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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