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A city in India has been a melting pot of different faiths. What's testing that?


India's northern city of Varanasi, also known as Banaras, is among the oldest cities in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: The city has always been welcoming to different faiths and cultures. With thousands of temples, it's the epicenter of Hinduism. Muslims also make up nearly 30% of the population. Now a religious dispute is testing its tradition of harmony, as reporter Sushmita Pathak found on a recent visit.


SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Scooters, pedestrians and cycle rickshaws jostle for space on the street in Varanasi. It leads to the city's most famous shrine, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Walking alongside Hindu pilgrims are Muslim men in white skullcaps on their way to Friday prayers. Both sets of devotees are headed to the same place.

MICHAEL DODSON: There is a mosque there known as the Gyanvapi Mosque. And then next to the mosque is a temple.

PATHAK: Historian Michael Dodson describes how the Gyanvapi Mosque was built in the 17th century on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Today, a replica of the temple stands right by the mosque. For centuries, both structures have existed side by side, a shared space. But now many Hindus want to reclaim the site.

ABHINAV CHATURVEDI: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: "What is ours must be returned to us," says Abhinav Chaturvedi, a Hindu who runs a shop nearby. The mosque is now at the center of a legal dispute. Hindu plaintiffs believe idols of deities still exist inside the mosque, and an archaeological survey is under way.

CHATURVEDI: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: This should have happened much earlier, says Chaturvedi. The view is not uncommon among Varanasi residents, says Anand Mathew, a social activist and Catholic priest. This worries him.

ANAND MATHEW: A gradual change has been happening in the entire Varanasi City and all over because of the fundamentalistic ideology of the Hindutva supremacy.

PATHAK: Religious violence is not rare in India. In 1992, riots broke out after Hindus demolished a mosque. Political observers say Modi and his party have been pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda, fuelling religious disputes. Modi's party denies that. To promote interfaith harmony, Mathew has been organizing a series of interreligious prayers in the city.

MATHEW: Varanasi is a confluence of multiple religions. There has been a history of joyful, peaceful coexistence. And ordinary people want this peaceful coexistence.

PATHAK: There are plenty of examples of this coexistence. Hindus take part in religious processions during the Muslim month of Muharram. At the Muslim Sufi shrines dotting the city, most visitors are Hindu. Their livelihoods are also intertwined.


PATHAK: In the hand looms of the famous Banaras silk sarees, weavers are mostly Muslim, whereas clients and wholesalers are largely Hindu. Haji Mukhtar Mahto is a leader of the Weavers community.

HAJI MUKHTAR MAHTO: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: "Muslims are traumatized by what is happening. We are worried," he says. His son, Ahmed Faisal, chimes in to say that while everyone is focused on the religious issue, weavers in Varanasi are struggling to make ends meet.

AHMED FAISAL: (Through interpreter) I request Indian politicians to focus on ensuring employment and livelihood instead of religious matters. Our interfaith culture is under attack, but it will live on.

PATHAK: In the past, Varanasi has shown resilience. In 2006, the situation was ripe for sectarian violence after a bomb blast at an ancient Hindu temple in the city. But the community came together to defuse tensions, says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the head priest of that temple.

VISHWAMBHAR NATH MISHRA: And the city was in peace even after the bomb blast. So I think that was a litmus test for Banaras.

PATHAK: He hopes things continue to remain calm. At the joint entrance of the temple and mosque, police stand guard as archaeologists conduct their survey. A report is expected in the coming days. Mosque or temple, shopkeeper Surendra Kumar says it doesn't make a difference to ordinary people like him.

SURENDRA KUMAR: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Both are houses of God, he says. If only the public can accept that.

For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Varanasi, northern India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASH BLACK BUFFLO'S "BUHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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