Tehelka Hindi magazine published my travelogue on Bateshwar with photographs by Nitin Gera.
A series of ancient temples trace the crescent embankment along river Yamuna. Some of the shrines have been crudely whitewashed while most of the complex has been abandoned to nature. Without any elaborate architecture or features distinguishing one from another, the temples seem to have been cloned, each with its own stairway to the river. The morning sun reflects this panorama in Yamuna which is in such bounty as is unseen by us Delhi dwellers. Even the nearby wonder, Taj Mahal, doesn’t possess such a mirror.
We didn’t expect to reach such a tranquil place when we left the Delhi-Kanpur highway at Shikohabad in search of Bateshwar, a small temple-village in the mysterious Chambal valley. A railway crossing just off NH2 had been cramped with characteristic rural Uttar Pradesh activity. Some cyclists were trying to cross the barrier and those who had stopped were making small talk amongst themselves or with the signalman. A few hawkers were looking for sales opportunities in the paused traffic of mostly two-wheelers, except for a pushcart and our four-wheel drive. The black SUV and its dark-glass-wearing occupants kept the folks amused.
The level crossing sems like a gateway to the valley infamous for dacoits. Soon we are on a zigzag road through ravines. The state forest department maintains these roads for a modest toll of Rs10 at the end of a bridge over Yamuna. We ask for directions to Bateshwar. Once in the village it isn’t difficult to locate the temple complex.
In the parking area a priest is breaking a coconut in front of a new car while its owner, and his kin, all gathered around, prayed for auspiciousness. The area is big enough to cater to the rush that gathers here during the annual fair in October-November. But today there aren’t any other devotees. Vendors and priests receive us with alacrity. Within moments we’ve been taken over by an elderly Panditji and following his guidelines to worship the presiding deity Bateshwar Mahadev i.e. Lord Shiva while a group of junior priests provide chorus for the aarti.
Panditji then takes us on a guided tour of the temple complex. It is believed that there were 108 temples of various Hindu deities. Less than half of these stand today, mostly in ruins. Regular prayers are offered at a couple of temples including a Jain temple. Bateshwar is also a Jain pilgrimage by virtue of being tirthankar Neminath’s birthplace.
We cross a courtyard where numerous bells of varying sizes are hanging. These are tokens of gratitude by revisiting devotees whose prayers have been answered by the ever generous Bholenath. Pridefuly Panditji informs us that one of these bells was offered the ex-Prime Minister of India Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The adjoining temple has quaint idols of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva has been depicted with moustaches and wearing dhoti, angrakha, and pagdi, making the supreme ascetic appear like a Marwari merchant. Goddess Parvati has been rendered in full shringaar that local married ladies wear for auspiciousness. Panditji has been working hard at earning dakshina and keeps elucidating the various ways and benefits of worshiping each deity, Ganesha, Kartikrya, and so on. Reaching an idol of the Sun God he says “inki bhi puja kar lo, isse bhi kuch faayda zaroor hoga.” We realize that he has run out of commentary and we of politeness and patience. We part ways with Panditji, after a hefty dakshina, and venture ahead through the chain of shrines to find our God ourselves in self exploration and peace.
We reach the last temple and go down the stairs to the ghat. A large number of turtles have gathered near the bank waiting to be fed rice puffs by devotees. It is a happy sight because turtles which were once in plenty in Yamuna have vanished from most of its parts and can only be found in places like Bateshwar that offer them a religious sanctuary. The Chambal River that meets Yamuna downstream from Bateshwar, hosts eight rare species of turtles out of the 26 found in India.
This region falls in the National Chambal sanctuary which is home to 320 resident and migratory birds. A few of them give us company. Herons, egrets, and ducks float in the river. A couple of Brahminy Kites swoop across. An Indian Roller is picking insects from the ground. A caravan of camels is crossing the river. A bunch of boys is frolicking in shallow water nearby. A few people are washing clothes and bathing, including few of the numerous Naga Sadhus who live in the ravines.
The entire gamut of life in the Chambal valley seems to be on display at the riverfront in the morning. But as the day gets warmer everyone leaves for cooler quarters and so do we.
On our way-out we stop at a few shops in the village. No fancy outlets, no shops selling souvenirs, just a few tea-shops with limited supply of cold drinks. Mineral water bottles are unheard of. The villagers scan us with curious looks questioning our motives. Oblivious to the serene beauty of their temple town they wonder what could interest us urban people. Tourism industry hasn’t yet invaded their languid lives.
We linger, roaming through the mysterious ravines and pausing at a few quaint mud cliffs and visualizing dacoits rampaging through the valley, and reluctantly get back on the road to the civilization where we belong.