Illustration by Shreyansh Singh

The Repeated Destruction and Reconstruction of the Kashi Vishvanatha Temple

Kashi and its famous Vishvanatha Temple was destroyed multiple times and yet every time it rose up from the ashes. 

Manish Maheshwari
| 11 min read
April 02, 2021
Illustration by Shreyansh Singh

Kashi appears in the archaeological and literary records from the 13th century BCE onwards1 but, for Hindus, this city is as old as time. The earthly home of Śiva on the banks of Ganga has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration for Indians since the time of the Mahābhāratā. During the 12th century, under the suzerainty of the very powerful Gāhadavāla dynasty (1089-1193 CE), Kashi witnessed a golden age.2 It flourished as the greatest city of Hindu Civilization. The devout Hindu Gāhadavāla kings endowed the temples and the scholars of the city with almost unlimited patronage. One can read the Kāśikhaṇḍa of the Skandapurāṇa, for descriptions of the glory and the majesty of the city during that golden period.

However, as an epicentre of Hindu ascetic and religious life, Banaras could not but exert a 'fatal attraction'3 to Islamic invaders looking for glory and booty. The Turks had by then established themselves in the Punjab region during the reign of Mahmūd Ghaznī and this led to repeated raids into India, including a plundering of Banaras in 1033 CE. The Gāhadavāla kings, keenly aware of the danger on their western front, levied the Turuṣkadanda tax from their citizens to establish and maintain a large standing army in case of warfare against the Muslims.4

It was the first time such a tax had been raised in India. The most famous Gāhadavāla king, Govindacandra, saw himself as an incarnation of Vishnu called upon by Śiva to protect Varanasi against the 'wicked' Turks.5 The Gāhadavālas were all self-consciously Hindu kings (either Vaiṣṇava or Śaiva) and styled themselves as the protectors of all the pilgrimage destinations or tīrthas under their domain, especially Kashi and Ayodhya.6

As the prosperous 12th century came to a close, the Gāhadavāla kings expended resources on containing the newly emergent Chāhamānas dynasty in the west and the increasingly powerful Sena kingdom of Bengal in the east. So busy fighting one another, these three devout Hindu kingdoms remained oblivious of the impending catastrophe approaching from the western frontier. Even more distressing is the fact that both the Gāhadavāla king Jayachandra and the Sena king Lakṣmaṇasena were devout Vaiṣṇava who sponsored vast dharmaśāstra projects and styled themselves as protectors of sanātana dharma. Yet, rather than presenting a united front against a deadly foreign invader, they were skirmishing against each other.

The Destruction of Banaras and the Viśvanātha Temple

The dark cloud of pending Islamic invasion hovering on the horizon of Varanasi turned inescapably ominous as the powerful Chāhamānas dynasty of Delhi fell to the advancing Turks in 1192 CE. In hindsight, the refusal of Gāhadavāla king Jayachandra (also called Jaichand) to help Prithvīrāja Chauhān in the Second Battle of Tarain must count as the biggest blunder in Hinduism's history. Within one year of the conquest of Delhi, Jayachandra was beheaded and his army decisively routed. A contemporary Muslim chronicler describes the event that unfolded in Banaras in the aftermath of the war,

(the army) proceeded towards Benares, which is the centre of the country of Hind, and here they destroyed nearly one thousand temples, and raised mosques on their foundations; and the knowledge of the law became promulgated, and the foundations of religion were established.7

Banaras lay in ruins. It took 1,400 camels to haul away the plunder.8 None of its large temples survived the iconoclastic fury of the invaders. A few decades later, to add insult to injury, a mosque was constructed on the site of the famous Viśvanātha Temple, probably using material from the temple ruins. The mosque still stands there today. However, though ransacked, Banaras continued to attract Hindu pilgrims and, during periods of peace, many temples were reconstructed. Viśvanātha temple was rebuilt again some time before 1353 CE, very close to its original spot.9    

But this was not to last long. The temples of Banaras were again razed to the ground under the reigns of Firuz Shāh Tughluq of Delhi, Mahmud Shāh Sharqī of Jaunpur, and Sikandar Lodī of Delhi.  The materials of the newly-destroyed Viśvanātha temple were again hauled away to build mosques at the newly founded capital of the Sharqī Dynasty.10              

After this turbulent period, peace returned to North India under the reign of Akbar. With the patronage of Raja Todar Mal and the effort of Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa, one of the great medieval scholars of Banaras from the illustrious Bhaṭṭa family, a magnificent Viśvanātha temple was again built in 1585 CE. This was at least the third time that the destroyed Viśvanātha temple had been reconstructed, each time at a different place in Varanasi. Unfortunately, it was not to be the last.

Ghats of Banaras

Less than a hundred years later, in 1669 CE, Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of Viśvanātha temple. The temple's upper structure was dismantled and a mosque constructed over it. The ornate outer walls of the temple are still visible today at the Jnāna Vāpī mosque. Once again, the materials of Viśvanātha temple had been used to build a mosque. Banaras was then renamed "Muhammadabad" by Aurangzeb.11 All the greatest temples of Varanasi, including Krittivāsa, Kāla Bhairava, and Bindu Mādhava met a similar fate at the hands of Aurangzeb. Diana Eck describes the fate of these temples,

There is no major religious sanctuary in all Banāras that pre-dates the time of Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century….The city of the Purānic māhātmyas was no more. Its greatest temples— Krittivāsa, Omkāra, Mahādeva, Madhyameshvara, Vishveshvara, Bindu Mādhava, and Kāla Bhairava—were in ruins. Some never recovered, like the Shiva temple of Krittivāsa, the site of which is today occupied by a run-down mosque. Others went into hiding, like the guardian deity Kāla Bhairava, who was housed in humble quarters for hundreds of years and did not appear in a fitting temple until the eighteenth century. Likewise, the Vishnu image of Bindu Mādhava, whose site was usurped by a huge mosque, was moved to a nearby house.12 

The ‘Final’ Reconstruction

With the collapse of Mughal rule and the ascendency of Marathas, the reconstruction and resacralization of the Hindu pilgrimage sites had begun. In 1777 CE, more than a hundred years after the destruction of the temple, an adjacent temple site was chosen and a new Viśvanātha temple was reconstructed by the Maratha queen Rani Ahalyabai Holker. The temple was deliberately kept small and inconspicuous to avoid future destruction. In 1839, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, sponsored the gold plating of the temple spire, giving it the architectural prominence that it has today.13    

Even when the Viśvanātha temple did not exist, people had continued to perform their pujas and other rituals as if the temple still stood there housing the Linga of Śiva. Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa writing in the sixteenth-century, states,

And if, owing to the power of foreign rulers, there is no linga at all in that place, even so, the Dharma of the place itself should be observed, with rites of circumambulation, salutation, etc., and in this way the daily pilgrimage [nityayātrā] shall be performed.14

These words provide an insight into the Hindu mind. Despite seeing Banaras in ruins on multiple occasions, there is no hint of any self-pity or grievance but sheer psychological resilience and resolve to follow dharma against all odds. Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa gives a call to people to perform all rituals at the same place and in the same manner even during the absence of any physical symbols of dharma. The physical symbols of dharma will revive again when the time is right, provided the people have śraddhā in their hearts.

Two hundred and fifty years later, as the area around the Viśvanātha temple is redeveloped and restored under the present administration, it is just another moment in the great unfolding of dharma in this eternal city of Lord Śiva. 

Manish Maheshwari is the curator and editor of Tattva. He can be contacted at manish@tattvamag.org. He tweets at @manish_tattva

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