MOMENTS AFTER District and Sessions Judge Rajiv Bharti said “plea accepted”, chants of ‘Jai Sri Krishna’ rang through the corridors of the court in Mathura. Soon, the temple town on the fringes of the National Capital was swarming with lawyers and news crews, all preparing to cover the big headline: the judge had allowed an appeal by the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Trust and other parties seeking ownership of the land on which the Shahi Idgah Mosque was built in the 17th century.
The appeal seeks removal of the mosque from the 13.77-acre complex, which it shares with the Katra Keshav Dev Temple. The Shahi Idgah was built on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb adjacent to the Krishna Janmasthal — believed to be the place where Lord Krishna was born — reportedly after demolishing a temple.
As breathless anchors and commentators rushed to unpack the news on television screens and social media, in the chaotic, winding lanes of Mathura, the order brought a sense of unease and dread.
Just outside the court complex, advocate Hassan Ahmed Khan admonishes a litigant who asks if the Idgah will be demolished. “The expansion of the temple complex, including the Gita Bhawan, all happened in my lifetime. Even as a teenager, I visited the temple with my friends. Why should we now pay for Aurangzeb’s sins?” says the 63-year-old.
As proof of the camaraderie between the two communities, Khan also points to Brij Bihari Saraswat, an advocate he shares his office with. “Hassan sahab’s daughter’s wedding last week had more Hindus than Muslims… I always took my Muslim friends for darshan at the temple… Things changed a little bit after 1991 when everyone had to undergo security checks, but this is a temple town for everyone, not just the Hindus,” says Saraswat.
While sections on both sides of the debate blame “outsiders” and media for sensationalising the news, many also speak in hushed tones about walking in the ominous footsteps of Ayodhya, another temple town that remained caught in legal wrangles until November 2019, when the apex court gave ownership of the disputed 2.77-acre land to the Ram Janmabhoomi trust.
In Mathura, the silhouette of the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple’s red sandstone shikara, towering ever so slightly over the white Shahi Idgah domes with green trims, can be seen from almost anywhere. Although the Idgah and a part of the temple complex are divided only by a wall in the bustling town centre, entry to both places is separated by at least a kilometre — the masjid and the mandir side clearly demarcated with signs.
The entry to the Idgah is through a narrow lane on Deeg Gate, beyond a small railway crossing. The entrance is barricaded and is guarded by a few policemen. Almost behind the Idgah, a wide road leads to the Katra Keshav Dev Temple complex, with shops on either side going up to Potra Kund, a stepwell where Krishna’s parents Devki and Vasudev are believed to have washed the clothes of their newborn children.
Another lane to the right of the stepwell leads to the site of the Janmasthan as it exists now — the claim is that the actual birthplace is under the dome of the Shahi Idgah.
At the temple complex, 39-year-old Naeem takes off his shoes as he prepares to unload a consignment of poshak and mukut (clothing and crown) for the deity. His family has been supplying them for years to the temples at Vrindavan and other vendors.
“These are all made by Muslim women. My father would measure the deities, and at some new places, I have done it too. But now the idols are also of standard sizes, so we use stock measurements to make the outfits,” he says.
The poshaks are embroidered and stitched by Muslim women, and the outfit of the smallest size is sold for Rs 3. On a Friday, at her one-room house near Holi Gate, Parveen is racing against time to finish a 1,000 poshaks by the end of the day. She’s careful, she says, to use a bar of soap to push the thread through the needle, “and not saliva like most craftsmen do”.
“Even for printing the embroidery design, we use Keo Karpin hair oil which has a nice fragrance. It blends with the fragrance of the flowers that are offered to the deity. We don’t use kerosene,” she says.
Parveen’s uncle, Munna Khan, 61, an advocate, effortlessly breaks into a kirtan in praise of Lord Krishna in between his sentences. In his younger days, he says, he had played the role of Angad (the mythical vanara prince who helps Lord Ram find his wife Sita in Ramayan) in Ramlila for over a decade. “When I was born, my mother saw my big ears and decided I would fit right in for the part,” he laughs.
Close to the Idgah, Bharat Seth, a local businessman, is wary of how Mathura is being perceived in Delhi and other parts of the country. “Humare yahan Radha ki chunari bhi Salma Begum silti hai,” he says.
But beneath the co-dependency of communities that have lived together for generations, a sense of fear is palpable. Locals say they have withstood communal tensions for long but agree that the bonhomie might be hard to hold on to. Last year, despite heightened security on December 6, the day Babri Masjid was demolished, provocative slogans were raised in the town.
In the scorching summer heat, Sajida is sitting outside her son Tariq’s metal jewellery shop, muttering her request again. Some relatives are coming over and she wants him to arrange for meat through “someone traveling from Aligarh or Hathras”. “Mein dekhta hoon…abhi nahin (Let me see… Not now),” says Tariq reluctantly, before leaving for Friday prayers.
“It was easier to tell acquaintances to buy meat for us earlier. Things are very different now, nobody wants to take a risk,” says Tariq.
Unlike his Muslim friends in the neighbourhood, Seth does not talk in hushed tones about the UP government’s meat and liquor ban within a 10-km radius of the temple, announced last year by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. “Six eggs are enough for a Muslim shopkeeper to get picked up by police. It costs Rs 30,000-35,000 to have them released,” says Seth.
The young in Mathura have their hopes pinned on the courts to deliver the healing touch — or not. “I don’t usually concern myself with politics, but you cannot deny that what happened 400 years ago was wrong. It should not have happened. It will now be decided in court,” says Aastha, an undergraduate student.
“If there is a genuine case, then courts should decide it quickly, else politics will ruin everything,” says Hrishikesh, 20. Meanwhile, new construction jostles for space with the temple’s tower and the Idgah’s dome in Mathura’s hazy skyline.