Archaeologist Muhammed KK shares management lessons from a time spent negotiating with dacoits while restoring heritage in India’s Chambal Valley
21 OCTOBER, 2020: The Bateshwar group of temples, located 50 kilometers from Gwalior, is deep in the Chambal Valley. Here, over 200 temples, dating between the 8th-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 the students of IIM Bangalore on Wednesday, Muhammed, recipient of the Padma Shree in 2019, shared the anguish and agony of taking on the mining mafia, the experience of dealing with the dacoits and the joy and pleasure of reconstructing those 80 temples in Bateshwar, in Morena district, in Madhya Pradesh.
The session was hosted by Professor M. Jayadev, faculty from the Finance area at IIM Bangalore, who introduced the speaker. “I read a review of his book (the book is originally written in Malayalam and has been translated into several Indian languages) in a Telugu magazine. I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book, read it over four hours on a Sunday afternoon and reached out to Mr Muhammed on email. He called me back; we spoke and he agreed to be a part of today’s session,” said Prof. M. Jayadev.
“I generally speak to fellow archaeologists, not students of management! My work centres around excavation and exploration, and conservation of dilapidated monuments. Seldom do we get an opportunity to speak on conservation. In my career, I got an opportunity to undertake conservation in a place when even one’s shadow won’t go along – the Chambal Valley, where dacoits call the shots. And I learnt the art of negotiation there,” said Muhammed. “Chambal is a maze of dunes and the pathways are known only to the dacoits. But by the time the ASI restored 80 temples there, some of these dreaded dacoits even wrote to the Prime Minister urging that conservation work in the valley not be stopped!”
Muhammed recounted how he had invited a surrendered dacoit, Lachu Singh, to his office to discuss conservation work in the area. “It was Lachu Singh’s connections that helped me get breakthroughs and acceptance in the local community,” he said.
“Archaeologists should know the language of the stones – when we found ruins in a forest in the valley; we found the remains of many, many temples. Some were in such a fragile state that they would have crumbled with a mere touch. We found the base of a pillar and believing that it was the entrance of the temple complex we excavated and found all the pillars and bases – in ruins, of course, because no one had dared to enter the valley until then! Working like orthopaedic surgeons, we put together the temples. The restoration was precise and methodical. It was a remarkable transformation in just four months! The dacoits were most impressed and called it a ‘chamatkar’ (miracle). This helped us gain respect and acceptance in their eyes. We found that 60 per cent of the temples were Shiva temples; and 40 per cent were Vishnu temples,” he explained.
Describing the gift he possesses and treasures most as an archaeologist – common sense (“jugaadu buddhi”) and thanking his luck, he recited both ‘shlokas’ and ‘shayiri’ to explain how the discovery of a small, perfect ‘nandi’ (bull) helped him identify the missing idol in the sanctum sanctorum. “In my time, there was no ground-penetrating radar. It was only sixth sense,” he said, adding how he excavated and found 5-6 temples beneath the ground he stood on. Explaining their search for a ‘pushkarni’ (temple tank), which resulted in the team finding three temples and a copious amount of water in a ‘pushkarni’. The dacoits, who worked with the team, supposedly exclaimed, “Man changa toh kathoti mein ganga”. Talking of how they worked while cutting a tree that had grown into the ruins by taking the permission of the tree, and the birds and insects inhabiting the tree, to epmphasize respect for all living beings, Muhammed recounted how so many beautiful temples, in terraces, from 1,200 years ago, were discovered. “Those 80 temples are mint fresh –– they are divine in conception and sublime in execution, and their location had protected them for centuries.”
Tryst with Nirbhay Singh Gujjar
Muhammed revealed that the chieftain of the dacoits, Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, had sought a meeting with him. The meeting, he recounted, was a chance affair by design! Muhammed found a man sitting near the excavated site in Bateshwar, smoking a ‘beedi’. Walking up to the smoker to tell him to put it out, Muhammed said he was stopped by the ‘kaarigars’, who whispered to him that the man sitting there was Gujjar himself “The police were hot on Gujjar’s heels so he had to be careful. Seizing the chance to negotiate with him, I told him that the idols were safe in India thanks to him! Else, they would have been stolen and shipped to auction houses in America or France! I told him he had been sent to Chambal with a purpose – these temples has been built by the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty between the 8th-11thcenturies, so I said to him, he had a mission – to protect and participate in the restoration these temples. But he was running out of time; he was shot dead soon after. However, after our talk, he did allow us to work in the area and we could bring in special ‘kaarigars’ to help with the restoration of the garba griha (sanctum sanctorum) and the ceiling stones of these temples.”
Continuing his absorbing account, Muhammed 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 the 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 the then RSS chief Sudarshan ji and he took prompt action by directing the government of the day in the state to protect the conservation work.”
Today, the Bateshwar group of temples is a world tourism site – the restored temples draw praise from politicians and the public. “Let’s not forget that the dacoits helped preserve and conserve these temples. Philanthropists like Mrs Sudha Murthy and Mr Gururaj Deshpande have visited the complex and promised support. The conservation of the 80 temples in Bateshwar took just Rs 3 crore, so I wish the support continues – not just to conserve heritage but also to set up schools for the children of the artisans who work on restoration.” He, however, lamented that the ASI is not getting the support it deserves from the government.