Historical Evidence from 16th & 17th Centuries on the Gyanvapi Masjid

Figure 1: Lithograph of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple, dating back to the 16th century, prepared by James Prinsep, FRS (1799-1840) [1]. James Prinsep was an English scholar, orientalist and antiquary. He was the founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and is best remembered for deciphering the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts of ancient India. The Gyanvapi Masjid was constructed by destroying the structures inside the area bounded by the black coloured structures at the centre of this complex. This figure is reproduced from Plates 9 & 12 from the second part of James Prinsep’s ‘Benares Illustrated’ [1].

This brief article aims to point out some factual inaccuracies and to fill in the gaps in the well-presented BBC article titled “Gyanvapi masjid: India dispute could become a religious flashpoint” that was published on May 18, 2022.

  1. The article states that “A 1991 law called the Places of Worship Act disallows conversion of a place of worship and maintains its religious character as “it existed” on 15 August 1947, India’s Independence Day. Critics of the dispute in Varanasi say this is a defiance of the law.” However, that is not the full truth. This law is not applicable to this masjid since, as per Section 4.3.a of this Act, this Act is not applicable to “any place of worship referred to in the said sub-sections which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site or remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958) or any other law for the time being in force” since the original temple – the remains of which are plainly visible, and are proved factually, inside the masjid.
  2. The BBC article correctly states that “It is also accepted that the mosque is built on the ruins of the temple”. As a result, it may be argued that Gyanvapi Masjid is not a masjid at all since, as per the Islamic traditions and laws, a masjid cannot be erected forcibly on the site of someone else’s religious shrine. The location of the Gyanvapi Masjid on the site of the demolished Kashi Vishweshwar complex is shown in Figure 1.
  3. The BBC article then falls prey to a false narrative used by some prominent leftist historians by stating and elaborating the claim that “In desecrating temples, Mughal rulers were following ancient Indian precedent, Prof Eaton says”. Prof Meenakshi Jain of Gargi Institute (New Delhi, India) has written well-researched books to debunk this theory. The destruction and desecration of Hindu temples and idols at the hands of the Mughal rulers and Islamic invaders was not following any such precedent – there was no precedent in ancient Indian history for the level and the scale of barbarism exhibited in these destruction and desecration. Furthermore, the temple destruction by the Mughal rulers and Islamic invaders was motivated by the notion of Islamic jihad – this notion was absent in Ancient India.

Temple destruction as a part of Islamic jihad

The site of the original Kashi Vishwanath (also called Kashi Vishweshwar) temple in Varanasi is one of the most sacred shrines for over a billion Hindus. Its original iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple had a svayambhu (natural) shivalinga. That temple, as reported by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang in the 7th century AD, had a 100-ft tall bronze statue of Lord Shiva. In the spread of Islam, the destruction of temples was considered a noble act since Prophet Muhammad himself destroyed a centuries old temple in Mecca in 630 AD and since Quran forbids idol worship. So, Muslims have religious reasons to indulge in the destruction and desecration of temples. These destructive acts had a political and power value as well since temples have a great spiritual, faith-based, and cultural significance in Hindu culture. So, destroying those served to signal a triumph of Islam that was then to be highlighted by the humiliation and destruction of the indigenous culture and the indigenous way of life. The famed scholar and poet Amir Khusrau has written many poems in praise of this destruction. In [7], a few details are given concerning the destruction and desecration perpetrated by Muhammad bin Qasim, Mahmud of Ghazni, Shams ud-Din Iltutmish, Alla ud-Din Khalji, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, Ahmad Shah I, Mahmud Begha of Gujarat, Sikander Lodi, and Aurangzeb:

  1. Idols made of wood and stone etc., were broken and scattered on the doorsteps of mosques, particularly the Jami’ Masjids, so that people on their way to prayers could trample or cleanse their soiled feet upon them. Eyes were plucked out of idols, their faces were cut off and their hands/feet were broken off – many such idols and sculptures can be seen even today in several UNESCO World Heritage sites of India such as Ajanta, Ellora, Hampi, etc.
  2. Firuz Shah Tughlaq had the famous idol in Puri perforated for passing ropes through it and then dragged through the streets of Delhi. The pieces of idol at Kangra were given by him to butchers so that they could weigh meat using those. Mahmud Khalji of Malwa had the idol of Kumbhalgadh reduced to lime which was then put in paans (betel leaves) so that the Hindu devotees could “eat their own God”.
  3. The scale of destruction was also unprecedented: Mahmud of Ghazni robbed and burnt down more than 100 temples in Mathura, and more than 1,000 temples in and around Kanauj. One of his suc­cessors, Ibrahim, demolished over 1,000 temples in Ganga­-Yamuna Doab and Malwa. Qutb ud-Din Aibak employed elephants for pulling down close to 1,000 temples in Delhi and destroyed nearly all of 300 temples in Varanasi. AIi Adil Shah of Bijapur destroyed 200-300 temples in Karnataka. His general Afzhal Khan destroyed 56 temples in Southern Maharashtra in a single campaign.

The city of Varanasi and the temples in were ravaged multiple times starting the 11th century. As per [6], the timeline of these destructions is as follows:

  1. 1034: The first known attack on Varanasi was in 1034 by Ahmad Niyaltigin (or Nialtagin), a general in the Mahmud Ghazni’s army.
  2. 1194: In 1194, nearly all of the existing 300+ temples in Varanasi, including the iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple, were demolished by the Qutb ud-Din Aibak. Their sites remained untouched for almost 50 years. Eventually, Razia Sultana (1236-1240) constructed a mosque on the forsaken place of the Vishwanath temple.
  3. 1447: In 1447, the Kashi Vishweshwar temple that was reconstructed by 1296 AD in the area of Avimukteshwar – located slightly to the south of the original Kashi Vishweshwar temple – was partly destroyed during the rule of Mahmud Shah Sharqi, together with several other temples in Varanasi.
  4. 1494: Sikandar Lodi invaded Varanasi and demolished many temples in Varanasi and completely destroyed the remains of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple. Almost 90 years later, in 1585, a Kashi Vishweshwar temple – located slightly to the south of the site of the iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple that was destroyed in the 12th century – was rebuilt by the famous scholar Narayan Bhatta with the support of Raja Todarmal’s son Govardhan and the Maharaja of Amber (present day Jaipur).
  5. 1627-1658: During the regime of Shah Jahan (1627-1658) about 76 partly (re) constructed temples were demolished. The main Kashi Vishwanath temple was not demolished during this time period.
  6. 1669: Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in March/April 1669 and the task was reported to have been accomplished in Sept 1669. At the same time, the mosque called ‘Gyanvapi Masjid’ (Gyanvapi mosque) was built on the demolition site. As a result of the destruction, the Mukti maṇḍapa of the original Kashi Vishweshwar temple complex became a part of the mosque. Eventually, the remnants of the Vishnu Peetha housed in it were completely wiped out.
  7. 2022: The temple has been resurrected in parts after each destruction – the current temple was built by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1777 AD. In 1859, Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated nearly a ton of gold to cover its domes. The corridor around this temple was created by the Govt of India during 2014-2020 AD. In 2022, a survey of a part of the Gyanvapi Masjid was undertaken on the order of the court of Varanasi and it was discovered that a structure that is alleged to be a shivalinga by one party to this dispute had been tampered with, by drilling a hole in it, by the masjid caretakers. Destroyed statues, including that of the immensely popular Lord Hanuman, were discovered in the masjid.

The organisations representing the majority of muslims in India are now claiming that no temple was destroyed in erecting the Gyanvapi Masjid. The overwhelming evidence of the structure using the traditional Hindu temple motifs and structure, which are a taboo in Islam, should suffice to render their claims null and void. Another evidence is provided in [6] through the order of Aurangzeb himself:

“On 17 jilqda, hijri 1079 (18 April 1669) the emperor learnt that in the provinces of Thatta and Multan, and especially in Banaras, the stupid Brahmins teach their worthless book in schools and both Hindu and Muslim students come to these schools from far off areas to acquire this satanic knowledge. Upon hearing this, the emperor, the preserver of the religion, issued an order to the subedars to demolish all the schools and temples of the non-believers. They were given strict orders to stop all types of idol worship and teachings of related religious texts. On 15 Rabi-ul-Akhir (2 September 1669), the emperor came to know that following his orders, his staff had demolished the Vishwanath temple in Banaras”.

Quote from “Kashi Ka Itihas” on Aurangzeb’s order to demolish all temples in certain provinces (Reference [6] and [8])
Figure 2. Excerpt from Masir-i-Alamgiri that gives a record of Aurangzeb giving the order of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple destruction on 9th April 1669 and being informed on 2nd Sept 1669 that it was carried out successfully – the concerned text is highlighted using red rectangles; this text is reproduced from [8].
Figure 3. Highlighted text in this excerpt from Masir-i-Alamgiri shows that Aurangzeb destroyed 235 temples in a 35-day span in Rajasthan during Jan/Feb 1680; this text is reproduced from [8].

An excerpt from Masir-i-Alamgiri, Aurangzeb’s official records, is shown in Figure 2 as the proof that Aurangzeb gave the order of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple destruction on 9th April 1669 and was informed on 2nd Sept 1669 that it was carried out successfully. Such destruction of temples was a running theme in Aurganzeb’s life. He probably destroyed over thousand temples in his lifetime – during a 35 day span in Jan/Feb 1680, he destroyed 235 temples in Rajasthan as the highlighted text in Figure 3 shows.

There was no masjid in the 16th century Kashi Vishweshwar temple

Figure 4: A more detailed map of the original Kashi Vishweshwar (Kashi Vishwanath) temple complex dating back to the 16th century, based on Figure 1 and an interview of Prof Rana PB Singh (IIT Banaras Hindu University). If there is a mismatch in the map given by Prof Singh and the map given by Prinsep then Prinsep’s map is assumed to be correct. The names of the mandaps are slightly suspect and it is unclear how to map these mandaps on the mandaps listed in the main text for which the main reference is [4]. This map is not drawn to scale.

Some people are now claiming that the Kashi Vishweshwar temple complex built in 1585 had a masjid as well, due to the religious tolerance of Akbar. As per them, Aurangzeb only renamed or renovated it as “Alamgiri Masjid” which, as per them is the official name of “Gyanvapi Masjid” — as per them, the name “Gyanvapi Masjid” got colloquially assigned to the “Alamgiri Masjid” since it is located in the area that is referred to as “Gyanvapi Mohalla” (Gyanvapi suburb) by some locals. However, a careful perusal of the plans of that temple complex given in [1], and illustrated in Figures 1 and 4, shows that these claims are false and there was no masjid in that temple complex.

Description of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple destroyed by Aurangzeb

As per [6], the following can be said about this Kashi Vishweshwar temple complex built in 1585 by Raja Todarmal’s son Govardhan, Narayan Bhatt, and the Maharaja of Amber (Jaipur); this was destroyed in 1669 by Aurangzeb:

  1. It was not located at the site of the original iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple that had the svayambhu (natural) shivalinga — that temple was located to the north of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple built in 1585 and was destroyed, possibly together with the iconic shivalinga, by Qutub ud-Din Aibak in 1194 or 1197.
  2. It was located on the site of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple that was built around 1296 AD and had been destroyed in 1447 & 1494. In rebuilding the temple, the base of the temple was raised by seven feet and thus was brought to the level of the road. But fearing retribution from Muslims, the statues were not excavated at that time.
  3. It was a temple complex located in a square of size 124 x 124 feet. The temple complex had eight pavilions, a main temple located at the centre of the complex, and 8 secondary temples (see Figure 3). A pavilion in the east measured 125×35 feet which was used for religious preaching.
  4. In the Vishwanath temple, each arm of its square measured 124 feet. In the middle was the main temple in a 32 feet square which was placed in a pond. The four anterooms adjacent to the sanctum sanctorum measured 16×10 feet. After this, there were small anterooms measuring 12×8 feet that joined the four pavilions. The east and the west pavilions had temples of Dandapani and guards (dwarpal). On the four corners of the temple, there were small temples measuring 12 feet each. The Nandi pavilion was outside the temple.
  5. The height of the temple was perhaps 128 feet. There were spires on the top of the pavilion and temples which were, as per one estimate, 64 and 48 feet in height.
  6. There was a corridor around the temple which had innumerable temples of various gods and goddesses.

According to Kashi Khanda of Skanda Purana [2], there were 1099 temples in Varanasi several centuries back, out of which 513 were dedicated to Shiva. Inside there were five mandapas (halls or pavilions of the temple). The main mandapa was the garbhagriha, where the Shiva Linga of Vishwanath was revered. As per [3], there were four mandapas on four sides of the temple: Jnana mandapa in the east; Shringar (Ranga) mandapa in the west; Aishwarya mandapa in the north; and Mukti mandapa in the south which was also the site of the idol of Vishnu swami, the main deity in that mandap. In [3], it is speculated that the height of the spire was around 128 feet. The main gate of the temple was on the west side near the Dvara Vinayaka. As per [3], the garbhagriha, Mukti mandapa and Aishwarya mandapa are currently a part of the main building of the Gyanvapi masjid. The other structures have been either converted or demolished.

Eyewitness accounts of Kashi Vishweshwar temple destroyed by Aurangzeb

Some people claim that the land of the Gyanvapi Masjid was purchased by the Mughal rulers legitimately and no temple was destroyed in building this masjid. This claim can be refuted by noting the Chapters 41 and 42 of the influential text “Guru Charitra” (The Life of Guru) composed in the 16th century by the poet Saraswati Gangadhar in the honour of Saint Nrusinha Saraswati (1378AD-1459AD). In these two chapters, the great Kashi Vishwanath temple complex is described, together with the sequence in which the shrines in it are to be visited. All mandaps (i.e, structures with ceilings) in this great temple complex are described in it – it mentions all mandaps shown in Figure 3 and a few in addition. These are listed sequentially in verses 216-218 and 260-262 of Chapter 41, and in verses 6-8, 44-46, and 49-52 of Chapter 42. The Dnyanvapi well (Sanskrit word “Dnyanavapi” is the synonym of the Hindi word “Gyanvapi”) is mentioned in verses 16 and 57 of Chapters 41 and 42, respectively. Excerpts from the original text are included as Figures 6 & 7.

Figure 5 Verses 47-62 from Chapter 42 of the influential text “Guru Charitra” composed in the 16th century. The Dnyanavapi well is mentioned in verse 57 and Lord Vishweshwar is mentioned in verse 59. Verses 55-59 are translated in the main text. Reproduced from the scanned PDF file of reference [4].
Figure 6: Verses 206-220 from Chapter 41 of the influential text “Guru Charitra” composed in the 16th century. The Dynanavapi well is mentioned in verse 16 and Lord Vishweshwar is mentioned in verse 17. These two verses state the following: bathe in Dnyanvapi well, worship Lord Dnyaneshwar, then Lord Dandpani, then Lord Anand Bhairav, and go to the Great Gate. Offer salutations over there by prostrating yourself and then worship Lord Vishweshwar. Reproduced from the PDF file of reference [4].

A sequence to be followed while visiting the great temple complex is described in verses 5-8 of Chapter 42. It runs as follows:

“Salute river Ganga, then go to the Kashi Vishweshwar Complex. Worship Lord Vishweshwar and then Lord Bhavani Shankar. Then go to Mukti Mandap and offer salutations over there. Then worship Lord Dhundiraj and come back to the Great Gate. Then worship Lord Vishweshwar, then five forms of Lord Ganesh. Then worship Lord Dandpani and then Lord Anand Bhairav.”

– A 16th/17th century reference to the Kashi Vishweshwar idol and temple complex in Guru Charitra (Reference [4])

Another sequence to be followed while visiting the great temple complex is described in verses 44-46 of Chapter 42. It runs as follows:

“Go to Mukti Mandap, Worship Lord Dandpani after saluting Lord Vishnu. Worship Lord Dhundiraj, Worship Lord Anand Bhairav. Salute the Lord of Sun and worship the five forms of Lord Ganesh. Then worship Lord Vishweshwar.”

– A 16th/17th century reference to the Kashi Vishweshwar idol and temple complex in Guru Charitra (Reference [4])

A sequence to visit the Mandaps is described in verses 49-52 of Chapter 42. It runs as follows:

“Go first to Mukti Mandap (Mandap of Liberation), then to Swarga Mandap (Mandap of Heaven), then to Aishwarya Mandap (Mandap of Prosperity), then to Dnyana Mandap (Mandap of Knowledge), then to Anand Mandap (Mandap of Joy), and then to Vairagya Mandap (Mandap of Renunciation).”

– A 16th/17th century reference to the Kashi Vishweshwar idol and temple complex in Guru Charitra (Reference [4])

A sequence to worship different idols of Lord Shiva after a preparation is described in verses 55-59 of Chapter 42:

“Worship Lord Padadityeshwar (Lord Sun at Feet), salute Lord Dampatyeshwar (Lord of Couples), then worship Lord Vishnu. Then salute Lord Dandapani, worship Lord Maheshwar, worship Lord Dhundiraj. Then bathe at Dnyanavapi well, worship Lord Nandikeshwar, worship Lord Tarakeshwar, then worship Lord Mahakaleshwar, worship Lord Dandapani. Then proceed to Lord Vishweshwar who has ling of the form Omkareshwar.”

– A 16th/17th century reference to the Kashi Vishweshwar idol and temple complex in Guru Charitra (Reference [4])
Figure 7. The sketch of the main Shiva idol in Kashi Vishweshwar temple complex, as drawn by Peter Mundy in 1632, prior to the destruction of the temple by Aurangzeb in 1669; this sketch is reproduced from [5].

As reported in [3], in the mid of seventeen century, Niccolao Manucci, François Bernier and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier were some of the European travellers who travelled to Varanasi and wrote about the principal temple (pagoda) in their respective travel accounts. They do not mention the existence of a masjid next to, or adjoining, the Kashi Vishweshwar temple. Most western travellers and colonial officers referred to the Vishwanath temple as either a Golden temple or a pagoda. Amongst them, British merchant and traveller Peter Mundy’s account is arguably noteworthy. Peter Mundy visited Varanasi in 1632 and described the populous city’s Hindu temples. He called the main deity as ‘Cassibessuua’ (Vishveshwara) and sketched the inner sanctum of the temple as shown in Figure 7. On 4th Sept 1632, when Mundy visited the Vishwanath temple, he saw the revered Linga on the elevated place in the centre of the main temple building. As per the drawing produced by Peter Mundy in [5], illustrated in Figure 7, the shivalinga dome appears to protrude approximately 1 foot above the base or the water level. About this main idol, Mundy says the following in [5]:

“I went into it, where, in the midle, on a place elevated, is a stone in forme like a Hatters blocke (as before mentioned) plaine and un­wrought, as per the figure on which they that resort powre water of the River, flowres, rice, Butter, which heere (by reason of the heat) is most comonly Liquid, whilest the Bramane read or sayes something which the Vulgar under­stands not. Over it hanges a Canopie of Silke and about it severall Lampes lighted.”

– An eyewitness account of the Kashi Vishwewar idol as it existed in 1632 by Peter Mundy (Reference [5])

Summary and Potential Ramifications

The destruction of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple in Varanasi by Aurangzeb in 1669 was not an isolated act or occurrence – earlier Mughal rulers and Islamic invaders had destroyed thousands of temples across India. Varanasi alone had been ravaged multiple times: (i) in 1194 and 1197, nearly all of the 300+ temples in Varanasi, including the iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple, and possibly the svayambhu (natural) shivalinga in it as well, were demolished by the Qutb ud-Din Aibak, (ii) in 1447, Muhammad Shah Sharqi destroyed many temples in Varanasi, including the renovated Kashi Vishweshwar temple that was located to the south of the original iconic Kashi Vishweshwar temple that had been destroyed in 1194/1197, (iii) during 1627-1658, Aurangzeb’s father Shah Jahan of the Taj Mahal fame destroyed 76 temples in Varanasi. Ancient India had no precedent for the level and scale of such temple destruction and the root cause for this destruction was the notion of jihad in Islam.

In 1585, a great temple was built by Raja Todarmal’s son Govardhan, Narayan Bhatt, and the Maharaja of Amber (Jaipur) on the site of the temple built in 1296. The temple was actually a temple complex that housed not only several idols of Lord Shiva but several idols of other deities as well. The most important of these was the idol of Lord Vishweshwar that was housed in the central part of this complex. Reference [4] gives a clear description of how that temple complex was to be traversed. The contemporary references [1], [4], and [5] show that there was no masjid in this temple complex. In 1669, Aurangzeb destroyed this temple complex and had the Gyanvapi Masjid constructed on its site using a central part of this temple complex.

In building this temple complex, the base of the earlier destroyed temple was raised by seven feet and thus was brought to the level of the road. It is unclear whether the alleged shivaling that was discovered on May 16, 2022 is the idol of Lord Vishweshwar from the great old temple but because it seems to be quite huge and is located close to the center of the temple complex, it must be deemed important if it turns out to be a shivaling. It is possible that it might extend at least 7 feet downward. If it is a shivalinga then it should be noted that it is possibly not the iconic svayambhu (natural) shivaling – that was apparently destroyed by Qutb ud-Din Aibak in 1194/1197. But based on the evidence presented in this article, if it is a shivalinga then there is a high probability that it is the main Kashi Vishweshwar shivaling from the temple destroyed by Aurangzeb in 1669.

So if indeed the structure found in the tank of Gyanvapi Masjid is a shivaling, the pro-Islam community will have a hard time explaining (1) why the muslims were knowingly desecrating a most sacred idol for centuries by washing their dirt over it in performing wuzu (washing of hand, feet, face) prior to offering namaz (Islamic prayer) and (2) why it was grossly defiled recently using a drilling machine. The masjid committee had also built toilets next to the tank and it is not clear how that waste was disposed of – if the structure is indeed a shivaling and has come in contact with the toilet drain, the public outrage is bound to be severe, and demands will be made to imprison the masjid committee members.


[1] James Prinsep and O. P. Kejariwal (2009), “Benares Illustrated” and “James Prinsep and Benares”. Pilgrims Publishing, ISBN 81-7769-400-6.

[2] B. Debroy and D. Debroy, “Skanda Purana”. Books for All, New Delhi, 2016.

[3] Mahesh Gogate (2021), “Tracing the Past of Kashi Vishwanath Temple” in “Cultural Heritage of Varanasi”, National Museum of Delhi, 2021.

[4] Saraswati Gangadhar (2019), “Shri Guru Charitra (Marathi)”. Dharmik Prakashan Sanstha, Mumbai, India.

[5] R. Temple (Edited by), “The travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia, 1608-1667”, Haklyut Society, London, UK, 1914. 

[6] Moti Chandra (1962), “Kashi Ka Itihas”. Hindi Grantha Ratnakar Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, 1962.

[7] Sitaram Goel (1993), “Islam vis-a-vis Hindu Temples”. Voice of India, New Delhi, 1993.

[8] Saqi Mustad Khan (1947), “Maasir-i-Alamgiri”. Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 1947.