Judge in Varanasi gives Hindus access to the Gyanvapi Masjid basement for worship one day before retiring

The court issued its ruling on an application from a local priest seeking permission to worship Maa Shringar Gauri and other purported visible and invisible goddesses he said were in the mosque's basement.

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The decision to allow Hindus to worship inside the sealed basement of the Mughal-era Gyanvapi Masjid on Wednesday, January 31, his last working day before retiring, could have far-reaching effects on the Gyanvapi Masjid-Kashi Vishwanath Temple legal matter, which is currently being heard in courts at all three levels of the judiciary. Hindu priests and devotees visiting the Kashi Vishwanath Temple will now be able to enter the mosque’s tehkhana and visit and do puja there. The Hindu plaintiffs hailed the court’s decision as a win and compared it to the contentious opening of the Babri Masjid in 1986. They are pursuing religious rights within the mosque as well as the ultimate possession of it from Muslims.

The destruction of Babri Masjid

Ultimately, on December 6, 1992, a group of Hindu activists convened at the instigation of Sangh parivar members who destroyed the Babri Masjid. The district court’s ruling startled the Gyanvapi Masjid’s custodians, who said the court simply accepted the temple side’s assertions without looking for supporting documentation. The Varanasi court order was issued a few days after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) asserted in its survey report of the Gyanvapi Masjid that there was a “large Hindu temple” there before the mosque was built and that portions of the temple were altered and utilized in the building of the Islamic place of worship. Within seven days, the district administration was instructed by district judge Ajaya Krishna Vishvesha to prepare puja and other Hindu rituals within the mosque’s southern tehkhana, or cellar.

Judge Vishvesha gave the administration instructions to use a priest chosen by the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, which oversees the nearby Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, to do the puja and “rag-bhog” of the “idols” inside the tehkhana. On behalf of the Acharya Ved Vyas Peeth temple, local priest Shailendra Kumar Pathak applied, requesting permission to worship Maa Shringar Gauri and other purported visible and invisible deities he said were located in the mosque’s basement. The court granted his request.

The Mosque’s custodians say that their relatives performed Puja in the shut cellar

The mosque’s custodians denied all of Pathak’s allegations, including that his relatives once performed puja in the previously shut cellar and that idols were stored there. On the other hand, Judge Vishvesha found in favour of the Hindu petitioner and ordered the district administration to erect the iron fencing required for the puja.

After the court on January 17 ordered the district magistrate to keep the cellar secure and designated him as its receiver, the district magistrate finished taking control of the cellar on January 24. In his application, Pathak stated that his ancestors, who were priests, worshipped the idols housed in the mosque’s southern cellar.

Pathak added, too, that after December 1993, “Pujari Vyas ji,” or Somnath Vyas, his maternal grandpa, was kept out of the mosque’s guarded area.

Pathak asserted that the sanskar and rag-bhog ceremonies were also discontinued. 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 Anjuman Intezamia Masajid management committee, which oversees the Gyanvapi mosque, angrily refuted the allegations in court. In written petitions, the committee informed the court that there was never a Vyas family member who performed 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 Pathak’s claims that his family had ancestral occupation of the cellar. The cellar has always been under the occupation of the mosque committee, the caretakers said.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav posted on X: “Due process has to be maintained while following any court order. The Varanasi Court fixed a 7 day period for it. What we are seeing now is a concerted effort to go beyond the due process and prevent any legal recourse that can be taken.” The mosque side has until February 8 to file their objections before the next session.

By: Gursharan Kaur

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