Antiquity of Lord Vishvanatha temple
by Jayasree Saranathan on 20 Aug 2023 1 Comment

Kashi, also known as Varanasi, is one of the seven Mukti sthals of Bharat – the others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Dwaraka, Haridwar, Ujjain and Kanchi. Of these seven, the prime temples of three places, namely Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura had fallen to the Mughal invaders. Presently, a petition is filed seeking permission to worship within the Gyan Vaapi mosque in Varanasi, claiming that it was built atop the original temple of Lord Vishvanatha.


Today there is a temple of Vishvanatha adjacent to Gyan Vaapi mosque, but it was built by Rani Ahilyabai of the Maratha empire in 1780. The original temple was built by Raja Vikramaditya 2050 years ago, claim the petitioners. Looking back at the history of Lord Vishvanatha, this temple had existed even in the Mahabharata times. The wax palace in which the Pandavas were tricked to stay was built in Varanasi only. The Pandavas were lured to go to Varanasi to witness a colourful festival for Lord Shiva in this city in the month of Phalguni.


The Mahabharata states that they started their journey to this temple in Varanasi on the 8th day of Phalguni month, that is on Shukla Ashtami. Even today there is a grand festival of colours,  much like the Holi festival, called ‘Rangbhari’, celebrated in this temple on the 11th day, that is Shukla Ekadasi of Phalguni month. The Mahabharata having taken place more than 5100 years ago, this striking similarity offers evidence for the continuous existence of this temple for more than 5000 years.


Kashi was the oldest name of Varanasi, derived from the name of the great grandson of Ila, the daughter of Vaivasvata Manu. The temple of Vishvanatha traces its beginning from the time River Ganga started flowing in the early years of Holocene. As per the temple legends, Lord Shiva appeared as Svayambhu from under the ground and had water filled in his place. That came to be known as the celebrated Gyan Vaapi – which means the Well of knowledge. It is said that this well is fed by the waters of Ganga from under the ground. The well was part of Gyan Mandapa in olden days where discourses have taken place. People in search of knowledge and Salvation flocked to this temple of Vishvanatha.


The evidence for the temple for Lord Vishvanatha exists in the account of the life history of Tulsidas (1511-1623). He lived through the period when Ram Janma Bhumi was destroyed (1528) – which he recalled in his composition ‘Tulsishatak’. It was accepted as evidence during the proceedings on Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid demolition. Unable to live in Ayodhya at that time, he moved to Varanasi.


During his stay in Varanasi, he was commanded by Lord Shiva in his dream to write the story of Rama in the local dialect. He wrote Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi and presented it to Lord Vishvanatha. To test the worth of this epic poem, it was kept at the bottom of a pile of Sanskrit texts in front of Lord Vishvanatha in the Garbhagriha and the doors were closed. The next morning when the doors were opened, people found the work of Tulsidas on top of all the other texts. It is said the words “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram” were found inscribed on the manuscript of Ramcharitmanas with the signature of Shiva. A temple of such miraculous events was destroyed by Aurangzeb a few decades after Tulsidas.


This famed city with its temple came under attack for the first time in the 11th century by the associates of Salar Masud, the nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni. In the 12th century, the Ghurids destroyed this temple and built Razia Mosque over that. The temple was rebuilt in the 13th century on the very site where the Gyanvapi mosque stands today. It was demolished by Mughal rulers once again. During the period of Akbar in the 16th century, Raja Man Singh, the Maharaja of Amber in Jaipur, rebuilt the temple. This construction was considered by some as representing Akbar’s idea of Din-I llahi which the Masjid supporters of today quote to justify that no temple was destroyed to build the Gyan Vaapi mosque.


This cannot be true because Tulsidas was a contemporary of Akbar and his Epic composition was presented to the temple of Vishvanatha. As one who lamented at the sound of Azan heard from the Ram Janma Bhumi in in his work, ‘Tulsishatak’, it is impossible to say that he presented his work, Ramcharitmanas at a temple combined with a mosque of Din-i-llahi system. Moreover, Bishan Singh, a descendant of Raja Man Singh, visited Varanasi in 1698, 29 years after it was destroyed, with a plan to rebuild the temple on the site of the mosque. So, there is no scope to say that the Gyan Vaapi mosque was made as representing Din-i-llahi.


The temple which was worshiped by Tulsidas was demolished by Aurangzeb in the 17th century (1669) upon which he built the present mosque. It was originally called as Alamgir Mosque after his title, Alamgir. It came to be known as Gyan Vaapi mosque which by itself reveals that it occupied the famous temple of Gyan Vaapi.


Rev. Mathew. A. Sherring, the British missionary who spent most part of his life in Varanasi, has written in his book ‘The sacred city of Varanasi’ (1868) that “the nearly all the buildings in Benares, of acknowledged antiquity, have been appropriated by the Musalmans; being used as mosques, mausoleums, darghas, and so forth.”


“How many more were razed to the ground or transformed into mosques through the iconoclastic fervour of Aurangzeb, there is no means of knowing; but it is not too much to say that he was unsurpassed, in this feature of religious fanaticism, by any of his predecessors. If there is one circumstance respecting the Mohammadan period which Hindus remember better than another, it is the insulting pride of the Musalmans, the outrages which they penetrated upon their religious convictions, and the extensive spoliation of their temples and shrines.”


Without mincing words, he continues to say that “the Europeans should clearly understand that this spirit of Mohammedanism is unchangeable, and that, if, by any mischance, India should come again into the possession of men of this creed, all the churches and colleges, and all the Mission Institutions, would not be worth a week’s purchase.”


Another British Missionary, Edwin Greaves, who worked in Varanasi has written in his book, ‘Kashi the city illustrious, or Benares’ (1909) that “the attentions of Aurangzeb marked a period of great trouble and humiliation for the Hindus of Benares. Aurangzeb swept down on the city in the year 1669 and left as a monument the mosque close to Gyan Bapi, which he caused to be erected on the ruins of the old Bishwanath temple of the Hindus which he had destroyed.”


Leaving none to doubt on who destroyed the temple of Vishvanatha to erect a mosque in its place, the American historian Audrey Truschke, known for her anti-Hindu stance, writes in her book, ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth’ (2017), “that the Gyanvapi masjid was indeed built during Aurangzeb’s reign. The masjid incorporates the old Vishwanath temple structure - destroyed on Aurangzeb’s orders - as its qibla (direction towards the Kaaba in Mecca) wall.”


The southern side of the mosque built on the pre-existing temple structure leaves no one to doubt that a temple was demolished to build the mosque. This seems to be a deliberate act to insult the Hindus and cause heartburn, writes Mathew Sherring.


The Garbhagriha along with two shrines were destroyed to build the three domed mosque while the other structures such as the Bull (Nandi) and the Gyan Vaapi well were left untouched. No one knows what happened to the Jyothirlinga, the image of Lord Vishvanatha. But all accounts say that the Pujari of the temple, in a bid to safeguard the Murti, had thrown the Lingam into the well with himself jumping into the well.


History is silent for the next 25 odd years on what happened to Lingam and the people around. Bhishan Singh wanted to retrieve the temple and rebuild it, but was desisted by the Nawab of Oudh. Only 100 years later, Rani Ahilyabai succeeded in building the temple for Vishvanatha, not at the original site, but next to it. However, there is no word on whether the original Lingam was retrieved and relocated in the new temple. No one knows what happened to the Murti of Lord Vishvanatha.


Now, with the court stepping in to allow archaeological survey, the day is not far off to know what happened to the temple. Perhaps God will reveal Himself when the time comes.

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