The city of Kashi, also known as Varanasi, holds a special place in the hearts of millions of Hindus across the world. It is one of the oldest living cities, considered to be the earthly abode of Bhagwan Shiva and Mata Parvati – enshrined in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the form of the Jyotirlinga of Shiva, Vishweshwara, or Vishwanath. Amidst the bustling alleys and crowded streets, there lies a tale of perseverance and unwavering devotion. It is the story of Nandi ji, the loyal devotee, who has patiently waited for centuries to catch a glimpse of his beloved master, Swayambhu Shri Vishweshwara.
For centuries, Kashi has suffered repeated attacks and plundering by foreign invaders. Professor Meenakshi Jain elucidates the same in detail in her book Flight Of Deities And Rebirth of Temples. The first attack took place in 1033 CE, when Ahmad Nialtagin laid siege to the city. This was followed by the ruthless attacks of Qutubuddin Aibak in 1194 CE, and later by Raziya, from 1236 to 1240 CE, who ordered the destruction of all dharmic sites.
Yet in the face of these catastrophic events, Nandi ji waited, with unshakeable faith in Bhagwan Shiva’s promise to never abandon Kashi. Each time the temple faced attacks, one devout Hindu would light a lamp, renewing faith in Bhagwan Vishwanath and his divine abode. These lamps became symbols of dharmic resistance and served as a ray of hope during the darkest times. Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt with excruciating efforts, symbolising the unbreakable bond between the devotees and their deities. In 1585, the temple was again reconstructed, adhering to the cruciform layout described in the Kashi Khand, the sacred scripture dedicated to the city and its temples. It was again destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders in 1669. Hindus, determined to continue the pooja of the Linga, secretly shifted it to a desolate corner in the south of the Gyan Vapi well.
Today, millions of Hindus continue to perform puja at this site. They have continuously strived to preserve the sanctity of the entire holy site by meticulously performing rituals at multiple locations and marking the shrines of the original temple, hoping that one day the full eight-sectioned Vishwanath Temple (Ashta Mandapa Mandir) will be constructed to its full glory. One such example of continuity of faith is the Vyas family, who continued to pray at the ‘Vyas ji ka Taikhana’ located inside the mosque premises. Another such location inside the premises was the Vigrah of Mata Shringar Gauri, where Hindu devotees continued to pray once a year till 1993.
THE LEGAL BATTLE
The last 30 years of legal battle over the ‘disputed structure’ can be divided into three decade-long phases. In the first decade, starting in October 1991, a title suit was filed in the Varanasi Civil Court on behalf of Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwara and five others. The suit sought that the Gyanvapi land be restored to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the devotees be allowed to offer prayers there, and the occupation of the entire temple premises be removed. Despite the pending petition, no substantial hearing occurred.
Kedar Nath Vyas: man who fought for puja rights
On January 31, the Varanasi court allowed Hindus to worship in one of the tehkhanas that is called ‘Vyas ji ka tehkhana’. The family of Kedarnath Vyas has been doing puja of Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir since 1580. In 1947, a section of the Muslim community tried to capture the place, but he fought and didn’t allow them to capture. His family kept doing puja there till 1993. In 1993, Mulayam Singh Yadav stopped the puja. This case was filed by his family members in the court to get permission for the puja. In 2020, Shri Kedarnath Vyas left this world.
In November 1993, post the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya, the then Mulayam Singh Government passed an oral order to barricade the mosque premises, depriving Hindus from the once-a-year opportunity to pray at the original Shringar Gauri ‘Vigrah’ and also displacing the Vyas family from their customary place of puja.
The spots of worship were enclosed within the barricaded area, forcing devotees to conduct puja and rituals outside. Interestingly, at that time, the courts did not interfere with the Government order that changed the nature of the place of worship at both these sites.
The abovementioned pending case was next heard by the Varanasi Civil Court in July 1997. In October, the court observed that the title suit on behalf of Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwara was not barred under Section 4 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Subsequently, several revision petitions were filed before the Revisional Court. As the legal battle raged, a shadowy web of deception emerged. Multiple suites and applications were filed by different persons as underhand tactics to create a labyrinth of legal delays, denying justice at every turn.
In September 1998, the Revisional Court consolidated all the petitions and directed the civil court to rehear the dispute after considering all evidence. However, in October 1998 the Allahabad High Court stayed the lower court’s decision. For the next twenty long years, the wheels of justice ground to a halt. No hearings of substance were held, and no resolutions were found for the parties.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
After two decades, in 2019, another petition was filed on behalf of Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwara, seeking a scientific survey to determine the true nature of the disputed temple site. While this second petition was pending, in February 2020 the plaintiffs in the first suit approached the District Court again, citing a Supreme Court order stating that stay orders cannot remain in force indefinitely and must be ratified every six months.
The District Court agreed and ordered the case to be reopened, but this decision was swiftly appealed by the defendants to the Allahabad High Court. This time again, the court imposed an indefinite stay in March 2020.
Undeterred, the second petition again came up for hearing in April 2021 before the Varanasi Civil Court. After weighing the complexities of the case, the judge ordered a scientific survey of the mosque premises. But even this measured decision was appealed, and in September 2021, the Allahabad High Court combined the cases. In the end, all proceedings were stayed yet again. In August 2021, amidst the hearings in the aforementioned cases, a third case was filed by a group of five devoted women seeking permission to offer prayers before the revered Shringar Gauri Vigrah, located behind the western wall of the disputed structure (mentioned above).
They further humbly sought protection to be able to perform darshan and puja of the divine Maa Shringar Gauri, Bhagwan Ganesha, Bhagwan Hanuman, Nandi ji, and the visible and invisible deities, mandaps, and shrines existing within the ancient temple complex situated at settlement Plot No. 9130 in the area of Ward and Police Station Dashaswamedh, District Varanasi.
Taking note of the contestations, the Varanasi court appointed a court commissioner to inspect the site and provide a video recording of the premises to the court. All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) said the court order for videography violated the Places of Worship Act, 1991. The Places of Worship Act, of 1991 prohibits changing the religious character of a place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947. The District Court again rejected this plea on the grounds that the determination of the character of the place of worship can only be determined after perusing the evidence on record. Thereafter, the High Court also upheld the Varanasi district court order, stating that it found no ground for interference with the assailed order.
Amidst large protests and obstructions, the inquiry of the Commission was undertaken on May 6, 7, and May 14-16 May, 2022. On May 16, 2022, the Commission found a Shivaling in the Vazu Tank of the mosque. Upon discovering the Shivaling, the plaintiffs in the case petitioned the Varanasi Civil Court to seal the area to protect it until a full investigation could determine the structure’s true nature.
Recognising the gravity of the situation, the Civil Judge sealed the premises and restrained both parties from conducting prayers there. The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee (AIMC) appealed the order before the Supreme Court. On May 17, 2022, the court permitted the Muslim side to continue prayers while keeping the property sealed.
On May 20, the Supreme Court transferred the cases from the Civil Judge (Senior) division to the Court of the District Judge of Varanasi. Recognising the gravity of the case, the Supreme Court opined that a senior judicial officer should handle the matter in its entirety by conducting the full trial and ruling on all interlocutory applications and ancillary proceedings.
An application was filed under Order 26, Rule 10A of the Code of Civil Procedure, before the District Judge, requesting the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct a detailed scientific survey to determine the characteristics and nature of the structure found in the vazu tank. The defendants, meanwhile, maintained that there was no Hindu temple below the structure and that the mosque had simply been built by Emperor Aurangzeb on vacant land. They claimed the structure found in the tank was merely a marvel of Mughal architecture – a fountain used to recycle water in the tank – so no investigation should be carried out.
Later, the matter went to the Allahabad High Court, which called upon the ASI to furnish a detailed report explaining the methods and techniques used for such survey. After reviewing the report submitted by the ASI on 11 May 2023, the High Court on 12 May passed an order directing the ASI to conduct a scientific survey of the structure. This order was again challenged before the Supreme Court.
“HANDOVER GYANVAPI STRUCTURE TO HINDUS”
The evidence collected by the ASI from the Gyanvapi structure reconfirms that the Mosque had been constructed after demolishing a magnificent Mandir. A part of the Mandir structure, particularly the western wall is the remaining part of the Hindu Mandir. The report also proves that parts of the pre-existing Mandir including pillars and pilasters were reused with modifications to extend the span of the mosque and in the construction of the sahan. The evidence collected and the conclusions provided by the ASI do prove that the religious character of this place of worship existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and as at present is of a Hindu Temple. Thus, even as per Section 4 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the structure should be declared as a Hindu Mandir. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) therefore suggests that the Hindus be permitted to offer Sewa Puja to the Shivlinga found in the so called Wazukhana area. The VHP believes that this righteous action shall be an important step towards creating amicable relations between the two prominent communities of Bharat. — ALOK KUMAR, International Working President, VHP
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs also moved the Varanasi District Court to seek a survey of the remaining premises of the Temple. The District Court ordered the ASI to conduct a scientific survey of the entire premises to collect evidence for effective adjudication of the dispute.
As nothing in this court battle remains unchallenged, even this order was challenged before the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court. The order to conduct the survey was upheld by both courts. On August 4, 2023, the ASI began its survey.
ASI SURVEY REPORT
The ASI conducted a comprehensive survey covering 2,150.5 square meters at the Disputed Site in Varanasi. The scientific investigation included examining open areas, halls, and domes to the east, west, north, and south of the disputed structure, as well as cellars below existing platforms. The ASI investigation, including a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey, uncovered irrefutable evidence of the demolition of a Hindu temple on the site. The key points of the survey report are:
- The central chamber of the pre-existing Temple forms the Central Hall of the disputed structure
- The entrance on the western side of the Temple was closed, and the Qibla was placed on the spot in adherence to Islamic Law
- The walls all around the disputed structure showcased artwork that was mutilated over time
- Structure of the Temple was changed to accommodate more cellars and expand the disputed structure
- Multiple pillars, adorned with Hindu iconography, were re-used in the expansion of the disputed site
- In an attempt to alter the original layout, stairs were constructed over the arched door of the temple
- 34 inscriptions and 32 estampages, written in Devanagari, Telugu, Kannada & Grantha were also found
- The most significant inscriptions are names of Janardan, Rudr, and Umeshwar mentioning the term ‘Maha Mukti Mandapam’, which was one of the central mandaps in the Ashta Mandapa Temple of Bhagwan Adi Vishweshwara. Based on these detailed findings, the ASI concluded that there was indeed a grand Hindu temple at the disputed site. The ASI on 18 December submitted this report in court. The report has now become a testament to the truth that was visible to the naked eye.
THE BATTLE AHEAD
Currently, more than 20 pleas are being adjudicated before the Varanasi District Judge. Given the nature of the trial, it is expected that an intricate web of legalities may be created to delay the conclusion in the case.
“We went there to find Maa Gauri and found Shiv Ji himself! We are pleased with the judgement and thankful for the Court for allowing us to perform puja at ‘Vyas Ji Ka Tehkhana’ after 30 years. We extend our gratitude to every Sanatani. This victory is collective and highlights our triumph” — Manju Vyas, one of the five petitioners
However, in a long-awaited triumph, on January 31, 2024, the District Court granted permission to restart pooja at ‘Vyasji ka taikhana’ within seven days, instructing the District Magistrate to ensure devotees can return to this cherished site. This decision came in the light of the fact that rituals continued at the site until 1993 and were arbitrarily stopped by the then government.
Though the path ahead remains complex, this ruling ignites hope among the devotees. Furthermore, the ASI report has prompted devotees to pursue further legal actions to reclaim their right to pray at this sacred site. Adv. Vishnu Shankar Jain has stated that an application requesting further surveys of the cellars discovered during the ASI’s investigation has been filed. The plaintiffs have also approached the Supreme Court for permission to conduct scientific exploration of the sealed area within the temple grounds. The court will hear this appeal on February 8, 2024.
The honourable courts today are unravelling the tangled threads of history to deliver justice. Meanwhile, we continue to take inspiration from Nandi ji, who with his eyes fixed on the sanctum sanctorum continues to wait for the day when Bholenath will return to his right spot. His vigil serves as a reminder of the enduring power of devotion and the unbreakable bond between the divine and the devotee. It is a testament to the timeless nature of faith and the undying spirit of Hindus.