Varanasi: Writing about Varanasi, American writer Mark Twain once said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Campaigning in the city in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in fact, quoted Twain.
Days after the district court permitted Hindus to perform puja inside the gigantic three-domed Gyanvapi mosque, life in one of the world’s oldest cities remains seemingly unchanged. It still looks like a city older than history.
On the Assi Ghat, sadhus go about their day as usual. One of them, with a flowing grey beard, is reading the newspapers, another, who claims he has been sitting at the same spot since Indira Gandhi’s times, is meeting a troubled husband, who says his wife has been possessed. Boatmen shout at the top of their lungs to get customers for a boat ride in the holy Ganga.
Idle pilgrims, hustling tourists, rickshaw-pullers, small-time shopkeepers selling everything from fake Zara hoodies to marigold flowers to hot jalebis and cold lassis — are all going about their business, seamlessly navigating the stubborn traffic, the countless potholes and the dangling wires of the city.
The scenes will make an outsider believe that the bitter court battles on the temple-mosque dispute, which culminated with district judge Ajaya Krishna Vishvesha directing the Varanasi administration to allow puja and raag bhog inside the southern cellar of the 355-year old Gyanvapi mosque, a day before his retirement, have not altered the character of the city.
But Abdul Azaher, a worker at a saree shop in Godaulia Chowk, which leads to the restively shared space between the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Gyanvapi mosque, says, “Economic compulsion is not an evidence of peace.”
The 17-year-old, like all other Muslims in the city, observed a bandh last Friday following Mufti-e-Banaras Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani’s call. But inside, he knew that the bandh — an attempt by the community to register its anguish and protest against the court order and its prompt execution by the city’s administration — will have little impact.
“Everyone knows it will make no difference, and we will return to work as usual the next day…But what else can we even do?”
Azaher works at one of the dozens of shops selling Banarasi silk sarees woven by Muslim weavers, and worn mostly by Hindu women. Even the dresses worn by Hindu deities in the city are mostly made by Muslim weavers. Often, the effigies made for Ramleela are done by the same people who make tajiyas for Muharram.
With over 3,000 temples, big and small, and the popular imagery of its ghats, where the drama of life and death unfolds on a daily basis, the city’s deep connections with Hinduism are widely recognized. “There are few cities in India as traditionally Hindu and as symbolic of the whole of Hindu culture as the city of Banāras,” writes Diana Eck, an American scholar of religious studies, in Banaras: City of Light.
Varanasi is also home to hundreds of mosques and mazars, several of which, including the Gyanvapi mosque, have shared boundaries and spaces with temples for decades, if not centuries.
But this shared life seems to have taken a hit. “Everything has changed now,” says the 88-year-old S.M. Yasin, joint secretary of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which manages the mosque.“When the case started in 1991, I used to go to the court with Somnath Vyas in the same rickshaw…When Harihar Pandey died, I went to his home even though he filed a case on us,” Yasin says. “There was a recognition that court cases are separate and so are the relationships we have cultivated in our lifetime.”
Somnath Vyas is believed to have possessed the southern cellar in the basement of the Gyanvapi mosque, and performed prayers there until 1993 when the Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party (SP) government barricaded the entire mosque with iron fences in the aftermath of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition.
In 1991, Vyas, along with Harihar Pandey, had filed the first court case over the disputed spot, demanding that the mosque be demolished, and the land be given to Hindus. In fact, most Hindus still refer to the southern cellar as ‘Vyas ji ka tekhana’.
Between then and now, the city, the administration, and inter-personal relationships between Hindus and Muslims have changed dramatically, says Yasin. The starkest and the most painful of the changes for him has been the shift in the administration’s attitude towards Muslims.
“I kept calling the district magistrate the night they were doing puja. There was no response…When I called the landline, I was told ‘sahib is in a meeting’,” says the octogenarian before he breaks into tears.
“I have lived in this city all my life; I never thought I will see this day.”
On its part, the administration says there was “no need to talk” to the Muslim side. “We were in touch with the temple committee and the petitioner because the court ordered us to. We were not going into the mosque, so there was no need to talk to them,” an official says.
But for the Mufti-e-Banaras, Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, who is also the secretary of the Masjid Committee, the administration’s alleged apathy towards the mosque side was nothing new. “Over the last few years, we have faced immense hostility from the administration.”
He recounts several cases where the mosque approached the administration for trivial, day-to-day matters, but their requests were met with inaction.
“A few months ago, we wanted to get a small fridge inside the mosque for the imam and the muezzin, who live there…It was very hot at the time, and they wouldn’t even have cold water, and their food would get spoiled,” he says.
“But when we asked the administration for permission to take the fridge inside the mosque, we were told that a committee will take a decision on the matter…It’s been months, and no decision has been taken — the fridge is lying unused in someone’s house.”
Earlier this year, when the committee told the administration that most of the fish in a tank (hauz) in the wazukhana of the mosque, which was sealed in 2022 on the order of a local court, were dying, and the place was stinking as a result, it was told that the administration cannot do anything as the spot was sealed on the orders of the court.
The cleaning was finally conducted on the orders of the Supreme Court. “It is not easy for us to go to the Supreme Court for everything big and small — it costs us lakhs of rupees,” Nomani said.
“These are just a couple of examples…Even if we have to bring a pipe inside the mosque, it is denied on some pretext or the other. This is the kind of daily harassment we have to face.”
Responding to the allegations, an official from the administration said that the area is a high security zone, which is manned by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “It is not possible for us to allow anything inside the mosque without the approval of the authorities concerned,” the official told ThePrint. “There is a high-level committee presided over by an ADG (Additional Director General)-level officer, which meets every three months…We have to seek their approval before allowing anything there,” said the official.
Yet, for the mosque committee, the attitude of the administration reeks of hypocrisy. “How could they do everything so swiftly when it came to performing the puja — from cutting pillars to bringing murtis, arranging a priest, lights, carpets, everything in a matter of hours — when for us, even getting a fridge inside the mosque is such an ordeal?” Yasin says.
The Varanasi administration, which was given seven days to comply with the district court’s orders to perform puja in the southern cellar, had swung into action immediately, and performed the puja overnight.
“We are going to court. Yes, but it is mostly to placate our community,” said one of the members of the mosque committee. “We are working against a nexus…We know nobody will listen to us, but how do we face our own community, our youth?”
Even as the Muslim community remains anxious and hopeless, several Hindu pilgrims visiting the Kashi Vishwanath Dham remain oblivious to the seething tensions.
Two young Hindu boys visiting the Kashi Vishwanath Dham — days after the court order — are startled to see a mosque adjacent to it. “Arey, yahan masjid bhi hai…Waah, Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai,” one of them says to the other, his words melting away meaninglessly into the disquiet of the city.
(Edited by Tony Rai)