The Bateshwar Temple Complex in Morena, a sprawling expanse comprising an estimated 200 temples, remained shrouded in centuries of obscurity. Treading slowly, taking care not to set foot on a wrong landing in the place scattered with temple building parts, I struggled to grasp the astonishing history that this entire area had once served as the hideaway for the notorious dacoits of the Chambal Valley.
As we disembarked from the bus, a sense of curiosity and wonder flooded my mind, a tidal wave of questions surging forth about the enigmatic Bateshwar shrines – what were they, when were they constructed, how did they endure through the ages, and why? The sun hung low in the sky, casting its warm glow over the expansive temple complex.
We were a group of eager explorers, united by the thirst for knowledge, and in our midst stood a remarkable individual, Mr. KK Muhammed Padma Shri, a distinguished archaeologist renowned for his pivotal role in the restoration of these ancient temples. We clamored around him, each of us yearning to glean the intricate details that had gone into the resurrection of these sacred edifices.
The year was 2005 when Mr. Muhammed was posted here on official duty by ASI (Archaeological Society of India). Looking at the scattered building blocks of stones he recounted, "I received a calling from within, a profound urge to undertake the monumental task of resurrecting these ruins and returning them to their former glory."
The path he chose was far from easy. The entire area lay ensnared in the grasp of Nirbhay Singh Gujjar and the Gaddariya dacoits. Mr. Muhammed, a man of exceptional courage and determination, would later confess that his heart quivered within him when he first sat down to negotiate with Nirbhay Singh. He was acutely aware that the slightest misstep in word or action could spell his own demise. Yet, he pressed forward. With his gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, he earnestly implored the dacoit leader to relinquish control of the area and permit the ASI to take charge. In a remarkable turn of events, he managed to convince Nirbhay Singh that these temples were a testament to his own lineage, the Gurjar dynasty of the 8th century. By aiding the ASI team in their endeavor to restore these sacred structures, he would not only be honoring his ancestors but also seeking redemption for his past transgressions.
The dacoit leader, moved by Mr. Muhammed's plea and vision, finally relented. He and his men reluctantly vacated the area, making way for a remarkable transformation to take place. Muhammed, along with his dedicated team, embarked on an arduous journey to restore the sacred temples to their former magnificence.
The scattered temple fragments resembled an intricate puzzle of zigzagging building blocks. With no blueprint or master plan to guide them, they tackled the challenge head-on, painstakingly piecing together the ancient stones, striving to rebuild these hallowed shrines. It was a labor of love, a meticulous task that required boundless patience and unwavering dedication.
Muhammed sir explained that the temple complex is built on the architectural principles initiated in two Sanskrit Hindu temple architecture texts, Manasara Shilpa Shastra composed in the 4th century AD and Mayamata Vastu Shastra written in the 7th century AD. “We followed these texts and configured pieces of the ruins.”
One outstanding feature of these shrines is that they are constructed using sandstone material without any use of mortar. Over the course of four years, their relentless efforts bore fruit. Eighty of these remarkable shrines, once lost to the ravages of time, now stood proudly in their full glory. In retrospect, the presence of the dacoits in the area inadvertently served as a protective shield for the Bateshwar Temple Complex. Remarkably, despite their notoriety, nothing was plundered from this historical site.
From the remains of the foundations, it is deduced that nearly 200 temples, big and small, stood in this complex. This firmly establishes the fact that Bateshwar Temple Complex is the largest temple complex in India. The second one is the Aihole group of 120 temples in Karnataka.
Delving further, the historical origins of the Bateshwar Temple Complex, date back to the period between the 7th and 10th centuries during the rule of the Gurjara dynasty in the Morena district of Madhya Pradesh, India. The architectural style of these temples is a testament to the early Gurjara-Pratihara style, which is a notable component of North Indian temple architecture.
Further insights into the site's history emerge from short inscriptions discovered here, which can be traced back to Samvat 1107, equivalent to the year 1050 AD.
The shrines and temples in the complex are dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, and Goddess Shakti. Among these temples, the largest is the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Sadly, the temple is not back to its full glory yet.
Standing before the restored shrines, a remarkable observation seized our collective curiosity. These shrines bore a striking resemblance in their architectural details and layout, prompting us to wonder why such uniformity prevailed in this concentrated region.
Muhammed sir offered a thought-provoking explanation, "These could very well be thanks giving gestures, offerings made by the affluent individuals of that bygone era." His words resonated with the possibility that these shrines were erected as expressions of gratitude, woven into the fabric of history by those who had the means to leave a lasting mark on the landscape, reminding us of their enduring legacy. Once, a prosperous area, the place had suffered a major earthquake in the 13th century. For the next five centuries, the temples lay in complete oblivion. It was rediscovered by Alexander Cunningham, a British army engineer, in 1861. In his findings, he mentions “a collection of more than a hundred temples large and small to the southeast of Padavali.” He further describes it as “a jigsaw puzzle of more than 100 temples of various sizes.”
There is a small makeshift museum in the Bateshwar Temple complex of Morena which has a rich collection of pictures of the restoration work. The pictures are shocking, to say the least. For example, a tree had almost engulfed a whole temple. Muhammed sir explained their restoration efforts. Prayers were offered to the tree before it was uprooted and replanted. It is really a wonder how the temples have risen like a phoenix from the rubble.
The clock ticked away as we walked around the complex, trying to decipher the stories from the stones that waited to be placed back to the frame they originally belonged to.