7. Why did
Aurangzeb demolish the Kashi Vishvanath temple?
Aurangzeb Alamgir (r.1658-1707) is an icon of Islamic iconoclasm in India.
His name counts as synonymous with destruction of Hindu temples, though
he also levelled many Hindu human beings. Yet, the dominant school
of historians would like to salvage Aurangzeb’s reputation.
Spear, co-author (with Romila Thapar) of the prestigious Penguin History
of India, writes: “Aurangzeb’s supposed intolerance is little more
than a hostile legend based on isolated acts such as the erection of a
mosque on a temple site in Benares.”1 This
claim, warhorse of the “secularist” school of history-rewriting, provides
us with an excellent case study in the ongoing historians’ conflict in
What are the facts?
The official court chronicle, Maasir-i-Alamgiri, fills many pages
with items like this “His majesty proceeded to Chitor on the 1st of Safar. Temples
to the number of sixty-three were here demolished. Abu Tarab, who
had been commissioned to effect the destruction of the idol temples in
Amber, reported in person on the 24th Rajab, that threescore and six of
these edifices had been levelled with the ground.”2
It says in so many words that Aurangzeb “ordered all provincial governors
to destroy all schools and temples of the Pagans and to make a complete
end to all Pagan teachings and practices”. Moreover, it records:
“Hasan Ali Khan came and said that 172 temples in the area had been destroyed”,
etc. Aurangzeb’s supposed intolerance can be deduced from his actual
policies, known to us through his own chronicles as well as other sources.
And, to close
a loophole favoured by evasive secular apologists when their whitewash
fails, his policies were not a deviation from “true, tolerant” Islam by
an idiosyncratic fanatic, but were seen by his contemporaries as pure Islam
in full swing. Aurangzeb was a pious man full of self-discipline
and eager to be a just and truly Islamic ruler. One of his officers
wrote a collection of anecdotes, the Abkam-i-Alamgiry, showing the
humane and incorruptible character of Aurangzeb. It carries anecdote
titles like: “Aurangzeb preaches humility to an officer”, “ability the
only qualification for office”, or (about a case
where a governor had ordered an execution of a man without the required
proof of his guilt) “trials to be held strictly according to Quranic law”.3
Aurangzeb was a good man and a good Muslim, and his oppression of Hindus
was not due to an evil personal trait but to his commitment to Islam.
Benares/Varanasi, we learn from the Maasir-i-Alamgiri: “News
came to court that in accordance with the Emperor’s command his officers
had demolished the temple of Vishvanath at Banaras”.4
Aurangzeb did not just build an “isolated” mosque on “a” destroyed temple.
He ordered all temples destroyed, among them the Kashi Vishvanath, one
of the most sacred places of Hinduism, and had mosques built on a number
of cleared temple sites. Till today, the old Kashi Vishvanath temple
wall is visible as a part of the walls of the Gyanvapi mosque which Aurangzeb
had built at the site. All other Hindu sacred places within his reach
equally suffered destruction, with mosques built on them; among them, Krishna’s
birth temple in Mathura and the rebuilt Somnath temple on the coast of
Gujarat. The number of temples destroyed by Aurangzeb is counted
in 4, if not in 5 figures.
This is how Indian
secularists deal with this episode: “Did Muslim rulers destroy temples? Some
of them certainly did. Following the molestation of a local princess
by some priests in a temple at Benaras, Aurangzeb ordered the total destruction
of the temple and rebuilt it at a nearby site. And this is the only
temple he is believed to have destroyed.”5 This
story is now repeated ad nauseam, not only in the extremist Muslim
press (Syed Shahabuddin’s Muslim India, the Jamaati-Islami’s Radiance)
and in the secularist press (e.g. Sunday, as quoted) but also in
academic platforms by “eminent historians”.6
Prof. K.N. Panikkar offers a more political variation on the theme that
the Kashi Vishyanath temple was destroyed to punish the temple priests
for breaking purely secular laws: “the destruction of the temple at Banaras
also had political motives. It appears that
a nexus between the sufi rebels and the pandits of the temple existed and
it was primarily to smash this nexus that Aurangzeb ordered action against
the temple.”7 The eminent
historian quotes no source for this strange allegation. In those
days, Pandits avoided to even talk with Mlecchas, let alone to concoct
intrigues with them.8
of all these rumors about Aurangzeb’s honorable and non-religious motives
in destroying the Kashi Vishvanath temple is revealed by Marxist historian
Gargi Chakravartty who quotes Gandhian politician B.N. Pande, introducing
the quotation as follows: “Much has been said about
Aurangzeb’s demolition order of Vishwanath temple at Banaras. But
documentary evidence gives a new dimension to the whole episode:”9
What follows is
the story launched by the late B.N. Pande, working chairman of the Gandhi
Darshan Samiti and former Governor of Orissa: “The story regarding demolition
of Vishvanath temple is that while Aurangzeb was passing near Varanasi
on his way to Bengal, the Hindu Rajas in his retinue requested that if
the halt was made for a day, their Ranis may go to Varanasi, have a dip
in the Ganges and pay their homage to Lord Vishwanath. Aurangzeb
readily agreed. Army pickets were posted on the five mile route to
Varanasi. The Ranis made a journey on the Palkis. They took
their dip in the Ganges and went to the Vishwanath temple to pay their
homage. After offering Puja all the Ranis returned except one, the
Maharani of Kutch. A thorough search was made of the temple precincts
but the Rani was to be found nowhere. When Aurangzeb came to know
of it, he was very much enraged. He sent his senior officers to search
for the Rani. Ultimately, they found that the statue of Ganesh which
was fixed in the wall was a moveable one. When the statue was moved,
they saw a flight of stairs that led to the basement. To their horror,
they found the missing Rani dishonored and crying, deprived of all her
ornaments. The basement was just beneath Lord Vishwanath’s seat.
The Rajas expressed their vociferous protests. As the crime was heinous,
the Rajas demanded exemplary action. Aurangzeb
ordered that as the sacred precincts have been despoiled, Lord Vishvanath
may be moved to some other place, the temple be razed to the ground and
the Mahant be arrested and punished.”10
The story is very
bizarre, to say the least. First of all, it has Aurangzeb go to Bengal.
Yet, in all the extant histories of his life and works, no such journey
to Bengal, or even any journey as far east as Varanasi, is recorded.
Some of his generals were sent on expeditions to Bengal, but not Aurangzeb
himself. There are fairly complete chronicles of his doings, day
by day; could B.N. Pande or any of his quoters give the date or even the
year of this remarkable episode? Neither was Aurangzeb known to surround
himself with Hindu courtiers. And did these Rajas take their wives
along on military expeditions? Or was it some holiday picnic?
How could the Mahant kidnap a Rani who was there in the company of other
Ranis, as well as the appropriate courtiers and bodyguards? Why did
he take such risk? Why did the “Rajas” wait for Aurangzeb to take
“exemplary action”: did they fear his anger if they destroyed the temple
themselves? And since when is demolition the approved method of purifying
a defiled temple, an eventuality for which the Shastras have laid down
due ritual procedures?
One question which
we can readily answer is, where did B.N. Pande get this story from?
He himself writes: “Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, in
his famous book The Feathers and the Stones, has narrated this fact
based on documentary evidence.”11 So,
let us turn to this book, now hard to find, to see what the “documentary
evidence” is on which this whole wave of pro-Aurangzeb rumours is based,
but which no one has cared to reproduce or even just specify.12
leader Pattabhi Sitaramayya wrote in his prison diary: “There is a popular
belief that Aurangazeb was a bigot in religion. This, however, is
combated by a certain school. His bigotry is illustrated by one or
two instances. The building of a mosque over the site of the original
Kasi Visveswara Temple is one such. A like mosque in Mathura is another.
The revival of jazia is a third but of a different order. A story
is told in extenuation of the first event. In the height of his glory,
Aurangazeb like any foreign king in a country, had in his entourage a number
of Hindu nobles. They all set out one day to see the sacred temple
of Benares. Amongst them was a Ranee of Cutch. When the party
returned after visiting the Temple, the Ranee of Cutch was missing.
They searched for her in and out, East, North, West and South but no trace
of her was noticeable. At last, a more diligent search revealed a
Tah Khana or an underground story of the temple which to all appearances
had only two storys. When the passage to it was found barred, they
broke open the doors and found inside the pale shadow of the Ranee bereft
of her jewellery. It turned out that the Mahants were in the habit
of picking out wealthy and be-jewelled pilgrims and in guiding them to
see the temple, decoying them to the underground cellar and robbing them
of their jewellery. What exactly would have happened to their life
one did not know. Anyhow in this case, there was no time for mischief
as the search was diligent and prompt. On discovering the wickedness
of the priests, Aurangazeb declared that such a scene of robbery could
not be the House of God and ordered it to be forthwith demolished.
And the ruins were left there. But the Ranee who was thus saved insisted
on a Musjid being built on the ruin and to please her, one was subsequently
built. That is how a Musjid has come to exist by the side of the
Kasi Visweswar temple which is no temple in the real sense of the term
but a humble cottage in which the marble Siva Linga is housed. Nothing
is known about the Mathura Temple. This story of the Benares Masjid
was given in a rare manuscript in Lucknow which was in the possession of
a respected Mulla who had read it in the Ms. and who though he promised
to look it up and give the Ms. to a friend, to whom he had narrated the
story, died without fulfilling his promise. The
story is little known and the prejudice, we are told, against Aurangazeb
So, this is where
the story comes from: an unnamed friend of an unnamed acquaintance of Sitaramayya
knew of a manuscript, but he took the details of it with him in his grave.
This hearsay in the third degree is the “document” on which secularist
journalists and historians base their “evidence” of Aurangzeb’s fair and
secularist disposition. This is how they go about “exploding the
myth” of Islamic iconoclasm. Their “debunking” of genuine history
as preserved and presented by Hindu historians stands exposed as sheer
Spear: History of India, p-56.
Saki Musta’id Khan: Ma’âsir Alamgîrî, in H.M.
Elliot and John Dowson: The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians
(Low Price reprint, Delhi 1990, originally 1867-77), vol.7, p. 188.
by Jadunath Sarkar: Anecdotes of Aurangzeb, Orient Longman, Delhi
discussed by A. Shourie: “Take over from the Experts”, app.1 in VHP: History
vs. Casuistry (first edition, Voice of India, Delhi 199 1), p.81.
Bhandare, Louise Fernandes and Minu Jain: “A Pampered Minority?”, Sunday,
7-2-1993. The Kashi Vishvanath temple was indeed rebuilt at a nearby
site, but of course not by Aurangzeb, who had a mosque built at the original
expression “eminent historians” gained some notoriety (and became a laughing-stock
in Hindu Revivalist circles) during the Ayodhya debate, when it was the
standard media description of a group of Marxist historians from JNU, including
Prof. K.N. Panikkar, who circulated a booklet The Political Abuse
of History (INU 1989) denying the evidence that the Babri Masjid had
forcibly replaced a Rama temple.
Panikkar: “What is Communalism Today?”, in Pratul Lahiri, ed.: Selected
Writings on Communalism, People’s Publishing House, Delhi 1994, p.73.
unwillingness to come close to those who do not follow the Brahminical
purity rules is still alive. When I interviewed the Puri Shankaracharya
in 1993, he did not want to accept a book I offered him, and was reluctant
to speak directly with me, but preferred to address my companion, the late
Jeevan Kulkani, a historian with Hindu Mahasabha links and a thoroughbred
Chakravartty: “BJP/RSS and Distortion of History", in P. Lahiri: Selected
Wiltings on Communalism, p. 168.
Pande: Islam and Indian Culture, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library,
Patna 1987, p.44-45.
Pande: Islam and Indian Culture, p.45. He adds: “Dr. P.L. Gupta,
former curator of Patna Museum, has also corroborated this incident.” But
if this P.L. Gupta had anything to add in his capacity of historian, B.N.
Pande would not have failed to reproduce it. Instead, the more likely
explanation is that Gupta simply had read the same book (quite popular
in Gandhian circles after its publication in 1946) which Pande quoted as
thank Prof. Gopal Krishna and his wife Elizabeth for helping me find my
way in the New Bodleian Library (oxford), where a rare copy of Feathers
and Stones was available.
Sitaramayya: Feathers and Stones, Bombay 1946, p. 177-178.
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