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