350 Years of the Gyanvapi Dispute: A Timeline
SCO strings together the many legal and historical threads of the ongoing Gyanvapi dispute.
The Origins of the Gyanvapi Dispute
Gyanvapi mosque is located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. It is a stone’s throw away from the Kashi Vishwanath temple, built in 1780 by Ahilyabai Holkar, the Queen of Indore. Kashi Vishwanath is a prominent temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Recent petitions claim that the Gyanvapi mosque lies on the remains of the ‘original’ Kashi Vishwanath temple. Whether this is true or not is uncertain—however, scholars seem certain that it indeed stands on the remains of a Vishweshwara temple dedicated to Shiva. While the exact age of this Vishweshwara temple is ambiguous, historians agree that it was first destroyed in the 12th century by Qutub-ud-din Aibak, the General of Ghurid Sultan Mohammad Gauri. Efforts at rebuilding the temple were stalled by Princess Raziyat-ud-din of the Delhi Sultanate—who ordered that a mosque be built on its remains in the 13th century.
Aurangzeb Orders Demolition of Vishweshwara Temple
Under the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, a priest Narayan Bhatta rebuilt the Vishweshwara temple in the 16th century. It is believed that in the late 17th century, around 1669, the temple was once again razed on the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb—with the Gyanvapi mosque built atop its remains. Within Holkar’s Kashi Vishwanath temple is a statue of Nandi—the sacred bull companion of the Hindu deity Shiva. Typically, in Hindu temples, the Nandi statue faces the shiv lingam, a cylindrical monolith representing Shiva. In this case, it faces the Gyanvapi mosque—bolstering Hindu claims that a Vishweshwara temple once stood in its place and that a shiv lingam is hidden within the mosque’s premises. This led to petitions filed by Hindus from 1991 to 2022 requesting permission to pray within its premises.
The Politicisation of Temples Grows
In 1984, the ‘first religious parliament’ for Hindus was held in New Delhi. 558 Hindu seers issued a nation-wide resolution to ‘lay claim’ to three critical Hindu shrines where mosques had allegedly been built: Ayodhya (birthplace of Hindu deity Ram), Mathura (birthplace of Hindu deity Krishna), and Varanasi (where the Kashi Vishwanath temple was allegedly razed). Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Babri Masjid-Ayodhya dispute was the first site to be heavily politicised under this project.
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act is Passed
The Union Government, led by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, watched the growing Babri Masjid-Ayodhya dispute with trepidation. On September 12th, 1991, the Rajya Sabha passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act—which prevents the conversion of a place of worship from the form it took on August 15th, 1947. This legislation, which sought to prevent future tussles over the identity and origins of religious sites, made an important exception—its provisions would not apply to the Babri Masjid-Ayodhya dispute. The Bharatiya Janata Party, then at the political forefront of the dispute, opposed the 1991 Bill. However, it welcomed the Ayodhya exception, and made one request: that it be extended to the Krishna Janmabhoomi dispute in Mathura and to the Kashi Vishwanath dispute in Varanasi. This extension was never granted. However, after Hindu groups demolished the Babri Masjid on December 6th, 1992, a popular ‘liberation’ slogan arose among them that set the stage for the conflict in 2022. ‘Ayodhya toh bas jhaanki hai, Kashi, Mathura baaki hai’—Ayodhya is just the beginning, Kashi and Mathura remain.
Gyanvapi Dispute Reaches the Courts
The first legal petition surrounding the Gyanvapi mosque’s origins entered India’s courts in 1991. Priests from Varanasi filed a petition at a Varanasi Civil Court requesting access to pray within the mosque—alleging that it was built atop the original Kashi Vishwanath temple. The petition also sought a transfer of the mosque’s land to Hindus. The mosque Management Committee’s challenge to the petition, which they claimed violated the 1991 Act, was dismissed by the lower court in 1998. It then approached the Allahabad High Court—which stayed the proceedings the same year. The matter lay dormant—until the resolution of the Ayodhya Title Dispute in 2019.
Allahabad High Court Judgment on Ayodhya Land Title Dispute
The Babri-Masjid Ayodhya dispute partly centres around who owns the land the erstwhile mosque stood on. In 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara filed a land title suit, claiming to be the rightful manager of Ram Janmabhoomi—or Lord Ram’s birthplace. In 1961, Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Board of Waqfs (Sunni Waqf Board), claimed possession of Babri Masjid. In 1989, Senior Advocate Deoki N. Agarwal filed a petition at the Allahabad High Court on behalf of Lord Ram—the Hindu deity and ‘rightful’ owner of the land. All the suits were transferred to the High Court. After much deliberation, in 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the Ayodhya land title into three equal parts, distributing it to each party. The Nirmohi Akhara, Sunni Waqf Board, and Lord Ram all filed appeals at the SC claiming ownership of the area—and in 2011, the SC stayed the Allahabad HC’s Judgment.
Supreme Court Delivers Judgment in Ayodhya Title Dispute
In 2018, the Supreme Court declined to refer the matter to a Constitution Bench. However, in January 2019, former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi used his administrative powers to re-assign the case to a 5-Judge Constitution Bench—comprising Gogoi CJI and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Abdul Nazeer, Ashok Bhushan, and Sharad Bobde. After initial attempts at mediating between the three parties failed, the Court began day-to-day hearings in August 2019. On October 19th, the Bench reserved Judgment in the matter. Finally, on November 9th, a few days away from Gogoi CJI’s retirement, the Constitution Bench delivered a unanimous verdict—the land title was awarded to Shri Ram Virajman. It directed the Uttar Pradesh government to allocate a different plot of land in Ayodhya to the Sunni Waqf Board for the construction of a mosque. Construction of a Ram temple at the site began in March 2020—with Prime Minister Narendra Modi laying the foundation stone for the project. Interestingly, the Judgment noted the importance of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which offered the opportunity of healing ‘the wounds of the past’. Apart from the Ram Janmabhoomi exception, Courts should not allow history to be used as a tool to energise conflicts on places of worship.
Petition Filed in Varanasi Civil Court to Survey Gyanvapi
In December 2019, barely a month after the Ayodhya verdict, a fresh petition was filed at a Varanasi Civil Court seeking an archaeological assessment of the Gyanvapi mosque’s origins. The petitioner appeared as a ‘next friend’ of Swayambhu Jyotirling Bhagwan Vishweshwar—the deity at Kashi Vishwanath. A next friend appears for a party incapable of maintaining a lawsuit. In 2020, the 1991 plaintiffs approached the Civil Court in Varanasi to hear the original petition again. The proceedings were stayed by the Allahabad High Court in February 2020—it reserved Judgment on the matter in March 2020. Then, despite the stay, the matter was reopened by a Varanasi Civil Court in April 2021—Fast Track Court Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ashutosh Tiwari ordered an Archaeological Survey of India investigation into the mosque’s origins. The mosque’s Management Committee approached the Allahabad High Court, which once again stayed the proceedings on September 9th, 2021. It came down heavily on the Civil Court for proceeding despite the High Court reserving Judgment on the matter.
Writ Petition Filed at Supreme Court Challenging Constitutionality of 1991 Act
In October 2020, Advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay filed a Writ Petition at the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Sections 2,3, and 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. S 2 lists the definitions of the Act, while S 3 criminalises the conversion of the religious character of a place of worship from one sect to another. S 4 states that the religious character of a place of worship shall be determined based on the form it took on August 15th, 1947. Further, it bars Courts from investigating whether the character of places of worship has been changed post this cut-off date. The petition argues that the Act bars judicial review—an irrevocable basic structure of the Constitution—while also violating the principles of secularism. He further argues that the cut-off date particularly harms the interests of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, as it does not allow them to restore places of worship destroyed during pre-independence British and Islamic regimes. The petition further contended that mosques built on destroyed temples were not valid mosques under Muslim personal law—therefore, destroyed temples are still temples in the eyes of the law. Former Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde issued notice in the matter—however, it remains pending before the Court.
Proceedings of Fresh Petition Filed by Five Hindu Women
In August 2021, five Hindu women filed a petition at a Varanasi Civil Court seeking permission to worship the Maa Shringaar Gauri, Ganesh, Hanuman, and Nandi idols allegedly located within the Gyanvapi mosque. The women are affiliated with the Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh. On April 8th, 2022, Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar appointed Ajay Kumar Mishra as Advocate Commissioner. Mr. Mishra was to conduct a ‘videographic survey’ of the Gyanvapi mosque and determine the existence of the Hindu idols. The mosque’s Management Committee protested as the Hindu petitioners had suggested Mr. Mishra’s name. They approached the Allahabad High Court to stay the survey—the petition was dismissed on April 21st. The survey commenced on May 6th, amidst communally charged protests. On May 7th, the mosque’s Management Committee approached the Varanasi Civil Court praying for Mr. Mishra’s removal due to his allegedly biased surveying. On May 12th, the Court rejected the application—additionally authorising officials to file FIRs against those hindering the survey.
Challenges to Gyanvapi Mosque Survey Reach Supreme Court
On May 13th, the mosque’s Management Committee presented its challenges to the videographic survey before the Supreme Court. It requested a stay of the proceedings at the Varanasi Civil Court. Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the mosque’s Management Committee, further argued that the survey violates Section 4 of the Places of Worship Act, which prohibits filing a suit to change a place of worship’s religious character post August 15th, 1947. The Supreme Court refused to stay the survey, however, it agreed to list the matter before a Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud the following week—who was part of the 5-Judge Constitution Bench in the Ayodhya Title Dispute. On May 16th, before the SC hearings began or the survey’s report was filed, the Varanasi Civil Court ordered the Varanasi District Magistrate to seal an area within the mosque—where a shiv lingam had allegedly been found. Namaz would be restricted at the mosque to protect the shiv lingam. This finding was presented to the Civil Court in the absence of the mosque’s Management Committee—who later claimed that the structure was a fountain.
Supreme Court Begins Hearing Mosque Dispute
On May 17th, Chandrachud J and Justice P.S. Narasimha began hearing the case. Chandrachud J was part of the Constitution Bench that delivered 2019’s Ayodhya verdict. Narasimha J, appeared for the Hindu parties in the proceedings while he was still practising as a Senior Advocate. The Bench, seeking to strike a balance, ordered that the shiv lingam remain protected—however, it clarified that Muslim devotees will be allowed to offer namaz. It listed the next hearing for May 19th, 2022. The same day, Varanasi Civil Court removed Mr. Mishra as Advocate Commissioner, after Special Advocate Commissioner, Vishal Singh, alleged that he had leaked footage from the video survey to the media. Mr. Singh and an Assistant Advocate Commissioner were directed to complete the remainder of the survey. May 17th also saw the Narendra Modi Vichar Manch, a Hindu group from Karnataka, allege that the Masjid-e-Ala in Srirangapatna was built on top of a destroyed Hanuman temple. Claiming that Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan destroyed the temple, the outfit approached local administrators seeking both a survey into the matter and permission for Hindus to worship on the mosque’s premises. On May 18th, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting the excavation of Hindu idols allegedly buried under the steps of New Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
Survey Committee's Report Submitted
On May 19th, the Supreme Court Bench deferred hearings by a day and stayed all proceedings in the matter at the Varanasi Civil Court until it heard the matter on May 20th—after the Order, the Civil Court listed the matter for hearing on May 23rd. The same day, the Survey Committee submitted two reports to the Varanasi Civil Court on its findings. The debris of Hindu temples was found on the mosque’s northern and western flanks. Hindu symbols and iconography were visible on pillars located in the mosque’s basement. Large panels were found that were ‘sindoor coloured’—which the petitioners claim are the remnants of the Maa Shringar Gauri idols. On May 19th, Danish Quereshi, Gujarat spokesperson for the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, was arrested for a ‘controversial’ social media post on the Gyanvapi mosque.
Supreme Court Transfers Case to District Judge
On May 20th, the Supreme Court transferred the case to the ‘more seasoned hand’ of a Varanasi District Judge. Justice Surya Kant was added to the Bench for the day’s proceedings, during which the need to maintain ‘balance’ and ‘fraternity’ in the matter was emphasised. While hearing the mosque’s challenge that the survey violates the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the Bench noted that investigating the nature of a place of worship is not the same as altering it. It directed the District Judge to prioritise the mosque Management Committee’s challenge to the maintainability of the Hindu petition, however, it did not specify whether the Judge can rely on the Survey Committee’s report while deciding the matter. The Court’s May 17th Order protecting both the shiv lingam and regular namaz at the mosque would remain in force until the District Court delivered its verdict. As the Bench closed hearings for the day, an unprecedented number of devotees gathered at Gyanvapi mosque to offer namaz—despite the mosque issuing an appeal to not crowd the premises. Similar scenes of larger crowds at a disputed site were reportedly witnessed in 1992, in the run-up to the demolition of Babri Masjid. On May 20th, a Mathura District Court admitted a plea seeking the transfer of the land on which Shahi Idgah mosque stands to the Krishna Janmabhoomi Sthal. The mosque is allegedly built on top of the prison where the Hindu deity Krishna is believed to be born. In Bhopal, the Sanskriti Bachao Manch approached the state for an archaeological survey into the city’s Jama Masjid—which is allegedly built on a Shiva temple. The Manch is preparing to file a civil petition at a Court in Bhopal. The same day, New Horizon Public School in Bengaluru sent an email to its alumni—asking them to change the name of ‘Gyanvapi mosque’ on Google Maps to Gyanvapi temple.
Varanasi District Court Begins Hearings
On May 23rd, District Judge Ajaya Krishna Vishvesha began hearings in the Gyanvapi dispute. On the same day, the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena alleged that Pune’s Punyeshwar and Narayaneshwar were destroyed by Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate—rallying the public to support its campaign to ‘free temple land’. A Delhi University professor, arrested the previous week for a ‘malicious’ social media post commenting on the Gyanvapi mosque dispute, was granted bail by the Delhi High Court.
Varanasi District Court Agrees to Consider Maintainability of Hindu Petition
On May 24th, the Varanasi District Court announced that on May 26th it would consider the suit filed by the mosque’s Management Committee, challenging the maintainability of the petition filed by the five Hindu women. It also gave both parties one week to file their complaints against the survey commission’s report. A fresh plea was filed before the SC by Advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, seeking its intervention in the dispute. Amongst other arguments, it submitted that a deity’s property continues to be its own—even if illegally taken possession of by other religious groups. The same day, the leaders of the Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh filed a fresh plea before Civil Judge (Senior Division) Ravi Kumar Diwakar—from whom the case was transferred by the SC to the District Judge. The plea sought that Muslims be banned from entering the mosque and that the complex be handed over to Hindus. On May 25th, the plea was later transferred by the District Court to a fast-track Court. In Mangalore, temple-like structures were found during an excavation of the Malali mosque on May 24th. Hindu organisations planned to hold rituals outside the mosque—forcing the police to enforce Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which empowers local officials to issue orders to prevent apprehended danger.
Supreme Court Defers to District Court But Leaves Case Pending
On July 18th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a plea seeking permission to conduct ‘puja’ and ‘darshan’ on the Gyanvapi mosque premises, to a Shivling claimed to be situated in the Mosque. Further, the petition asks for a ground penetrating radar survey and carbon dating of the Shivling by the Archaeological Survey of India. The plea additionally sought possession of the Shivling, while the Masjid Committee adamantly claimed that the structure was a fountain.
On July 21st, Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the Gyanvapi Mosque Management Committee, challenged the Allahabad High Court’s decision which upheld the Varanasi Civil Court’s Order to form an Enquiry Commission to assess the alleged Hindu origins of the mosque. He disagreed with the High Court’s Judgment that the Commission’s findings were harmless and pointed out that the Mosque premises were sealed because of the Commission’s findings. The Supreme Court, while initially disinclined to entertain the challenge, finally decided to leave the petition pending until the District Judge decided on the legality of the Order forming the Commission.
Varanasi District Court Delivers Judgment on Gyanvapi Plea
On August 24th, 2022, Advocate Shamin Ahmad, appearing for the Masjid Committee argued that the Gyanvapi mosque was the property of the Waqf Board, which had the sole right to hear any matter pertaining to the mosque. District Judge A.K. Vishvesha, however, reserved his order until September 12th after both sides had concluded their arguments.
On September 12th, 2022, the Varanasi District Judge A.K. Vishvesha delivered the Order rejecting the Waqf Board’s arguments that the Hindu women’s plea seeking permission to worship at the disputed site be dismissed. The District Judge instead directed the matter to be heard next on September 22nd, 2022, to frame the issues to be considered by the Court.