New Delhi: The ‘linga’ of Shiva, according to centuries-old Linga Purana records, was being pulled through the night sky by ‘rakshasas’ over the city of Kashi when the sound of a cock’s crowing rose over the land, sounding the alarm that sunrise was imminent. The rakshasas, who move only at night, let go of the linga in fear. “Thus was the linga established in Avimukta,” scholar Diana Eck records. “It literally dropped out of the sky one day at dawn.”
The site where the linga appeared, or so the pious believe, is today plot number 9130 in Varanasi’s Dashashwamedh Ward, not too far from the Ganga. The Gyanvapi mosque stands there, adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath temple with its golden spires converging on the top. Though the temple and mosque abut each other, their respective entry and exits point in different directions. The architectural differences between the two structures magnify the complexity of the ‘sacred landscape’ that is Varanasi. The city’s self-image as a centre of syncretism sits uncomfortably with historical records.
For hundreds of years, the temple has been at the centre of ugly religious conflict. In 1192, it was destroyed by the warlord Qutbuddin Aibak, Muhammad Ghauri’s lieutenant. Efforts to rebuild it began soon after, to be interrupted by work on a mosque that still stands, ordered by the princess Raziyat-ud-din. Then, in 1585, Narayan Bhatta built a magnificent new temple, under the patronage of the great emperor Jalauddin Akbar—only for it to be reduced to ruins by Aurangzeb.
A history of conflict
Varanasi is a city shaped by faith, but its self-image is one where many traditions coexist, their various colours washing over the streets. There’s another story to be told, though, which is somewhat less comforting.
Among the first recorded communal clashes–now called the ‘Lat Bhairon’ riots–date back to 1809. In her account, Asian history scholar Marzia Casolari records that several people were killed after Hindus attempted to build a Hanuman temple in a Muslim-dominated area around Laat Bhairav between the Gyanvapi masjid and the Kashi Vishvanath temple. Then, it is believed, that the dates of the Shi’a mourning month of Muharram and Holi coincided, leading to a collision of processions, and violence.
Describing the riots in Banaras: City of Light, historian Eck writes: “The Muslims slaughtered a cow on one of the great ghats and its blood ran into the holy Ganges. The Hindus destroyed a mosque and threatened to destroy all the mosques in the city.”
During the riots, a sacred pillar (Lat), worshipped as a representation of Bhairava, a terrifying manifestation of Shiva, was reportedly reduced to a stump around three-feet thick and seven to eight-feet high. With the image of Bhairava marked by vermillion and encased in copper, it stands today on a platform in the middle of an idgah, a Muslim prayer ground.
Hindus and Muslims offer prayers here, and history repeats itself, often with collisions of processions and violence. In 2016, there were communal clashes before the commencement of the Shiv ki baaraat or marriage procession of Lord Bhairav.
However, Eck notes that when historian Matthew Atmore Sherring examined the site in the 1860s, he was convinced that the Lat itself was an Ashokan pillar.
Origin of the mosque and the temple
Much like Jerusalem, where Jews, Christians and Muslims converge, Varanasi–believed to be one of civilisation’s oldest cities–cannot escape its tumultuous history. In this ancient Indian city, the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex remains the focal point to this day.
A three-dome structure in faded white, the mosque stands within a 20-ft high barricade incorporating a wall of a portion of the old Vishweshwar temple on its west.
History, too, is divided by on the origins of the Gyanvapi mosque and Kashi Vishwanath temple. Some historians believe that the temple has seen many iterations over the centuries, and that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb demolished it to build the Gyanvapi mosque in the 17th Century. “The masjid incorporates the old Viswanath temple structure—destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders—as its qibla wall (a significant wall facing the Maccah). While the mosque dates back to Aurangzeb’s period, we do not know who built it,” writes historian Audrey Truschke in Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth.
The courtyard of the current Vishwanath temple built by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780, historian Sherring writes, has the Gyanvapi well or “koop” near the famous foot-high stone statue of the bull “nandi” gifted by Rana of Nepal. It was adorned with a low-roof colonnade with other 40 pillars by Baiza Bai, widow of the Maratha ruler Daulat Rao Sindhia of Gwalior state, Sherring describes in his book. Today, it has been renovated with red sandstone as part of the changes made in the Kashi Vishwanath corridor construction.
How Gyanvapi got its Sanskrit name
Another jarring note is the non-traditional name of the mosque.
Varanasi-based scholars agree that ‘Gyanvapi’ originated from the culmination of two words: gyan (knowledge) and vapi (water reservoir or a well). Both words are of Sanskrit origin and the term is used for the “well of knowledge”, which finds mention in the Skanda Purana (dating to 8th century CE) and in many historical accounts on Kashi (Varanasi)
English scholar and chronicler James Princep in his vivid account, Benaras Illustrated, first published in the 1830s, did not recognise the name Gyanvapi, and referred to the mosque as Aulumgeree (Alamgiri) Masjid.
Incidentally, another masjid situated in Hartirath Mohalla at a distance of about two kilometres from the Gyanvapi mosque is known as the Alamgiri masjid. And the Dharharewali masjid located on the Panchganga ghat also goes by the same name.
Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Professor of medieval history at Aligarh Muslim University says that just how the Babri Masjid was named after Mughal ruler Babur, the Alamgiri masjid was named after its inceptor, Aurangzeb, who was also known as Alamgir (conqueror of the world in Persian). “Babri Masjid was built by Meer Baqi but was named after Babur because it was constructed under his rule. Similarly, the now-Gyanvapi Masjid was named after Aurangzeb who took the title of Alamgir,” he tells ThePrint.
Chronicler Kubernath Sukul also corroborates this. He writes in his Varanasi Vaibhav (2008), “Krittivashewar temple was situated on the north of Kal Bhairav temple and of the Vridhkaal (deity), the Kritiivashewar temple used to stand. Aurangzeb destroyed it and constructed the Alamgiri masjid in its place in 1659…”
Generational memory of Benaras
While historians and chroniclers agree that Gyanvapi was once called Alamgiri masjid, they differ on the reasons for the name change.
Acharya Ashok Dwivedi, who was chairman of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust— the top management body of the temple between 2013 and 2019—stresses that the name ‘Gyanvapi’ only came into fashion later.
Madan Mohan Devvanshi, one of the pandits who has been associated with regular pooja at the ‘Shivling’ placed inside the premises of the Alamgiri masjid at Hartirath mohalla attributes the morden ‘Gyanvapi’ name to pressure from the Hindu pandits and seers. However, other scholars claim the mosque came to be called ‘Gyanvapi wali masjid’ or ‘Gyanvapi ki masjid’ due to the area it was situated in.
Kubernath Sukul also calls the masjid Gyanvapi wali masjid in his book which was first published in 2000. According to professor Rezavi, the change from ‘Alamgiri’ to ‘Gyanvapi’ was a gradual process. “Jitne muh, utni baatein (more the tongues, more the theories). But the reality is that the masjid was indeed called the Alamgiri masjid in the Mughal era,” says Rezavi.
The roots of generational memory in this ancient city that was once called Benaras grow deep and strong. “Even today, some Muslim scholars and groups call it Alamgiri masjid. We have heard from our forefathers that it was called the Alamgiri masjid. Some boards were also put up with the name—Gyanvapi (Alamgir) masjid,” says Zaheer Haider, whose family claims to be among the teachers of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. “You see, at the time, major masjids constructed by Aurangzeb were possibly named after his title—Alamgir. It was also called Gyanvapi because Dara Shikoh studied here,” he says.
Such interlaced and layered narratives within the labyrinths of this ancient city should come as no surprise. Varanasi is where history, religion, legends and myths collide.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)