Varanasi. The very name rings of sacred Hindu scriptures, stories of Lord Shiva and Ganga, and Hindu beliefs on life and afterlife. The oldest living city in the world, it is the accepted embodiment of Hinduism.
Yet, perched atop Panchganga Ghat by the holy River Ganges, where five streams are said to join, is a lovely functioning mosque—Alamgir Mosque. It is also the largest structure on the ghats. Standing over the ruins of a Krishna temple [the lower walls of the mosque belong to the original Hindu temple], the Hindu deities lie in a nearby edifice.
Minaret-less [one of its minarets collapsed and the other had to be pulled down], Alamgir Mosque stands perpendicular to the ghats unlike the other buildings which line the river. This was to ensure it was in keeping with the Islamic directive which states the mighrab should always point towards Mecca.
Built when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb captured Benaras in the 17th Century, thus also often referred to as Aurangzeb Mosque, it caters to the city’s 250,000 Muslims comprising 29.7 percent of its population. Alamgir means “Conqueror of the World.” It was the title Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son, and the 6th Mughal ruler had bestowed on himself.
Surprised? I was. Behind Varanasi’s predominantly Hindu front are 415 mosques, and hundreds of sacred religious Muslim sites. One needs to just step into the city’s lanes to enter a world, unchanged since the 11th Century when the Muslim invasions of India started, followed with large-scale conversions.
Destroying places of worship to be surmounted with those of the rulers of a different faith has been practiced globally since time immemorial. It is perhaps most obvious in India with its chequered history and multiplicity of faith at every level.
What makes Alamgir Mosque just that tad more unusual, is the absence of any aggression, anger or bitterness on either side of the equation. The cleric at the mosque invited me for prayers—the mosque is open to non-Muslims. The Hindu locals are matter-of-fact about their Muslim neighbours and the mosque’s presence in the most holy of Hindu sites. Their rationale is simple: Isn’t spirituality meant to make you bigger in spirit. 😊