The vast expanse around the granite temple is largely dry, accentuating its forlorn looks. Till recently, the secluded spot used to be a den for drinkers and gamblers even as the 800-year-old structure, contrastingly, features an enclosure for a solemn occasion: last rites of the Lingayat community. It’s another matter the Bara Khambi mandir in central Maharashtra had been threatened with encroachment. Today, the small Shiva shrine off Ambejogai is in the throes of a makeover that is turning out to be increasingly controversial.
It happened a couple of months ago when a massive clean-up exercise around the place of worship gave clue to it being just the top of a much bigger structure. The site lies half-excavated, begging for restoration, conservation and, more importantly, protection. The facelift was part of the Swachhata Abhiyan involving residents of Ambejogai in Beed district. Along with the volunteer-driven shramdan activities, a JCB was deployed. It is hard to tell if the purpose was excavation or sanitation. Whatever, the mission churned up a range of artefacts: idols (big and small), structures resembling the wheel and an arch. Steps to a tank-like structure have resurfaced after the soil was moved. The state department of archaeology has stepped in, but things are moving at a snail’s pace.
It isn’t as if none had a hunch of ancient valuables beneath the temple soil and around. Activists and local residents say that occasionally, after a heavy spell of rains, an idol or two would peek out of the ground. The officials were tipped about the phenomenon 15 years ago. “We had written to the department of archaeology as well as to the local tehsil office. That was way back as 2002 when people from brick kilns tried to steal the soil around the temple,” says Hanumant Pokharkar, who runs a publication called Jai Siyaram and was one of the organisers of the ‘cleanliness drive’. “We are Lingayats (whose worship is centred around Lord Shiva). We do the last rites of our members in that area around Bara Khambi. The pujaris have, thus, been using the temple vicinity for centuries.”
Earlier this year, the locals decided to clear the thorny scrubs around Bara Khambi mandir. Over-enthusiasm led to unscientific excavation, prompting the local media and activists to alert the authorities in Aurangabad, 200 km northwest. The excavation was stopped, and officials decided to carry it out on their own—at a later date—while acknowledging the protection-worthiness of the shrine. A preliminary report says the architecture of the temple dating back to the 12th century has influences from the periods of the dynasties of Chalukya (6th to 12th C) and Yadava (for five centuries till 1334). It may also fit the description of Hemadpanthi style of architecture that used black stone and lime, available locally, to build temples as well as mosques in the 13th century.
The site, 3.5 km from Ambejogai town in Marathwada, is now surrounded by the excavated idols. A few youngsters while away time in the temple, while an old man walks around with the airs of a caretaker. The statuettes are mostly in dancing postures—some seem to have Mongolian features, some African. Some of them have numbers now, many don’t. A little away, a concrete platform for last rites has been erected. The bottom part of the temple, an elevated structure, now stands exposed owing to the shoddy excavation. The temple itself is at a risk because of damaged foundation, says a preliminary inspection report from the department of archaeology.
Amar Habib, a farmers’ activist who lives in Ambejogai, says the “invaluable finds” are at the risk of being stolen and damaged. “A few days after authorities stopped the digging, we found one of the statues close to the main road,” he adds. “The pieces need to be counted as well as numbered, and provided security.”
Ambejogai, which most famously has a temple by that name (the clan goddess of Kokanastha Brahmins), is hometown of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. That gram devata shrine, which is now part of the pilgrimage circuit, has around it shops and hotels. Several buses from all over the state reach the town, which also has Hattikhana (elephant house) stone-cave. Legend has it that it is a precursor to the Ajanta Ellora caves (480 to 1000 CE). It is said the artists first tried to carve in Ambejogai, but found the stone too hard. The town also houses the samadhi of Mukundraj Swami (1128-1200) who wrote the first Marathi poetic work, Vivek Sindhu. Locals believe that restoration of the Bara Khambi temple will add to tourism value.
The state archaeology department says the work at Bara Khambi will start soon. A preliminary report by its officials after site visit on January 27 attributes the damage to the JCB. “Earlier, it was not a protected monument. But after what has been discovered, it will soon get a grade and protection,” says Ajeet Khandare, an assistant director with the department.
The newly dug-up artefacts around the shrine lie without security
For “scientific” excavation, the official says the department’s experts must get “free”. Now, that adds to the gravity of the situation, given the extent of damage and unconfirmed reports about disappearance of some of the antiquities. What’s more, the department is not only short-staffed and headless; it has possibly no funds for Bara Khambi, says archaeologist Kurush Dalal says. “The department has been without a director. Yet it is wrong to say none knew anything about Bara Khambi. It’s also ridiculous to claim nothing could be done,” he adds. “When directors are not archaeologists, conservation and protection become a challenge.”
Arvind Jamkhedkar, an ex-director of the department, notes that “every little” historical piece is important for an archaeologist. “Each of them can potentially give us information. Whatever, use of JCB (by a private party) to explore the area is unforgivable,” he recalls. “The archaeology department, which is dependent on the government, often ends up prioritising funds. Even if money comes, there may not be manpower.”
Apart from stop-work notice, no other action has been taken at Bara Khambi. Jai Siyaram’s Pokharkar, who was once active in the BJP, says the issue is not political. “I can share several letters where we tried hard to get the authorities to come and do this. Why would we want to cause harm to our god, our heritage? It was in broken condition we discovered many of the idols. We haven’t done anything deliberately. We were only trying to conserve the premises that were allotted and encroached upon.”
Notwithstanding the lapses and arguments, the stakeholders agree on the value of the Bara Khambi discovery. Locals are keen on developing a museum in Ambejogai, rather than see it transported to other cities—as seems to be the plan of the department. “We want to add to the value of the town for tourism purpose,” says Habib. “As it is, many people visit the Ambejogai temple. If a gallery is established and adequate security provided, there will be more people coming around. In any case, monuments and statues should ideally be maintained at the place they were found.”
As the sun fades and darkness envelopes the Bara Khambi landscape, the elderly caretaker bids goodbye to those present on the site, taking selfies with the statues or on the temple steps. Soon, even their shadows disappear—and the vast open excavated stretch around turns all the more eerie.