Gyanvapi Mosque

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Gyan Vapi Mosque
LocationVaranasi, India
StateUttar Pradesh
Gyanvapi Mosque is located in Uttar Pradesh
Gyanvapi Mosque
Location in Uttar Pradesh, India
Geographic coordinates25°18′40″N 83°00′38″E / 25.311229°N 83.010461°E / 25.311229; 83.010461Coordinates: 25°18′40″N 83°00′38″E / 25.311229°N 83.010461°E / 25.311229; 83.010461

The Gyanvapi mosque is located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. It was constructed on the site of an older temple of Vishweshwar ("Lord of the world", an epithet of Shiva), which had been demolished by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1696.[1]

The Gyanvapi mosque is a Jama Masjid located in the heart of the Varanasi city,[2] It is administered by Anjuman Inthazamiya Masajid (AIM).[3] north of Dashashwamedh Ghat, near Lalita Ghat along the river Ganga.


Demolition of Vishweshwar Temple[edit]

The site was previously occupied by a Vishweshwar temple, established by Todar Mal in conjunction with Narayana Bhatta (the head of Banaras's most-famed Brahman family) in the late sixteenth century.[4][5][6][7][8] Bir Singh Deo Bundela, a close associate of Jahangir, was probably a temporary patron in the early seventeenth century and refurbished the temple to some extents.[4][6][8] Precise details about the temple and the history of the site are debated (see the underlying section on popular history) to an extent.[9]

Temple of Vishveshwur, Benares by James Prinsep

Sometime around 1669, Aurangzeb ordered for the demolition of the temple and commissioned the construction of the Gyan Vapi mosque, in place.[4][9][a] The plinth was largely untouched and continued to serve as the courtyard of the mosque; the southern wall (along with its cusped arches, exterior moldings and toranas) was also spared and turned into the qibla wall.[4][9][5] These surviving elements reflects influence of Mughal architectural styles on the original temple.[4][b]

The mosque is named after an adjoining well, the Gyan Vapi ("Well of Knowledge").[6] Legends hold that Shiva had dug it himself to cool the lingam.[6]


Scholars attribute political reasons than religious zealotry to the underlying motivation of Aurangzeb's demolition.[6]

Asher notes that Man Singh's great-grandson Jai Singh I was widely alleged to have facilitated Shivaji's escape in Agra from Aurangzeb.[1] Also, not only did the local zamindars of Varanasi rebel against Aurangzeb but also there were reports of local Brahmins interfering with Islamic teaching.[1][10] Catherine Asher (as well as Cynthia Talbot and Audrey Truschke) thus finds the demolition to be a political message in that it served as a warning for the Zamindars and Hindu religious leaders, who wielded great influence in the city.[1][4][11] Richard M. Eaton (borrowing from Asher) and Satish Chandra take a similar stance.[10]

Desai notes that Aurangzeb's complex and often-contradictory policies in Benaras can be "more accurately analyzed in light of his personal compulsions and political agenda, rather than as expressions of religious bigotry".[4][12] Austere and orthodox — the Gyan Vapi sought to air an "explicitly political and visual" assertion about the Mughal command over the city’s religious sphere but instead, "transmuted Vishweshwur into the undisputed fulcrum of the city’s ritual landscape".[4] Nita Kumar, in her review of Desai's work, notes that Aurangzeb's opposition to Hinduism was selective and targeted at syncretism.[13]

In contrast, Jadunath Sarkar had attributed the demolition (and similar orders) to his innate religious bigotry.[14]


Oral accounts indicate that the Brahmin priests were allowed to reside in the premises and exert their privileges on issues of pilgrimage etc.[4] The desecrated site (especially the plinth) was an even-popular hub for Hindu pilgrims from across the country.[4][c]

In 1698, Bishan Singh, the ruler of Amber, had his agents survey the town as well as gather details about the various claims and controversies regarding demolition of the temple; subsequently published maps ('tarah') remarked of the Gyan Vapi to lie at the site of a dismantled Vishweshwar temple and even marked a plinth of the temple.[4][d] His court went on to purchase much territory around the Gyanvapi precincts, including from Muslim inhabitants, with an aim to rebuild the temple (without demolishing the mosque) but failed.[4] Instead, c. 1700, an Adi-Vishweshwar Temple was constructed at the initiative of Singh's successor Sawai Jai Singh II, about 150 yards anterior to the mosque.[4][15] The construction borrowed extensively from contemporary imperial architecture, in what Desai as well as Asher deems to be a pointer to imperial support.[4][5][e]

By the early 18th century, the region was in the effective control of Nawabs of Lucknow.[16] With the advent of East India Company and increasingly severe annexation policies, multiple rulers from across the nation (and even administrative elites) started investing in brahminising the scapes of Banaras, to claim cultural authority back in their home-lands.[16] The Marathas, in particular, were highly vocal about religious injustice (incl. temple destruction) at the hands of Aurangzeb and Nana Fadnavis proposed to demolish the mosque and reconstruct Vishweshwar temple.[6] In 1742, Malhar Rao Holkar proposed a similar course of action.[16] In-spite of their consistent efforts, these plans did not materialize due to a multitude of interventions — Nawabs of Lucknow who were their political rivals, Brahmins who feared the wrath of Mughal Court, and British authorities who feared an outburst of communal tensions.[6][16]

Gyanvapi, the original holy well between the temple and mosque

In the late eighteenth century, as East India Company gained direct control of Banaras, Malhar Rao's successor (and daughter-in-law) Ahilyabai Holkar constructed the present Kashi Vishwanath Temple to the immediate south of the mosque — this, however, had a markedly different spatial configuration and was ritually inconsistent.[16][9][f] Also, the original lingam was supposedly hidden by the priests inside the Gyan Vapi well during Aurangzeb's raid.[17] Thus, the plinth continued to be considered as more sacred than the temple by Hindu pilgrims for well over a century — into the early 1900s — before the Kashi Vishwanath succeeded in installing itself as the central component of pilgrimage routes.[16][g]

For all this while, the Gyan Vapi would be fiercely contested by Hindus and Muslims alike with each side fiercely investing in the Gyan Vapi compounds, the mosque and the temple (also, see the underlying section on communalism).[18][16]

In 1828, Baiza Bai, widow of the Maratha ruler Daulat Rao Scindhia, constructed a colonnade to support a roof over the Gyan Vapi.[16] M. A. Sherring, writing in 1868, notes the Hindus to have unwillingly allowed the Muslims to retain the mosque; they claimed the plinth as well as the southern wall, and compelled the Muslims to use the side entrance. The Muslims had built a gateway in the midst of the platform in front of the mosque, but were not allowed to use it by the Hindus.[15] The Hindus also venerated a peepal tree overhanging the gateway, and did not allow the Muslims to "pluck a single leaf from it."[18] Edwin Greaves (1909) found that the mosque was "not greatly used", but had always been an "eyesore" to the Hindus.[19][h]

Popular history[edit]

The history of the site has been extensively contested by local Hindu as well as Muslim population.[20][12] Desai notes the multiple histories of the original temple and tensions arising out of the location of Gyanvapi to have fundamentally shaped the sacred topography of the city.[12]

Hindu memory[edit]

Madhuri Desai notes recent accounts of the history of the mosque to center around a litany of repeated destruction and re-construction of the original temple.[12] Pilgrims visiting the present Kashi Vishwanath Temple are informed about the timelessness of the lingam.[12]

It was first uprooted by Qutb al-Din Aibak in 1193/4 CE, upon the defeat of Raja of Kannauj; the Razia Mosque would be constructed in its place, a few years later.[21][6][22] The temple was rebuilt by a Gujarati merchant during the reign of Iltutmish (1211–1266 CE) before being demolished by Hussain Shah Sharqi (1447–1458) or Sikandar Lodhi (1489–1517).[21] Raja Man Singh got the temple re-constructed during Mughal emperor Akbar's rule at the Gyan Vapi precincts but orthodox Brahmins chose to boycot the temple, that his daughter was married to Islamic rulers.[21] Raja Todar Mal further improved the temple in 1585.[21] Here, the lingam was housed for a few centuries until it fell victim to Aurangzeb's intense religious zealotry in 1669, when it was demolished and converted to a mosque.[20]

This forms a part of meta-narrative about Hindu civilization being continually oppressed by Muslim invaders, since time immemorial.[12][9] Colonial policies and their apparatuses of knowledge reinforced such — largely ahistorical and un-nuanced — notions.[12][9] Local textbooks of the 1990s supported this reading of the mosque's past.[20]


Scholars differ on the historical accuracy of these arguments.[9]

Diana L. Eck finds medieval chronicles to affirm the notion of Adi-Vishweshwar premises being the original home of the lingam; however, multiple scholars have critiqued Eck’s non-contextual usage of medieval sources.[9][23][i] Hans T. Bakker largely affirms the broader thrust of narratives, as well.[22] On his reading of medieval sources, he deems the temple destroyed in 1194 to be likely devoted to Avimukteshwara and located in current-day Gyanvapi precincts; sometime around the late 13th century, the Hindus reclaimed the vacant Gyanvapi for a temple of Vishweshwar since the Razia mosque had occupied the "Hill of Vishweshwar".[22] This new temple was destroyed by the Jaunpur Sultanate, apparently to supply building materials for mosques at their new capital.[22]

Desai however rejects these views. In her reading of Gahadavala literature, she records scarce mentions of temples; they were certainly small in scale and insignificant, if they existed at all.[23][j] Kṛtyakalpataru, an early 12th century 'nibandha' refers to no temple in the town but several Shaiva lingams, one among which was Vishweshwar and no unique importance was allotted to it.[23][k] Overall, she finds the existence of any Vishweshwar temple in early-medieval Banaras to be suspect.[23]

The Vishweshwar lingam started to occupy a popular place in the religious life of Hindus sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries; authors of the fourteenth-century Kashikhand (since collated with the Skanda Purana) focused on incorporating Vishweshwar as the major deity of the city and featured a Vishweshwar temple in multiple pilgrimage routes, for the first time.[23][6] The details and context of this rise in popularity (and significance) of the Vishweshwar lingam is not ascertainable from textual and other historical evidence.[23] Even afterwards, it remained one among the many sacred spots in Banaras with different 'nibandha' commentators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries zeroing in on different sacred sites and accordingly, seeking to re-define the sacred space of Kashitirtha in its terms.[23][4] Vishweshwar was transformed into the principal shrine of the city only on the back of sustained Brahminical activism and patronage of Mughals, beginning from the late sixteenth century.[23][4]

Muslim memory[edit]

Most Muslims of the city however reject the narrative produced by Hindu as well as Colonial accounts.[20]

Varying theories are put forward instead — (a) the original building was never a temple but a structure of the Din-i Ilahi faith which was destroyed as a result of Aurangzeb's hostility to Akbar's "heretical" thought-school, (b) the original building was indeed a temple but destroyed by Jnan Chand (a Hindu) as a consequence of the priest having looted and violated one of his female relatives, (c) the temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb because it served as a hub of political rebellion — all of which converge on the aspect that Aurangzeb did not demolish the temple for religious reasons.[20] Relatively fringe arguments include that the Gyanvapi was constructed much before Aurangzeb's reign or that the temple was demolished due to a communal conflict which must have involved Hindus playing a significant role in provoking the Muslims.[20]

These viewpoints have been extensively developed and amplified by Maulana Abdus Salam Nomani (d. 1987), an Imam of the Gyanvapi mosque, over leading Urdu dailies.[20] Nomani rejects that Aurangzeb demolished any temple to commission the mosque and claims that the mosque was constructed by the third Mughal emperor Akbar; Aurangzeb's father Shah Jahan allegedly started a madrasah called Imam-e-Sharifat at the site of the mosque in 1048 hijri (1638-39 CE).[24][25] Aurangzeb's edict granting protection to all Hindu temples at Baranasi and his' providing patronage to numerous temples, Hindu schools, and monasteries are further cited.[20]


Whilst Aurangzeb did indeed grant such protection (and patronage) to several temples and monasteries, there does not exist any acceptance of these revisionist narratives in scholarship; Desai deems Nomani's arguments as a strategic "rewriting of history" arising out of the Hindu-hegemonic nature of discourse in postcolonial Banaras.[13][26]


With the advent of British Raj, the Gyan Vapi precincts that was (once) the subject of whimsical Mughal politics got transformed into a site of perennial Hindu-Muslim rivalry.[18][27] It remains volatile ever-since and has witnessed periodic flare-up of communal tensions.[28][20]

Colonial India[edit]

1809 saw multiple incidences.[28]

An attempt by the Hindu community to construct a shrine on the "neutral" space between the Gyanvapi Mosque and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple heightened tensions.[28] Soon enough, the festival of Holi and Muharram fell on the same day and confrontation by revelers fomented into a communal riot.[28] Muslim mob killed a cow (sacred to Hindus) on the spot, and spread its blood into the sacred water of the well. The Gyanvapi was set to fire and an attempt was made to demolish it.[17] Both the parties took to arms, resulting in several deaths and property damage, before the British administration quelled the riot.[29][30][28]

Postcolonial India[edit]

Beginning 1984, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) along with extremist Hindu Nationalists engaged in a nation-wide campaign to reclaim the sites of the mosques (allegedly) constructed by demolishing Hindu temples including the Gyanvapi.[31][9][32] After the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992, tensions increased and about a thousand policemen were deployed to prevent a similar incident at the Gyanvapi.[33] The Bharatiya Janata Party leaders (who had supported the demand for "reclaiming" Babri mosque) however opposed VHP's demand this time, on the grounds that the Gyanvapi Mosque was actively used.[34]

A title-dispute suit was filed in the Varanasi Civil Court in 1991 for handing over the site to Hindu community; it sought to bypass the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 (henceforth PoW), which was already in force.[35][36][l] In 1996, VHP appealed to the Hindus to gather in large number on the occasion of Mahashivaratri; it was met with a poor response and the occasion passed without any untoward incident.[37] In 1998, the court ruled that the suit was indeed barred by the PoW act.[38] A revision petition was subsequently moved before the district court who allowed it and asked the civil court to adjudicate the dispute, afresh.[38] The mosque management committee successfully challenged this allowance in the Allahabad High Court, who stayed the proceedings.[35]

The court-case remained pending for 22 years, before the advocate of the 1991 petition refiled another plea requesting for an ASI survey of the mosque-complex on the same grounds.[35][39][40] The temple allegedly existed for thousands of years (since the reign of a Vikramaditya) before being demolished by Aurangzeb; this was apparently proved by the continuous presence of Lingam among other features and Hindus were deprived of their religious right to offer water to lingams.[35] The Gyanvapi mosque management committee (Anjuman Intezamia Masjid) acting as the defendant denied the claims and rejected that Aurangzeb demolished a temple to construct the mosque.[41]

On 8 April 2021, the city-court ordered the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct the requested survey.[35] In addition, a five-member committee comprising experts in archaeology was asked to be constituted, with two members from the "minority community" to determine whether any temple existed at the site, prior to the mosque.[41][35] Some commentators opine the court's ruling to run up against the PoW act and other matters of law.[42]

Access to the mosque remains prohibited for non-Muslims, photography is prohibited, approaching alleys have light police-pickets (alongside RAF units), the walls are fenced with barbed wire, and a watchtower exists too.[9][26] The mosque is neither well-used nor embedded enough in the cultural life of the city.[9]


The façade is modeled partially on the Taj Mahal's entrance.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mary Searle-Chatterjee notes that a notable historian of Banaras Hindu University (G. D. Bhatnagar) rejects the very view of Aurangzeb having destroyed a temple. Searle-Chatterjee herself refuses to discuss the historical validity of competing narratives, noting - "The historical issues are irrelevant, since it is dear that whatever the facts were, accounts of the origin of the central ruin are now functioning as symbolic narrative, providing a charter for contemporary attitudes and behavior." See the section on contestations, for context.
  2. ^ James Princep conjectured a reconstruction of the temple from his observations of the temple-remnants, interviews of local Brahmins and readings of nibandha literature. Rosalind O' Hanlon, on the basis of this plan, deems the original temple to have derived from the Kashikhanda.
    Desai finds his reconstruction to be far from realistic and adds that the plan has been often incorrectly noted to be the official version. Detailed architectural details remain unknown. Chunar limestone was the probable building-material.
  3. ^ Numerous colonial officials including James Princep et al reported the same.
  4. ^ These maps also noted the edges of the rectangular mosque-precinct to be lined up with the residences of Brahmin priests. Desai (in her thesis) mistook these surveys to have been commissioned "in all likelihood" by the Maharaja of Jaipur.
  5. ^ Desai notes that the particular choice of naming (probably) suggests a collective Hindu memory of the Vishweshwar lingam having a prior location at the site.
  6. ^ The precise year of construction is not known. It already existed by 1781, when Warren Hastings commissioned the construction of a gateway.
  7. ^ British traveler Reginal Heber notes the plinth to be considered more sacred by the pilgrims, as late as 1824. the Gyanvapi well was also rumored to contain the lingam and the water of the Gyan Vapi — brought by a subterraneous channel of the Ganges — was treated as holier than the Ganges itself.
  8. ^ Hindu worshipers would frequent the site, and receive sacred water from the priest, who sat at a stone screen surrounding the Gyan Vapi. Greaves also mentioned the colonnade and the bull statue, stating that the statue was highly venerated and "freely worshiped". Close to this statue, there was a temple dedicated to Gauri Shankar (Shiva and Parvati). Greaves further wrote that there were "one or two other small temples" in the same open space, and there was a large Ganesha statue placed near the well.
  9. ^ Dumper finds Eck’s history to be "extraordinarily confusing, moving from rhetorical storytelling to historical fact".
  10. ^ Desai also notes that unlike contemporary Indian dynasties, there exist no evidence of Gahadavalas commissioning grand temples. Also, see Vishnu Hari inscription.
  11. ^ The center of the sacred region of Kashikshetra lay at Madhyameshwar, north of the contemporary site of the Vishweshwar. Contrast with modern day Kashi, whose central site is the Vishwanath Temple, argued to bear the legacy of Vishweshwar.
  12. ^ The Ayodhya dispute was stated as an exception to the provision since it was already being litigated when the law was passed.


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  • Madhuri Desai (2007). Resurrecting Banaras: Urban space, architecture and religious boundaries. University of California, Berkeley. ProQuest 304899943.