There is a typical charm about ruins, old stones and buildings. The stones and ruins all seem to narrate a story – the stories of the past, their heydays and so much more. We have a special attachment to these old and ancient structures. We love to visit ancient forts, temples, mosques and ruins to look for chronicles of the past and their connection with the present. And this led us to our trip to the Bateshwar Temple complex in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. As many as 200 temples were lying in various stages of ruins. Those with a keen love for heritage and history will find the place fascinating, while others can simply marvel at the beauty of the place.
Morena was once known as the land of dacoits. The ravines on either side of Chambal River, known as the Chambal ki ghaati, are well known for having provided shelter for the infamous dacoits. But it was not the dacoits that interested us; Morena intrigued us with its lesser-known archaeological sites. On our last trip to Gwalior, we took a detour and visited a few archaeological sites of Morena – the Bateshwar Temple Complex, Padawali and Mitawali. The Bateshwar Temple is perhaps the grandest of them based on the sheer number of temples and is purely a symphony on stones.
Bateshwar Temple Complex or Batesara Group of Temples
Bateshwar Temple complex is located in Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. Also known as Batesara or Batesvar, the temple complex is situated on a hilly range about 30 km from Gwalior city near the village of Padavali. The temples are located within the densely forested ravine of Chambal Valley is one of the most interesting and staggering archaeological sites that we have come across in India. It is believed that there are almost 200 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti within an area of 25 acres. The name Bateshwar is believed to have been derived from Bhooteshwar, another name for Lord Shiva.
Bateshwar Temple – The Past & History
The temples are said to have been built during the 8th to 10th century AD by the Gurjara – Pratihara dynasty that ruled a large part of northern India from the mid-eighth century to the 11th century. The Pratihars considered themselves as Suryavanshis and are said to be the descendants of Lakshman from the epic Ramayana.
When I tried to look up for reference and details about these ancient temples and sites in Morena, I did not get much information about these archaeological sites. The earliest reference of these temples is found in the reports of Alexander Cummingham. He had visited this region in 1881-82 and mentioned about the temple complex and other temples in the vicinity.
He had mentioned the Bateshwar Temple complex as “a confused assemblage of more than 100 temples large and small, but mostly small, to the southeast of Paravali Padavali”.
At that time, the temple complex was in total ruins and only the main Bhuteshwar Temple and a few other temples were standing. Later, the reference of these temples is seen in the works of Dr. Rahman Ali in 1987 as he worked on the Pratihara art form in India. The Bateshwar Temple complex also finds mention in the monumental research work of R D Trivedi on the Pratihara Temples of Central India. But that is all we know about these temple complexes that lied in ruins across a slanted hill near Padavali.
Why were these temples of Bateshwar in such ruins? History does not give us a clear reason. There is no evidence of attack by invaders. The most accepted theory is that an earthquake in the 13th century had probably destroyed the temple complex. The site was brought under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1924 and since then the Bateshwar Temple complex has been conserved as a ruin.
It was only in 2005 when the restoration of the Bateshwar Temple complex was undertaken. It was at that time that archaeologist K K Muhammad came to know about Bateshwar and he decided to restore the temple complex. But before I go any further, let me tell you about Mr. Muhhamad.
The Man Behind the Restoration of Bateshwar Temple (Batesara Temple)
K K Muhammad, a Keralite had been a leading archaeologist in the ASI. He had led an 8 member team to discover Akbar’s Ibadat Khana (hall of inter-religious discussions), a Christian chapel and a Mughal Bazaar at Fatehpur Sikri. Restoration of the Bateshwar Temple complex has been one of his most commendable works. He is fluent in Sanskrit and has been inspired by the Upanishads. When US President Barrack Obama and Michelle Obama visited India, he was the one to take them on a tour to the Humayun’s Tomb. He was also responsible for making Sanchi Stupa disabled-friendly.
So when K K Muhammad was made the Superintending Archaeologist of Bhopal circle ASI, he straightaway asked for the most challenging archaeological site of the region. His staff had pointed towards Bateshwar Temple Complex and with that, they also warned him to stay away from the place.
The reason behind the warning is found in Chambal ki ghaati, the deep ravines of Chambal Valley that is also the hiding place of several dreaded dacoits of the region. After all, the deep maze of these ravines and the stunted vegetation provided an ideal habitat for the dacoits. Perhaps, no work in these archaeological ruins was done because of the dread of these dacoits. The dacoits used the temple complex as their hideout.
The Dakus (dacoits) of Chambal
The history of the dacoits in this region goes back to as early as the thirteenth century CE. The dacoits came to limelight only during the British era. However, most of these dacoits were Robin Hood of sorts. They were mostly local outlaws known as Baghis, who were either oppressed by the higher castes, suffered social injustice or were deprived by the law. It was commonly believed that most of these dacoits used to loot the rich people and then distribute the wealth among the poor. Most notorious among these dacoits were Thakur Maan Singh, Putli Bai, Malkhan Singh, Dong-Batri brothers, Sultan Singh, Phoolan Devi and Mohar Singh. Even after Indian independence, the menace of the dacoits continued in the Chambal region. Many Bollywood movies have been made with the theme of Chambal dacoits.
Gradually, these dacoits either gave up their guns and surrendered or were killed by police encounters. Though organized gang is no longer there in the Chambal region, the gun culture is still prevalent in the region.
Coming back to the present, during 2004, the dacoits had an unwritten control over the Chambal region. Their leader was Nirbhay Singh Gujjar who was said to run a parallel government in about 40 villages. There were as many as 239 criminal charges against him for murder, robbery and kidnapping in his 30 years of dacoity career.
When K K Muhammad first saw the Bateshwar Temple Complex in 2004, the temple was in very bad shape. Stones were strewn all over and mixed. Most of the temples were broken down and it seemed like a giant puzzle of stones. Mr. Muhammad decided to decode this jigsaw puzzle and restore the Bateshwar Temple to its former glory.
However, the job was not that easy. The first obstacle in solving the puzzle was the dacoits who had made the temple complex their hideout. So he decided to have a meeting with the dreaded dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. After several rounds of negotiations, he was able to convince the dacoit that these temples were built by his (Gujjar’s) ancestors. And as a true descendant, he must preserve and protect his heritage and show it to the world. Gujjar was somewhat convinced about the intentions of K K Muhammad and allowed him to start the restoration work. Gujjar asked the archaeologist to restore the front gate and the first 4 temples. The dacoits not only allowed the restoration work to start but also provided protection to the ASI workers and also helped them in the restoration work.
In the hindsight, it can also be said that these temples were preserved because of the presence of the dacoits. No one visited the area and no one carried away stones and the sculptures away, a common thing in most of the ancient monument sites in India.
K K Muhammad started working and with time the temples sprang up. After about 3 months, Nirbhay Singh Gujjar came to the site to see the progress of the work. He was totally surprised to see the place. By then, a gateway and a few temples were restored. He saw the work by the ASI workers, gave a wry smile and went away. It was as if he now gave full permission for the restoration work.
In the meanwhile, Indian Government who was on the pursuit of the Chambal dacoits shot dead Nirbhay Singh Gurjar. Thus ended the terror of dacoits in the region and the restoration work went on with full swing.
The next problem faced by K K Muhammad was the sand mafia of the region. There are several sand mines in the vicinity of the Bateshwar Temple Complex and mining activities started taking a toll on the temples and the restoration work. Despite requesting the government about the sand mafias, K K Muhammad did not receive any help. To stop mining the area, he involved RSS Chief K S Sudarshan. With Sudarshan’s connection, the government halted mining in the region temporarily and restoration worked continued at its pace. The government created a buffer zone of 750 metres around the site instead of the usual 200 metres. But illegal mining is always a threat to these ancient sites.
After the monumental effort of K K Muhammad and his team, the Bateshwar Complex seems to have regained its lost sheen. The giant jigsaw puzzle of Bateshwar is partially solved.
There is a video about the work done at Bateshwar Group of Temples where Mr. Muhammad tells about the work done by ASI, the challenges they faced and how they worked. Have a look at the video if it interests you.
Our visit to Bateshwar Temple Complex
We arrived at the Batesara Temple complex on an early morning. The sun was yet to show us his face, the villagers were gradually waking up from their slumber and the birds were chirping while waiting for the fresh rays of the morning sun. Winters in these areas can be as harsh as the summer. We had started at Gwalior quite early in the morning. Most of the time, there is a layer of fog all around and nothing could be seen properly. We were at Bateshwar by 8.00 am, but still, the fog was our constant companion.
While there was a dream-like charm in the place because of the fog, Agni was not happy. Those who are into photography very well know the importance of light in taking pictures of monuments. Nevertheless, we entered into the Bateshwar Temple Complex.
I was transfixed as I entered the complex. The Bateshwar temple complex is a mesmerizing mix of small and big temples set among a scattering of ruins. There are stones, pillar, friezes and sculptures all around you lying on the ground waiting to be restored to their former glory. And those already restored stood proudly showing their magnificence. The most striking statue that caught our eyes was the Hanuman Statue colored in red vermillion. The Hanuman statue is worshipped by the locals of the area.
Majority of the temples in the complex fall under the Pancharatha style, with 5 vertical offsets on each side. The earliest temples have plain square roofs known as mandapikas while the later evolved ones have Shikharas (tower). Most of the temples have a similar style and arrangement. The doors of the temples had various sculptures. As I started looking at them intently, I could identify Navgrahas (the nine planets), Dashavatars (ten incarnations of Vishnu), Ashta Dikpalas (the eight directions), serpent and a few others.
I saw a few of the temples depict a figure of Lakulisha holding a rod. It might have been possible that the region was under the influence of the Lakulisha sect during the 8th – 9th century CE. In the majority of the temples, I also saw figures of Nandi facing the temple. These temples were no doubt dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are temples dedicated to Vishnu as well as I could see the presence of Garuda in some of the temples.
The main temple of the complex, also the biggest one is the Bhutnath shrine. This is the only temple where the locals come to offer prayers. It is a complex of eleven temples – one main temple and ten subsidiary shrines. There is also a small water body in the middle of the temple complex where we saw the priest having a bath in that cold weather!
It was, in fact, a fascinating moment for us. We were overwhelmed to see so many temples packed in such a small area. Sometimes there is barely a few centimetres gap between the temples. As we went around the complex, we went to the small hut of the caretaker on the other side of the complex. It was there where we saw something very beautiful.
It was there where we saw peacocks. The peacocks in large number had come from the nearby jungle to have food. The caretaker of the temple would give keep some food and the peacocks, parrots and other birds would come to have them. Well, peacocks are quite common in these areas. But it is not in cities. We were quite excited to see the peacocks while Panditji of the temple kept smiling seeing our excitement. After all, we were at Morena! The word Morena is derived from the words ‘Mor’, meaning peacock and ‘Raina’, meaning living place. And there was an abundance of peacocks there.
We took photographs of the peacocks, parrots, temples and then started for the next monuments in the area. We had 3 more places to visit.
K K Muhammad considers Bateshwar Temple as his pilgrimage. Indeed, he and his team had painstakingly restored the lost Indian heritage from a mound of rubbles. By 2012, almost a hundred temples were restored by the team. The 1300-year-old temple complex had got a new lease of life. With so many temples together, the Bateshwar Temple Complex can easily be called the largest temple group in India. But the entire work is not done yet. Perhaps it needs another round of restoration to overcome the ravages of time.
I have always been vocal about criticizing the ASI and the State Archaeological Departments about conservation of a few archaeological sites. We have seen the ancient temples at Garhpanchkot in West Bengal being restored in such a careless manner. The old terracotta works were just being painted over. But Bateshwar Temple Complex has proved what amazing work the ASI is capable of providing the right person is present and there is an intention and desire to make a difference.
Bateshwar Temple (Batesara Temple Complex) Quick Facts
How to reach Bateshwar Temple Complex?
The Bateshwar Temple Complex is located near Padavali village in Morena district. The place is about 35 km from Gwalior and 30 km from Morena Railway Station.
It is best to hire a car from Gwalior and visit the Bateshwar Temple Complex, Padavali and Mitawali together. If time permits you can visit Kakanmath as well.
Please do not confuse this Bateshwar Temple with the one on the banks of Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh.
Where to stay?
It would be better to keep Gwalior as your base and then explore the archaeological sites of Morena. We had stayed at Gwalior and then explored these places.
Alternatively, you can also stay at Morena. But we would recommend you staying at Gwalior itself.
We started from Gwalior early in the morning and wanted to visit Bateshwar Temple, Padavali and the Chausath Yogini Temple at Mitawali. We had hired a car for this trip from Gwalior. We wanted to explore these places and return to Gwalior on the same day to catch our train to Khajuraho in the evening.
We visited the Bateshwar Temple Complex at first, as we were told that we can see a large number of peacocks there in the morning. That we saw and got quite happy! Later we visited the Garh Padavali and then the Chausath Yogini Temple at Mitawali.
On the recommendation of our driver, we went to visit Kakanmath Temple as well, which according to us was the highlight of our trip. After visiting these sites, we came back to Gwalior and then caught our train to Khajuraho.
We heard that plans are further made to commence the next phase of reconstruction and restoration of this project. We plan to visit Bateshwar Temple Complex and Morena again and would love to see the jigsaw puzzle completely solved. Just imagine, how grand the place would look!
Few more Pictures of Bateshwar Temple (Batesara Temple Complex)
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