The history of the Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh cannot be written without a significant mention of the infamous Baghis (rebels nay dacoits) of every persuasion. The labyrinth of gullies, known locally as the beehad, formed by accelerated erosion of the soil in the Chambal river basin, were a natural refuge for these outlaws to embark on their quests for justice and ‘revenge’. In fact, most associate the region with the phrase ‘Chambal ke Daku,’ with the late Phoolan Devi, being its most storied personality. Deep in these ravines, 35 kms from Gwalior, where one dared not venture in the early 70s and 80s, for the not too unreasonable fear of being waylaid by its fearsome residents, you find a cluster of temples, which tell quite another tale. Long, long before Phoolan and her ilk captured the nation’s attention.
The history of these temples in the Chambal is as shrouded in mystery, as the legends of the gun-toting dacoits that roamed it. The Bateshwar temples, as they are popularly known, are a complex of around 200 temples spread over an area of 25 acres. Deriving its name from ‘Bhuteshwar’, a manifestation of Shiva, the temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu, the three major sects of Hinduism. However, very little is known of its early history.
Archaeologists and historians believe that these temples were built between the 8th and 10th centuries, under the patronage of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty, who ruled a vast empire stretching from the Narmada river to the the foothills of the Himalayas. Ruling from their capital Kannauj, the Gurjara-Pratiharas were great patrons of art and architecture.
Why were the temples constructed at this location? Was this an important center of worship? We still don’t have the answers. Nor do we know why the temple complex was abandoned, if indeed that is what happened.
The Gurjara-Pratihara empire itself, began to decline in the 10th century CE and the capture of its capital Kannauj by Mahmud of Gazni in 1018 CE dealt the final blow. However, it is important to note that none of the temples in Bateshwar show any sign of damage due to invasions. Over time, these temples were swallowed up by the jungles.
The temples became known to the wider world only in the late 19th century. It was the noted British Archaeologist and founder of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Sir Alexander Cunningham, who noticed them during a trip to Central India in 1882.
Interestingly though, Cunningham only makes a single line reference to the temples in his book ‘Report of a Tour in Eastern Rajputana in 1882-83’,stating
It was only in 1920 that Bateshwar was notified by ASI as a protected site.
However, since the 1940s, the area had become infamous for its dangerous residents and was considered unsafe. This meant that the site got very little attention from archaeologists and visitors alike. Ironically, it also meant that temples were relatively untouched and free from vandalism.
As late as the year 2000, the area was under the control of dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, the last of the feared dacoits of Chambal, who was killed in an encounter in 2005. It was around 2002 that the ASI, under the leadership of then Director of ASI Bhopal circle, KK Muhammed, began documenting and restoring the temple.
In several interviews, KK Muhammed has spoken about how he had to seek the co-operation of Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, so that the ASI could carry out the restoration work. Most temples were in a state of disrepair and had crumbled, he found. The team carried out serial numbering and re-assembling of the broken materials to recreate the original temple complex, and around 60-80 of the 200 temples in the complex were restored.
The dacoits of Chambal have long since laid down their guns and the Bateshwar temple complex is today ready to receive scholars, tourists and visitors. It is time to re-visit an old chapter in the story of the great ravines, the great old kingdoms that ruled them, and the temples whose bells have echoed for a thousand years.
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