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Gyanvapi exclusive: The layout of the old Vishveshwar temple and what British historians have said about the disputed structure

When British architect, planner and cartographer James Princep surveyed the city of Kashi extensively, with an idea to restore the 'Gyanwapi Mosque' built by Aurangazeb, he started off by documenting the structures in the precinct.

The omnipresence of Vishveshwar at Gyanvapi is a record the Hindus have kept in their civilizational memory. But while the demand for reconciliation is underway, the battle for control over the sacred sites is being fought with the grammar of justice. While the iconic Shivlinga has risen above the smog of denial after centuries, so have some documents which validate the existence of the erstwhile temple in the same place.

One wonders to have got hands over the original plan of the Kashi Vishweshwar Temple that existed before its destruction by Aurangazeb in 1669. Attached below is the blueprint of the Vishveshwar temple upon which the ‘Gyanvapi Mosque’ is built today. When British architect, planner and cartographer James Princep surveyed the city of Kashi extensively, with an idea to restore the ‘Gyanwapi Mosque’ built by Aurangazeb, he started off by documenting the structures in the precinct.

Princep found that the masjid that stood in the complex was originally built on the temple of Vishveshwar that existed before its destruction after the orders of Mughal tyrant Aurangazeb in 1669. His architectural documentation led him to draft a plan of the disputed structure, which he interestingly titled, “Plan of the Ancient Temple of Vishveshvur”. Princep’s Plan of the temple is from the year 1834 when he surveys Kashi and its Ghats extensively as a fellow of the Royal Society.

James Princep’s plan of the temple of Vishveshwar, 1834. Source: British Library

In the plan, it could be seen that the Garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum is placed in the centre where the Shivlinga (Mahadeo) could have been placed. In perpendicular axes, the temple had an entry from all the four sides from the centre. The north-south linear axis contained two small porches (Shiv Mandap) for the visitors. The longitudinal east-west axis had entrance mandaps flanked by ‘Dwarpals’ in the centre. At the corners, four smaller shines for the deities Tarkeshwar, Mankeshwar, Bhyro (Bhairo) – forms of Shiva and Ganesh – his son were placed. The plan was thus based on a 3×3 grid with the principal deity in the centre.

With the placement of the Shivlinga in the centre, the plan seems to be a one-of-a-kind arrangement for a Hindu temple. While the conventional design demands a linear progression of activities planned, starting from the Mandapa to the Antarala and the sanctum sanctorum or Garbhagriha at the end. The interesting segway to be noted is the dotted line in the plan, that demarcates the present-day occupation of the temple by the Masjid. If one has to see the present-day Mosque which was built after razing a part of the temple, in relation to this plan, it could be observed that the three domes are built over the two Shiva Mandaps and the central Mahadeo Shrine which existed in the center before.

Remnants of the backside wall, with projections of the Hindu temple clearly visible. The three domes were built upon the Shiva Mandaps on the side and over the Shivlinga Sanctorum in the centre.

The projections on the backside of the Masjid wall are clearly visible today, and they are a marker that the original temple wall was retained as it is. The eastern wall so retained tells us that some part of the temple was adapted to be reused for the newly constructed masjid on the same temple plinth.

James Princep further documented the present-day Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, which was built by Maratha Queen of Malwa – Ahilyabai Holkar in 1776. He produced the elevation of the temple, which is the main shrine of Kashi Vishwanath today. Local history has it, that one day Shiva appeared in the dream of pious Ahilyabai and asked her to resurrect him at Kashi, who was lying in the ancient Gyanwapi Well. It was this incident which inspired Ahilyabai to construct a separate shrine for Vishvanath in the vicinity of the erstwhile structure. This folklore also validates the historicity of the original Shivlinga being kept hidden in the well, to save it from the attacks of the invaders.

The recent development after the survey of the disputed Gyanwapi structure has thrown light on a Shivlinga being found in the Wuzukhana pond at the Present-day masjid. However, it should be noted that the Wuzukhana section, where the Shivlinga is allegedly found is different from the Gyanwapi well. The ancient well is now part of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor complex, inside the new temple precinct.

The Gyanwapi well

In his book, “Kashi, the city Illustrious,” 20th-century missionary Edwin Greaves illustrates the sight of the ancient Gyanwapi Koop or the ‘Knowledge of Wealth’. He writes, “To the east of the mosque is situated a plain but well-built colonnade, covering Gyán Bápi, the Well of Knowledge. This well is surrounded by a stone screen, at which sits a Brahman. The worshippers come to the well, make their offering of flowers, and receive from the hand of the Brahman, a small spoonful of water from the well.”

It is to be noted that the collonade covering the Gyanvapi well was built by Maratha Queen Baizabai Scindia of Gwalior during her stay in the city in the 1830s. Many photographs of the Gyanwapi well, to which the present-day mosque owes its name have been clicked by British surveyors with much awe. An ornate parapet well carved in stone could be seen covering the well in the picture below.

Photograph of the Gyanwapi well covered by the colonnade structure built by Maharani Baizabai Scindia of Gwalior. Source: Colombia University

In the pictures below, a part of the mosque and its minarets can be seen in the backdrop. It is said that Baizabai built a supporting structure over the well to protect it from further attacks and threats from the Muslim residents who continued to participate in riots with the local Hindus. Many of the skirmishes as historians have pointed out, sparked over the disputed origins of the ‘Gyanwapi mosque’ while Hindus continued to make repeated demands for their rightful ownership of the site.

The Nandi who waited

One of the conclusive shreds of evidence, which justify the existence of Shivlinga was the direction in which the Nandi from the original temple is facing. While in a Shiva temple the Nandi always faces the Shivlinga, the Mughal tyrants in the 17th century did not, or could not destroy the Nandi idol while it kept waiting for Vishveshwara to arise. The Nandi idol which is now part of the present-day Kashi Vishwanath Temple complex faces not towards the deity in the present-day temple but towards the disputed Gyanwapi structure.

Left: Watercolour by William Simpson from 1864. Right: The Nandi and Gyanwapi colonnade before the beautification of the temple precinct

The Nandi sits next beside the Gyanwapi well, while it is evident that both the entities were part of the erstwhile Vishveshwar temple complex, built by Todarmal. While the temple was desecrated and converted into a mosque, the idol of the Nandi and the Gyanwapi well remained unchallenged from the destruction by Aurangzeb. The Nandi, The Gyanwapi well and the Gauri Shankar temple stand as proof today suggesting the existence of a larger temple precinct before the destruction in 1669.

The newly constructed Kashi Vishwanath corridor, with integrated Nandi image and the ancient Gyanwapi inside the temple complex. Images: Twitter

In the newly conceived Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Nandi and the Gyanwapi well have been integrated into the new temple complex, whereas the disputed Gyanwapi site remains sealed until the Varanasi district court issues a new order.

In a recent development, a Shivling was discovered within the disputed Gyanvapi edifice, from the Gyanvapi premise’s Wuzukhana. Reports claim that the Shivling was discovered after the water inside a pond like well, which is used as Wuzukhana by Muslims, was pumped out of it. Directed by the Varanasi Civil Court, the survey of the disputed structure was finished on Monday after three days of work.

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Suyash
Suyash
Writer, Architect. Negotiating the Present as a Journalist and the Past as a Historical Researcher. News Geek. Writes on Politics and Policy, Design, Culture and Media.

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