Varanasi District Admin Oversees Hindu Prayers in Basement of Gyanvapi Mosque

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Hindu prayers in the basement of the Gyanvapi Mosque. Photo: Vishnu Shankar Jain on X

By Omar Rashid

The caretakers of the mosque have urgently moved the Allahabad high court challenging the district court order and objecting to the rushed manner of the compliance with the court’s order.

New Delhi: Less than a day after a court controversially allowed Hindus to conduct puja inside a basement of the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi, the district administration displayed a tearing hurry as it complied with the orders and oversaw prayer rituals by a Hindu priest inside the basement of the mosque in the early hours of February 1.

The caretakers of the mosque, meanwhile, have urgently moved the Allahabad high court challenging the district court order and objecting to the rushed manner of the compliance of the court’s order.

Vishnu Shankar Jain, one of the lawyers for the Hindu plaintiffs in the Gyanvapi Masjid-Kashi Vishwanath Temple matter, said that the orders of the Varanasi district court had been complied with. A pujari of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, which manages the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, conducted the “shayan arti” after “putting up idols” in the basement of the mosque, said Jain. Another lawyer for the Hindu plaintiffs, Saurabh Tiwari, too confirmed the same.

“An Akhand Jyoti started in front of them. Daily Arti of all above deities – Morning Mangla Arti, Bhog Arti, evening arti, late sunset evening arti, Shayan arti,” Jain said. Jain said so far two aartis had been conducted at the basement of the mosque, claimed by the Hindu side to be the “Vyas cellar”.

There would be five aarti sessions daily, added Jain: the first one at 3:30 am, followed by 12 pm (bhog), 4 pm, 7 pm and 10:30 pm.

Jain also shared photos of the puja inside the basement of the Mughal-era mosque.

Hours after district judge Ajaya Krishna Vishesha on January 31 – his last working day before retirement – allowed Hindus to worship inside a sealed basement of the Mughal-era Gyanvapi Masjid, the district administration and police stepped in to secure the area late at night and removed the barricading on the southern end of the mosque. The mosque had been barricaded for the last three decades on the directions of the Supreme Court.

The administration and police have refused to divulge details and responded through cryptic statements on the compliance of the court’s orders.

The masjid committee, referring to the “hasty” decision of the district administration to enforce the court order, has appealed all Muslims in Varanasi to keep their shops and business establishments shut on Friday, February 2, from the afternoon prayers till asar (early evening prayers).

Abdul Batin Nomani, general secretary of the committee, has asked everyone to maintain peace and offer Friday prayers at their designated places.

Speaking to reporters in the intervening hours of January 31 and February 1, Varanasi district magistrate S. Rajalingam said that “the compliance of the order of the court had been done”.

The DM, however, did not provide details or answer queries on the breaking of the barricades. What transpired inside the cellar with the entry of the administration following the court order is not yet known.

Director General of Police Uttar Pradesh Prashant Kumar said in Lucknow, “The court’s order has been followed,” adding that there was sufficient police security at the site. The atmosphere is not tense, he said.

Hindu prayers in the basement of the Gyanvapi Mosque. Photo: Vishnu Shankar Jain on X

District judge Vishesha on January 31 directed the district administration to make arrangements for puja and other Hindu activities inside the southern tehkhana (cellar) of the mosque within seven days. Judge Vishvesha directed the administration to conduct the puja and “rag-bhog” of the “idols” inside the tehkhana through a pujari appointed by the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust.

The Varanasi court order came days after the Archaeological Survey of India in its survey report of the Gyanvapi Masjid claimed that a “large Hindu temple” existed there prior to the construction of the existing structure (the mosque) and that parts of the temple were modified and used in the construction of the Islamic place of worship.

The Hindu plaintiffs who are seeking religious rights within the mosque as well as its ultimate possession from Muslims, dubbed the court’s order as a victory and equated it to the controversial unlocking of the Babri Masjid in 1986. The Babri Masjid was eventually demolished by a mob of Hindu activists assembled at the call of members of the Sangh parivar on December 6, 1992.

The caretakers of the Gyanvapi Masjid said the district court passed the order based on the claims made by the Hindu side without seeking any evidence.

The court passed the order on an application filed by a local priest Shailendra Kumar Pathak of the Acharya Ved Vyas Peeth temple, who had sought rights to worship the Maa Shringar Gauri and other alleged visible and invisible deities he claimed were in the cellar of the mosque.

The caretakers of the mosque rejected all claims made by Pathak that there were idols kept inside the previously-sealed cellar and that his ancestors used to carry out puja inside the cellar.

Judge Vishvesha, however, ruled in favour of the Hindu plaintiff, and directed the district administration to make necessary iron fencing for the purpose of puja. The district magistrate had on January 24 completed the process of taking over the cellar after the court on January 17 directed the district magistrate to keep the cellar secure and appointed him as the receiver.

In his application, Pathak claimed that there were idols kept in the southern cellar of the mosque and that his ancestors as priests conducted worship of the idols kept there. However, Pathak further claimed, “Pujari Vyas ji,” or Somnath Vyas, his maternal grandfather, was prevented from entering the barricaded area of the mosque after December 1993. The rag-bhog and sanskar rituals were also stopped, Pathak claimed.

He claimed that ancient Hindu idols and several other religious items linked to the Hindu religion were inside the cellar. “It is necessary to carry out regular puja of the murtis (idols) inside the tehkhana,” he said.

The Committee of Management, Anjuman Intezamia Masajid, which manages the Gyanvapi Mosque, vehemently denied the claims in court. The committee in written applications told the court that no member of the Vyas family ever carried out puja in the cellar. Therefore, the question of stopping someone from conducting puja from December 1993 does not arise, the committee said. “No alleged idol was ever present at the site,” the committee said and denied the claims of Pathak that his family had ancestral occupation of the cellar. The cellar has always been under the occupation of the mosque committee, the caretakers said.

S.M. Yasin, joint secretary of the masjid committee, rejected the claims made by the Hindu side and said that no puja had ever been held in the tehkhana and that there are no idols there. “There are only bamboo poles there.”

“These are all lies. They have no evidence. The court passed the order without any evidence,” Yasin said.

Yasin also questioned why the judge did not seek a factual position from the district administration which had sealed the cellar and barricaded the premises in 1995 on the directions of the Supreme Court.

“The cellar has always been in our possession,” said Yasin, who objected to the breach of the old barricade.

The lawyers of the Muslim side also said that the Deen Mohammad suit of 1937 did not make any mention of Vyas family occupying the tehkhana.

Talking to The Wire, Pathak was overjoyed at the compliance of the court’s order.

“This is the first step. But this is nothing new as puja used to be held even earlier. Now, the baricadding has been removed,” he said.

Pathak says the ultimate aim is to take over the structure of the mosque and “restore” it to a temple.

Pathak claimed that till the age of 15 he would enter the basement to conduct puja with his grandfather Somnath Vyas, who was also the one who filed the original suit in the Gyanvapi Masjid matter seeking claim over it.

Pathak claimed that idols of six-seven deities, including a shiv ling, used to be worshipped inside the basement before it was sealed and barricaded following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

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