The railway crossing was buzzing with activity. Some cyclists were trying to cross the barrier. Those who had stopped were making small talk among themselves or with the signalman, while few hawkers were doing business. All the vehicles at the signal were two-wheelers except for a pushcart and our four-wheeler. The big car and its sunglass-wearing occupants caused much amusement in that small town of Uttar Pradesh.
We had left the Delhi-Kanpur highway (NH2) at Shikohabad and turned towards Bateshwar, a small village with a series of temples along the river Yamuna. It is believed that once there were 108 temples of various Hindu deities here. Less than half of these stand today, mostly as ruins. Regular prayers are offered at a couple of temples. It is the birthplace of the 22nd Tirthankar, Neminanth, and hence a Jain pilgrimage as well. Our trip was only partially motivated by religious reasons. What made it really exciting was that Bateshwar lies in the Chambal valley. The level crossing seemed like a gateway to the valley infamous for dacoits. Soon we were on a zigzag road through the ravines. It was the perfect setting for a game of hide-n-seek.
Once we were in the village it wasn’t difficult to locate the temple complex. In the parking area a priest was breaking a coconut on the bumper of a car. It was a new car which the owners had brought to seeking blessings. Besides them there weren’t any other devotees. Vendors and priests received us with alacrity. Within moments we were inside a shrine holding plates with offerings to god and praying to the presiding deity Bateshwar Mahadev i.e. Lord Shiva. A priest supervised all rituals while his juniors provided chorus for the aarti.
The temple had stairs leading down to the river. A large number of turtles had gathered along the bank waiting to be fed by devotees. It was a pleasant sight because turtles that were once in plenty in Yamuna have vanished from most of its parts and can only be found in places like Bateshwar that offer a religious sanctuary.
We crossed a courtyard where numerous bells were hanging. These were a token of gratitude by those whose prayers had been answered. We were duly informed that one of these bells belongs to none other than the ex-PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The adjoining temple had quaint idols of Shiva and Parvati. There Shiva had been depicted as wearing a moustache. The clothes and turban that had been wrapped around made him look like a Marwari merchant rather than the supreme ascetic. Parvati had been adorned with all the ornaments that are considered a sign of matrimony in the local culture.
Moving through several such shrines we reached one edge of this chain and went down to a ghat from where we could see a panoramic view of temples painted in white along the bend of the river superimposed on ruins. The river itself was an exotic sight. In Delhi we had never seen Yamuna in such bounty. A caravan of camels was crossing this quiet sheet of water replete with birds — herons, egrets, ducks, brahminy kites and many more. At some distance a bunch of boys were frolicking in water. An Indian Roller bird had come very close to us while picking insects. We sat there for some time watching the flow of life.
Meanwhile the news had spread about the arrival of people from a big city. We encountered curious looks scanning our demeanour and as if questioning our motive. Oblivious to the serene beauty of their temple town they couldn’t believe that we found anything interesting about it. The only visitors that they are accustomed to are pilgrims who throng the village during October and November when the annual cattle fair is organised. Tourism hasn’t yet invaded their languid lives. There wasn’t much left for us to do. We drove around the place for a while stopping at a few places to admire the mysterious ravines and then turned back towards the city we belong.
The author is a radio jockey with AIR