A Photo-Ethnographic Study, India, Madhya Pradesh, Social Documentary Projects
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Bateshwar Temples from the eyes of the legendary Archaeologist KK Muhammad: A Photo Essay and FILM

My earliest memory of meeting KK Muhammad was in his white room, filled with books to the brim, touching the tall old roof of the Red Fort Complex, his newly ancient home. Astounded, I asked him if he would ever finish reading all these books! Smiling, he said, “Narayan an age comes when you don’t keep books to read them, they read me daily instead. I only use them for references”. Somehow I carried this memory for long, and since then had no guilt for keeping as many books myself, thinking either way of someday reading or at least being read by them.

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I also remember him today as he came out to be one of the most important person who was behind the archaeological excavations at Ayodhya, that according to him clearly indicated the presence of a temple below the mosque.

Father of one of my filmmaker friend, with whom i was fortunate to work together in the making of this film, that became a tribute, a testimony for his commendable and courageous work in resurrecting a flatland of once ruined temples; those which could have easily missed standing in this age of information. We could have never even heard of this place, these temples, the story behind them or even how hard was it for him who stood up against all odds for and after a decision he took one decisive night.

After months of discussions, conversations on scripting, narrating, the concepts and most importantly presenting,  we decided a date and left for Gwalior. Uncle and I were travelling together. Sandeep and Sumit had already reached a day before. We met at Nizamuddin Railway station. It was a night journey and didn’t take longer than a long nap to reach Gwalior city within 8 hours time. It was also comforting in other ways as i had many questions on Indian history and his take on it. And likewise other things apart from work. At one time he asked me to stand to see who is taller, i or him, as we both, are short guys.

The most beautiful part of him was his charismatic presence. He was as curious and kept asking many things about camera, angles and lights. He was seemingly happy to do the film so that more and more people get to know about these temples.

BATESHWAR TEMPLES

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Morena was around 44 kilometers from Gwalior railway station. We stopped at the ASI government guest house for a quick shower and breakfast. And taking no extra time, left for Morena, once known as the land of the dacoits. The ravines on either side of Chambal River, known as the Chambal ki ghaati, are well known for having provided shelter for the infamous dacoits.

Bateshwar Temple complex is located in Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. Also known as Batesara or Batesvar, the temple complex is situated on a hilly range about 40 km from Gwalior city near the village of Padavali. The temples are located within the densely forested gorge of the Chambal Valley. And It is one of the most staggering archaeological site to have been created from actually a dream. It is believed that there are almost 200 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti within an area of 25 acres.

The name Bateshwar is believed to have been derived from Bhooteshwar, another name for Lord Shiva.

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A brief History of Batesvar

 

The temples are said to have been built around 8th to 10th century AD by the Gurjara – Pratihara dynasty that ruled a large part of northern India from the mid-eighth century to the 11th century. The Pratihars considered themselves as Suryavanshis and are said to be the descendants of Lakshman from the epic Ramayana.

One reference of these temples is found in the reports of Alexander Cummingham. He had visited this region in 1881-82 and mentioned about the temple complex and other temples in the vicinity. “He had mentioned the Bateshwar Temple complex as “a confused assemblage of more than 100 temples large and small, but mostly small, to the southeast of Paravali Padavali”.

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At that time, the temple complex was in total ruins and only the main Bhuteshwar Temple and a few other temples were standing. Later, the reference of these temples was seen in the works of Dr. Rahman Ali in 1987 as he worked on the Pratihara art form in India. The Bateshwar Temple complex also finds mention in the monumental research work of R D Trivedi on the Pratihara Temples of Central India. But that is kind of all  there is about to these temple complexes that lied in ruins across a slanted hill near Padavali.

As we were coming near to the temples, KK Mohammad went nostalgic and started telling us stories from the very first time when he had arrived here long time ago now, of what he felt the moment he saw this site.

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In the opening interview in the film, he says that wherever he has been posted to, he asks for the most difficult site. And for Bateshwar, difficulty was one big Zero. There was actually nothing, it were like many small big stones here and there, to an extent that even the people were not with us. It was then and from there he started with his trysts, threats, complexities and mainly the infamous Chambal ke daku.
THE DAKUS(Dacoits) OF CHAMBAL

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On the first evening, most of the crew went back to Gwalior. Sandeep and I decided to stay over in the Temple Complex. As we wanted to film very early in the morning, and also how could I have missed this blessing of sleeping under stars at a place dedicated to adi yogi, Shiva himself. We placed our cots near the bhootnath temple for the night around a campfire and were looked after by the temple guards, of whom we soon learnt in our conversations that went almost all night, that they were the infamous dacoits/daaku of chambal once. Now when no one needs a daaku but a guard, government gave us this work.

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“There’s something in the Chambal water that makes people blunt and aggressive,”ex-daaku started speaking, Tall, quiet, squarely built, he moved with gingerly steps, of someone who must have walked miles into the hills and survived being shot in an ambush.

Probably they were also looking to let themselves out after long. He continued saying that the nature of crime has changed in the Chambal today because the people have changed. Few local youths only can endure the rain, mud, scorpions, and walking off a rural outlaw life but the new so called dacoits are urban. They have grown soft. They prey on women and espouse no Robin Hood principles. Unlike the old thugs, who had their codes. It is an old story.

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The history of the dacoits in this region goes back to as early as the thirteenth century CE. The dacoits came to limelight only during the British era. However, most of these dacoits were Robin Hood of sorts. They were mostly local outlaws known as Baghis, who were either oppressed by the higher castes, suffered social injustice or were deprived by the law. It was commonly believed that most of these dacoits used to loot the rich people and then distribute the wealth among the poor. Most notorious among these dacoits were Thakur Maan Singh, Putli Bai, Malkhan Singh, Dong-Batri brothers, Sultan Singh, Phoolan Devi and Mohar Singh. Even after Indian independence, the menace of the dacoits continued in the Chambal region.

Gradually, these dacoits either gave up their guns and surrendered or were killed by police encounters. Though organized gang is no longer there in the Chambal region, the gun culture is still prevalent in the region.

“They say a house might not have grains to eat but they will certainly have bullets.”

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During 2004, the dacoits had an unwritten control over the Chambal region. Their leader was Nirbhay Singh Gujjar who was said to run a parallel government in about 40 villages. There were as many as 239 criminal charges against him for murder, robbery and kidnapping in his 30 years of dacoity career.

When K K Muhammad first saw Bateshwar in 2004, the temple was in very bad shape. Stones were strewn all over and mixed. Most of the temples were broken down and it seemed like a giant puzzle of stones. Mr. Muhammad decided to decode this jigsaw puzzle and restore the Bateshwar Temple to its former glory.

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However, the job was not that easy. The first obstacle in solving the puzzle was the dacoits who had made the temple complex their hideout. So he decided to have a meeting with the dreaded dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. After several rounds of negotiations, he was able to convince the dacoit that these temples were built by his (Gujjar’s) ancestors. And as a true descendant, he must preserve and protect his heritage and show it to the world. Gujjar was somewhat convinced about the intentions of K K Muhammad and allowed him to start the restoration work. Gujjar asked the archaeologist to restore the front gate and the first 4 temples. The dacoits not only allowed the restoration work to start but also provided protection to the ASI workers and also helped them in the restoration work.

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In the hindsight, it can also be said that these temples were preserved because of the presence of the dacoits. No one visited the area and no one carried away stones and the sculptures away, a common thing in most of the ancient monument sites in India.

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KK Muhammad started working and with time the temples and the land started showing them the way. The once broken and lost stones and structures started finding their other lost halves. After some months when Nirbhay Singh Gujjar came to visit the site, he was totally surprised to see the place. By then, a gateway and a few temples were restored. He saw the work by the ASI workers, gave a wry smile and went away. It was as if he now gave full permission for the restoration work. Divine works in such ways that, that was the last time he saw the temples and left in peace. Government, which was after him, found him soon and shot him down. Thus ending the terror of dacoits in the region and the restoration work went on with full swing.

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But there was another problem waiting, probably bigger and even worse, the Sand Mafia.

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Anyways, even though i have told you all this, But it doesn’t amount to nothing when you can hear the man himself. The film took a lot of time and went into many edits due its complex and political nature.

Earlier, the film was named “Man of Temples” but the editing saw many complications not in constructing way but simplifying as much to just convey the required minimum. That took time and slowly the focus transferred to the temples than where it started, to the man who made it possible and still doesn’t want it. Rather he says that, “Bateshwar was like my pilgrimage, lets give it to the man, Mr. KK Muhammad.”

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As i remember that time and that shoot, that night with the most beautiful sight, sleeping in the temple was one of the most deep nights personally for me, in a long time staying with the Adi Yogi- near Bhootnath temple.

Filled with stories and peacoks in the morning. The crew arrived late which gave us a resounding time and feeling for the intuition last evening to have stayed with the dacoits past night. To hear so many stories. It became a lot more easier to film them from then onwards, to eat and make friendship that may not just survive but revive the moment those Dacoits will see us again.

The film went on to be screened at many national and international Film Festivals most notably Kerela International Film Festival, MIFF, and IDFA

Awaking in the divinity of Bateshwar temples, with the legendary KK Muhammed from Road to Nara on Vimeo.

 

 

by

Hi, I am Narayan Kaudinya. And i welcome you on this journey, the Road to Nara ! I am an Ethnographer and a practicing Indologist. I did my masters in History and further learnt Sanskrit, Yoga and Nerve-therapy. At 24, pushing most academic sounding, office sitting works away, i felt compelled to know and understand the world and my country, Bharat/India. I travelled, and as it happened i took up teaching in Kashmir and further up in the remote villages of Baltistan in the foothills of Karakoram Ranges. For around three years and many states later there came a time when i felt that it was only while teaching i learnt how to laugh, to see, feel, breathe, love and cry -with children, and mostly resource-less parents in the harshest-freezing border conditions. I write, and work as a documentary photographer and Filmmaker, with numerous published, exhibited and some awarded stories. In my travels and life i have let nature lead me, the divine mother, and as a Yogin, my resolve here is to share my experiences and thoughts as honestly, and through them to blossom in everyone the power and possibility in pursuing your breath, that you seek your true nature with courage and curiosity. Here, on this road i will share my spirit, my love for nature, the elements of life that are us. And in doing so, i'll be happy to see you along.

47 Comments

  1. Thankyou for sharing this, truly wonderful story, images and film. Hope you are safe and well. Peace and love from Australia.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Gary, i am very well and safe here. Always makes me delighted to have your name here though it still is in the making 🙂 Your love and peace is well received and happily accepted. Narayan

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Lia says

    Amazing work you are doing here. The images are stunning, haunting, enchanting, and jarring (the holy-looking man with gun, and the group of men just standing around casually with guns at the ready). Beautiful documentation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lia, see how many beautiful, inspiring words i get to read when you come 🙂

      The holy looking men were not holy at all, they were all ex-dacoits who were given governments jobs later to support them.

      The film actually beautifully summaries temples ancient history and how they came into being from once being not more than flatlands of ruins.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lia says

        Aw thank you for the explanation. The film looks beautiful, I took a glimpse but could not understand the language. :)) Thanks again for the reply. :)) 💛

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well written.. explaining about the dacoits… I loved the part when gujjar saw the restoration work and smiled … Thanks for acquainting with the work of KK Muhammed..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deepika, lovely to have you here and for your words. KK Muhammad, certainly has become and played an important part in finding and stating some really needed aspects of Indian History. I am likewise thankful to do my bit. And make, share his work and intent as directly as i can.

      Like

  4. So much to take away from this post. The orientation of stacked books… Morena… for years dacoits was the only thing associated with this belt. Some algorithmic tales narrated here. Glad to follow your journey.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Richa, always lovely to have your words and read your evolutions, probably like your food.

      For me as well, it was an absolute enriching time to spend with KK and to hear small-small details while filming. It also allowed me to respect and see how archaeologists work. it is not just going on field etc but so many aspects to this. And above all political.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rosaliene, i hope you have been healthy, and happily doing things. O yes, i think violence comes closer to us than peace, though is the founding member, violence is what can easily be seen around.
      Thank you for coming over and your words. Always a pleasure dear Rosaliene.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a coincidence this is! Just recently, I had watched a documentary about the Bateshwar Temples in which Mr. KK Muhammed spoke! He said that while he was at the site, he saw a man smoking in the temple premises. Angered, he screamed at him. One of his companions ushered him to the side and told him that he was Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. The one they whose name sent chills.

    Mr. KK Muhammed stated that by God’s grace, he managed to say something to the dreaded dacoit that convinced him.

    Meeting and speaking with him must have been a terrific experience!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wonderful, we made a film and this is not there. HAHA. I feel certain of its happening. Also because how his odds turned into his boons. He went all the way to talk to anyone he could to save these temples.

      Well, you know he is a friend’s father so that time it was not really valued but completely, we bonded so well, and yes very pleasant memories i have with him.

      Moreover, Shreya so happy to know this and that you were aware of his works. Very nice 🙂

      Like

  6. Thankyou so much for sharing this with us.. Brilliantly describe 👌👌
    .. “learnt in our conversations that went almost all night, that they were the infamous dacoits/daaku of chambal once”.. So daring experience.🤝👏
    “They say a house might not have grains to eat but they will certainly have bullets.”… 😢
    … “he was able to convince the dacoit that these temples were built by his (Gujjar’s) ancestors”….we need more such people, a huge respect 🙏
    … “The dacoits not only allowed the restoration work to start but also provided protection to the ASI workers and also helped them in the restoration work.”… 😱😊😊😊😊..
    (NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE) Where there is will there is a way… Good intentions finally made their way 🙏🙏😇
    Stay safe, stay healthy and happy 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anonymous says

    Such an insightful post about another one of those hidden treasures that dot our landscape! Thank you for sharing your experience

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What an astounding story of determination and vision. I watched your wonderful film and despite not understanding the spoken language there was English phrases and the legal letters and some headlines to allow me to understand..Many 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    • O cathy, i would never have believed you to have watched my architectural film, that to in an alien language. It is the story of grit and tremendous focus. it was important for this thing to happen, to be done. Humbled. Thanks for your words as much Cathy.

      Like

  9. WOW. Thank You so very much for this, Narayan! I’m blown away. Your explanation of the film was much appreciated and made it easy for me to follow although I don’t speak the language! Those Temples are mindblowingly, astoundingly beautiful!!! I can’t even imagine how it felt sleeping in such a Sacred space. And that they have restored them in such a thorough manner is insanely amazing! To see the rubble…and then the shots of things brought back together again! I don’t even understand how they did it so perfectly. Your cinematography was wonderful!!! Every one of You did an incredible job. I loved the music and editing. The narrator had a very pleasing voice. Congratulations to All of You and to KK Muhammad (and ALL involved!) for going through the obstacles he did to get things done and then to protect the site!!! His quote about his books reading him is one of the best quotes ever! I’ll remember that always!!! Cheers to Your Grand Adventure, and Wonderful Heart, Narayan!!! Thank You again for sharing Your work/life so beautifully!!! 🤗❤️😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • hah ! Forrester.
      how beautiful to read this. Feeling awed, really. Yes KK uncle retired a few years ago, lives in Kerela. When Obama had come to India, he was their guide to a few historical sites that they chose to visit.
      Story of this temple is truly quiet an inspiration, it was even for me, looking at him, while working with him. You can feel his passion in actions and speech.
      Thank you Forester, Cant believe you went through the film without the language. Gratitude and so much love. Nara ! ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I am reading your post in the middle of the night but couldn’t stop as it is a fascinating venture into such a distant past. We are having excavation going here in central London right now, next to the cathedral. There are signs that there was a temple there and there are many monks buried there. Finding the past and bringing it to life as you have described is incredibly moving, spiritual experience. Thank you for sharing, Narayan, this glimpse of India’s tumultuous past

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanna, well Britishers share a part of our history. And see, today i write and we talk because of that only. Its possible 🙂 let me know what do they find finally.
      And also because you write so passionately about history and health yourself, must plan an extensive visit to India.

      A beautiful day to you Joanna. Nara.

      Like

  11. Thank you. As always you are very kind. Of course, I will let you know about the archeological results. I wish I could see India for myself as I have watched many documentaries about this beautiful country.
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some day Joanna. If you would really want to, i believe you will. India is something to experience. Much more than being heard of, or seen from far. And when you are coming, you know whom to write to. 🙂

      Like

  12. Wow! I’m speechless reading this beautiful and powerful account. Great pictures too. I’m loving your blog, just looking around for more great stories, inspiration and awe! Thanks so much Narayan 🙂

    -Yogini

    Like

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