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Destruction of temples at Benaras
Apr 2016

Rev. M.A. Sherring who had resided in Benares for several years in the middle of the 19th century, wrote his classic; Benares? The Sacred City of The Hindus (1868). He observed: It is worthy of notice, as illustrating the nature of Mohammedan rule in India, that nearly all the buildings in Benares, of acknowledged antiquity, have been appropriated by the Musulamans; being used as mosques, mausoleums, dargahs, and so forth; and also that a large portion of the separate pillars, architraves, and various other ancient remains, which, are so plentifully found in one part of the city, now contribute to the support or adornment of their edifices. Not content with destroying temples and mutilating idols, with all the zeal of fanatics, they fixed their greedy eyes on whatever object was suited to their own purposes, and, without scruple or any of the tendereness shown by the present rulers (The British), seized upon it for themselves. 

And thus it has come to pass, that every solid and durable structure, and every ancient stone of value, being esteemed by them as their property, has, with very few exceptions, passed into their hands.  We believe it was the boast of Alauddin, that he had destroyed one thousand temples in Benaras alone. How many more were razed to the ground, or transformed into mosques through the iconoclastic fervour of Aurungzeb, there is no means of knowing; but it is not too much to say, that he was unsurpassed, in this feature of religious fanaticism, by any of his predecessors. If there is one circumstance respecting the Mohammedan period which Hindus remember better than another, it is the insulting pride of the Musulmans, the outrages which they perpetrated upon their religious convictions, and the extensive spoliation of their temples and shrines. It  is right that Europeans should clearly understand, that this spirit of Mohammedanism is unchangeable, and that, if, by any mischance, India should again come into the possession of men of this creed, all the churches and colleges, and all the Mission institutions, would not be worth a week's purchase. 

Rev. Sherring writes : When we endeavour to ascertain what the Mohammedans have left to the Hindus of their ancient buildings in Benaras, we are startled at the result of our investigations. Although the city is bestrewn with temples in every direction, in some places very thickly, yet it would be difficult, I believe, to find twenty temples, in all Benares, of the age of Aurangzeb, or from 1658 to 1707. The same unequal proportion of old temples, as compared with new, is visible throughout the whole of Northern India. Moreover, the diminutive size of nearly all the temples that exist is another powerful testimony to the stringency of the Mohammedan rule. It seems clear, that, for the most part, the emperors forbade the Hindus to build spacious temples, and suffered them  to erect only small structures, of the size of cages for their idols, and these are of no pretensions to beauty.

The temple receiving the highest honour in the whole city is that dedicated to the god Bisheswar, or Siva, whose image is the linga, a plain conical stone set on end.  Bisheswar is the reigning deity of Benares, and, in the opinion of the people, holds the position of king over all the other deities, as well as over all the inhabitants residing, not only within the city itself, but also within the circuit of the Panchkosi road or sacred boundary of Benares, extending for nearly fifty miles.
The temple of Bisheswar is situated in the midst of a quadrangle, covered in with a roof, above which the tower of the temple is seen. At each corner is a dome, and at the south-east corner, a temple sacred to Siva. When observed in the distance, from the elevation of the roof, the building presents three distinct divisions. The first is the spire of a temple of Mahadeva, whose base is in the quadrangle below; the second is a large gilded dome; and the third is the gilded tower of the temple of Bisheswar itself. These three objects are all in a row, in the centre of the quadrangle, filling up most of the space from one side to the other.  The carving upon them is not particularly striking; but the dome and tower glittering in the sun look like vast masses of burnished gold.  They are, however, only covered with gold leaf, which is spread over plates of copper overlaying the stones beneath. 
The expense of gilding them was borne by the late Maharaja Runjeet Sinh of Lahore. The tower, dome, and spire terminate, severally, in a sharp points. Attached to the first is a high pole bearing a small flag and tipped with a trident. The temple of Bisheswar, including the tower, is fifty-one feet in height. The space between the temples of Bisheswar and Mahadeva, beneath the dome, is used as a belfry; and as many as nine bells are suspended in it.  One is of elegant workmanship, and was presented to the temple by the Raja of Nepal.

Outside the enclosure, to the north, is a large collection of deities, raised upon a platform, called by the natives ‘the court of Mahadeva.’ They are, for the most part, male and female emblems. Several small idols likewise are built into the wall flanking this court. These are evidently not of modern manufacture. Their age, how-ever, does not seem to be known. The probability is, that they were taken from the ruins of the old temple of Bisheswar, which stood to the north-west of the present structure, and was demolished by the Emperor Aurungzeb in the seventeenth century. Extensive remains of this ancient temple are still visible.  They form a large portion of the western wall of the Mohammedan mosque, which was built upon its site by this bigoted oppressor of the Hindus. Judging from the proportions of these ruins, it is manifest that the former temple of Bisheswar must have been both loftier and more capacious than the existing structure. 
The Mosque, though not small, is by no means an imposing object. It is plain and uninteresting, and displays scarcely any carving or ornament. Within and without, its walls are besmeared with a dirty white-wash, mixed with a little colouring matter. Its most interesting feature is a row of Buddhist columns in the front elevation. The presence of this mosque, located, from motives of insult, in a place held so sacred by the Hindus, and around which their closest sympathies are gathered, is a constant source of heartburnings and feuds both to Hindus and Mohammedans. The former, while unwillingly allowing the latter to retain the Mosque, claim the courtyard between it and the wall as their own. Consequently, they will not permit the Mohammedans to enter the mosque by more than one public entrance, which instead of being in front of that building, is situated on one side of it. The Mohammedans have many times wished to build a gateway in the midst of the spacious platform in front of the mosque; but, although they once erected one, they were not suffered to make use of it, on account of the excitement that the circumstance occasioned among the Hindu population, which was only allayed by the timely interference of the Magistrate of Benares. The gateway still stands; but the space between the pillars has been filled up. A peepal tree, adored as a god, overhangs both the gateway and the road; but the Hindus will not allow the Mohammedans to pluck a single leaf from it. 
Between the mosque and the temple of Bisheswar is the famous well known as Gyan Vapi or Gyan Kup, “well of knowledge,” in which, as the natives believe, the god Siva resides.
Ascending another series of stairs from the Panchganga Ghat, you approach the lofty mosque of Aurangzeb, known, by the natives, as “Madhudas ka Dewhra.” The edifice itself is above the bank of the river;  but its foundations sink deep into the ground; and their enormous stone breastworks extend far down the bank.  Indeed, it is said that the foundations of the mosque are as deep as the building is high.
Although many of the buildings of Benares, especially those in the neighbourhood of the ghats, are of a great height, yet they are all overtopped by the minarets, the clear forms of which, pointing upwards to the sky, may be discerned at the distance of many miles from the city.  They were, originally, some fifty feet higher than they now are and were cut down to their present height, in consequence of exhibiting signs of weakness and insecurity.  There is a staircase in each tower, from the summit of which you gain a complete view of Benares and its suburbs, and of a portion of the surrounding country; but the ascent and decent are attended with considerable fatigue.

Sir Arnold Toynbee was invited by Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru to deliver Azad Memorial Lecture. During the course of the lecture he said that on his recent visit to Warsaw, he noticed that the first thing the Poles did on regaining Independence was to demolish the Russian Orthodox Church and replace it with a Catholic Church.  He was therefore surprised to see a masjid on Krishna Hill at Mathura and mosque on the Ghats of Benaras.  The existence of masjid showed that the sacred places of the Hindus were still under the control of the Muslims and Hindus were the subject of the Mughal empire.


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