Restored glory

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

A panoramic view of the ruined temples, gateways, stepped tanks and architectural members of Bateshwar.-

A panoramic view of the ruined temples, gateways, stepped tanks and architectural members of Bateshwar.-

FROM the inclined paved pathway that led up to the archaeological site at Bateshwar in the Chambal valley, it was hard to guess what it really held. As one reached the top of the incline, breath stopped, literally. The vista was beyond ones imagination: a hundred-odd shrines with majestic vimanas (towers) rising into the sky and massive mounds of rubble pillars with exquisite sculptures, panels of miniature friezes, carved architectural members, roof slabs and serrated amalakas that would have capped the shikaras. Further away on a raised platform stood a temple in ruins, whose shikara consisted of slabs arranged somehow.

This is my place of pilgrimage. I come here once in every three months. I am passionate about this temple complex, said K.K. Muhammed, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Delhi Circle.

Welcome to the 1,300-year-old temple complex at Bateshwar in Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. The shrines are located on the western slope of a range of hills near Padavali, a village about 40 km from Gwalior. Stylistically, the temples belong to the period between post-Gupta and early Pratihara (between the eighth and 10th centuries A.D.). The Pratihara rulers were patrons of art, architecture and learning, and encouraged building activity.

If there are two sites in India that can rival Bateshwar in its grandeur, they are Aihole in Karnataka and Jageshwar in Uttarakand, said Muhammed. Aihole and Jageshwar have about 120 temples each. But Bateshwar has about 200 shrines in a comprehensive parcel of a site that is spread over 25 acres (10 hectares). While most of them are dedicated to Siva, a few are Vishnu temples. (Local lore has it that the name Bateshwar originates from Bhooteswar, another name for Siva.) The temples and the sculptures are made of sandstone.

In a stupendous feat of restoration, a team of ASI archaeologists led by Muhammed has brought back to life about a hundred shrines at the site by piecing together slabs and stones and fitting them into a particular structure. Most of the shikaras had collapsed, an overgrowth of vegetation had wrecked the very foundation of some of the shrines and the stones were piled up in mounds or strewn around.

Apart from the formidable challenge of restoration, the ASI team had a big problem on its hands: how to dislodge the dreaded dacoits of the Chambal valley, who had made the temple complex their hideout and used it as a distribution point of their spoils and a place for entertainment in the evenings. Although Bateshwar was notified as a protected site in 1920, restoration work could not be taken up before 2005 because the ASI was unable to take possession of the site.

The Frontline team visited the temple complex along with some ASI officials on the late afternoon on October 24, 2009. Its caretaker, Jaswant Singh, was a genial man. He was an excellent host as well. He chatted with us and served tea, biscuits and sweets. However, around 5-15 p.m. when we were admiring a sandstone frieze of Devaki and Krishna in a Vishnu temple, Jaswant Singh walked in, looking grim. He had a musket slung across his shoulder. Please leave this place now, he virtually commanded us. It is getting to be dark. I dont want trouble either for you or myself. Eyes may be watching. His warning gave us an idea of the situation that would have obtained five years ago when dacoits thrived in the area.

In 2004, when Muhammed took over as the Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Bhopal Circle, he wanted to see the condition of the sites in his division. In and around Bhopal, most of the monuments had received attention. In far-off areas, only a few conservation and restoration efforts had been undertaken. My priority was always to go to remote areas that required the most challenging work; areas that were full of problems, he said. S.K. Rathore, Assistant Archaeologist, K.M. Saxena, Senior Conservation Assistant, K.K. Sharma, Conservation Assistant, and O.P.S.S. Narawariya and Hukum Chand Arya, both supervisers, told him about the ruins of Bateshwar.

Muhammed did not wait to see them. When he visited the complex, he found it in complete ruins. No two stones were found lying together. At some point of time, a powerful earthquake must have jolted the area. Besides, there was human neglect. He was sure the complex was not destroyed by the invaders. He attributes the devastation to an earthquake. But even this devastation had a music of its own. It was this music that enchanted us. So we decided that we should straightaway start the restoration and conservation work, he added.

But the rub was that the dacoits controlled the complex. It was during a reconnaissance trip to the ruins that Muhammed saw a bearded man smoking a cigarette inside a temple. This angered the Superintending Archaeologist, who confronted the bearded man: How dare you smoke inside a holy place? At that moment, an ASI assistant caught Muhammed by his arm and signalled him to stop addressing the man in such a manner. The bearded man was none other than Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, the feared dacoit known to have committed 239 offences. (He was killed in an encounter in Etawah on November 7, 2005.) Soon parleys got under way between Muhammed and Nirbhay Singh Gujjar.

The ASI official tried to convince the dacoit about the bona fides of the institutions attempt to restore the Bateshwar temple complex, which had deities the dacoits worshipped and assured him that they were neither from the police nor were their informers. Gujjar saw reason and assured the ASI that he would not disturb its restoration efforts.

Any conservation or restoration work in a temple complex begins at the main entrance, that is, gopura dwara. But the extent of the ruin here was such that the ASI team was unable to locate the gate. As Muhammed and his team sat under an amla (gooseberry) tree and looked dejectedly at the ruins lying everywhere, they saw a pillar base. That gave them a clue. They got a shaft, too. As the workers dug up the area, a rectangular (dry) tank with a gallery of steps all round came into view. Nearby, were four shrines whose walls had fallen down and the foundations had come apart.

The ASI systematically documented the architectural members by numbering and photographing them and making drawings.

It was a massive work. Stone by stone, the four shrines were re-erected and their original beauty restored, Saxena said. Today, the walls of these shrines are resplendent with wondrous sculptures Siva and Parvati, women dancing or playing the drums, men wrestling, amorous couples, prancing lions with warriors riding on them, and so on.

Another group of three temples presented a jig-saw puzzle. They were overgrown with trees, said Muhammed. In one temple, the antarala a porch built outside the sanctum sanctorum stood precariously, supported by only one pillar because a tree had grown out of the porch. The antarala was dismantled stone by stone, documented and re-assembled. All the three temples were restored to their original splendour.

Another temple presented an enigma. It had been destroyed so much that the ASI team could not figure out whether it was a temple dedicated to Vishnu or Siva. As the restorers began sorting out the ruins, they found a Nandi, the sacred bull, or the rishabha vehicle, of Siva. Overjoyed, Muhammed, who is a scholar in Sanskrit, recalled the verse from the Sanskrit text: RishabhayasyaVasuki ganda bhushanam, vame shakti dharma deva, vahanaya namo namah.

Yet another temple was completely hidden by a huge tree, a scene reminiscent of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia before it was restored. When we cut down the tree, the entire temple fell down, said Rathore. But after a few months, there emerged a beautiful temple from the rubble.

Near the stepped tank there were four shrines, visible only up to their blacked out base. Their architectural members were lying around. Adjacent to this group of four shrines was another temple whose shikara had tumbled down and its amalaka stone was buried in mud. Asked how he and his team were able to rebuild the temples/shrines as they existed before from total ruins, Muhammed said that the Bateshwar complex was built on the architectural principles enunciated in two Sanskrit texts, Manasara Shilpa Shastra, composed in the 4th century A.D., and Mayamata Vastu Shastra, written in the 7th century A.D. Since he knew these texts, he found clues in them in restoring the temples according to their original plan.

He explained: Our forte was that once we get a part of the temple [that is, an architectural member], we will be able to identify to which part of the temple it belonged. We are well-versed in this. We would segregate the various architectural members. We would identify the temple parts to which these members belonged and mentally reconstruct the entire temple before actually rebuilding it.

Besides, he had trained a contingent of 50 to 60 workers in this specialised, technical work. They go from site to site. In doing so, they train others. So it goes on. They have become well-versed in the art of restoration. They have become sthapathis, he said.

In the past four to five years, Muhammeds team has completed the restoration of 100 temples/shrines in Bateshwar. It may take another five years to restore another 100 temples/shrines, which are bigger in size. It is slow and meticulous work, Muhammed explained.

As he took us round the complex, he showed us photographs of the place when he first visited it. As I said earlier, no two stones were lying together, he observed. He showed us what he called a classic photograph of ruins lying everywhere. Now seven temples have risen from these ruins, he said as he took us to the platform where they have been reassembled. On how he knew the seven temples were buried under the ground, he joked with an intended pun, I could see them with my third eye. Behind the seven temples, eight more have been rebuilt without compromising on the canons of conservation.

Another picture he produced showed the ruins lying scattered on a platform and the only indication that temples would have existed there was a flight of six steps that led to the platform. A group of 10 temples presented a bigger challenge there was no visible sign of them at all. They had to be excavated because their stone members had commingled with the earth.

A superb piece of rebuilding has brought alive a temple with a tall shikara, which has the carving of a dancing Siva on the keerthi mukha. Below the keerthi mukha, but above the threshold, is an exquisite carving of Lakulisa, a reincarnation of Siva with a club in his hands. On the rear wall of the sanctum sanctorum, behind the Siva linga, is a beautiful bas relief of Siva holding the hand of Parvati. On seeing the sculpture, Muhammed could not help reciting the stanzas from Kalidasas Kumarasambhava, where the poet describes how Parvati felt the electrifying sparsh when Siva touched her. A few sanctum sanctorums have bas reliefs of Kalyana Sundar the marriage of Siva and Parvati.

Some distance away, on a knoll, lies a majestic temple dedicated to Vishnu. Its shikara is in a bad shape with the stone slabs barely managing to remain in place. But the sandstone friezes on the walls around the sanctum sanctorum are a testimony to the consummate skill of the Gujjar Pratihara sculptors.

Above the threshold is a sculpture of Garuda, flanked by airborne men holding garlands in their hands. On the thresholds pillars are small sculptures of women playing the lute, veena or drums, naga kanyas, men riding elephants, men wrestling, lions, and so on.

On the base are sculptures of the Ganga and the Yamuna, portrayed as women, holding pots of water in their dainty hands, women attendants holding umbrellas, and so on.

On the outer walls of the sanctum sanctorum are out-of-the world friezes: Devaki suckling her infant Krishna in prison with a woman guard, with a club in her hand, standing nearby; Devaki holding infant Krishna while a warrior on horseback keeps a stern eye on them, and Krishna draining away the life of the demon Bhoothanai, among others. The ASI has proposed to lay a terrace of lawns from the Bateshwar complex to another Vishnu temple a few hundred metres away so that they can become an integrated whole.

Sanjay Mittal, a contractor who was relishing the beauty of these friezes, could not help exclaiming, They are not merely beautiful. They are amazing. They are beyond imagination.

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