‘Archaeological Survey Report on Gyanvapi Not Reliable’

Historian Prof. Audrey Truschke discusses the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report on the Gyanvapi Masjid that a ‘ large temple’ existed under the present Mosque before the construction of the Mosque. 

Audrey Truschke is Professor of South Asian history at the University of Rutgers, Newark.  She is the author of three acclaimed books, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, 2016,  Aurangazeb, 2016, and the Language of History : Sanskrit narratives of Indo Muslim rule, 2021. She is currently working on a single volume history of India, ‘ From Mohenjo Daro to today to be published by the Princeton University Press.  

In an Exclusive interview with Abhish K. Bose, Prof Truschke discusses the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report on the Gyanvapi Masjid that a ‘ large temple’ existed under the present Mosque before the construction of the Mosque. 

Excerpts from the interview 

Abhish K Bose:  As a historian who is working in the contemporary period and influenced by ideals such as communalism, democracy, ethics and other values emerged in the last two hundred years or less, how can you ascertain the objectivity of chronicling history of the medieval period when none of these belief systems existed, and what prevailed then was archaic thinking, which has no connection with the contemporary ideas or ideals? 

Audrey Truschke  : My goal in studying history is to understand the past, not to judge it. Modern ideals are just that, modern, and so often not especially relevant to excavating the ideas and casualties of prior periods. Except that, in the present day, many of us value an honest account of the past. In that sense, my core motivation as a modern historian is decidedly modern, even as it is not shared by many other modern people who, instead, embrace an approach of mythologizing the past.

(Photo: IANS)

Abhish K. Bose  : How do you respond to the  Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) finding made in its latest survey report on the Gyanvapi Masjid in Benares. The (ASI) report has claimed that a “large Hindu temple” existed there prior to the construction of the existing Mosque and that parts of the temple were used in the construction of the Mosque. The narrative is similar to the tone of the narrarive spread initially at the time of the controversy surrounding Babri Masjid. As a historian of the medieval period what are your inferences on the (ASI) findings on the said Mosque ?

Audrey Truschke  : I do not find the ASI to be a reliable source of information or analysis at present. In the case of Benares’s Gyanvapi Masjid, they are asking the wrong question. The critical question is not: Was there once, hundreds of years ago, a temple there that premodern people destroyed? Indeed, this is something few, if any, historians contest. Rather, the key question is: Should 21st-century Hindu supremacists destroy a mosque that has stood for centuries as part of their ongoing agenda to oppress Muslims and undermine Indian democracy?

Abhish K. Bose  : Based on your research on the Medieval period and rulers how do you recall the Muslim rulers relations with the hindu community? Has the hindu community benefited or became disadvantaged as a result of the Mughal rule?

Audrey Truschke  : It is difficult to characterize the relationship of all Indo-Muslim kings with all Hindu communities, both because it varied and because Indian kings did not tend to think about a Hindu community in the singular. One especially influential set of alliances featured the Mughals and Rajputs. The Mughals relied on many loyal Rajput lineages in military and cultural ways; those Rajputs benefited enormously, financially and otherwise, from their investment in the Mughal state. Collectively, the Mughals and Rajputs fashioned what we sometimes call “Mughal ruling culture.”

Abhish K. Bose  : Your works  ‘ Aurangazeb’ ‘ The Man and the Myth’ and ‘ culture of encounters ‘ refers to the cultural exchanges and bonhomie in between the Mughal rulers and hindu community in the medieval period such as learning of Sanskrit by the Mughal rulers for understanding Indian ethos, and the Mughal rulers like Aurangazeb protecting Hindus from Muslim aggression. While this is the scenario why the Indian historiography highlighted the Mughal rulers only as plunderers of Hindus and destroyer of temples? Is it the lapse of historians or the lapse of the readers in understanding the history? 

Audrey Truschke  : Professional Indian historians are on the same page as historians worldwide in understanding the nuances of Hindu-Muslim relations during Mughal rule. But India seems to have a growing number of people at present who are popular historians at best and, more honestly, Hindutva propagandists. They churn out books (and, maybe more often, blog posts and Twitter threads) with false information, plagiarism, and misleading claims that participate in the ongoing Hindu nationalist agenda to malign Indian Muslims, past and present.

A priest offers prayers at ‘Vyas Ji ka Tehkhana’ inside Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, after District court order, in Varanasi, on Feb 01, 2024.(IANS/X/@Vishnu_Jain1)

Abhish K. Bose  : As a historian specializing on the medieval period what are your views on the claims by the hindu right-wing over the disputed Mosques in different parts of India?       

Audrey Truschke :  Legally and ethically, Hindu supremacists should not destroy any premodern mosques moving forward. Realistically, they’re probably just getting started as they further transform India into an ethno-nationalist state where minorities face rising oppression and violence.

Abhish K. Bose  : The currently prevailing demarcation of historical periods was a colonial-era innovation designed to dignify colonial rule, among other things.  What are some of the gains and losses of this way of separating historical periods, for understanding our historical present?

Audrey Truschke : In my next book (which is currently under peer review), I do not demarcate South Asian history into standard periods. This will throw off some readers, and that’s part of the point. If we are ever to move beyond bad colonial-era ideas about South Asian historical periods, well, we must move on and challenge ourselves and others to see things in new ways.

Abhish K. Bose  : The focus on demolition of Hindu temples some times excludes all other aspects of the historical past. Can you provide some context for understanding such events? Temples were symbols of power and wealth and not exclusively of religion or spirituality; Hindu kings also demolished Hindu temples of rival kings etc. Why are demolished Hindu temples so important to a certain kind of nationalist history-writing?

Audrey Truschke : Hindu nationalists rely on a grievance machine to fuel their ever increasing hatred of Muslims. Indian history poses many problems for Hindu nationalists in this regard, including that it does not furnish many examples of persecuted Hindus that might produce such grievances. So, they invent persecution, mischaracterize and exaggerate the few crumbs they can find, and otherwise engage in bad faith arguments. In brief, Hindu nationalists are obsessed with temple demolitions because it fuels their modern prejudices; it has little to nothing to do with history. Also, there might be a bit of projection involved. After all, Hindu nationalists are some of the great iconoclasts of our times and have destroyed many places of worship in contemporary India.

Abhish K. Bose  :  You are currently working on a historical account from early Indus valley civilisation to the contemporary period. Could you share a little bit on the book you are working?    

Audrey Truschke  : My current book project is a single-volume overview of South Asian history. It is aimed at undergraduates and educated popular readers. Among other things, I strive to bring in a diversity of Indian voices, meaning more women, lower castes, and lower classes than have many prior historians.

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