"Will we encounter dacoits on the way?” I ask Omprakash Narwaria, my guide for the day, only half in jest. I had spotted some speeding motorcyclists with guns slung jauntily on their shoulders. It is a foggy winter morning. We are on the road on a short drive from Gwalior, about 30 kilometres, to the once dacoit- infested Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. He smiles. “Not at all. People here carry shastra (arms) as a status symbol, so rest assured. But, of course, daakus (dacoits) have a key role to play in the story of the temples we are about to visit today.”
This is a story of an unlikely collaboration between the dreaded dacoits of Chambal, Madhya Pradesh, and Indian government functionaries. Or is it a story of one man and his fearless team? Of near superhuman efforts to bring to life some hitherto unheard-of beauties of Indian heritage? Or a tale of once-mighty dynasties that built these temples. Whichever way you look at it, one cannot help but be filled with awe when you first see the beautiful and forgotten structures.
Narwaria is quiet, sombre even. He works with the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) Gwalior office, and was a part of the team that worked on restoring the temples. He also has a Master’s degree in Archaeology. I am fortunate to have him as our guide for the day—he is quite patient, forever willing to answer my constant queries.
We drive past the locked, eight-feet tall spiked gate into the compound of the Bateshwar group of temples, our first port of call. Alighting onto a sandstone pathway, we murmur how there is not a soul in sight. Crying peafowls greet us, and stay throughout the visit. From a distance, through the fog, I see a cluster of beautiful, mounted temples—arrayed in rows and columns on an elevated platform. walking closer, I notice the hefty rubble strewn around.
“When we first visited the site, the entire area was filled with the debris of the temples,” explains Narwaria. “Not one temple was standing.” The Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty ruled a large swathe of north and central India from mid-800 CE to mid-1100 CE. They were rich and powerful, their might stopping Arab visitors who conquered much of the areas they entered around Asia. The Gurjara-Pratiharas were great temple-builders too. Their style of architecture can be seen in several monuments, such as the Baroli temple complex in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan and most notably at Bateshwar’s group of temples. Khajuraho in Bundelkhand, built by the Chandelas, actually mimics the style of Bateshwar—the Chandelas were vassals of the Gurjara-Pratiharas.
A cataclysmic event around the 13th century destroyed the Bateshwar temples. There are many theories around it. Some say it was invaders, while others say it was an earthquake. Judging by the state of the rubble, in my assessment, it seems the latter. No human intervention could have created such havoc.
In my telephone call with him, K.K. Mohammed comes across as an unassuming person. Now retired from the ASI, he is still passionate about the conservation and restoration of ruins. “When I was appointed the ASI chief for Madhya Pradesh, I was quite keen on seeing the work in store at various sites across my jurisdiction,” he says. This included Bateshwar. But Mohammed was dissuaded by his colleagues, who were worried about the dominance of dacoits in the area. The Bateshwar temples were a known hideout of a gang, but ironically, their presence became a blessing in disguise, warding off local villagers from pilfering blocks of stone from the site.
Not one to be discouraged, Mohammed began talks with Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, the gang leader who carried a bounty of 2.5 lakh on his head. Not a small sum of money some 20 years ago. 'Permission' was then granted for the ASI to work at the site from dawn to dusk, after which the dacoits would take over the place. Mohammed would descend on the location with his team, which included Narwaria. what they saw was immense heaps of rubble, and not a temple in sight. It was as if the Creator had showered millions of Lego bricks from the sky, and the archaeologists had to reconstruct the past. There were no model pictures of what the finished structure would look like.
But some past experiences, like restoring the Mahakaleshwar temple in Khargone, helped, as did old treatises on Hindu temple architecture. The team worked rapidly and rebuilt a total of 70 temples in just five years. Mohammed was then transferred to New Delhi. The work has since been somewhat tardy, with 120-130 temples yet to be rebuilt.
Only 80 temples stand at the site today. Still, I would point out that nowhere else would you see such a high number of temples in an area as small as 25 acres. It reminds you of the complex at Angkor Wat, except the math is a little different— Angkor Wat has five times the number of temples, in an area sixteen times the size of the Bateshwar group.
The temples here are small; some are basic cells with a shikhara. The others are more elaborate, with intricately carved pillars and supporting lintels, shikhara, amalaka (a grooved stone disc) just below the kalasha which sits atop the temple structure. Some bear the shivalinga, while others have only the pedestal without any idol. Being an ASI site, no worship is allowed here. One of them, the Bhooteshwar temple (another name for Shiva) is just like the others, bells and all. Bateshwar derives its name from this particular member. I sit quietly amid the temples, all by myself. The atmosphere in this little valley, surrounded by the lush green Aravallis on three sides, is undeniably serene. A cacophony of birds and peacocks is nudged now and then by the fresh, cool breeze blowing by, which carries the remnants of warming winter sunshine. Could I pack a few books and return again?
A stone’s throw from Bateshwar lies this ornately carved temple to Shiva from the 10th century. But it is not the temple you see first. What looms large is the bastion and walls of a small fort. Look closer, and you see odd pieces on the stonework that seem entirely out of place in a defensive structure. This, notes the ASI, is because the Jat ranas of Gohad had taken fragments of temple masonry and incorporated them into the walls in the 18th century. A pair of stone lions straddle a steep staircase, and you are welcomed to climb the 26 steps to the collapsible metal gate that guards the temple. The Mukha mandapa, the outer sanctum and entrance, is first, followed mostly by ruins that lie in a heap in the courtyard. I have never seen a temple—or any other monument—where each square centimetre, both external and internal, was so intricately carved with scenes from Hindu epics. And yes, for good measure, a sprinkling of erotica too!
Ekattarso Mahadev Temple
Mitaoli village, a four-minute drive from Padavali, hosts our next gem for the day. On a hillock some 100 feet high, I spot a circular construction, slightly obscured by foliage and dust. The steep climb over the rocky incline is rather tough; I stop twice to catch my breath. I reach the flat top, and am now up close with the complex, which is also known as the Chausath Yogini Temple. Perfectly circular, this has a novel structure with 64 small temples along the circumference, each with its own open mandapa and an image of Shiva. It is believed each of these spaces originally held figures of yogini— spiritual masters who represented the sacred feminine. In the middle of this circle is a smaller temple, the main shrine, dedicated to Shiva. The site has an uncanny resemblance to the Indian parliament. At Mitaoli, the columns are on the inside of the circular structure while our parliament features columns on the outside.
This structure, I think, stands solely on will power. A 130-feet Shiva temple built by Kachchhapaghata king Kirttiraja, it stands on a broad platform as a remarkable feat of engineering. Built by stacking large, chiselled stones, the structure shows no use of concrete or binders, its solidity coming solely from the pressure cast by the rocks on one another. King Kirttiraja built this temple in the early 11th century. folklore says that Shiva himself commanded his ghostly followers to build a temple for him. They worked through the night but ran away at daybreak, leaving the temple unfinished. I am sure that the genesis of this story lies in the appearance of the temple from a distance. As Mahesh, the ASI officer at the site, observes, “It looks like a kankaal (skeleton).” The columns and capitals have intricate iconography— ditto for the walls. Sadly, all the idols have been mercilessly disfigured. None of the archaeologists have dared to go around fixing this temple, since it is in such a precarious stage. Narwaria remembers a particularly stormy night when he was sure the structure would fall apart like a pack of cards.
The Nareshwar Temples
I pat myself on the back after having reached this cluster of 21 temples in the middle of nowhere. It lies 18 kilometres northeast of Gwalior, and we drive to the nearest motorable point and walk the remaining 2 kilometres uphill on a rocky path. Even after nearing the temple complex, I am barely able to see it. I ask Narwaria how other visitors manage to find the temple. He says, “Not too many come here. Those who do ask the local villagers for directions.”
I clamber over the non-descript stone wall erected to keep out cattle, and descend into a shallow valley. I then see the small temples across multiple levels, and that they are connected by steps. Shiva and Durga are the primary deities here, and the site displays the earliest Valabhi-style shikharas (a rectangular, vaulted roof style) in Central India. Some of the temples are cut into cliffsides, with rock faces forming their roofs.
The Durga temple has a fresh red curtain at its entrance with bells hanging down. Locals must drop in for worship. I am in a state of euphoria after visiting all these temples. Gems of our heritage, barely any distance from Gwalior and yet few Indians have heard about them—I did not encounter any other visitor during my trip.
And what about the danger, you ask? The days of dreaded Chambal Valley dacoits are long gone. The ex-dacoits, who were staunch worshippers of the deities that allowed them sanctuary in these complexes, appealed to the government to accelerate restoration here. The campaign was spearheaded by the notorious, 90-something Mohar Singh, who wrote to the Prime Minister last year. I will let you in on a secret—there still are dacoits in the region. These are the temples themselves, waiting to steal visitors’ hearts. They wait patiently, for the hum of an engine, for curious eyes to gaze in.
Gwalior is your ideal base to explore Morena. It has hotels for all budgets, and is the nearest railhead and airport. Take direct flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Jammu and Indore to reach Morena, or the 3.5-hour journey on the Shatabdi Express from Delhi. The temples in this story lie north of Gwalior, the furthest about 60 kilometres away.