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The Architectural Workshop of the Gurjara-Pratiharas

Naresar Temples

If there is one dynasty in north India that has left a lasting imprint on the architectural style of the region than any other, it is the Gurjara-Pratiharas.

More than half of the great temples of Morena were built by the Gurjara-Pratiharas or inspired by their architectural style.

The Great Laboratory of Naresar

There is a group of around 22 temples in the Naresar village in Morena district. These temples were built in the 8th century by Yashovarman and Amaraj of Kannauj. Albeit built by independent rulers, the architecture of these temples belongs to the Pratihara style, the dominant style of the region.

Hindu temple architecture witnessed great experimentation in the seventh century. The temples at Naresar exhibit the early stages of the nagara temples, with a precursory antarala, curvilinear shikhara, and a square plan. The site also hosts the first example of the Valabhi shikhara in India.

Two of the earliest temples that are 1400 hundred years old have phamsana shikhara, (the pyramidal shikhara of successively decreasing pillars going up), popular in the early stages of Hindu temple architecture. They are similar to the Brahma temple at Khajuraho.[1]

Half of the temples are situated beside a lake and the other temples are approached by descending a flight of steps to a cliff overhanging the Naresar valley of Morena.Naresar Temples

Naresar Temples

Most of these temples consist of a garbha-griha and a narrow antarala inside the doorway. Some of the temples have the peculiar plan of a pancharatha jangha and triratha shikhara.[2]

The jangha of the temples contains bhadra niches in pilasters and pediments. The doorways are the features to be marvelled at. The figures of Ganga and Yamuna along with chhatradharinis flank both sides of the door while other deities, surasundaris are on the three niches on both of the two pillars.

The lintel sometimes displays the saptamatrikas and Ganesha, and sometimes other deities. The main deity of the temple is generally carved in a central udgama niche on the lintel.

Naresar is such a wonderful site of Hindu architecture that it should be on the map of every enthusiast of Hindu architecture as well as the pilgrim or the average tourist.

However, as we remarked earlier in the series, the lamentable fact is that it is almost completely lost to the outside world. It is one of the hardest temple sites in Morena to visit, despite being just five kilometres from the main road.

From the highway, one has to turn to a dusty unpaved lane, and go through fields for about two kilometres. Parking the vehicle in jungle, one has then to hike through two hills, cross the riverbed of a seasonal river, go through still more fields, then through a lake, before one stumbles upon the breathtaking site of Naresar overhanging a cliff, overlooking the Naresar valley in Morena.

And all this through dacoit-infested lands.

It is an immensely rewarding view and the temples are great works of art but except for a few courageous travellers, it is not possible to visit these sites. Unless the government builds better infrastructure, these sites will go to permanent ruin, as the mining activity in the area is already inflicting enough damage upon the temples.

The Bateshwar Group of Temples

The Bateshwar Group of Temples comprises about 44 temples spread over an area of 25 acres, built across the sloping hills at Bateshwar, Morena.

Most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu. They were built during 8th and 10th century C.E. by the Gurjara-Pratiharas. Most of them are built in the nagara style with a simple shikhara, no mandapa and a small precursor of antarala.

The nagara style shikhara is topped with an amalaka or two in some cases, and a pot finial at the top. The shikhara is triratha with a mesh of gavaksha arranged in a line, reaching up to the top. A minority of the temples have a simple mandapa with two pillars and no enclosing walls. The entire platform makes for a very impressive sight.

A scientific study of the temple reveals that the construction of the temples was carried on over centuries constantly, up to the 11th century A.D. It was then halted abruptly due to the Islamic invasions.

As a result, many temples are left unfinished and all of them are desecrated.

Situated in the ravines of Chambal, in the very remote areas surrounded by scrubland jungle, it still is a dangerous site to visit. Until a few years ago, the dacoits used to stay on the temple site. The area is now free of dacoits. In the midst of the temples, a stepped well is constructed, which still serves as a source of water.

The temples are constructed from the locally-quarried yellow sandstone with a reddish tinge. Juxtaposed to the red sandstone of the Jaipur region, the Chambal Valley is famous for the yellow-white and yellow-red sandstone, in which most of the monuments of the region are constructed.

Their colour lends a particular variety to their appearance, especially at the sunrise and the sunset, when the Sun’s rays fall upon them at a slanted angle.

At dawn and dusk the sunlight plays with their pristine jungle background and their yellow-reddish sandstone and produces a beautiful spectacle, most ancient in nature and divine in experience.

The Story of its Restoration

There is a curious story about how this site came to be restored.

K K Muhammad was working as the Superintending Archaeologist for ASI. He saw these temples for the first time in 2005. Then it was just a huge mound but the ASI team had begun the work of restoring the site.

However, there was a problem. No one was ready to go there since the area was infested the dacoits. In fact, the very temples were used by dacoits to camp at night.

One day, Muhammad ran into the dreaded dacoit Nirbhay Singh Gurjar. Working diplomatically, he opened rounds of talks with the dacoit, convincing him that it was his great ancestors who had built these marvellous temples. The dacoit was pacified then and agreed to let the workers of ASI and tourists come there in peace.[3] The dacoits even protected the ASI team and the tourists who visited the temple.

In the tenth century, due to several reasons, the dynasty broke up into the Paramaras of Malwa, the Chandellas of Bundelkhand, the Kalachuris of Mahakoshal, the Solankis of Rajasthan and the Kachhapaghatas of Gwalior, who ruled Morena and the Chambal region.

These dynasties commissioned the next wave of Hindu temples, bigger and more beautiful than their earlier counterparts. The Kachhapaghatas built great temples in the Chambal region, which will be the subject of the next article in this series.

The historian and scholar par excellence, R. C. Majumadar, clarifying the role of the Gurjara-Pratiharas in Indian history has observed:

“The Gurjara Pratihara Empire which continued in full glory for nearly a century, was the last great empire in Northern India before the Muslim conquest. This honour is accorded to the empire of Harsha by many historians of repute, but without any real justification, for the Pratihara Empire was probably larger, certainly not less in extent, rivalled the Gupta Empire and brought political unity and its attendant blessings upon a large part of Northern India. But its chief credit lies in its successful resistance to the foreign invasions from the west, from the days of Junaid. This was frankly recognised by the Arab writers themselves.”

The primary contribution of the Gurjara-Pratiharas was to hold the Islamic attackers at bay for more than three hundred years. They saved the Hindus from staggering misery, saved countless number of temples and built thousands of others.

Without the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the entire history of India might have been wholly different. This played a great role in ensuring that India remained Hindu.

Also known as Batesara and Batesvar, the Bateshwar group of temples are located 35 km north of Gwalior and 30 km east of Morena in Madhya Pradesh. Set in a natural bowl within a densely forested ravine of the Chambal river valley, this remote 25 acre site is without doubt one of the most astonishing archaeological sites I have visited anywhere in the world.

Dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, this group of nearly 200 temples were built during the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty, the earliest constructions are believed to date from 750 – 800 AD.

Right off the bat I am going to have to apologise for the number of photographs in this blog. I have struggled to cut the numbers down, for reasons that will become self evident as you scroll down. What is here is just 10% of all the photographs I took 

Almost nothing is known to this site prior to the 19th century. When Alexander Cunningham visited Bateshwar in 1882 he recorded :

“…a confused assemblage of more than 100 temples large and small, but mostly small, to the southeast of Paravali Padavali”.

His estimation as to how many temples are actually here was wildly out, but understandably so because in his time the site was in total ruin.

We don’t know exactly how these temples became ruined, there’s no obvious evidence of damage from invaders. None of the sculptures here have been purposely mutilated, which suggests none of the destruction was from the hands of humans.

The current theory is that an earthquake sometime after the 13th century completely destroyed the complex. A short distance from here is another wonderful site that is worth visiting, Kakanmath Temple, but there we have clear evidence of destruction both from natural and human intervention. It would seem that the hidden nature of this site, tucked away in a ravine, resulted in it going unnoticed by passers by who may have had undesirable intentions.

In 1924 the Archaeological Survey of India placed the site under protection, and for the following 81 years the complex was recorded, photographed and conserved as a ruin.

Then in 2005, everything changed and Bateshwar was reborn. Under the leadership of archaeologist K.K. Muhammed, the then ASI Bhopal’s regional superintendent, an ambitious project was started to collect all the ruined masonry and attempt to restore as many of the temples as possible. I can’t even start to imagine how complex this task must have been, but the results are mind boggling, and simply spectacular.

Beteshwar prior to conservation (images ©  K.K. Muhammed and ASI)

Not only was the site a jumble of ruined structures, but in places the forest had started to reclaim the complex over the centuries, resulting in trees sprouting out from the middle of temples. Such scenes would not look out of place at the Ta Prohm temple near Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Beteshwar prior to conservation (images ©  K.K. Muhammed and ASI)

The above images were taken before and shortly after restoration commenced in 2005 (courtesy of K.K. Muhammed the ASI). Below is a portion of the restored temple complex, along with ruins yet to be reconstructed.

The two images below offer a good before/after comparison for a particular temple which had been engulfed by vegetation.

Before and after a temple’s reconstruction (images ©  K.K. Muhammed and ASI)

If piecing this together this complex jigsaw puzzle wasn’t enough to take on, the ASI also had to deal with the fact that the site was in a region that was far from safe.

The Chambal ravine was widely regarded as a lawless zone, with one of the last dacoits in the area, Nirbhal Singh Gujjar, terrorizing the region with his accomplices. Nirbhal is said to have run a parallel government in about 40 villages, with up to 205 criminal cases of murder, robbery and kidnapping attributed to him over a period of 30 years. He carried a bounty of 2.5 lakhs (approx $340,000) provided by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh police and was infamous for having a fascination for women, wine and weapons. During his time in the Chambal ravine, Nirbhal reportedly had AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, bulletproof jackets, night-vision binoculars and mobile phones at his disposal.

This has to go down as one of the most sensitive archaeological restoration projects in history, and perhaps surprisingly Nirbhal Singh Gujjar and his gang collaborated with the ASI and helped immensely with the initial stages of the reconstruction. This “help” consisted mostly of non-interference, the dacoits would allow the ASI workers in and out of the site every day and nobody on the project would not come to any harm from them.

This agreement was however short lived, as later in November 2005 Nirbhal Singh Gujjar was killed after an encounter with the police in Etawah. A couple of years later all the dacoits in the region were either eliminated or had surrendered.

Ironically, the presence of dacoits in the Chambal Valley may also have helped preserve Bateshwar. Although the site was quite well known, with the area considered so dangerous nobody attempted to smuggle any of the carved sculptures out of the temple complex.

Unfortunately, the challenges facing the ASI didn’t stop there. Although the area became free of dacoits, the Bateshwar temple complex then came under threat from illegal mining. Dynamite was being used in nearby mines to help extract building stone, the resulting vibrations similar to mini earthquakes were once again putting the site at risk.

This is not the first time I have come across archaeological sites in India coming under threat from mining. My recent visit to see the prehistoric petroglyphs in the Konkan brought into sharp focus just how fragile and precarious some monuments are. It’s not clear to me if this mining has actually ceased now, although on my visit I didn’t experience anything.

Bateshwar today is a fascinating blend of pristine small temples set amongst a scatter of ruins, it’s such an evocative scene. Pillars, friezes and sculptures are everywhere around your feet, just waiting for further restoration work to occur. The Hanuman statue, freshly coloured in red with Vermilion, is still worshiped by locals in the area today.

I don’t think I have ever visited a temple site anywhere in the world where there are so many temples packed into a relatively small area, sometimes there is barely 20 cm between each one. With the blend of chaos and conservation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the temples are currently being freshly built and the workers have just clocked off for lunch.

The earliest temples in the complex have plain square roofs, the more artistically evolved temples with conical roofs were built a little later. These are known as “Mandapika Shrines”, reducing Hindu temple architecture down to it’s very basics and only just removed from the single cave cell design. The examples at Bateshwar are considered quite early for such temples, and some of the detail carved on the lintels has led some scholars to think that Bateshwar may have origins as far back as 600 AD.

I was unable to find any evidence of willful damage to any of the carvings here. I’m so used to seeing the faces hacked off images, but here they have remained unscaved. Did any invaders make it here I wonder ? Although the site appears to be in quite a remote setting, it is not that far from Morena which is on the major route south from Delhi.

So I think this place would have been quite accessible if anyone really wanted to come here. Perhaps the rumoured earthquake had already occurred, so Bateshwar was not considered worthy of traveling to with the intent of causing further damage.

By 2012, out of the 200 temples at Bateshwar, 80 have so far been restored. For all the criticism the ASI receives about the maintenance and conservation of some archaeological sites, here is a great example of what amazing things can happen with the right cast of characters in play and the mutual desire (and resources) to make a real difference.

I congratulate everyone that’s been involved in this inspiring project !

The primary contribution of the Gurjara-Pratiharas was to hold the Islamic attackers at bay for more than three hundred years. They saved the Hindus from staggering misery, saved countless number of temples and built thousands of others.

Without the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the entire history of India might have been wholly different. This played a great role in ensuring that India remained Hindu.


  1. Saxena, Pankaj. Morena: An Architectural Wonder. New Delhi: Samvad Media, 2015. p. 78-86.
  2. Willis and Maroo. The Chambal Valley: A Heritage Treasure. Delhi: Bookwelll, 2010. p. 108.
  3. Subramanian, T.S. “Restored Glory”. Frontline, Volume 27 – Issue 02. (16–29 Jan 2010)
  4. R.C. Majumdar (general editor) and A.D. Pusalker (assistant editor). The History and Culture of the Indian People. Vol. 4. The Age of Imperial Kannauj. Bombay [Mumbai], Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951.

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