Long before a tobacco-chewing dacoit with an evil grin scorched the silver screen with his manic laughter in the 1975 Bollywood cult Sholay, the real-life Gabbar Singh was unleashing terror across three states from his hideout in the ravines of Chambal—pillaging, plundering, killing; and cutting off noses of policemen his gang caught. The 1950s-1970s were the heydays of several gangs of dacoits operating from Chambal—the wild west of India in the hilly terrain cut through by the Chambal river. This was—and still is—the home to hundreds of Hindu temples, big and small. For the bandits, the ruling deities were the guardian angels. This is the story of Chambal’s dacoits and their enduring love for the temples that gave them sanctuary.
Several former outlaws, who gave up the gun long ago, have written to the Centre, requesting urgent steps to restore and preserve the remaining temples that have stood the ravages of time. Among these holy sites is the Bateshwar temple complex, situated on a hilly range about 30 km from Morena. Believed to be a smaller version of the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is spread across 25 acres, but large sections of the temple are in bad shape despite conservation initiatives from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Locals say that Bateshwar might have been derived from Bhooteswar, another name of god Shiva. Most of these temples were constructed during the reign of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty that ruled large tracts of northern India from the mid-eighth to the 11th centuries. It is believed that the complex had 400 small and big temples but most of them turned to rubble in earthquakes. Experts say Bateshwar might be India’s biggest temple complex.
Chambal is home to hundreds of temples. For the bandits, the deities at these shrines were their guardian angels.
“Of 400 temples, 80 were restored till 2004-05, but the rest are still in ruins. I make a humble request to the Prime Minister to intervene for the sake of our rich heritage and culture,” says Mohar Singh Gurjar, 92, a former dacoit who once carried a reward of Rs 3 lakh. He wrote a letter to the PM in the first week of September.
Singh, whose gang of about 200 members was involved in over 400 cases of loot, murder and kidnapping in a span of 15 years, says he used to keep a certain amount aside after every robbery for temple donation. “We used to buy temple bells weighing over a quintal for donation to temples across Chambal,” says Singh, who surrendered in 1972 and served a jail term of eight years.
Most of the dacoits were known to be staunch believers. Locals recall that Nirbhay Gurjar, who terrified the Chambal region till he was killed in a shootout with police in 2005, used to visit this temple complex to pray to Hanuman before each blood-soaked raid.
He used to often distribute the booty among gang members in front of the deity, locals recollect. Chambal folklore has it that dozens of other gangs of fearsome dacoits from the late 1950s till early 2000, gathered here and prayed to Shiva and Vishnu for “safety” and “success” in their pillage-and-plunder runs.
Ratan Das, a former dacoit, in Chambal.
Ratan Singh, a member of the Nirbhay Gurjar gang, became a “saint” after giving up arms and changed his surname to Das. “After I surrendered in 2007, I decided to devote the rest of my life to religious activities. This temple is lying in neglect for years. I often come and spend time here. I humbly request the PM to do something,” he says.
Relatives and family members of dacoits such as Rajveer Singh, the great-grandson of Gabbar, has also appealed to the PM in writing to direct the ASI to expedite the restoration work. “It’s a heritage that can become a tourist spot, but both the state government and the ASI have turned a blind eye,” Rajveer says.
Chambal folklore has it that gangs of dacoits gathered at the temple to pray for “safety” and “success” in their raids.
Locals believe that restoration of the temples can boost their livelihood as the complex can attract tourist and create jobs. “At present, we get a handful of visitors, mainly from neighbouring states. Foreign tourists rarely come here,” says Anurag Gurjar of a national union of the Gujjar community. Gurjar says he has tried several initiatives to draw the attention of the ASI and government authorities in the past few years.
Archaeologists, who headed the Bhopal Circle of ASI at different times, shared interesting anecdotes about the temple. A.K. Sinha, who joined Bhopal Circle as superintending archaeologist in 1996, recollects: “When I reached here for the first time, it was hidden in dense forests and we could only see two or three temples. But when we cleared the trees, there were remains of 400 temples in several acres.” Though the ASI declared it a protected monument in 1924, there was no restoration work till 1996.
A temple complex in Chambal, which is believed to have inspired the design of our Parliament .
Sinha says he could restore eight temples before he was transferred. Beautifully carved sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses in sandstone reflect an intense love for architecture of the Gurjara-Pratihara rulers. The work expedited during K.K. Muhammed’s tenure from 2004-2010. He recalls having collaborated with dacoits since restoration was not possible without their help. “It was in a deep forest infested with all kinds of criminals,” he says. “By 2007, all the dacoits were either eliminated or surrendered. The mining lobby, which couldn’t dare to enter the jungles when the dacoits were active, took over the area and the vibrations from explosion of dynamites hampered the restoration work,” he says. At the time of his transfer to Delhi in 2010, about 80 temples were restored. “It is a treasure trove which deserves a lot of attention,” says Muhammed, a Padma Shri awardee who settled in Kerala after retirement.
Bhuvan Vikram, the present superintending archaeologist at the Bhopal Circle, says restoration has not stopped. “It is a time-consuming process. We have floated a fresh tender for labour and other mechanical requirements and work will start once again very soon,” he promises.
About 6 km from Bateshwar temple is another architectural wonder, the Chausath Yogini temple atop a hill in Mitawali village. It is believed to be of the same age as Bateshwar. “There is a strong possibility that the design of our Parliament House was inspired by Chausath Yogini temple,” Muhammed suggests.