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VARANASI, India — On a recent Friday afternoon in this holy city in northern India, scooters, pedestrians and cycle rickshaws jostled for space on a street leading to the city’s most famous Hindu shrine. As Hindu pilgrims dressed in saffron clothes made their way, Muslim men in skull caps walked alongside them. Both sets of devotees were headed to the same place.
The Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Gyanvapi mosque stand side by side in the heart of Varanasi. The mosque was built in the 17th century by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb after demolishing a Hindu temple. Years later, a Hindu queen rebuilt the temple beside the mosque. For centuries, both communities have shared the space, but now, some Hindus say they want to reclaim it.
Over the decades, Hindu plaintiffs have filed petitions in multiple courts seeking access to the mosque. The ongoing legal proceedings stem from a petition that five Hindu women filed in 2021 seeking the right to worship inside the mosque premises, claiming that idols of deities still exist inside. Last year, the court allowed a video survey of the mosque and an archaeological survey of the structure began last month. The Islamic committee that manages the mosque has challenged the Hindu suit.
Meanwhile, Hindu groups have called for the mosque to be handed over to them and the site has become a flashpoint of religious tensions.
The dispute goes against Varanasi’s history of interfaith harmony. With thousands of temples, it’s the epicenter of Hinduism, but Muslims make up nearly 30% of the estimated population of over 1.5 million and the city has always been a mosaic of different faiths and cultures. “Varanasi is a confluence of multiple religions, everybody together make Varanasi a rich society,” says the Rev. Anand Mathew, a Catholic priest and social activist. “We have a large number of Jains, … we have many Buddhists here, this is the city where Buddha came first after his enlightenment. Christianity is here for many centuries,” he says, adding that the city has a history of “joyful, peaceful coexistence” that is now getting affected.
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A religious dispute fueled by Hindu nationalism
For years, Abhinav Chaturvedi, a Hindu, has seen Muslim faithful make their way past his shop to pray at the Gyanvapi mosque. He remembers learning about its history as a child and approves of the legal action by Hindus to take the site. “What is ours must be returned to us,” he says. “This should have happened much earlier.”
Mathew says there’s an “undercurrent of this sort of thinking” among Varanasi residents, which worries him. “A gradual change has been happening in the entire Varanasi city and all over [India] because of the fundamentalistic ideology of the Hindutva supremacy,” he says, referring to the Hindu nationalist agenda that political observers say the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing. Critics accuse Modi and his party of fueling religious disputes, particularly against Muslims and Christians, a charge that they deny. Sectarian violence breaks out sporadically in India. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Haryana killed at least seven people in a week of violence starting July 31.
Varanasi is also the constituency of Modi and from where he has fought and won two national elections. In recent years, his government has undertaken major renovation of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, which includes building a wide corridor to connect the shrine to the banks of the Ganges River, which Hindus consider sacred. The government says it has done that to facilitate better access to the temple. But in doing so, “they’ve also exposed the mosque to greater view,” says Michael Dodson, a historian of South Asia at Indiana University in Bloomington. This has made the mosque more vulnerable, some Muslim residents say.
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Many legal experts argue that the Gyanvapi lawsuit also goes against the spirit of the Places of Worship Act of 1991, which was passed “to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed” when India became independent in 1947.
While observers say religious polarization and attacks on minorities are increasing under Modi, tensions have existed since long before he came to power. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, played a key role in the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the focus was on a different temple-mosque dispute. Many Hindus believed the 16th century Babri mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya stood on the spot where the Hindu deity Ram was born. And in December 1992, shortly after an inflammatory speech in Ayodhya by a top BJP leader, a Hindu mob tore down the Babri mosque. The incident sparked deadly riots across the subcontinent. Many fear that the Gyanvapi case could be heading toward a similar fate. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the contested site in Ayodhya belonged to Hindus and a grand temple is being constructed there.
A history of religious coexistence
At his home on the banks of the Ganges, as prayer bells reverberate into the night, Vishwambar Nath Mishra says that in Varanasi, every stone is believed to be a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. The city, also known as Banaras, is thought to be the cradle of Hinduism, much like what Jerusalem and Mecca are to Judaism and Islam, respectively. But Banaras is also “a prototype model of India where people from all the states, from all the communities, they stay here and they have a mutual agreement,” to live together in peace, he says. “So, that is the unique fabric of Banaras.”
Mishra, who is the head priest of the famous Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, says Hindus and Muslims in the city have been taking part in each other’s religious festivities for years. For example, the horseshoe used in religious processions during the Muslim holy month of Muharram is kept with a Hindu family, who are its custodians, he says. Muslims take part in Ramleela, a skit about the story of the Hindu god Ram performed during festivals, he adds. At the many mazaars, or Sufi shrines, dotting the city, the vast majority of visitors are Hindu, says Surendra Kumar, a Varanasi native.
Even the livelihoods of Hindus and Muslims are intertwined. In the handlooms of the famous Banaras silk sarees, weavers are mostly Muslim whereas clients and wholesalers are largely Hindu. “Muslims are traumatized by what is happening [with the Gyanvapi mosque], we are worried,” says Haji Mukhtar Mahto, a leader of the weavers’ community.
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His son Ahmed Faisal laments that while everyone is focused on the religious issue, weavers in Varanasi are struggling to make ends meet. “I request Indian politicians to focus on ensuring employment and livelihood, instead of religious matters. Our interfaith culture is under attack but it will live on,” he says. He recalls how his Hindu friends were at his side when his mother passed away a few weeks ago. Similarly, during the pandemic, he says Muslims helped carry the bodies of Hindus to the banks of the Ganges for cremation.
To promote interfaith harmony, Mathew, the Catholic priest and social activist, has been organizing a series of interreligious prayers based on the prayers that Mahatma Gandhi held in his ashrams. “[The] majority of the common people, ordinary people, want this peaceful coexistence,” says Mathew. “[We] pray that we get back that older time of respecting every faith, every culture. And this so-called supremacy of one religion that is getting into the minds of the people, that we are able to address that. That’s a challenge for us.”
In the past, Varanasi has shown resilience. In 2006, the situation was ripe for sectarian violence after a bomb blast at the temple where Mishra is the head priest. He remembers how the community came together to defuse tensions. “And the city was in peace even after the bomb blasts,” he says. “So I think that was a litmus test for Banaras.”
Every year the Sankat Mochan Hindu temple hosts a cultural music festival, which in recent times has become a symbol of inclusivity. Despite opposition from Hindu extremists, Mishra has managed to bring Muslim artists, even some from neighboring Pakistan, to perform in the temple. “Music doesn’t belong to one community, it is a global language,” he says.
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Mishra says Varanasi residents are generally very adaptive and calm. “This has been raked up by political people, they are just exploiting the situation,” he says, hoping that things remain calm in the future.
These days, police stand guard near the entrance to the temple and mosque, surrounded by barricades, as lawyers argue over the fate of the mosque in court. Mosque or temple, shopkeeper Surendra Kumar says it doesn’t make a difference to ordinary people like him. Both are houses of God, he says, if only the public can accept that.