Temple architecture

Masjid Gyanvapi | Kashi Vishwanath temple was built and demolished 3 times – known and unknown history

Varanasi: In this file photo from December 12, 2021, a view of the Dham temple of Kashi Vishwanath and the Gyanvapi Masjid complex, in Varanasi

Photo: PTI


  • Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the 12 major jyotirlingas with earliest archaeological evidence dating back to 9th-10th BC.
  • It was extensively renovated during the Gupta period, a fact mentioned by Chinese historian Hsuan Tsang
  • It was repeatedly demolished by invaders like Mohd Ghori, Mahmud Sharqi and Aurangzeb at different times in history.

Anyone who has visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple would be aware of the presence of the beautiful and benign statue of Nandi, the bull of Lord Shiva. The statue is 2.1 meters tall and faces the wall of the Gyanvapi Mosque. For those familiar with traditional Hindu architecture, Nandi is believed to face the main deity, Lord Shiva, either in the form of an idol or in the form of the Linga, which has baffled scholars for centuries as to the location of the true sanctum sanctorum.

The story we don’t know…

The anecdotal story goes that when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb attacked Varanasi and ordered the demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in September 1669, the temple priests removed the Shivalinga and hid it in a well that exists between the temple of Kashi Vishwanath and the Gyanvapi Mosque. And so, when the attackers arrived, they could not find the central deity of the temple and she escaped the evil. It is recorded in history that the Muslim invaders were iconoclasts who disfigured the idols of Hindu worship as damaged figures are not prayed to. So, as the attackers were breaking the structure of the temple, its structure and its decorations, when they were heading towards the Nandi to destroy it, a swarm of bees attacked them. The troops fled leaving behind the intact statue of Shiva’s bull. Such is the anecdote.

Nearly a century after Aurangzeb’s attack, Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore restored and rebuilt the Shiva Temple near the Gyanvapi Mosque and Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab contributed by sending two tons of gold which enclosed the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. This is the sanctuary we all visit in its present form. It is believed to have been built at a close distance from the original site, but not above the main location.

After many years of dispute over the original location of the ancient temple, as per the court order, a videography team collected evidence to establish whether the main temple was on the site of the present Gyanvapi Mosque. Some interesting finds are said to have come out from inside the mosque, such as Sanskrit hymns written on pillars, flowers and swastika signs as wall decorations, and under the rock Shringar Gauri was discerned the hood of Vishnu as well as the lotus of Lord Brahma.

File photo Officials arrive for a video investigation at the Gyanvapi Mosque complex in Varanasi on May 16, 2022 Photo courtesy of PTI
File photo: Officials arrive for a video investigation at the Gyanvapi Mosque complex in Varanasi on May 16, 2022 | Photo courtesy: PTI

Most notable is the noise around a Shivalinga found in the well or pond that Muslim worshipers used for wazoo, i.e. ablutions before prayers. While the Muslim side disputes that it is in fact a fountain, the petitioners claim that the structure found is undoubtedly a Shivalinga as there is no water conduit and also because the Linga is located exactly opposite Nandi in terms of direction. .

Proof History of Kashi Vishwanath’s Past

But that’s not the whole story of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, which is one of the most important of the 12 jyotirlingas.

A seal of Avimukteshwara found in the Rajghat area near Adi Keshav Ghat of Varanasi indicates the existence of a shrine in the 9th or 10th BC. Avimukteshwara is another name for Shiva because he is believed to provide ‘mukti‘ to those who die in Kashi.

Later, in the Gupta period, which was one of the high points of Hinduism and its revitalization, a great temple is said to have been built around 500 CE by Vainya Gupta, who was a Shaivite king. The Chinese pilgrim and historian Hsuan Tsang mentioned the city of Varanasi as well as the temple in his records, describing the narrow lanes, the dense population of courteous and wealthy people, and the ubiquitous worship of Shiva.

This temple was demolished in the 12th century by Muhammad Ghori. It was then rebuilt in the 13th century during the reign of Sultan of Iltutmish, a Mamluk king who rose in his lifetime after being purchased as a slave by Qutb al-Din Aibak.

Muslims arrive to offer Friday prayers at Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi Pic courtesy PTI
Muslims arrive to offer Friday prayers at Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi | Photo courtesy: PTI

Later in the middle of the 15th century around 1447, Mahmud Shah Sharqi of Jaunpur flattened it again. Raja Todar Mal Rebuilt in 1585 with scholar Pandit Narayan Bhatt only to be razed by Aurangzeb before being rebuilt.

Over the past centuries, the history of Kashi Vishwanath is filled with episodes of repeated blitzes, attacks, and efforts to erase him from memory. But each time, the Jyotirlinga has shown exceptional resilience and ability to rejuvenate and invigorate itself.