How a Muslim archaeologist and a Hindu dacoit restored the Bateshwar temple complex – Abhishek Mande

Bateshwar Temples

Abhishek Mande BhotWhat you see today are over 80 temples restored to their former glory. This hidden gem wouldn’t have emerged if it weren’t for the support of a dacoit and the doggedness of an archaeologist. – Abhishek Mande

An hour’s drive from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is the abandoned temple complex of Bateshwar. Until the beginning of this century, the 200-odd temples were mostly a pile of rubble. Worse, they were out of bounds for most people. Not even the teams of the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), which had declared this a protected monument as early as 1924, were willing to visit the site to carry out conservation work.

Bateshwar is part of the infamous Chambal Valley where dacoits once held sway. Of the handful of gangs that wielded control here, the most powerful one was led by one Nirbhay Singh Gujjar who’d made these ruins his home.

The ruins were once majestic temples built sometime between the 8th and the 10th centuries AD by the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty that ruled much of northern India during that period. The kings of the dynasty were known for patronising sculptors and numerous temples, including the ones at Khajuraho, were commissioned during their reign. Bateshwar temples, which predate Khajuraho, have remained largely off the tourist map mostly because dacoits such as Gujjar controlled the region.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s when ASI archaeologist K.K. Muhammed was posted in Madhya Pradesh that things began to move. In a speech, Muhammed recollects the time when the ravines of Chambal were infested with dacoits, making it impossible for his teams to even visit the site where they knew stood a large temple complex.

He figured early on that if he had to make any progress, he would have to have the dacoits, especially, Gujjar, on his side. So, he began sending them messages through intermediaries, requesting them to provide access.

Muhammed is said to have prevailed upon Gujjar and assured him that all he intended was to restore the ancient temples. Gujjar, in turn, agreed to shift his base elsewhere for a short while and granted the ASI team safe passage.

When they arrived in Bateshwar, there were piles of rubble scattered all over. Only a couple of small temples were standing. In one place, a tree had grown through the very heart of a temple destroying it completely. These were the only indication that a majestic complex once stood here. A veteran archaeologist, Muhammed describes this as one of the least preserved sites he’d laid eyes on. This was going to take a lot of hard work.

Once the dacoits provided access, Muhammed and his team which included some locals began working in earnest. Because the project had Gujjar’s blessings, the restoration of the centuries-old temple complex went on without any hitch. That was in 2005.

In the same speech Muhammed says that the gruff Gujjar had reportedly visited the site incognito just to see its progress and was so happy, he allowed himself a small chuckle. What you see today is a result of years of work, members of ASI trying to work out the designs of the temples and finding the right pieces like a jigsaw puzzle—Muhammed himself was part of the team, and helped identify the deity to which the original temple may have been dedicated.

Yet, in the years that followed, Muhammed didn’t make any overtures to meet the dreaded dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, even though news of his exploits would often travel back to his old stomping grounds. One evening as Muhammed was surveying the work that had been done till then, he spotted an unkempt man sitting outside a temple smoking a bidi.

Annoyed, he chided the man for disrespecting the temple. One of the locals working for Muhammed saw what was going on from a distance and rushed to the spot requesting his boss to, basically, shut up.

Muhammed quickly realised who he was facing and sat down at Gujjar’s feet. They spoke at length, the work that had been done and the work that was yet to be done. Muhammed impressed upon Gujjar the importance of what he had done suggesting that it was because of him and him only that the temples had been restored. Yet, much work was still pending.

Nirbhay Singh Gujjar

K.K. Muhammed

In true cinematic style, Gujjar asked Muhammed what he wanted. Instead of making a direct demand, Muhammed told him the story of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty and its might. Surely, he said to Gujjar, by virtue of your name, it is clear you are a descendent of that dynasty.

Muhammed describes this as the turning point in the project. Gujjar agreed to vacate his base immediately and move elsewhere with just one caveat: that he should be allowed to worship at a Hanuman temple, a ritual his gang had been carrying out for years before every dacoity. Muhammed agreed and assured him that they left the site by 6 pm anyway.

So far Muhammed was working primarily with locals for whom Gujjar was a friend but no one from outside of Bateshwar had the confidence to step into the region. With Gujjar away, Muhammed was now able to safely bring masons from faraway Chanderi who could truly elevate the quality of the restoration.

As work continued and the temples were restored one after another, time passed. And, as was wont, the law finally caught up with Gujjar and other dacoits in and around Bateshwar. With the passing of Gujjar, the ASI also lost its most powerful allies in Bateshwar. The power vacuum that the dacoits left behind was quickly filled by a more sinister group of people—the mining mafia.

Stone crushing mines are an important industry in the region, but repeated explosions are not conducive to the restoration and survival of an ancient temple complex. The dacoits had managed to keep the mine owners at bay but with their passing, the so-called mining mafia took over and began mining around Bateshwar, causing some painfully restored temples to crumble.

After repeated appeals to the state and central governments fell on deaf ears, Muhammed turned to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing Hindu organisation for help. In doing so he risked his job—a government employee is typically not allowed to independently seek help from a private organisation—but he managed to get the attention of the authorities who intervened.

What you see today are over 80 temples restored to their former glory. An iron scaffolding at the heart of the complex suggests that work is still ongoing. It’s almost difficult to believe that this hidden gem wouldn’t have emerged if it weren’t for the support of a dacoit and the doggedness of an archaeologist. – Money Control, 6 November 2022

> Abhishek Mande Bhot is a freelance journalist.

Bateshwar Temple Ruins