Every time I walk into a historical monument, often centuries old, I wonder how it survived time. May it be the 1500 year old Chittorgarh Fort and the structures in it or the ‘much younger’ fort in Delhi. These buildings have seen the extremes of everything, some has witnessed the start and end of an era, yet they are there for us to see.
But then, when you read the placards mentioning about how a certain invading army destroyed the structure, you look around and wonder – what did they destroy? Everything looks complete in here! This is where the great folks of Archaeological Survey of India steps in.
An ode to ASI
Much before independence, a small group of folks were assigned a task to catalogue and restore the old structures of India. They worked hard and went on to excavate the remains of one of the oldest and largest civilization. World has changed much, so has our understanding about our past and the way we live today. But Archaeological Survey of India is still doing what they do best. They are excavating and restoring our history, for us, lest we forget what we were and what we should strive to be.
When T S Burt and then Cunningham found the temples of Khajuraho (will tell that story some other day), it was amidst a dense forest and lakes, almost razed down to the ground by various invaders. Legends sang the story of 85 temples with a pair of gold date palm trees in the entrance (hence Khajuraho or Khajjur Vahak), but less than 20 temples were visible, rest buried under or vanished in time. With a meagre budget and lack of resources, restorations happened over decades and today one could see the temples as they would have stood in their mighty days.
Restoration of Bija Mandal
Bija Mandal is one such temple, probably the largest in Khajuraho had its construction completed, is under restoration by ASI. For one to understand the emotions behind the last few paragraphs, which my limited vocabulary couldn’t express, a visit to Bija Mandal is a must. Decades back, ASI started exploring the idea of finding the lost temples of Khajuraho, mentioned in the folklores. After extensive survey, they found some mounds, still not encroached by a growing civilization. One such mound can be seen in the picture below (that small hill beyond the field).
Identifying a mound is an easier task. What follows is decades of hard & careful labour – excavating tiny parts of what was once a mighty temple. Today, when you visit Bija Mandal, one can see all those stones laid out around the site, carefully identified and marked with their position on the building. Imagine the amount of work involved in identifying these stones, like solving a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces and no idea of what the complete picture looks like!
We stopped at the entrance and walked into a shack which is apparently the site office and tourist information centre on the restoration project. I was disappointed by the structure and lack of an expert to explain the process and progress. Here was an opportunity for ASI to showcase their efforts and educate folks about the process of excavating & restoring a monument.
But then I understand why a proper information centre is missing. During the next few hours I spend at this site, learning from the documents and interacting with the workforce, not a single guide along with tourists dropped in to this site. Had it been one of those many restored temples, I would have been suffocated by tourists.
In the make-shift shack, one can see framed documents on the plan of restoration and other details. I have captured a few frames for you (below).
A map of the site including the pond and the adjoining mound (in dark blue)
The design of BijaMandal temple
Cross-section diagram of BijaMandal temple
Details of sculptures on the temple
Images and sketches of the mound at various stages of excavation
(the top left image is that of the mound before excavation)
Carved in Time
Pardon my poor photography skills, but I hope the pictures gave you an insight of the work and the sight. Moving forward I spend some time with the stones excavated from the site. Beautiful carvings adorned them, depicting the lifestyle of a long lost culture. I was surprised by the detailing, one could even learn about the hairstyles prevalent during those times. Walking among the stones, laid in order, I reached the now excavated temple mound. Later I read that the temple was never finished! Had it been finished, experts at ASI believe that this would have been one of the largest, if not the largest.
Finding the lost culture
I kept walking to what would have been the entrance of the temple. Among the rubbles, one can see the Shiv Ling standing atop, broken yet distinct. This temple is a little over 4 metres longer than the largest temple here, Kandariya Mahadev temple. Though there are no carved pillars, walls or roof, the base of the temple is still visible with some beautiful sculptures. I had spend much of my time amongst the excavated stones and the drawings by ASI, and had to rush now. Later I realised it was a wise move, for I easily identified the patterns in the sculptures, like the procession of army and the ones with more detailing.
Later, I read that they found a beautiful Saraswati idol from these ruins. In one such article, I also read about sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras, some complete, others left incomplete. Strangely, what was left today is also an incomplete picture of what could have been a visual treat for an archaeology enthusiast…left to your imagination!
I walked back, wondering when will more folks realize the importance of ASI and its noble works. Excited to be at a live site of ASI, I promised myself that I will return to Bija Mandal if not Khajuraho.
I looked back and saw a labour, draped in a brightly coloured saree, walking towards the monument; working all this time to reconstruct the path, to a time long past!
I found some interesting articles on Bija Mandal, sharing it here for my reader who is interested in learning more about this site. Share any information/picture you have on Bija Mandal, I would love to share it with other readers.
- New Temples unearthed at Khajuraho – a very detailed article with some insights on Bija Mandal
- 10th Century temple discovered in Khajuraho – is there a Buddhist Stupa hidden in one of those mounds as mentioned in this article? I hope so.
Few weeks back was the World Archaeology Day and this article was in my draft then, almost complete. I could have, and wanted to, complete this article on the day and share it as a tribute to the good folks of ASI and their contemporaries around the world. But my laziness has no bounds and it lay there in my draft folder for weeks.
I am ashamed.
I think I owe an apology to the hardworking folks who are paving a path for us to travel through time; this is my apology to them.