Mathura and its Krishna Janmabhoomi Dispute

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As the heat picks up ahead of the Uttar Pradesh state elections and the incumbent government showcases the success of its campaign in Ayodhya and the new spruced-up Kashi corridor, the question is: Which way will Mathura go?

Believed to be the birthplace of the much-loved god and hero of the Mahabharata, Krishna, here the issues are more complex and yet clearer.

Spread over an area of 13.39 acres, the Sri Krishna Janmasthan complex has a whole set of Hindu temples and religious structures atop an ancient mound known as the ‘Katra Mound’ or ‘Katra Keshavdas’ in Mathura.

'Garbha Griha Shrine' at the rear wall of the Eidgah, believed to be the site of the 'Janmasthan' | Wikimedia Commons

Right next to the complex stands the Shahi Eidgah, built on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1670 CE, after demolishing the original Keshavdas Temple. Interestingly, while the Edigah was built where the mandapa (pavilion for public rituals) of the original temple once stood, the actual garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) or the place where Lord Krishna was born stood untouched. Even now, there stands a garbha griha temple there touching the rear wall of the Eidgah.

In the 1950s, a consortium of India’s industrialists which included Ramkrishna Dalmia, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Jugal Kishore Birla bought the land and built the grand Keshavdev Temple here, creating the Sri Krishna Janmasthan Trust. And over time legally settled the issue with the neighbouring Eidgah, in court.

The 1968 agreement clearly states that there is no legal claim of the Sri Krishna Janmasthan Trust on the land that the Shahi Eidgah occupies.

This makes Mathura and Ayodhya different.

But now the demand to reclaim that space is back with all political heft. The question is, will the issue already settled in court be revived?

Mathura As The ‘Epicentre’ Of Krishna Worship

Unlike Ayodhya, there is clear archaeological and literary evidence of Mathura as a centre of Krishna worship for almost 2,000 years.

The word ‘Krsna’ appears a handful of times in the Rig Veda, though it is as a reference to the adjective ‘Black’ or ‘Dark’. Apart from being mentioned in the works of Indian rishis like Patanjali and the grammarian Panini, the worship of Krishna has also been mentioned by early Western authors such as Greek writers Megasthenes (3rd century BCE) and Arrian (2nd century BCE), in their texts. Interestingly, it was during the rule of the Indo-Scythian (Shaka) and the Kushana kings that Bhagvatism or worship of Krishna as Vasudeva thrived here. This can be gleaned from the archaeological evidence found in and around Mathura, such as an inscription dating to the reign of Indi-Scythian Satrap Rajavula, a few fragments of a statue dating to the reign of Kushana emperor Kanishka, and so on.

There are also several detailed descriptions of the magnificent temple that stood here.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier | Wikimedia Commons

In fact, just 20 years before Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of the temple, the French merchant and jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who visited Mathura in 1650 CE, left a detailed account of the shrine. In his travelogue, titled Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1676), Tavernier writes:

“After the temples of Jagernath (Puri) and Banarous (Kashi), the most important is that of Matura, about 18 kos from Agra on the road to Delhi. It is one of the most sumptuous edifices in all India, and the place where there used to be formerly the greatest concourse of pilgrims…

“The temple is of such a vast size that, though in a hollow, one can see it five or six kos (1 kos = 1.8 km) off, the building being very lofty and very magnificent. The stone used in it is of a reddish tint, brought from a large quarry near Agra… The pagoda has only one entrance, which is very lofty, with many columns and images of men and beasts on either side…”

Describing the main idol, Tavernier writes: “The head only is visible and is of very black marble with what seemed to be two rubies for eyes. The whole body from the neck to the feet was covered with an embroidered robe of red velvet and no arms could be seen.”

This was what remained and what was clearly rebuilt after the first destruction of Mathura in the 11th century CE.

The wealthy and prosperous city of Mathura, famed for its grand temples and wealthy merchants, had to bear the burnt of invasions during the medieval period. The greatest destruction was due to the sack of Mathura by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in 1018-19 CE.

A first-hand account of the event is given by Al Utbi, private secretary to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, in his text, Táríkh Yamíni. According to Al-Utbi, when Mahmud of Ghazni reached Mathura, he found the city surrounded by stone walls with two gates opening onto the river that flowed beside it. He saw one building “of exquisite structure, which the inhabitants said had been built, not by men, but by Genii”. He adds:

“There were a thousand stone houses with temples attached, and in the middle of the city there was a temple larger than the rest of which the Sultan wrote 'If any should wish to construct a building equal to this, he would not be able to do it without expending an hundred thousand red dinars, and it would occupy two hundred years, even though the most experienced and able workmen were employed'. Five of its idols are described as being five yards high, made of red gold, and studded with precious stones. Orders were given that all temples be burnt with naptha and fire and levelled with the ground.”

After its sack by Mahmud of Ghazni, the city came under the rule of the Rashtrakutas, who managed to restore it to some of its former glory. Another contemporary historian, Al-Beruni, writing just a few years after Mahmud of Ghazni ransacked Mathura, mentions it in his Tarikh-i-Hind as one of the foremost places of pilgrimage in India and says it was crowded with Brahmins. There are references that temples in Mathura were again destroyed, first under the orders of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq in the mid-14th century CE and then by Sultan Sikandar Lodi (r. 1489-1517).

A Cycle Of Destruction And Rebuilding

Interestingly, the main temple at Mathura, referred to as the Keshavdev Temple, was probably rebuilt, as we find accounts of it from numerous travellers to the Mughal court.

For example, a Jesuit Priest, Father Antonio Monsserate, visited Mathura in 1580-81, during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar, and wrote of a temple “elegantly built in the pyramidal style”, adding “only one Hindu temple is left out of many; for the Musalmans have completely destroyed all except the pyramids. Huge crowds of pilgrims come from all over India to this temple, which is situated on the high bank of the Jomanis”. Similar accounts of the temple’s existence were left by other European travellers such as Francois Bernier and Jean Baptiste Tavernier.

Emperor Aurangzeb | Wikimedia Commons

Then, in 1670, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of the temple. Just a year prior, he had ordered the destruction of the Kashi Vishweshwar Temple at Varanasi. One of the reasons, apart from his general hardline policies, was to crush the Jats, who had revolted under the leadership of Gokul in 1669. Gokul, a powerful Jat landowner, encouraged cultivators to withhold revenue payments and organised them into a force of 20,000 men. Fighting lasted several months in 1669, in the course of which the Mughal commander at Mathura, Abdul Nabi Khan, was killed. As a result, Aurangzeb himself had to head here to suppress the revolt. Gokul was defeated and dismembered in public, after which all Jat resistance was crushed.

Shahi Eidgah and the Temple next to each other (1988) | Wikimedia Commons

Following the destruction of the Keshavdev temple, a Shahi Eidgah was built in its place. An Eidgah or Idgah is an enclosure which is not a conventional mosque, but is used to offer prayers during the Muslim festival of Eid. Following the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire began to crumble. Amid the anarchy this caused in North India, it became very difficult for Hindu pilgrims to visit religious places there. As a result, in 1736, the Marathas under Peshwa Baji Rao I made a demand to Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah that Mathura along with Prayag, Gaya and Kashi be given to them in jagir. A demand that was rejected by the Mughals.

The Crux Of The Dispute

After the second Anglo-Maratha war, Mathura came under the rule of the British East India Company, in 1804. The land at Katra, which comprised the Eidgah and its surroundings, measuring 13.37 acres, was auctioned by the British in 1807 and was purchased by Raja Patnimal of Benaras, one of the richest bankers in North India, for Rs 1,410. It is claimed that he wanted to rebuild the Keshavdev temple here, but could not do so. He did build the Shiv Tal tank as well as the Dirgha Vishnu Temple in Chowk Bazar in Mathura.

In the early 1920s and ’30s, there arose a dispute over whether the land purchased by Raja Patnimal from the British included the Shahi Eidgah or just the land around it. There were no clear deeds going back to 1804 that explicitly demarcated the plot.

In February 1944, the noted industrialist Jugal Kishore Birla acquired the 13.37 acres of Katra land from the heirs of Raja Patnimal for Rs 13,400. On 21st February 1951, this land was vested with the Sri Krishna Janmasthan Trust with the intention of establishing a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna.

The crux of the current dispute is - was the Shahi Eidgah part of the land purchased by Jugal Kishore Birla or not, and if it was, did he have the right to buy it from Patnimal’s heirs?

A number of Marwari industrialists like Jaidayal Dalmia, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and others contributed funds and a temple was built next to the Shahi Eidgah, which is today known as the Sri Krishna Janmasthan Temple Complex.

Remains found during excavations at the Katra Mound | Wikimedia Commons

The construction of the temple complex began in October 1953, with the levelling of the mounds. The most prominent temple in the complex is the Keshavdev Temple, which was funded by industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia and completed in 1958. Other temples were added to the complex over time.

To avoid any religious conflict, a compromise agreement was signed between the Deodhar Shastri of the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan and Sri Shah Mir Malih and Shri Abdul Ghaffar, the representatives of the Shahi Masjid Idgah Trust on 12th October 1968. The agreement states:

“In order to settle the long-standing disputes between the Shri Krishna Janamasthan Sangh and the Shahi Masjid Idgah Trust and the so-called Ghosi [milkmen] tenants and licensees of the second party; we under suggestion of the members of both Hindu and Muslim communities, have reached an agreement, henceforth, to settle our bilateral disputes and avoid cases against each other.”

Clause Number 2 of the agreement states:

“Outside the northern and southern walls, the area occupied by Muslim ghosis shall be evacuated on behalf of the Trust and handed over to the Janamasthan Seva Sangh. Thereafter, the Trust or the ghosis shall not be entitled to claim the above mentioned portion of the land.

“Similarly, the portion of land lying inside the northern and southern walls shall be the trust's property. Hence there shall be no claim on this land on the part of the Seva Sangh.”

This 1968 agreement clearly demarcated the areas controlled by the Eidgah and the temple trust.

This legal agreement was meant to seal any potential dispute between Hindus and Muslims, but that was not to be. The settlement was registered with the local court. The status quo in Mathura got an added legal cover when, on 18th September 1991, the Government of India passed the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991, which aims to

“prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

This legal provision was in response to the Ram Janmabhoomi / Babri Masjid Agitation taking place in Ayodhya, but covered Mathura and other places as well. Interestingly, this Act does not apply to the Babri Masjid site, due to which the Supreme Court could hear the matter. But this provision is applicable in the case of Mathura.

This makes the case of Mathura interestingly different from that of Ayodhya. Unlike the Babri Masjid site, there is clear evidence of a grand temple which stood at the site in Mathura. But there is also a legal compromise deed as well as an Act of Parliament that supports the status quo. In its 2019 judgement regarding the construction of a temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi site, the Supreme Court clearly stated that legal cases similar to Ayodhya cannot be entertained in respect to other sites in India, in view of this Act.

But, sadly, neither historic facts nor legal obstacles have ever come in the way of religious politics in India. Attempts and the tempo of slogans, in this case around “Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi” always gather steam, close to elections.

How this plays out remains to be seen.