The first image that rushes to one’s mind when the name of Morena is mentioned is that of turbaned dacoits on horses, clothed in black, guns in their hands, and rushing through the ravines, leaving a trail of dust behind them.
The reality is more interesting than that. The dacoits are no longer the problem they once were. And they have existed only for a very limited period of time in the long history of Morena. They are not the reason Morena should be remembered.
The greatest reason that Morena should be remembered for is its absolutely wonderful architectural heritage. It was a centre of Hindu temple architecture. It has nine great monuments of great antiquity, five of which are absolutely colossal, built by great dynasties like the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the Kachhapaghatas, etc.
The question which then comes to mind is: why then is Morena not widely known?
The answers lie in its complicated history.
This five-part series will trace the history of Morena in the greater backdrop of history, religion, and architecture.
The first part will discuss in brief a broad history of Morena. The remaining four parts will focus on four kinds of temples and monuments that are found in this small district.
Morena as a case study of a north-Indian region with hilly terrain tells the bigger story of how these regions became important for those in north India who were fleeing Islamic invaders.
Geography and History
Morena is the northernmost district of Madhya Pradesh. It has a variegated geography with lakes, rivers, ravines and hills crisscrossing its length and breadth. It is punctuated with many seasonal and perennial rivers which cut through the porous mud flats of Morena, creating an undulating terrain of muddy cliffs. The ravines of the Chambal River are breathtakingly beautiful, a unique feature not to be found anywhere else in India.
Almost every remarkable feature of Morena is due to its interesting geography.
The rich history of the region starts from the pre-historical rock paintings in the Pahargarh caves in Morena. There is no clear estimate as to the age of these paintings but they are thought to be 5000-8000 years old.
Likhichhaj is the largest cave system. The word ‘Likhichhaj’ means an overhanging eave or a hill on which something is written. The Chambal valley provides many secluded caves, which are almost inaccessible. The Early Man must have found these places perfect for creating art. Their remote location saved them from the ravages of time.
The harsh terrain of Morena is the reason that although many great dynasties ruled the region, the real rulers were always the local chieftains who defied the absolute rule of any outsider.
In recorded history, the Mauryas were the first great dynasty to rule Morena and the greater Chambal region. After them, the Naga dynasty came to rule here. This era did not witness the building of any prominent monument in this region. It was the age of the Buddhist rock-cut art and the Chambal valley was not located on any big trade route; Buddhism did not hold sway here.
For a brief period after the fall of the Mauryas and before the next great dynasty of the Guptas could rise, the Huns and the Kushanas attacked and ruled this region. An inscription in Pawaya in Gwalior district proves that the Kushanas ruled this region. [6, Willis and Maroo]
However, neither did these invaders destroy the earlier structures—if any existed previously —nor did they build anything significant. The Huns were uninterested in investing time and money in architecture and the Kushanas were Buddhists.
Morena as a Frontier
The golden age of Hindu temples was witnessed under the Gupta Empire. The structural Hindu temple found its true form in this era.
Though Morena came under the reign of the Guptas, it was ruled by local vassals whose names are lost to history. Near the end of the Gupta Age, in the sixth and seventh centuries, the region saw the temple building activity in what is now the village of Paroli. Now in a dilapidated condition, even the locals are ignorant of these precursors of Hindu temples, almost 1300-1400 years old.
Harm De Blij asserts that geography is the single most important factor in determining the history of a region. The more complex geography of a place is, the more interesting its history will be. This is very true in Morena’s case.
Morena is a true frontier. The Chambal River is its northern border. To the north and east lie the fertile plains of Ganga-Yamuna doab. To its west are the semi-arid lands of Rajasthan.
Southwards from Morena, the terrain changes. Forests, river valleys, hills, and scrublands are the defining features of the central Indian landscape. This was always a difficult region to invade or rule. Central administration and foreign control was not easy due to its fragmented geography.
This is why when alien Islamic attacks began in the Medieval Era, this region became a safe haven. It was the seventh century, a momentous time in history.
Developments in the remote Arabian Desert were to affect half of the Old World. Islam was born. The Islamic armies of Arabs were invading east and west. They had begun knocking at the gates of India in 7th century CE, but due to stiff resistance by north Indian Hindu dynasties, their progress was halted. Everywhere else in the world Islam met with early successes.
India like most places, was busy in its own comings and goings. From the seventh till the late tenth century, the region around Morena and the larger region of central and north India, was fought over by the three great dynasties of Medieval India: the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the Palas of Bengal and the Rashtrakuta dynasty of south India, based in Manyakheta.
They fought with each other for supremacy of the region, in the famous Tripartite War, particularly for controlling the imperial city of Kannauj. The Emperor of Kannauj was called the Emperor of India at that time. The fortunes of all of these kingdoms waxed and waned but Kannauj is primarily remembered as a Pratihara capital, the greatest north-Indian Empire after the Guptas.
The Gurjara-Pratiharas rose in defiance of Islam. Nagabhatta I, who established the dynasty as one to reckon with, earned his name by defeating a ‘mlechha’ Arab army which attacked the city of Ujjayini, the modern day Ujjain.
The very word, ‘Pratihara’ means ‘gatekeeper’. The Pratiharas saw themselves as the gatekeepers of the Hindu civilization against the iconoclastic and barbarian armies of Islam.
Prolific Temple Builders
The Gurjara-Pratiharas were great patrons of art. The exposure to their unique Islamic enemies for whom iconoclasm was a devout cause, made them focus on temple building even more.
Like the Chalukyas in the south, they kept building temples, even as Muslims were destroying it. In some inscriptions, they have clearly stated that one of the primary causes of their furious pace of temple building was Islamic iconoclasm. In defiance of the invading Islamic armies, this age saw a huge spike in temple building, particularly in north India.
The Gurjara-Pratiharas experimented with many temple styles. Most of the regional idioms of the nagara style of Hindu architecture that survive today in north India were experimented upon and refined by this great dynasty.
They then exported their temple architects to other kingdoms and dynasties, and hence, most of the other vassals of the Gurjara-Pratiharas and other independent kingdoms and dynasties also built temples in idioms invented and experimented upon by the Gurjara-Pratiharas. This was true of Morena too.
Morena was at the centre of the Gurjara-Pratihara realm and during 7th to 12th centuries, it saw its golden age of temple building. Its rocky cliffs, deep ravines and secluded cave systems were perfect for the quiet activity of temple building, which sometimes took decades.
This was the age when most of the greatest monuments of Morena were built. The Naresar group of temples were built by Yashovarman of Kannauj; the Bateswar group of temples by the Gurjara-Pratiharas; the Kakanmath temple at Sihoniya, the Chausath Yogini temple at Mitavli, and the Padavli Shiva temple by the Kacchapaghatas of Gwalior.
The Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty disintegrated in the 11th century. Its vassals became independent. The continuous pressure of fighting the Muslim armies invading from the west ultimately broke the dynasty.
However, every important historian of Indian history from Elphinstone to Majumdar to R. S. Chaurasia has credited the slow progress of Islam in India due to the formidable fight that the Gurjara-Pratiharas put up against Muslim armies.
Sindh had fallen to the Islamic armies in 7th century. It was the Gurjara-Pratiharas who held the Islamic tide back for three-hundred years. Not only did they save much of north India from cultural destruction by the Muslim armies for three hundred years, they also actively patronized artists and as a result we are left with a great legacy.
India, its culture, art and architecture owes an enormous debt to this dynasty.
Cultural Genocide of Hindus
India saw an unprecedented wave of cultural destruction when Mohammad Ghori invaded India during the late 12th century.
Morena, at that time was ruled by the Kachhapaghatas of Gwalior, the former vassals of the Gurjara-Pratiharas, who had declared independence. Ghauri defeated them and laid the city and the surrounding regions to waste.
After this, the age of Islam-inspired destruction started with repeated waves of invasions. The formidable fortress of Gwalior was harder to take than most other forts. However, it too, fell from time to time to the invaders and along with it, the Chambal region surrounding Morena.
In 13th century, Illtumish captured the region and Morena suffered a horrific wave of cultural destruction like all other places in India which fell to the Muslim sword.
However, the Delhi Sultanate collapsed in the 14th century and regional kingdoms emerged. The Gurjara clan of Tomaras came to rule Gwalior and the Chambal region in the 14th and 15th centuries. During their reign, the region flourished again.
During the sixteenth century, the region around Morena fell to the raids of Sher Shah Suri and then to Hemu.
Hemu operated from the Gwalior Fort and during his short reign, the Chambal region around Morena again saw peace. After Hemu was killed, the region passed on to the Mughals.
Aurangzeb laid waste to the Gwalior Fort and the region around it in the late 17th century. However, the Marathas took over the Gwalior Fort in the early 18th century and since then, the Chambal region remained in Hindu hands till India’s independence.
During all of its history, the Morena and Chambal region’s fierce regional character and independence from powerful outside powers remained prominent. Even while great dynasties like the Gurjara-Pratiharas or the Mughals ruled the region, it was ruled through vassals who were semi-independent.
Morena’s Isolation and Contemporary Neglect
Like most of north India, Morena and its surrounding regions were laid to waste by Islamic invaders. But while Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab were completely devastated with not a single structure surviving in most of their districts, Morena, due to its difficult geography, survived absolute destruction.
This is the reason that most of the temples that were built in Morena still survive, even if in dilapidated condition. Most of these temples were destroyed, at least once, but since no Islamic ruler could stay for a long time, there were no repeated and sustained waves of destruction.
Morena’s isolation saved it from utter destruction. Morena’s ravines made sure its temples survived.
During the Medieval times, due to repeated invasions, the great centres of temple-building were abandoned over time. It was done intentionally, partly to save the temples and party to save the population, as the centres with great temples were specific targets of the Islamic iconoclasts.
Morena’s isolation was a boon during the great age of temple-building. Equally, its isolation was a boon during the terrible age of Islamic destruction.
However, in modern times, the general isolation of Morena, and the particular isolation of the specific sites of temples means that most of them lie neglected much beyond the gaze of the cultural tourist, and of the government.
In the 20th century, the ravines of Morena became a perfect ground for guerrilla activity and became famous for its legendary dacoits.
Most of the ancient temples of Morena are facing terminal ruin. Some of them do not even have motorable roads leading up to them. Many of these places are infested with dacoits.
Just a decade ago, the great site of Bateswar in Morena, which has more than 40 temples that still survive, was infested with dacoits. The Archaeological Superintendent of ASI who worked there convinced the dacoits to leave the premises and protect the tourists who come there.
In the subsequent parts of this series, the four dominant styles of temples in Morena will be discussed in the wider contexts of history and religion. The history of the district, along with the larger, general region will also be discussed.
The Hindu history of India still lies in neglect. The government is apathetic in this direction.
However, some of the backpacking cultural travellers are waking up to the immense and glorious Hindu heritage of India. Riding on their bikes, or in cars, they travel through inaccessible roads, risking dacoits and other dangers. They go to these sites, click pictures and along with some rudimentary description, post them on the Internet.
Slowly but steadily, the Hindu heritage of India is facing a quiet revival. Its massive number, magnificent beauty and unimaginable scale will establish India as one of the greatest centres of cultural heritage in the world. Morena is such a sample district, which nobody quite knows about, but is full of magnificient Hindu temples.
- Willis and Maroo. The Chambal Valley: A Heritage Treasure. Delhi: Bookwelll, 2010.
- De Blij, Harm. The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape. New York: OUP USA, 2008.
- Sharma, Sanjay. “Negotiating Identity and Status Legitimation and Patronage under the Gurjara-Pratīhāras of Kanauj”. Studies in History 22 (22): 181–220. 2006.
- Radhey Shyam Chaurasia. History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors. p. 207.
- Goel, Sita Goel (ed.) Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them. Vol I. & II. New Delhi: Voice of India. 1990.
This Series was first published on India Facts.
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