Project Varanasi: Eternal, with layers of history, a labyrinth of policies


One morning in October 1990, hundreds of people stormed the narrow lanes of Ayodhya, cheering for the men who had scaled the walls of the then disputed site of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid and rushed towards the domes, carrying a saffron flag. . “Ayodhya toh sirf jhaanki hai, Kashi Mathura baaki hai (Ayodhya is a caravan, Kashi and Mathura always stay)” was their song.

For reporters on what had become the “Ayodhya beat,” Kashi and Mathura were ports of call, with disputes linked to a movement that was gathering momentum, changing politics and the country. The days of the Babri Masjid, as we can see, were numbered.

Just over 200 km away, Vishwanath Gali is teeming with life. Traders called the pilgrims and self-proclaimed guides promised a visit and darshan from Kashi Vishwanath for “whatever you think is right”.

Aware of the events unfolding in Ayodhya, a guide would lead pilgrims to a statue of Nandi looking towards the adjacent Gyanvapi Mosque. “Nandi always faces the Lord, so now you know where the real garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) is,” the guide said to the gasps and nods of those around him.

A view inside the Kashi Vishwanath Dham temple complex in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. (Twitter / @ narendramodi)

Kashi is timeless, more eternal than Rome, and ranks among the oldest permanently inhabited cities in the world. The lines that separate reality and fiction, history and myths, folklore and texts always blur here. So no one has blamed the guides, or disputed their accounts of how the Kashi temple came into being, was destroyed, rebuilt over the centuries.

For devotees it is the holiest place, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites where Shiva appeared in his infinite form as a column of light with no beginning or end. Another account – and this is mentioned in a petition on which a Varanasi court in April this year ordered an archaeological survey of the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi Mosque complex, later remained by the Allahabad High Court – says that the temple has existed since time immemorial, and King Vikramaditya rebuilt it 2,050 years ago.

Most testimonies say that the temple was razed by order of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and that the Gyanvapi Mosque was built on the site in the 17th century.

Historian Audrey Truschke, in Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, too, notes: “Aurangzeb brought down most of the Vishvanatha temple in Benares in 1669. The temple was built during Akbar’s reign by Raja Man Singh , including the great-grandson, Jai Singh, many believed to have helped Shivaji and his son Sambhaji to flee the Mughal court in 1666… The Gyanvapi Mosque is still in Benares today with part of the temple wall in ruins incorporated into the building.

The temple which is today Kashi Viswanath was built on an adjacent site in 1776-1780 by the Holkar ruler, Ahilyabai of Indore.

In 1991, as the Ayodhya temple movement gathered pace, the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi dispute found its way into the courtroom. A lawsuit demanded the restoration of the temple on the site where the Gyanvapi Mosque is located. Fearing, the Muslims filed petitions with the Allahabad High Court regarding the viability of the lawsuit.

An aerial view of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, in Varanasi. (Twitter / @ narendramodi)

This was the year that the PV Narasimha Rao government passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Law which states that the nature of all places of worship except that of Ayodhya who then made l subject to litigation, will be maintained as it was on August 15. , 1947, and that no encroachment of such a place prior to the date can be challenged in court.

The project covers around 5 lakh square feet, while previous premises were limited to around 3,000 square feet, according to a government press release. (Twitter / @ narendramodi)

The law protected Kashi and Mathura, but Babri Masjid was demolished a year later. For the leaders of the Ram temple movement, the law was a stumbling block. The Supreme Court, in its November 2019 ruling on the trial for the title of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid which has been favorable to the Hindu parties, called the law “a legislative intervention which preserves non-regression as an essential characteristic. of our secular values ​​”.

But last March, nearly 30 years after its enactment, the Supreme Court called for the Center’s response to a PIL challenging the constitutional validity of the law.

The temple which is today Kashi Viswanath was built on an adjacent site in 1776-1780 by the Holkar ruler, Ahilyabai of Indore.

Less than a month later, a Varanasi court, noting that “the matter in dispute has a connection to our deep history”, ordered the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India to “commission a physical archaeological study complete “of Kashi Vishwanath. Gyanvapi Temple-Mosque and “find out if the religious structure currently at the disputed site is an overlay, modification or addition or if there is a structural overlap of any kind with or on a religious structure”.

The judge rejected the argument that “given that a mosque was listed on the disputed site in the revenue registers, it is therefore not contestable”.

In September, the Allahabad High Court intervened. She suspended the Varanasi court order, saying that a High Court “may intervene to keep the courts and courts subordinate to it” within the bounds of their authority “” and “the lower court should await the verdict. applications pending before this Court and not to continue the matter until a judgment is rendered ”.


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