In a key development in the legal battle surrounding Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Masjid, a district court yesterday allowed members of a family of priests to pray in one of the cellars in the mosque complex. This cellar, known as Vyasji ka Tehkhana, was unsealed last night and a puja was held around 3 am.
A Cellar Temple
The Gyanvapi mosque, built in the 17th century, has four cellars. The ‘Vyas ji ka Tehkhana’ is one of them. It is located in the southern area of the mosque’s barricaded complex, right opposite to a statue of Nandi bull in the adjoining Kashi Vishwanath temple premises. The cellar is about 7 feet high and has an area of 40 square feet. The petitioner, Shailendra Pathak Vyas, said there are idols inside that were worshipped before the cellar was sealed in 1993. The Muslim side denied this in the court and said the petitioner had not placed any evidence that prayers were held there. They also said there is no idol in the cellar.
What The Petitioner Said
The petitioner’s counsel have said that the Vyas family had been worshipping inside the cellar for two centuries. The family, they said, got control of the cellar even during the British rule. The petitioner’s counsel said that in the aftermath of riots in 1819, the British administration had come up with a balancing plan and given control of some parts of Gyanvapi mosque to Hindus. The Vyas family, which lives near the temple, had then started praying in the cellar.
According to the petition, the members of the family continued to do puja in the cellar even after Independence, and it is from the family name that it came to be known as Vyas ji ka tehkhana, meaning Vyas ji’s cellar. Before the cellar was sealed in 1993, Somnath Vyas used to conduct prayers in the cellar. The petitioner, Shailendra Pathak Vyas, on whose petition yesterday’s verdict came, is the maternal grandson of Somnath Vyas.
Why Was Cellar Sealed
On December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, where a Ram Temple has now come up following a landmark Supreme Court verdict. Soon after, President’s Rule was imposed in the state and the next year, a government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav took over. Citing law and order, Mr Yadav prohibited prayers inside the cellar temple. The petitioner has said that before the cellar was sealed, Somnath Vyas conducted regular prayers there.
A 3 AM Puja
Around 3 am yesterday, hours after the court allowed, members of the Vyas family held puja inside the cellar after three decades. Jitendra Nath Vyas, a member of the family, told news agency ANI that five priests of Kashi Vishwanath temple, their family members and top district officials were present during the puja. Heavy force has been deployed near the mosque to prevent any flare-up.
What Comes Next
The mosque committee has said they will challenge yesterday’s ruling in the high court. Lawyer Akhlaq Ahmed told the media that the order has overlooked the Advocate Commissioner report of 2022, ASI’s report, and the decision of 1937, which was in their favour. “Hindu side has not placed any evidence that prayers were held before 1993. There is no such idol in the place,” he said.
Advocate Merajuddin Siddiqui accused district officials of being hand-in-glove with the district magistrate. “This is happening to get political advantage. The same approach is being adopted, which was done in the Babri Masjid case. Commissioner’s report and ASI’s report earlier said that nothing was inside,” he said.
Hindu organisations have welcomed the verdict. “Today, a court in Kashi has given a very important decision, filling the hearts of every Hindu with joy,” VHP working president Alok Kumar said. The BJP has refrained from commenting on yesterday’s development, saying the matter is subjudice.
While this is a major development in the legal battle around the 17th century mosque, it must be noted that the cellar petition is separate from the Sringar Gauri case in which five women have sought permission to pray near the outer wall of the mosque.