Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits

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Chambal has been the infamous forbidden land of Bandits that still resides under the name of unfamiliarity. And the only reason I was curious to explore it was first. Even Sonchiriya, a story of those legendary bandits set in Chambal’s beheads (ravines), made me more curious to visit. Hence morning have to early, with a quick bath & breakfast since a long journey ahead of us. We met our guide at the hotel gate, & our Chambal journey began with a legend associated with the River Chambal-also known as Charmanyavati. It is said that the River Chambal originated from the blood of thousands of cows sacrificed by a ruthless king Rantideva who wanted supreme powers. It’s interesting to hear, but it can be the truth. However, a more mundane explanation may be that the hides were dried on the banks of this river in large numbers, and maybe this was a flourishing trade.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
The Ravines

Furthermore, another legend states that the land around the river belonged to Shakuni, and somewhere here that Pandavas first lost to Kauravas in the dice game. And the disrobing of their queen Draupadi took place, where Draupadi cursed the Chambal river; hence no one could drink water from it. And people firmly believe the dark history of this place is the reason for non-industrialization. But this changed as a boon for the river, making it one of the cleanest rivers in India.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
Clean Chambal

Chambal evokes a picture of a land that is raw, untamed and powerful. Over the years, there has been no change in the history of Chambal ki Ghatti – it continues to live in deep myths. Known as the land of Bandits and the only thing I knew about the valley, what I saw left me mesmerised. Though most Indian films have acquired information about Chambal from a book called “The Accursed Chambal” by Tarun Kumar Bhaduri, it described the lives and times of the best-known Chambal bandits of the 50s and 60s. Such as Maan Singh, a local Robin Hood, Roopa Maharaj, an astrologer, and Lakhan Singh, who swore to kill his enemy, Gabbar Singh, who came back every Diwali to destroy the family members. He cut-off people’s noses and offered them to his deity. How can we forget Putli Bai, a proto-Phulan Devi? She continued to terrorise the valley even after losing one hand. They may be called bandits, but they called themselves “Baaghis” (rebels) and enjoyed cult popularity. Maan Singh and Roopa still have temples dedicated to them.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
Sunset on ravine

As I walked towards the Beehad, I saw the bulk of the Chambal ravines were spread in one region. It is incidentally a tri-junction, where the borders of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan meet. Looking around, I realised that Chambal beheads became what they became because of their sheer topography. It is hard to describe in words until you only know when you see it. I imagined it as a large ant colony, something developed by Brobdingnagian insects. And the ravines provide enough contours on its landscape for the bandits to live happily. And as per my guide, Chambal bandits have had a long history of surviving multiple governments since the ancient, medieval and modern times. And the reason was in front of my thousands of routes through these hillocks that only local people can figure out.

The first look of the place impressed me with its scenic vistas: deep ravines and scrub forests which have hidden generations of outlaws over the centuries. With vibrant diversity and a unique ecosystem, Chambal ki Ghatti has lots to tap. Along with rich history and heritage, the Chambal Valley has much to offer from its breathtaking landscapes, rural vibe, untainted nature, a variety of wildlife, fascinating ruins and legendary exploits.


I walked towards the river that’s said to be cursed and is untouched and unpolluted. , The lawlessness may also be a reason for the lack of big industries here and the resultant cleanliness of the river. Wildlife thrives here; hence parts of this area have been declared the National Chambal Sanctuary. It is known for crocodiles, gharials, various tortoises, and dozens of avian species such as the Indian skimmer, crane, ruddy-shelducks, bar-headed geese etc. 


I decided on a boat ride on the Chambal river; as the guide said, the Chambal river owes a good population of Gangetic River Dolphins. Therefore decided to try my luck & see some migratory birds that arrive here mainly in the winter. The boat ride was for an hour, and I could see crocodiles & gharials sunbathing. It is also known as the Chambal Gharial Sanctuary. The beauty is unmatched with Behaad surrounding the pristine river Chambal and the occasional appearance of many animals. Though the thrust towards tourism in this region only started a decade ago or so. After the last dacoits were eliminated or surrendered, the area became safe for travel. Apart from these unique formations, multiple archaeological sites are hidden deep inside the ravines.

Post my Behaad excursion & boat ride, and we drove towards Morena. My quest to explore ancient temples leads me to the Bateshwar group of temples. A group of 200 sandstone Shiva temples and ruins scattered near Padavali village. Our guide confirmed these beautiful structures date back to the Gupta and Gurjara-Pratihara dynasties. And the marvels of Padavali, Mitawali and Bateshwar temples are situated just a few kilometres from the city of Morena.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
Bateshwar sect of temples

It is said that Mitawali, Padavali and Bateshwar made a golden triangle. About 1000 years ago, a university existed as an alleged teaching centre to impart education in Mathematics, Astrology and Hinduism to the children with the help of sun rays! Therefore I decided to start my quest with the Bateshwar group of temples.

Reassembled temples

Upon reaching, I saw the archaeological department team was still at work. They were busy rebuilding the temples which were destroyed in the 13th century. Though built during the 6th-8th century, the temple ruins were lying around, hidden from civilisation until the late 19th century. Though protected by ASI, the temples were too damaged to be restored. With thousands of temple stone members strewn around, pillars, friezes and Amalakas are awaiting their turn to transform back into temples.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
The Kund

But in 2005, the temple caught the fancy of archaeologist KK Muhammed of Bhopal. He discovered the architecture of the temples follows two ancient documents on architecture and design principles written in the 3rd century and 7th century. Hence he started leading the restoration work. However, the restoration work was difficult as the ruins were scattered across the region. 

Shiva Temples

The excavation of the region was not an easy task for being ruled by notorious dacoits. Surprisingly the Chambal dacoits played a crucial role in finding all ruins scattered across the Chambal valley. Sixty temples have been restored like jigsaw puzzles from mounds of rubble with the help of Chambal dacoit. It was an impressive work in process as I walked past the temples.

Lost Virtue

Our guide shared many interesting stories about ancient structures. But I never heard anything more interesting about the restoration of a place. The Bhootnath temple was most impressive and dedicated is Lord Shiva. Only time will tell whether the 1300-year-old temple pilgrimage site in the Chambal ravines will suffer another devastation and need another reincarnation.

Spending some time exploring the ruins, we drove towards Padawali. Graciously guarded by a lion and lioness, Padawali was built in the 18th century by the Jat Ranas rulers of Dhaulpur. To reach the temple top, I took a steep flight of steps. The inscription took me by surprise as the detailing of the architecture of the Padavali fort temple was outstanding. 

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits

I saw the best sculpture engraving on the pillars, lintels, and beams carved scenes from Ramayan, Mahabharat and Purans. The trinity of Brahm, Vishnu and Shiva is depicted during their childhood, youth and old days. Furthermore, carvings depict Krishna Leela, Samudra Manthan, Ganesha’s wedding, Pret form dance of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu’s several incarnations and innumerable gods and goddesses. And to top it all, there are erotic images a-la Khajuraho.

 I saw the Mukhamandap but failed to see the mandap or the sanctum sanctorum. Only broken stone members spread in the courtyard. The fort has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, believed to be built during the 8th to 10th centuries. A lot of pali inscription was seen engraved on the fort walls. The Mandapa is the highlight with the most ornate structure I have seen in many temples. Each inch of stone is densely carved in eye-popping 3D detail.

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
The sculpture

I stood looking up at the carvings with my jaws dropped. Although the structure does not look vandalised, possible that the same earthquake demolished the Bateshwar Temples. The eastern wall of the courtyard has two-storied modern cells, which house cannon balls and other potential military paraphernalia. There is a deep well like Baoli(steep well) on the southern corner.

The details artistry

After the detailed tour of Padawali, we drove to the Chausath Yogini Temple in Mithawali, also known as the Ekattarso Mahadeva Temple. I have always been fascinated by esoteric aspects of religion, drawn to the mysticism of cultures and rituals. By the time we reached Mithawali, it was 3 pm, quite close to sunset. And the temple is located on a hillock overlooking the village and a vast expanse of green fields. Well, I climbed the odd 100 cobbled or more stairs that lead to the temple. 

Upon reaching the top of the hillock, you can see the circular temple. I was familiar with the structure as I visited another Chausath Yogini in Bhubaneshwar. I walked towards the temple & found an inscription dated 1323 AD. King Devapala of the Kachchhapaghata dynasty built Chausath Yogini Temple in the 11th century. The temple was built to impart education in astrology and mathematics based on the sun’s transit. 

Chambal: Forbidden Land of history, myth and Bandits
Chausath Yogini Temple

However, Yogini can have many dimensions commonly related to an esoteric sect or cult. They do not have any typical form nor follow the known rules and regulations of Brahmanical Hinduism. As per Chandi Purana, Yogini refers to the shape of the Goddess. Eight Matrikas arrive with their eight attendants making the group 64 Yoginis. Yoginis are not only worshipped as a mother goddess, but they also embody the primal forces of nature and fertility. Moreover, Yoginis were worshipped for their magical abilities. Furthermore, Yoginis and tantric practices were shrouded in mystery, adding to the allure of the Yoginis. And this enigma caused the Yoginis and the Chausath Yogini Temples to be lost in the annals of time. 

Way to Temple

I walked around the temple’s unique architecture, a circular structure with a prominent shrine in the centre. The exterior circular wall has 64 small chambers, an open Mandapa, and pillars and pilasters. The rooftop is flat, and the chambers now house Shiva linga, which has replaced idols or statues of Yoginis. An interesting fact about the temple is the location falls in a Seismic Zone III region- which means the area is earthquake-prone. However, the building has survived the calamities of nature without any severe damage. It is due to its robust design and circular structure.


While wandering around the temple, I realised our Parliament has the same structure. I googled the images of the Parliament House with its open inner central courtyard and domed structure. I can’t help but wonder if Herbert Baker did get some inspiration trawling Indian heritage sites before designing New Delhi with Lutyens. Nevertheless, is it a one-off design, or is it the standard design of Tantric or Yogini Temples?


The silence of the temple was overwhelming, with striking green fields in the backdrop and floating clouds above. By the time we left Mithawali, it was 4.15 pm; hence we drove to Kakanmath to visit a known Shiva shrine. It was built by Kachchhapaghata ruler Kirttiraja 1015-1030 CC to fulfil queen Kakanwati’s wish. The temple consists of a sanctum, a pillared hall and a porch. The temple is dated to the 11th Century AD.

KakanMath Temple

The drive to all the heritages was terrific and memorable. It was enough to break the myth that ‘Morena is not only famous for its dacoit and related stories’ but is also a rich heritage. The roads were smooth, with the yellow mustard field on both ends. 


I ended my trip with Shani Temple in Shanichara, which is famous in this region and 10 km from Mitawali. And luckily, I got an opportunity to eat in the local Goshala and a delicious thali.


The hospitality was heart-touching. Finally, we drove back, enjoying the sunset on the mustard field.

How to Reach

By Air: 

The nearest airport is Gwalior, approximately 10 km away from the city. At the airport, hire taxis to reach the city.

By Rail:

The Gwalior is a well-connected railway station with all the major cities in India. You need to hire private cabs or take a shared taxi from the station to reach the city.

By Road:

Gwalior is well-connected via road with Delhi, Agra, Mathura, Jaipur & other closeby cities of Madhya Pradesh. Buses, private cabs, and shared taxis ply to Gwalior from these places. You can also book a private cab or a shared taxi. One can drive to Gwalior too.



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