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Of temples and dacoits: Archaeologist recalls Chambal Valley mission

By Express News Service

BENGALURU:  The Bateshwar group of temples, located 50 km from Gwalior, lies deep in the Chambal Valley. Over 200 temples, dating between the 8th and 11th centuries, lay in ruins. After protracted negotiation with the dacoits, whose writ ran large in the area, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Madhya Pradesh, led by its then chief Muhammed KK, successfully restored 80 temples, piecing them together with care and precision. 

In his late evening virtual address to students of IIM Bangalore on Wednesday, Muhammed, recipient of the Padma Shri in 2019, shared the anguish and agony of taking on the mining mafia, the experience of dealing with dacoits, and the joy and pleasure of reconstructing the 80 temples in Bateshwar, in Morena district, Madhya Pradesh.

Muhammed recounted how he had invited a surrendered dacoit, Lachu Singh, to his office to discuss conservation work. “Lachu Singh’s connections helped me get breakthroughs and acceptance in the local community,” he said.“We found ruins in a forest in the valley, and then, the remains of many temples. Some were in a fragile state. We found the base of a pillar, and believing it was the entrance of the temple complex, we excavated and found all the pillars and bases because no one had dared enter the valley until then. We put together the temples in just four months. The restoration was precise and methodical. The dacoits were impressed and called it a ‘chamatkar’ (miracle). This helped us gain respect and acceptance,” he said. 

Tryst with Nirbhay Gujjar
Muhammed revealed that the chieftain of the dacoits, Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, had sought a meeting with him. “The police were hot on Gujjar’s heels, so he had to be careful. I told him he had been sent to Chambal with a purpose — these temples had been built by the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty — to protect and restore these temples. But he was running out of time; he was shot dead soon after,” he said.

The death of the Gujjar brothers meant that the mining mafia now had free run of the place. The powerful mafia began to interfere with conservation work and fired at the collector and superintendent of police. A young IAS officer was murdered. “But I had the support of the dacoits, so I was safe! I wrote to then RSS chief Sudarshan and he took prompt action by directing the then state government to protect the conservation work,” Muhammad recalls.“Let’s not forget that the dacoits helped preserve and conserve these temples.” He, however, lamented that the ASI was not getting the support it deserves from the government.

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