. Singh said her four associates had oppressed and “defamed” her: “The entire Hindu society has been raised against me and my family by creating a confusion about us in the entire country […] Therefore, you are requested to grant me the permission of euthanasia and pave the way to get rid of this immense mental pain and agony so I can attain ultimate peace by sleeping eternally.”
Lakshmi Devi dismisses Singh’s plea as “nautanki [drama]”, while Vyas says: “All four of us are from Banaras, but Rakhi Singh lives in Delhi. She has never come here. How can we oppress someone we have never seen?”
On June 4, four days before Singh’s letter became public, her uncle, Jitendra Singh Visen, told journalists that he, his wife, and his niece were dissociating themselves from the Gyanvapi cases in which they were litigants. Rakhi, Visen said, “is not interested in performing for the media”, but having a power of attorney, he could speak on her behalf: “My entire family is invested in this dharma yudh. It is obvious my niece will suffer if her co-litigants start to sabotage her and our fight.”
Visen’s list of grievances is long, but the chief one is that the four Banaras women should not have said that they had not met Singh. “Rakhi is a witness in the Shringar Gauri case. If she is called to court, the judge is bound to ask how she knows the other litigants. Papers in the case explicitly state that the five women met at the Shringar Gauri sthal. If they claim they have never seen Rakhi, the entire case falls flat,” he said. The four women are “puppets”, he said. “Anyone can make them say anything.”
“In December 1992, when bringing down the Babri Masjid, kar sevaks had chanted forebodingly: “Ayodhya toh sirf jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai.” The frightening echo of that threat has taken on a new meaning in Banaras.”
Vyas in turn shows us WhatsApp texts where Visen seems to refer to the four friends as “makkar [deceitful]” and “gaddar [traitors]”.
Head of the Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh (VVSS), Visen claims that besides Shringar Gauri, he and other members of his organisation have filed the majority of the 15 cases that Gyanvapi’s caretaker committee, the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (AIM), is now being forced to defend. On May 23, when the Varanasi district court allowed seven of these cases to be clubbed, Visen considered it the last straw: “I filed separate cases to corner the Muslim side, but if seven crucial cases are heard together, they can be dismissed in one fell swoop.”
Even though he calls the AIM and the four Kashi plaintiffs “two sides of the same coin”, Visen reserves much of his ire for Supreme Court advocate Hari Shankar Jain. At a press conference in May 2022, Visen said he had been fighting the Shringar Gauri case under Jain’s leadership, but his relationship with the advocate had soured. He told Frontline: “I was the national president of the Hindu Mahasabha when Jain was its lawyer during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. He would then put the nation first, but now he is only interested in promoting himself. He is driven by greed.” Jain is stoic: “Visenji is entitled to his views. I wouldn’t want to comment on them, but I will ask, how much law has he really read?”
On June 10, less than a week after the spat between Visen and Jain went viral in Banaras, Udai Pratap Singh, father of MLA Raghuraj Pratap Singh (aka Raja Bhaiya), a notorious history-sheeter politician, said he would back the VVSS chief. “He is the only one Hindu who shows empathy,” said Visen.
Ayodhya comes home to roost
In December 1992, when bringing down the Babri Masjid, kar sevaks had chanted forebodingly: “Ayodhya toh sirf jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai [Ayodhya is but a glimpse; Kashi and Mathura await].” The frightening echo of that threat has taken on a new meaning in Banaras. Lawyers in the Shringar Gauri case often allude to Ayodhya.
When Akhlaque Ahmad, the AIM’s lawyer in Varanasi, said it was irrational to claim that a temple destroyed by Aurangzeb continues to exist, advocate Sudhir Tripathi countered him by saying: “Temples belong to the deity worshipped there. That proprietorship does not end even if its idol is broken. The Ayodhya case has taught us this.” Tripathi, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member, is the advocate for Pathak, Sahu, Vyas, and Devi. His open-air chamber in the court’s compound is embellished with a poster of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
As in Ayodhya, the arguments from Tripathi et al. often hinge on the assertion that Hindus had worshipped gods like Hanuman and Ganesh in the tahkhana (basement) of the Gyanvapi masjid until 1993. In 1991, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had begun to peak, the Places of Worship Act was passed, prohibiting the “conversion of any place of worship” and ensuring that the religious character of all houses of worship, except Babri Masjid, would be maintained “as it existed on the 15th day of August 1947”. In its 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Supreme Court upheld the merits of the 1991 Act, stating that it “imposes a bar on fresh suits or legal proceedings”. But Tripathi’s colleague, advocate Subhash Nandan Chaturvedi, says the principles of non-retrogression do not apply to Gyanvapi: “The 1991 Act did not ascertain if Gyanvapi was a mandir or a masjid. Everyone knows the building is a temple.”
“Temples belong to the deity worshipped there. That proprietorship does not end even if its idol is broken. The Ayodhya case has taught us this.”Sudhir TripathiThe advocate for Lakshmi Devi, Sita Sahu, Manju Vyas, and Rekha Pathak.
For Sohan Lal Arya, Lakshmi Devi’s husband, Ram Lalla and Shringar Gauri are inextricably linked. He remembers visiting Ayodhya in 1984 as vice president of the VHP’s Varanasi chapter. “It was there that a sage gave me a key to open the locks of Gyanvapi. I didn’t know anything about Shringar Gauri, but after he explained her significance, I returned to Banaras and smeared on the wall of the masjid a paste of ghee and vermillion. Two weeks later, we started worshipping the goddess there.” In 1990, said Arya, he and 350 Bajrang Dal activists gathered at the site to throw Ganga jal inside the mosque, “but the next time we returned to worship Baba, Gyanvapi had been barricaded.”
Sita Sahu tells us it was Arya who introduced the four friends to Hari Shankar Jain, the advocate who has spearheaded their campaign. Jain cut his teeth in the Allahabad High Court. Speaking from Delhi, he said: “No advocate can predict the court’s verdict, but I feel certain the SC will rule in our favour. Once we win, a glorious temple will be constructed in Banaras and this so-called mosque will go.”
The daily worship of Shringar Gauri, says Jain, is only one demand. “The Muslim side has spread a rumour that our fight is restricted to an outer wall of the mosque. Regular puja was conducted at the mosque until it was barricaded in 1993. We want that property to be returned.”
“We’ll build a temple in a year or two. Ayodhya took time, but we are moving quickly.”Rekha PathakLitigant, Shringar Gauri case
The AIM’s Supreme Court advocate Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi counters this. “No puja has taken place in the area that was barricaded after the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Moreover, that boundary was created by the state, not by the masjid committee, and this demarcation was also accepted by the locals of Banaras.” Ayyubi thinks Jain only makes the Gyanvapi issue thornier by referring to the AIM as the “Muslim side”. In a civil suit, he says, “there are plaintiffs and defendants. By identifying the parties on the basis of religion, you end up identifying the court, too. We are a country of many faiths. No one religion is better or supreme.”
In the 7/11 application (rejection of plaint under Order 7, Rule 11 of Code of Civil Procedure) that the AIM filed in the Varanasi district court and then in the Allahabad High Court, the committee had argued that three existing laws—the 1991 Places of Worship Act, the 1995 Uttar Pradesh Wakf Act, and the 1983 U.P. Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act—all prove that the suit is not maintainable. On May 31 this year, the Allahabad High Court dismissed the AIM’s revision plea, thereby upholding a September 2022 verdict passed by the Varanasi district court. “We are now in the process of filing an SLP [Special Leave Petition] in the SC,” says Ayyubi.
IN THE COURTS
War over worship
The SLP that Ayyubi files might force the Supreme Court to determine Gyanvapi’s religious character, but Ayyubi hopes the court will also put to rest the debate about whether the mosque is waqf property or not. Rebutting Tripathi’s assertion that the AIM has no papers to prove the masjid’s waqf status, Ayyubi explains: “There exists a concept of ‘waqf by user’. The character of Gyanvapi has crystallised over the 350-odd years that namaz has been publicly offered there.”
Jain, for his part, is resolute: “How can it be waqf property if Lord Adi Vishweshwara is sitting there? The property belonged to him and it is still his.”
- The next hearing of the Shringar Gauri case is on July 6. But conflicts within the group of five litigants has led to the disassociation of one of them from the legal battle.
- Like the Ayodhya temple case, the arguments are centered around the religious character of the site and the presence of Hindu deities. Experts have different opinions on this.
- The outcome of the case will have far-reaching consequences for cases relating to disputed sites in India, and, moreover, for relations between communities.
The mosque that Aurangzeb built
Meanwhile, Arya says that the bull in the Kashi Vishwanath complex looks towards Gyanvapi because the famed Kashi jyotirlinga is inside the mosque. Last May, it was Arya who first chanted “Baba mil gaye!” when a black cylindrical structure was found in Gyanvapi during the court-mandated videographic survey.
The AIM’s lawyers have repeatedly claimed that the structure is nothing but a defunct fountain. Akhlaque Ahmad asks: “Rather than investigating if it is a siva linga, why don’t we first check if the structure is a fountain?” On May 19 this year, a Supreme Court bench comprising P.S. Narasimha, K.V. Vishwanathan, and Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud deferred a scientific survey until the next hearing on July 6. The court also asked if carbon dating might damage the stone structure.
Rajendra Tiwari, a priest whose family managed the Kashi Vishwanath temple until 1983, says: “I have faith in the Chief Justice, but carbon dating can only tell us how old the stone is. It cannot determine if the structure is a linga. Besides, last year’s survey found a 63-cm-long hole in the structure. Siva lingas don’t have holes.”
Rana P.B. Singh, 73, taught Heritage Studies at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) until he retired in July 2016. The professor said: “Even if the stone is a million years old, how do we know if it is Siva? Even if you are biased, you can only say it may be a siva linga. Any exact proof is hard to find.” Singh believes that “history is a story of superimpositions” without the comfort of certainty, but he says that some historical truths are incontestable. He challenges Arya’s claim that the Nandi figurine in the Kashi Vishwanath complex predates the Gyanvapi masjid. “That Nandi was donated by the king of Nepal in 1824, four decades after the Maratha queen Ahalyabai Holkar constructed the Vishwanath temple in 1781. The idea that Nandi has been there since the time of Aurangzeb is pure propaganda that will only spread chaos.”
“Even if the stone is a million years old, how do we know if it is Siva? Even if you are biased, you can only say it may be a siva linga. Any exact proof is hard to find.”Rana P.B. SinghRetired professor of Heritage Studies at BHU
No one can deny that the Gyanvapi mosque was built on the ruins of the 16th century Vishweshwara temple, says Singh. “One wall of the temple still stands. The masjid was built on the mandir’s edifice. The Hindu motifs are still there, but the argument that Gyanvapi is the original site of Kashi’s famed Siva temple is wholly misguided.” In 1194, Muhammad Ghori’s captain Qutb-ud-din Aibak dismantled a pre-existing Vishweshwara temple, and during her short reign (1236-1240), Raziyyat-ud-din (Razia) built a mosque on that site. “Razia’s Mosque still stands, and it belies the specious claim that the mandir Aurangzeb destroyed was Kashi’s one and only Vishweshwara temple.”
Sudhir Tripathi has no time for such nuance. He insists that the “siva linga” discovered is the one Aurangzeb desecrated, adding that the structure has since been further mutilated. “A slab of cement has been plastered over the siva linga. Cement was not available in Aurangzeb’s time. So, carbon dating isn’t enough. We will demand a scientific survey of the entire complex when the judges of the Varanasi court hear our case on July 7.”
Tension returns to Kashi
Abdul Batin Noomani, the mufti of Varanasi, sits in his office at Banaras’ Abu Hanifa Masjid. His concerns for Gyanvapi have amplified of late. Since May 17, 2022, when the Supreme Court ordered that the mosque’s wazukhana be sealed, “we have relied on drums and mugs for our ablutions. Water has become a problem. A urinal in the area has also been cordoned off. The mobile toilet the administration installed is far and doesn’t ensure requisite purity,” he rues.
Wazu, however, is the smaller of Noomani’s worries. Last April, the mufti says, a rally swelled in Gowdowlia Chowk, the epicentre of Banaras: “We heard chants like ‘Ek dhakka aur do, Gyanvapi tod do!’ [Bring Gyanvapi down with another push!]. Despite our application to the district magistrate, no action was taken against those miscreants.”
“I try and pacify my community. I ask Muslims to practise restraint, but the JSR [Jai Shri Ram] slogans one hears in the temple area are obviously meant to provoke us. If we are not quiet, there would be a law-and-order situation here every day.”Abdul Batin NoomaniThe mufti of Varanasi
Every Friday, Noomani delivers a half-hour lecture at Gyanvapi before the day’s namaz. “I try and pacify my community. I ask Muslims to practise restraint, but the JSR [Jai Shri Ram] slogans one hears in the temple area are obviously meant to provoke us. If we are not quiet, there would be a law-and-order situation here every day.”
Since the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor came into being in February 2022, devout Muslims like Shamsher Ali have entered Gyanvapi through the same entrance that Hindu worshippers use for the Vishwanath temple. “Before the corridor was built, the Gyanvapi was part of a lively neighbourhood. Today, the bustle has been replaced by layers of security,” says Ali. Owner of a home appliances store in the matrix of lanes opposite Kashi Vishwanath’s Manikarnika Gate, Ali lives and works in the area. He visits Gyanvapi for namaz five times a day. The corridor, he says, has merged the mosque into itself.
Ali, 45, was a child on February 1, 1986, the day K.M. Pandey, a Faizabad sessions court judge, ordered that the locks of Babri Masjid be opened. In a gesture of protest, Ali remembers, Muslims observed the “Black Day” by wearing bands on their arms. “When an elderly neighbour left home with a black cloth on his arm, his head was broken. That’s how I learnt about communalism. From 1986 to 1992, we became used to curfews in winter.” Ali says that same sense of palpable fear has returned since 2014: “People wearing skullcaps and burkhas are suddenly conspicuous. We are scared. We avoid offering namaz in public places.”The majority of Hindus are peace-loving,” says Ali. “Only a few outfits are intent on making trouble.” If Hindu-Muslim tensions are again inflamed, he says, the whole of India will suffer. “Ayodhya, in a way, felt remote, but Gyanvapi is in the centre of Kashi. Even a dropped pin can spread like fire.”
Had the Sripati Mishra-led Congress government in Uttar Pradesh not divested Rajendra Tiwari’s family of its managerial responsibilities in 1983, he would have been mahant (head priest) of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. According to him, the BJP and RSS deepened the Hindu-Muslim divide in the early 1990s: “The Ram Janmabhoomi movement poisoned the entire atmosphere.”
Tiwari says he was confounded by the claim of a siva linga found in the Gyanvapi mosque. “If that is the real jyotirlinga, what have we been worshipping for the last 300 years?” he asks. “If you dig up Kashi, you will find a siva linga every 50 or 100 metres.” Tiwari’s ancestral home was demolished during the building of the corridor, but it was the razing of “countless temples” that pained him more. “They destroyed so many mandirs that find mention in the Kashi Khanda. When we took the matter to the court in 2019, they told us we shouldn’t hinder development. This government has hijacked our Constitution.” Ajay Rai, the Congress zonal president of Prayagraj, asks: “Modiji said the corridor will ease the troubles of devotees, but how can he justify the demolition of these ancient temples?”
Politics pollutes the air
Encouraged by election results in States like Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, Rai believes Modi might get a “rude shock” in 2024. “In the UP Assembly elections of 2022, the Congress had won approximately 27,000 votes in Varanasi, but in the municipal corporation elections of 2023, nearly 95,000 people voted for the party. All Indians want to reclaim their rights. Everyone wants roti, kapda, and makaan. The masjid-mandir debate is a ruse. Why do they not improve people’s lives instead?”
Referring to the G20 posters that lined the streets of Banaras in June, Samajwadi Party spokesperson, Manoj Rai Dhoopchandi, called them the “cream and powder” applied on the face before heading out to a party. “All development has only been cosmetic. Gyanvapi only helps Modiji to deflect people’s attention.” Both Rai and Dhoopchandi complain about Banaras’ congested traffic.
Kashi-based RSS swayamsevak Varun Kumar Mehra uses vikas as both prefix and suffix. “We were always a Hindu Rashtra,” he says. “Some people tried erasing that history, but the impression remains.” Ashok Dhawan, nominated to the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Parishad by the BJP, is more categorical: “When we were colonised, our Hindu civilisation was destroyed. Hindus have again come to rule India. Why should people take umbrage if our culture is finally being restored?”
There is disquiet in the compound of the Varanasi district court where stories of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Banaras are now seldom heard. But there are some who still keep faith in it. Rana P.B. Singh points to the city’s 1,384 Muslim shrines and says, “Mirza Ghalib spent a year in Kashi. In a 64-stanza poem called ‘Chirag-e-Dair’, he expressed his love for this place. It is a Muslim family that makes the ornaments used in the Ram Leela here.” The retired BHU professor remembers a day when he was caught in a communal riot: “That day 150 people were killed but Muslims escorted me home. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a tika on my forehead. If you have an open heart, a solution to every problem can be found.”