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How a dacoit and a Muslim archaeologist restored a forgotten Hindu temple complex

Bateshwar is part of the Chambal Valley, where dacoits once roamed. Indeed, a notorious dacoit, Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, had made these ruins his home.

November 06, 2022 / 11:47 AM IST
Bateshwar temples, which predate Khajuraho, have remained largely off the tourist map mostly because dacoits such as Gujjar once controlled the region.

Bateshwar temples, which predate Khajuraho, have remained largely off the tourist map mostly because dacoits such as Gujjar once controlled the region.

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.