Indian court allows Hindus to worship in sealed cellar of Gyanvapi Mosque

The 17th-century structure in Varanasi is the subject of a legal dispute over the right of Hindus to pray there

The Gyanvapi Mosque, left, stands next to the Kashivishwanath Temple on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi. AP
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A court in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state has ruled that Hindus are allowed to pray in the sealed cellar of the 17th-century Gyanvapi Mosque, in the latest victory for the litigants who claim the mosque was built over a temple.

The mosque, built by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, stands next to the 18th-century Kashi Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva.

Hindu groups have claimed that the Mughal ruler demolished an existing temple to make way for the mosque.

A group of five Hindu women are seeking permission for Hindus to perform prayers to all “visible and invisible deities” within the mosque all year round.

Hindus were allowed to worship the deities carved on the outer wall of the mosque every day until 1993, but such rituals were restricted to once a year after Hindu nationalists demolished the Babri Masjid, another Mughal-era mosque, in 1992.

The Varanasi district court on Wednesday ordered that the sealed cellar on the southern side of the Gyanvapi Mosque, know as Vyas Ka Tekhana, be handed over “to the plaintiff and the priest named by the Kashi Vishwanath Trust Board”.

“Worship, Raga-Bhog [offerings], idols located in the basement should be done and for this purpose, an iron fence etc. should be erected within seven days,” the order read.

The order comes days after the Archaeological Survey of India submitted a 839-page report to the court in which it reportedly found evidence that the mosque was built over a Hindu temple.

The ASI was ordered by the court to determine whether the Gyanvapi Mosque was “constructed over a pre-existing structure of a Hindu temple”.

The “court in its order said that we can start offering prayers within seven days. This was happening before 1993 but everyone will have the right to perform puja. The ASI report played a major role,” said a lawyer for the Hindu petitioners, Vishnu Shankar Jain.

“This is a victory for the injustice meted out to us for the last 30 years.”

Mr Jain said the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, one of the petitioners, would appoint a priest to conduct the prayers.

“It is a big day for us. After Ram, Lord Shiva is coming back to Kashi,” one of the petitioners said, referring to the opening last week of a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Rama, built on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

The Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, the Muslim party in the Gyanvapi Mosque dispute, said it would appeal the decision in a higher court.

But Syed Yasin, the caretaker of Gyanvapi Mosque, said that he was losing any hope of justice.

“We have no hope left for justice in this country. Muslims will never get any justice in this country. The authorities are making orders as per their will. Hindus never worshipped inside the basement but now they will,” Mr Yasin told The National.

Mosque authorities have contested the Hindus' claim to pray there, citing the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act.

The law was passed in 1991 to protect contested historical religious sites, and mandates that the nature of all places of worship should remain as they were when India gained independence from British rule in 1947.

But the Varanasi court ruled that the Gyanvapi Mosque lawsuit was maintainable because the petitioners were demanding only that they be allowed to pray inside the mosque.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 2:31 PM