7. Why did Aurangzeb demolish the Kashi Vishvanath temple?

Moghul emperor 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.

Percival 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 India.

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.

About 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

JNU historian 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

The fountainhead 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

Gandhian Congress 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 persists.”13

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 bluff.


1P. Spear: History of India, p-56.

2Muhammad 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.

3Translated by Jadunath Sarkar: Anecdotes of Aurangzeb, Orient Longman, Delhi 1988 (1912).

4Also 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.

5Namita 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 site instead.

6The 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.

7K.N. Panikkar: “What is Communalism Today?”, in Pratul Lahiri, ed.: Selected Writings on Communalism, People’s Publishing House, Delhi 1994, p.73.

8The 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 Brahmin.

9G. Chakravartty: “BJP/RSS and Distortion of History", in P. Lahiri: Selected Wiltings on Communalism, p. 168.

10B.N. Pande: Islam and Indian Culture, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna 1987, p.44-45.

11B.N. 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 his source.

12I 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.

13Pattabhi Sitaramayya: Feathers and Stones, Bombay 1946, p. 177-178.

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