The layout of the original Vishveshwar temple and the records of British historians


Vishveshwar’s ubiquity in Gyanvapi is a record that Hindus have kept in their civilizational memory. But while the demand for reconciliation is on the march, the battle for control of sacred places is fought with the grammar of justice. As the iconic Shivlinga has risen above the smog of denial after centuries, so have some documents that validate the existence of the ancient temple in the same location.

One wonders to have got hold of the original plan of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple which existed before its destruction by Aurangazeb in 1669. Below is the plan of the Vishveshwar temple on which the “Gyanvapi mosque” is built today. When British architect, planner and cartographer James Princep studied the city of Kashi extensively, with the idea of ​​restoring the “Gyanwapi Mosque” built by Aurangazeb, he began by documenting the structures of the compound.

Princep discovered that the masjid which stood in the complex was originally built over the Vishveshwar temple which existed before its destruction after the orders of the Mughal tyrant Aurangazeb in 1669. His architectural documentation led him to draft a plan of the disputed structure, which he made interesting. entitled “Plan of the ancient temple of Vishveshvur”. Princep’s temple plan dates from 1834 when he extensively studied Kashi and his Ghats as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Plan of the Vishveshwar temple by James Princep, 1834. Source: British Library

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

With the placement of the Shivlinga in the center, the plan appears to be a one-of-a-kind arrangement for a Hindu temple. While the conventional design requires a linear progression of planned activities, starting from the Mandapa towards Antarala and the sanctum sanctorum or Garbhagriha at the end. The interesting segway to note is the dotted line in the plan, which delineates the current occupation of the temple by the Masjid. If one has to see the present mosque which was built after razing part of the temple, compared to this plan one can observe that the three domes are built on the two Shiva Mandaps and the central Mahadeo shrine which existed in the front center.

Remains of the rear wall, with projections of the Hindu temple clearly visible. The three domes were built on the Shiva Mandaps on the side and on the Shivlinga Sanctorum in the center.

The projections on the back of the Masjid wall are clearly visible today, and they indicate that the original wall of the temple has been preserved as it was. The eastern wall thus preserved tells us that part of the temple was adapted to be reused for the newly built masjid on the same base of the temple.

James Princep further documented the current Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, which was built by the Maratha Queen of Malwa – Ahilyabai Holkar in 1776. He produced the elevation of the temple, which is Kashi Vishwanath’s main shrine today. The local story says that one day Shiva appeared in the dream of the pious Ahilyabai and asked him to resurrect him in Kashi, who lay in the ancient well of Gyanwapi. It was this incident that inspired Ahilyabai to build a separate shrine for Vishvanath near the old structure. This folklore also validates the historicity of the original Shivlinga hidden in the well, to save it from attack by invaders.

Recent development after investigation of the disputed Gyanwapi structure has brought to light the discovery of a Shivlinga in the Wuzukhana pond at the current mosque. However, it should be noted that the Wuzukhana section, where the Shivlinga is supposed to be found, is different from the Gyanwapi well. The old well is now part of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor complex, inside the new temple compound.

The Gyanwapi Well

In his book ‘Kashi, the Illustrious City’, 20th century missionary Edwin Greaves exemplifies the view of the ancient Gyanwapi Koop or the ‘knowledge of wealth’. He writes: “To the east of the mosque is a simple but well-constructed colonnade, covering Gyán Bápi, the well of knowledge. This well is surrounded by a stone screen, in front of which a Brahmin is seated. The worshipers 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 should be noted that the colonnade covering the Gyanvapi well was built by the Maratha Queen Baizabai Scindia of Gwalior during her stay in the city in the 1830s. Many photographs of the Gyanwapi well, after which the current mosque is named, have been clicked by British surveyors with much admiration. An ornate parapet carved in stone covered the well in the photo below.

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

In the images below, part of the mosque and its minarets can be seen in the background. Baizabai is said to have built a support structure above the well to protect it from further attacks and threats from the Muslim residents who continued to riot with the local Hindus. Many skirmishes, as historians have pointed out, broke out 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 proofs that substantiate the existence of Shivlinga was the direction in which the Nandi of the original temple faces. While in a Shiva temple the Nandi always faces the Shivlinga, the 17th century Mughal tyrants did not or could not destroy the Nandi idol while waiting for Vishveshwara to rise. The Nandi idol which is now part of the current Kashi Vishwanath temple complex does not face the deity of the current temple, but the disputed structure of Gyanwapi.

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

The Nandi stands next to the Gyanwapi well, while it is evident that both entities were part of the ancient Vishveshwar temple complex, built by Todarmal. While the temple was desecrated and converted into a mosque, the Nandi idol and the Gyanwapi well remained unchallenged from destruction by Aurangzeb. Nandi Well, Gyanwapi Well and Gauri Shankar Temple are evidence today suggesting the existence of a larger temple compound before the destruction in 1669.

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

In the newly designed Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Nandi and the Gyanwapi well have been incorporated into the new temple complex, while the disputed Gyanwapi site remains sealed until the Varanasi District Court issues a new order.

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


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