History 101: The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Was Not Demolished Once But Thrice

History 101: The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Was Not Demolished Once But Thrice

by Rashmin Kulkarni - Thursday, May 25, 2023 03:59 PM IST
History 101: The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Was Not Demolished Once But Thrice The Nandi at Kashi Vishwanath, facing away from his Lord
  • A brief, simple lesson in history for those spreading the narrative that Aurangzeb didn't have any temple demolished in Kashi.

The site of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi structure has been at the centre of a volatile dispute since the eighteenth century. 

The current round of tussle began in April 2022, when a court, while adjudicating the Gyanvapi mosque-Shringar Gauri temple case, appointed Ajai Kumar as the advocate commissioner and ordered him to carry out a video survey of the disputed site.

The survey was conducted on 12 May 2022 amongst protests by the local minority community.

This survey was stopped the next day by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid (AIM) committee. The AIM committee, which happens to be the caretaker of the 'mosque', accused the advocate commissioner of acting in a biased manner and demanded his dismissal.

In this process, an object was discovered in the Waju Khana (ablution pool). The petitioners of the Gyanvapi case claimed it to be a ‘Shivalinga’.

This led the court to seal-off the area.

However, the AIM committee claimed the object to be a stone fountain and moved to the Supreme Court asking it to put an indefinite stay on the video survey.

The apex court declined the AIM’s request and transferred this case to the Varanasi District Court.

A video of the survey went viral on different platforms of social media.

It is of utmost importance that this entire dispute is looked up on the basis of facts and available contemporary evidences.

The petitioners from the Hindu side had last year filed a plea for clubbing all related cases to save time and money.

On Tuesday, 23 May 2023, the Varanasi Court ruled that all seven cases related to the Gyanvapi issue will be heard together.

The Supreme Court on 19 May 2023 told the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to not conduct carbon dating of a 'Shivalinga' inside the Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath corridor, till the next hearing on the matter.

The Hindu petitioners have also requested for an ASI survey of the disputed-site.

Opposing this, the Gyanvapi Mosque Committee said on 24 May 2023 that “Neither Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was cruel, nor did he demolish any Adi Vishweshwar Temple in Varanasi”.

This statement is a complete distortion of history.

Let us have a look at the history of Kashi Vishweshwar Temple, Islamic invaders and the Marathas.

The oldest reference of Kashi can be found in the Kashi Khand of the Skanda Purana.

Mark Twain, the father of American literature, describes Kashi as — “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the 12 jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples in the world.

The earliest mentions of this temple can be found during the Gupta Era. The Gupta Era was a glorious period of Hindu rule.

The famous Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, who visited Kashi in the seventh century describes it as — “The capital (Varanasi) is densely populated. The families are very rich. The disposition of the people is soft and humane, and they are earnestly given to study”.

Hiuen Tsang has also described the grandeur of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in his memoirs.

The Muslim conquest of Sindh in the early eighth century by Muhammad ibn Qasim was the beginning of a dark era for the culture of the Indian sub-continent. In the years to come, the holy city of Kashi and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple were razed three times.

The first attack on Kashi took place at the end of the twelfth century.

In 1194 CE, Qutubuddin Aibak, the slave of the invader Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad (of Ghor), who later went on to become the first sultan of Delhi, defeated Jai Chand and captured the region of Kannauj.

During these raids, the army of the Ghazi ransacked the holy city of Kashi.

Numerous temples were razed and mosques were erected.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple was replaced by the Razia mosque.

The details of this can be found in contemporary historian Hasan Nizami’s ‘Taj-ul-Maasir’.

The English translation of the original Persian text can be read in ‘The History of India As Told By Its Own Historians Volume 2’ by Henry Elliot and John Dawson.

By the end of the thirteenth century, during Shams ud-Din Iltutmish’s reign, a trader is said to have built the temple in the compound of Avimukteshwar.

The second attack took place during the reign of the Lodhi dynasty. In 1490 CE, Sikandar Lodhi demolished several sacred temples of Kashi. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple that was built in the compound of Avimukteshwara was razed and a mosque was erected at its place.

During Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign, Raghunath Pandit, popularly known as Todar Mal, the finance minister of the Mughal empire, played an instrumental role in rebuilding the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. From here, the relationship between Kashi Vishweshwar and Maharashtra begins.

In 1585 CE, Jagatguru Narayanabhatta, a renowned pandit who hailed from Paithan, Maharashtra, was responsible for getting the Kashi Vishwanath Temple rebuilt.

He also devised a special ‘prayoga’ for renovating a Shivalinga (Shivalinga Pratishtha) in the new temple.

This prayoga is still in use. Jagatguru Narayanabhatta also happens to be the great-grandfather of Vedonarayana Gagabhatta, who presided over the coronation of the founder of the Hindavi Swarajya — Chhatrapati Shivaji, the great.

The temple of Lord Vishveshwara, erected by Narayanabhatta under the patronage of Todar Mal finds mention in The Travels of Peter Mundy In Europe and Asia 1608-1667.

Peter Mundy was a seventeenth century British factor who arrived in Kashi on 4 September 1632.

Mundy saw several temples in Kashi. In his memoirs, he writes:

“The chiefest is called Cassibessuua (famous temple of Bisheshwar at Kasi) being of Mahadeu (Mahadeva, Shiva); I went into it, where, in the middle, on a place elevated, is a stone in forme like a Hatters blocke plaine and unwrought, as per the figure, on which they resort powre water of the River, flowres, rice, Butter, which heere (by reason of the heat) is most commonly liquid, whilest the Bramane (Brahmin) reads or sayes something which the Vulgar understands not. Over it hangs a Canopie of Silke and about it severall Lampes lighted”.

Peter Mundy's illustration of Cassibessuua (Kashi Vishveshwar).
Peter Mundy's illustration of Cassibessuua (Kashi Vishveshwar).

The third and final attack on the Kashi Vishwanath temple took place in 1669 CE. Saqi Musta’d Khan, a contemporary to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, writes in Maasir-i-Alamgiri

“On Thursday, the 8th April, 1669/17th Zil.Q., occurred an eclipse; prayers were said and alms distributed, as was the custom. The Lord Cherisher of the Faith learnt that in the provinces of Tatta, Multan and especially at Benares, the Brahman misbelievers used to teach their false books in their established schools, and that admirers and students both Hindu and Muslim, used to come from great distances to these misguided men in order to acquire this vile learning. His majesty, eager to establish Islam, issued orders to the governors of all the provinces to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels and with the utmost urgency put down the teaching and the public practice of the religion of these misbelievers”.

“It was reported that, according to the emperor’s command, his officers had demolished the temple of Viswanath at Kashi”.

— Maasir-I-Alamgiri, A History of the Emperor Aurangzib — Alamgir (reign 1658-1707 AD) by Saqi Musta’d Khan (Translated into English and annotated by Sir Jadunath Sarkar)

It is believed that during this attack, the priests of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple immersed the Shivalinga into the well located in the temple premises. It was during the same time that the Bindu Madhav temple in Kashi, Keshav Rai temple in Mathura and several such sacred Hindu temples were desecrated on the orders of Aurangzeb.

And each of this incident is noted down by contemporary historians of the Mughal court. Instead of covering the entire Kashi Vishweshwar Temple with a mosque, one was was erected on a significant part of the temple precincts.

The remains of the original temple can be even seen today. The well in which the Shivalinga was immersed was called the ‘well of knowledge’ — Gyanvapi.

The semi-demolished wall and the ruins of the temple can be clearly seen in the sketch by James Princep, an English orientalist.

History 101: The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Was Not Demolished Once But Thrice

Ramchandra Pant Amatya, the finance minister of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who later went on to become the Hukumatpanah (Regent of the Empire), played a key role in keeping the Hindavi Swarajya safe from the tyrant Aurangzeb.

Ramchandra Pant composed the Adnyapatra, a royal edict on the principles of Maratha policy. In this, he mentioned Chhatrapati Shivaji’s wish to free the Kashi Vishwanath Temple from the tyrant Mughals.

Peshwa Bajirao I, too had intentions to reclaim Kashi from the occupation of the Mughals. 

A letter has been published in the Hingne Daftar in which Chimaji Appa, the brother of Peshwa Bajirao clearly mentions this wish. Appa also states in the very same letter that, Peshwa Nanasaheb (Balaji Bajirao) has taken up the premiership to fulfil his late father’s wish.

On 27 January 1743, the Peshwa was at Prayag along with his army. Safdarjung, the Nawab of Awadh was well aware of the Peshwa’s plan to win Kashi.

He immediately called Narayan Dikshit Patankar and other eminent Brahmins of Kashi and threatened to convert them if the Peshwa was to take control of Kashi.

The Brahmins out of fear, requested the Peshwa to change his decision. As the Peshwa was on his way to Bengal to resolve matters of great political significance, he called-off his plans to take control over Kashi.

In the years to come, this very same Nawab of Awadh, Safdarjung, was to broker the famous Ahmadiyya Treaty between the Mughals and the Marathas which made the Marathas protector of the Empire.

In 1751, Malharrao Holkar, the famous Maratha Subhedar of Malwa, tried to reclaim the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Unfortunately, history repeated itself and the Brahmins of Kashi, out of fear for the Mughals, requested Malharrao Holkar to retreat.

In 1759, the Marathas once again tried to free Kashi along with Prayag. Peshwa Nanasaheb’s long letter of 21 March 1759 to Dattaji Shinde clearly mentions the Maratha plan to offer the post of Wazir to the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja ud-Daulah (Safdarjung’s son) and in return take Kashi and Prayag from him.

Unfortunately, Najib ud-Daulah’s treachery led to Dattaji’s death and this plan failed.

The Maratha resurrection in the north post Panipat, under the leadership of Peshwa Madhavrao I, was a successful campaign.

Mahadji Shinde, the great Maratha along with Visaji Krishna, Ramchandra Kanade and Tukoji Holkar made sure to establish the Maratha supremacy in the Delhi Durbar.

The Peshwa’s untimely death in the year 1772 was a big blow to the Marathas. In his will, Peshwa Madhavrao I, noted his father’s (Peshwa Nanasaheb) wish to take control of Kashi and Prayag.

After the third battle of Panipat in 1761, the Mughal Emperor had handed over Kashi to the British.

It was not possible to rebuild the temple on its original site by demolishing the mosque. So, around the year 1785, Ahilyabai Holkar ordered the reconstruction of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple south of Gyanvapi. A new Shivaling was installed.

Later, in the year 1789, Nana Phadnavis wrote a letter to Mahadji Shinde and asked him to take control of Kashi and ensure that no one causes trouble to the holy temple of Kashi Vishwanath.

Yet again, due to the influence of Muslim aristocrats over the Kashi region, the Marathas were unable to take control of it.

Despite all these difficulties, the Marathas contributed a lot in the development of the holy town of Kashi.

Several present-day structures in Varanasi were built by the Marathas in the eighteenth century.

Peshwa Nanasaheb built the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat in Varanasi, in the year 1748.

A few decades later, Ahilyabai Holkar rebuilt it along with the Manikarnika Ghat. She also rebuilt several other temples, both small and big, which were razed by the Mughals in the past.

This is the reality of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi, which was razed thrice and converted into a mosque by the sultans of Delhi and Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

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