Bateshwar Group of Temples

The Rebirth of Bateshwar – India’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle

Also known as Batesara and Batesvar, the Bateshwar group of temples are located 35 km north of Gwalior and 30 km east of Morena in Madhya Pradesh. Set in a natural bowl within a densely forested ravine of the Chambal river valley, this remote 25 acre site is without doubt one of the most astonishing archaeological sites I have visited anywhere in the world.

Dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, this group of nearly 200 temples were built during the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty, the earliest constructions are believed to date from 750 – 800 AD.

Right off the bat I am going to have to apologise for the number of photographs in this blog. I have struggled to cut the numbers down, for reasons that will become self evident as you scroll down. What is here is just 10% of all the photographs I took 🙂

Almost nothing is known to this site prior to the 19th century. When Alexander Cunningham visited Bateshwar in 1882 he recorded :

“…a confused assemblage of more than 100 temples large and small, but mostly small, to the southeast of Paravali Padavali”.

His estimation as to how many temples are actually here was wildly out, but understandably so because in his time the site was in total ruin.

We don’t know exactly how these temples became ruined, there’s no obvious evidence of damage from invaders. None of the sculptures here have been purposely mutilated, which suggests none of the destruction was from the hands of humans.

The current theory is that an earthquake sometime after the 13th century completely destroyed the complex. A short distance from here is another wonderful site that is worth visiting, Kakanmath Temple, but there we have clear evidence of destruction both from natural and human intervention. It would seem that the hidden nature of this site, tucked away in a ravine, resulted in it going unnoticed by passers by who may have had undesirable intentions.

In 1924 the Archaeological Survey of India placed the site under protection, and for the following 81 years the complex was recorded, photographed and conserved as a ruin.

Then in 2005, everything changed and Bateshwar was reborn. Under the leadership of archaeologist K.K. Muhammed, the then ASI Bhopal’s regional superintendent, an ambitious project was started to collect all the ruined masonry and attempt to restore as many of the temples as possible. I can’t even start to imagine how complex this task must have been, but the results are mind boggling, and simply spectacular.

Not only was the site a jumble of ruined structures, but in places the forest had started to reclaim the complex over the centuries, resulting in trees sprouting out from the middle of temples. Such scenes would not look out of place at the Ta Prohm temple near Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The above images were taken before and shortly after restoration commenced in 2005 (courtesy of K.K. Muhammed the ASI). Below is a portion of the restored temple complex, along with ruins yet to be reconstructed.

The two images below offer a good before/after comparison for a particular temple which had been engulfed by vegetation.

If piecing this together this complex jigsaw puzzle wasn’t enough to take on, the ASI also had to deal with the fact that the site was in a region that was far from safe.

The Chambal ravine was widely regarded as a lawless zone, with one of the last dacoits in the area, Nirbhal Singh Gujjar, terrorizing the region with his accomplices. Nirbhal is said to have run a parallel government in about 40 villages, with up to 205 criminal cases of murder, robbery and kidnapping attributed to him over a period of 30 years. He carried a bounty of 2.5 lakhs (approx $340,000) provided by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh police and was infamous for having a fascination for women, wine and weapons. During his time in the Chambal ravine, Nirbhal reportedly had AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, bulletproof jackets, night-vision binoculars and mobile phones at his disposal.

This has to go down as one of the most sensitive archaeological restoration projects in history, and perhaps surprisingly Nirbhal Singh Gujjar and his gang collaborated with the ASI and helped immensely with the initial stages of the reconstruction. This “help” consisted mostly of non-interference, the dacoits would allow the ASI workers in and out of the site every day and nobody on the project would not come to any harm from them.

This agreement was however short lived, as later in November 2005 Nirbhal Singh Gujjar was killed after an encounter with the police in Etawah. A couple of years later all the dacoits in the region were either eliminated or had surrendered.

Ironically, the presence of dacoits in the Chambal Valley may also have helped preserve Bateshwar. Although the site was quite well known, with the area considered so dangerous nobody attempted to smuggle any of the carved sculptures out of the temple complex.

Unfortunately, the challenges facing the ASI didn’t stop there. Although the area became free of dacoits, the Bateshwar temple complex then came under threat from illegal mining. Dynamite was being used in nearby mines to help extract building stone, the resulting vibrations similar to mini earthquakes were once again putting the site at risk.

This is not the first time I have come across archaeological sites in India coming under threat from mining. My recent visit to see the prehistoric petroglyphs in the Konkan brought into sharp focus just how fragile and precarious some monuments are. It’s not clear to me if this mining has actually ceased now, although on my visit I didn’t experience anything.

Bateshwar today is a fascinating blend of pristine small temples set amongst a scatter of ruins, it’s such an evocative scene. Pillars, friezes and sculptures are everywhere around your feet, just waiting for further restoration work to occur. The Hanuman statue, freshly coloured in red with Vermilion, is still worshiped by locals in the area today.

I don’t think I have ever visited a temple site anywhere in the world where there are so many temples packed into a relatively small area, sometimes there is barely 20 cm between each one. With the blend of chaos and conservation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the temples are currently being freshly built and the workers have just clocked off for lunch.

The earliest temples in the complex have plain square roofs, the more artistically evolved temples with conical roofs were built a little later. These are known as “Mandapika Shrines”, reducing Hindu temple architecture down to it’s very basics and only just removed from the single cave cell design. The examples at Bateshwar are considered quite early for such temples, and some of the detail carved on the lintels has led some scholars to think that Bateshwar may have origins as far back as 600 AD.

I was unable to find any evidence of willful damage to any of the carvings here. I’m so used to seeing the faces hacked off images, but here they have remained unscaved. Did any invaders make it here I wonder ? Although the site appears to be in quite a remote setting, it is not that far from Morena which is on the major route south from Delhi.

So I think this place would have been quite accessible if anyone really wanted to come here. Perhaps the rumoured earthquake had already occurred, so Bateshwar was not considered worthy of traveling to with the intent of causing further damage.

By 2012, out of the 200 temples at Bateshwar, 80 have so far been restored. For all the criticism the ASI receives about the maintenance and conservation of some archaeological sites, here is a great example of what amazing things can happen with the right cast of characters in play and the mutual desire (and resources) to make a real difference.

I congratulate everyone that’s been involved in this inspiring project !

If you’d like to know more about the ASI and K.K. Muhammed’s restoration project at Bateshwar, the following YouTube video may be of interest. Note that around 50% of this is (I think) in Hindi.

Here is a more recent interview with K.K. Muhammed, this time entirely in English :

Plans are now being forged to commence the next phase of reconstruction after locals and villagers petitioned the Prime Minister’s office for these efforts to be resumed. I would dearly love to return in the future to Bateshwar and see the end result of this utterly amazing and inspiring project.


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91 replies »

  1. I can understand the number of photos completely. I’d visited a few years ago on a completely overcast day. Even with the bad light, I couldn’t stop taking photos. The archaeologists working here are doing something amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I follow your post on Facebook. I wish more Indians and Indian Government learn from foreigners like you who visit, analyse, study and take deep interest in our Archaeological sites in India. Unfortunately most of Indians DO NOT have any interest in their Glorious past.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Its like I now have another place to visit in India. Why go abroad? Everything is in India waiting to be explored and re discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Kevin. Bateshwar is very beautiful. Temples are small but intricately carved. I have seen only at Bateshwar, Lord Hanuman Murti, where Kamdev and Rati are under his feet. Thanks for nice description and pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Humbled by the restoration efforts to bring to life our history and your effort to document the same… and thanks for those brilliant pictures….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There is a similar temple complex near Almora, Uttarakhand. Jageshwar Temple, comprising about 110 temples in a small enclosed complex surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains. A very auspicious site for Hindus and with daily prayers being performed. The Dandeshwar Temple nearby is a very important Shiva site.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great work by Mr. Muhammad.
    Thanks for sharing.
    When visiting Greek or Roam ruins they have picture of reconstructed temples or palaces as it would have looked originally.
    With modern computer technology and graphics why do we Indians not recreate what the ruins would have looked like in real for example ruins of Nalanda University or of Harapoa etc?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks to Mr K. K Mohammed, who gave such care to the restoration.
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful place with us.
    I love ancient temple sculpture and try to go to such temples.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you Kevin for writing a beautiful article about Bateshwar accompanied by some spectacular photographs.The icing of the cake is your heading’……..India’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle’ Indeed, when u look at the photographs before conservation, this is a puzzle and feat in the field of conservation ever taken up in India.And that too within a shoe string budget of three crores of rupees for eighty temples.
    we could ensure the support of the dacoits.But once they were eliminated the fight with the mining mafia was a loosing battle.
    What Ajai has spoken about Jageshwar is smaller temples within a small area.I had the privilege of conserving it in 2001.
    In both the places I had the call of the temples.

    Liked by 3 people

    • This is a bit of a humbling moment for me, thank you so much for your comments, completely unexpected. It is also a privilege that you found the time to take a look at my blog. I hope I have done the site and all the work there justice. It’s been many weeks since I returned to the UK and yet Bateshwar still fills my mind every day. Thanks again, and best wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This deserves many accolades from India and Indians.
        Humbled by this restoration by you sir.
        Also many thanks to Kevin Standage for the stunning photos and the effort to document this monumental conservation task.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Sir, My respects and gratitude to you for this painstaking effort. So heartening and inspiring. An additional must visit destination in our glorious country. Thank you to Kevin for sharing this marvel.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this article and introducing to this spectacular site. Now I have one more place added in my travel list. Pictures taken are amazing. Looking at those and reading about the restoration work explains the title “India’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dear Kevin,
    Hats off to your work! The blog is wonderfully written after a thorough study, with pictures of great quality adding up to its value and sparking the interest in people like me. As a geologist I was wondering which earthquake caused the destruction and scale threat by of anthropogenic quakes. Hopefully I have gathered enough inspiration from your study to start my enquiry on the subject matter. I wish we cross our paths in future to have an opportunity to closely follow your work. Best wishes!

    Like

    • Greetings Pranav ! I have no information on which earthquake it was, but the theory is that it must have happened a very long time ago. The other possibility is that they were pulled down by invaders, but that seems unlikely as there’s no evidence of any defacing of the sculptures, and also in the pre-reconstruction photos there are a couple of temples still standing. If someone was going to pull down nearly 100 temples, why would they leave two standing ? Thanks for your kind comments and for visiting my blog !

      Like

  12. Thanks for such beautiful narration and spectacular photographs. It sure is on my travel list now. Too many invasion and destruction and very little awareness of our heritage is also a reason for the neglect of our great architecture in many places.
    Hope you do similar articles on South Indian temples too

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have already visited a number of temple sites in south India, but it is an area I hope to return to one day. Although India has been subjected to invasion and destruction, I don’t feel it is significantly different to anywhere else on the planet. There are exceptions, but even here in the UK we have lost so much, often at the hands of ourselves.

      Like

  13. Yes the rest is in Hindi (what else would it be for a pan-India audience)? But this presentation is a must see for the lazy-experts abroad and in India who talk of ‘growing intolerance’ and such. The head of the ASI restoration team Muhammad who knows the Sanskrit scriptures related to the architecture of temples, talks of earlier invaders named Muhammad (Ghori, Gazni) whose widespread desecration of temples he is ‘atoning’ for, and the delicious irony of his having to write to the RSS chief (the so-called regressive Hindu organisation) in order to protect the restored temples from the mining mafia of the libetal/secular politicians. In the context of the politics of current India, an absolutely engrossing tale.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m so glad to hear that this complex wasn’t badly harmed by muslim invaders, unlike the most other old temples, in India. Thanks for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Reminded me of hampi in karnataka and paltana in gujarat
    But this undoubtedly dates back nd amazing work of restoration.
    K k Muhammed and ASI team saluting ur efforts in bringing back
    the lost ruins alive🙏 and the blogger too

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Very informative article and blog . You are doing a great work of informing about our rich heritage to the world . This helps spread the awareness and will help the cause of the restoration and preservation of the sculptures in general and in no small measure.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Amazing pictures Kevin. Thank you for bringing these temples to the fore. And with `mithawli and `padavli temples, they are a storehouse of architectural delight. Would love to see the rest of your pictures. Keep up the great work. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. My ancestors came from a place nearby. We are Bhadoriyas. If I am right our late prime minister Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained a trustee of the trust of this group of temples for a long time. This group of temples remained unique since it came into being.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. _/\_ Thank you! To everyone for capturing and working on this beautiful site, well worth recreating and preserving the hearts and minds of the first artists work. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Despite being an Indian, I did not know about this amazing historical site, thank you for writing about it. I’ll suresh visit this place one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment and for stopping by my blog. There are many sites near to Bateshwar that are also worth exploring, most notably Garhi Padhavali which you will also find a blog post about. Safe travels !

      Like

  21. Thank you Kevin for introducing this amazing archeological site to us Indians. It is heartening to read of the great effort of the ASI team under the leadership of Mr Mohammed in restoring this site. The pictures are stunning. Having lived in Gwalior earlier ,it is a pity we had no idea of this wealth of architecture just next door. Thank you .

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are many many sites just outside Gwalior that are worth exploring, when I was researching my visit I had to extend my planned stay in the city by a number of days as the list of places I wanted to see just kept increasing. You are indeed correct in your comment that to a large degree many of these places are not that well known about.

      Like

  22. Excellent story, Thanks from the core if the heart. Most amazingly a non Hindu has dealt the project with devotion and anither tourist again non Hindu has written a breath taking account of the unique story. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Salute to Shri K K Muhammad Sir and Special thanks to Kevinstandagephotography for showing the Royal Heritage of our ancestors the Gurjara Pratiharas worldwide.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Heartly Thanks to Shri KK Muhammad Sir ji for volunteering his valueble time and energy at Gurjar Pratihar temples for so many years now. Also thanks to Kevinstandagephotography for outstanding photography of Royal Gurjar Heritage

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Thank you for exploring My country and bringing some.beautifuo stunning photographs of my heritage ….if yiu haven’t visited yet ..you should try visit east .. especially bengal where you will see temples in different style …. especially terracotta work in the district of Birbhum, Bankura and Burdwan….worth noting is the roof or chala..bengal has many unexplored destination… Expecting to see some in your blog ..take care and stay safe 🙏🙏

    Liked by 1 person

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