After a sensational claim by Hindu petitioners that a "Shivling" had been found in a pond at the Gyanvapi Masjid complex in Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi, a court today ordered it sealed.
The "Shivling" (symbol of Lord Shiva) was said to be found this morning, on the last day of the court-mandated filming of the mosque complex following a petition seeking access to pray at a shrine behind the mosque.
Water was drained from the pond and a "Shivling" was found, claimed Subhash Nandan Chaturvedi, the lawyer representing a group of Hindu women who have sought year-long access to pray at the shrine. Some of the petitioners reportedly exclaimed "Baba Mil Gaye" at the court ruling.
The pond, used for "Wazoo" or purification rituals before namaaz, must be sealed, the petitioners requested the court. The court accepted the plea and ordered the Varanasi District Magistrate to ensure that the pond was closed to the public. The court also said the administration, police and security personnel must make sure no one entered the sealed area.
Muslim petitioners rejected the assertion, claiming it was a "fountain, not a shivling".
Reports of a "shivling" being found within the mosque complex were not confirmed by the Varanasi District Magistrate, Kaushal Raj Sharma, when he spoke to the media earlier.
"No details of the survey of Gyanvapi mosque were disclosed by any member of the commission. The court is the custodian of the information about the survey. One member was debarred from the commission for about a few minutes yesterday, later admitted to the commission," Mr Sharma had told reporters.
The Gyanvapi mosque stands next to the iconic Kashi Vishwanath temple. The five women petitioners have asked the court to allow daily prayers before idols on its outer walls as well as other "visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex". The site is currently open for prayers once a year.
The Varanasi Civil Court ordered a video assessment of the mosque complex, including three domes, underground basements and the pond, and appointed a court commissioner for the task.
A part of this survey took place on May 6 but was halted after a dispute broke out over filming inside the mosque. The mosque committee said the court had not ordered videography inside the mosque.
The court-ordered filming was challenged before Allahabad High Court, which dismissed the case in April. The High Court order was challenged in the Supreme Court.
A lawyer representing the Gyanvapi Mosque trust that approached the Supreme Court against the filming order said it is at odds with the Places of Worship Act, 1991. The Supreme Court refused to stop the filming but agreed to consider a Muslim petitioner's plea against the survey of the mosque complex.
Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya welcomed the development and tweeted: "However much you hide the truth, it always comes out". AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi said Muslims are not prepared to lose "another mosque" after Babri Masjid.