The ancient Hindu temples of Morena do not date back to any one era. One can find temples from the earliest period of Hindu temple architecture in Morena till the 14th century—that is a period spanning around seven centuries.
It shows that Morena had a deep seated tradition of temple building which sustained over centuries, despite many odds. The seventh century mandapika shrines of Paroli and Indra ki Khiravali show that even in the earliest times, Morena was a great centre of temple architecture.
During the medieval ages, much of north India was laid to waste by Islamic invaders. The Hindu temple was the first casualty whenever an Islamic army attacked. Many ancient temples of Morena survived due to their remote location and due to the fact that no Islamic king could rule long enough to sponsor repeated waves of destruction.
Islamic Attacks against the Hindu Temple as an Institution
This did not mean that the attacks did not affect the institution of the Hindu temple at all. Hindus, like most other deity worshippers did not worship a desecrated murti. Therefore, the first focus of all Islamic attackers was to deface the idols by chipping away a nose, a leg, or a hand. More comprehensive destruction happened in cases where the Islamic rulers stayed for longer durations. Also, in those days, there was no dynamite to blow up the entire place up in a single shot. In most of the raids in or around Morena, disfiguring and desecrating were the only things the invaders could do.
As a result, even those temples that did survive in most of India were desecrated and hence were abandoned by Hindu worshippers. This is also the reason that most Hindu pilgrimages that survive in modern times do not have ancient buildings. They are comparatively very recent structures, some not older than a hundred years.
This accounts for the dichotomy in Hindu temples in India. The really beautiful and ancient temples are not in worship anymore. They are abandoned, lying in ruins in jungles and obscure places, off the beaten path. The temples that are famous and working are all virtually new.
Nature of an Islamic Invasion
Morena also witnessed this Islamic wave of destruction, desecration and defacing of its murtis and statues. Hence, most of these temples were abandoned by the Hindus over time.
The second reason for abandoning these temples was that they were the primary focus for any Islamic invader. When Muslim invaders attacked, they not only defaced the temples but also destroyed the villages nearby, massacred the Brahmins in the temples, and slaughtered cows inside the garbha-griha. Living near a great temple was as risky as living near a radioactive area would be now. People fled the temples in order to save themselves.
There was another reason for abandoning these temples. Hindus valued art greatly. Religious architecture in the form of the Hindu temple was an idea which not just the rulers of the country, but the populations cherished too.
Even while there was great risk in living near a great temple, many people, communities and entire villages chose to risk their lives in order to serve and save the temple. Many of these temples took decades to build. They were so alive in the memory of the local people that they could not imagine their lives without it. They looked at them not just with reverence, but with love. They cherished them as one would their child as they built it with great effort and resources.
One reason that they abandoned these temples was to save them from utter destruction. Many great temple sites were abandoned and hidden in jungles, under forest cover.
Some were covered by limestone like many Jain temples in Madhya Pradesh, including Muktagiri and the Great Kailash temple at Ellora, which used to be the original Ghrishneshwar.
In short, Hindus intentionally abandoned these sites in order to save them from total destruction. They intentionally forgot the very location of many of these sites, so that they became absolutely unapproachable for anyone, except some stray traveller.
Abandoned Temples of Morena
In Morena, one clue that this happened can be gleaned from the fact that even the local people of the region do not know these ancient temples as temples, or as ‘mandir’, the Hindi world for temple.
In case of the mandapika shrines of Paroli, Morena, they are known by the names of ‘gadhis’, or the place where something is sculpted into the stone. They generally have a bad name as it is believed that going to these places brings back luck. Some say that because they host erotic sculpture, families should not go there.
It is possible that this trend started to save these temples from destruction and later on revive them.
Many Jain temples have been revived in the modern age, during the British era and even after independence when the immediate danger of Islamic destruction waned. Khajuraho was also intentionally hidden, and despite being such a huge site, missed the eye of the Islamic invader.
Mandapika Shrines at Morena
This maybe the reason that the mandapika shrines at Paroli and Indra ki Khiravali survived.
Mandapika shrines are one of the earliest Hindu temples, some predating the Gupta temples, such as the famous one at Deogarh, with the first shikhara.
However, they even existed when the shikhara had been invented. The mandapika shrines are a common feature of Central India and persisted well into the early Kachhapaghata period in the late 10th century.
Michael Meister describes a mandapika shrine as: “a pillared pavilion, the space between pillars filled by decorated slabs of stone.”
A mandapika was the most rudimentary of Hindu temples. It was a simple pillared porch which was covered on three sides by carved stone slabs. As they were the first of the temples, there was no shikhara to top them.
“…the initial conception, at least, is that of a simple pavilion with a flat vedi platform superstructure and not a tower. This group is typified, however, not by its superstructure but by its wall structure and mode of construction – and since the type persists in Central India as late as the early Kachhapaghata period (10th century) it is not surprising to see the nagara shikhara at times imposed upon it.” [Michael Meister, Construction and Conception: Mandapika Shrines of Central India]
Paroli has four such shrines, two of them purportedly Vishnu temples. All of them are in a very dilapidated condition. Of one temple, only the doorjamb survives. The other three also just barely survive, with only two walls intact.
Like other typical mandapika shrines, the shrines at Paroli are square in plan. The porch, or the small mandapa, is two-pillared. The bhitti, or the base is square in plan. The pillars of the wall stand on a broad stone slab. These pillars support plain lintels which form a simple roof.
The bhadra projections between the pillars have both tall and short niches which have figures of deities carved in them, sometimes in high relief, but mostly in medium and low relief.
Only the doorjamb of Temple No. 4 at Paroli survives, but the doorjamb is monumental. Its pillars have three tiers of figures of deities, and Ganga and Yamuna, along with her companions greet the devotee on left and right door jambs.
Another mandapika shrine is in the small village of Indra ki Khiravali. It is right by the side of the road. Its entrance is now blocked by thick bushes. However, one can see the three sides which have relatively survived intact, though the individual sculptures have been defaced by devout Muslims.
It is also based on a square plan and simple vedi roof with pillared porch and stone slabs in between, projecting with the bhadra niches full of Hindu deities. One can see Uma-Maheshwara in one of the bhadra niches.
There are more such temples in Suhania, Varahavali and Bhensora in the Morena district. However most of them are almost completely dilapidated. Others are so completely renovated that finding out much about their original plan and structure is hard.
The mandapika shrines of Morena prove that Hindu temples were introduced to Morena and the Chambal region from the earliest of times. The temples were small in scale and rudimentary in ground plan and structure. However, even 1400 years ago, the art of sculpture was extremely refined. The statues are creatively imagined and perfectly executed.
This shows that the Hindu temple did not just appear out of nowhere in the 4th or 5th century C.E. as claimed by some art historians. The philosophy behind Hindu architecture and sculpture was well in place even before the actual structural temples were started to be made. The aesthetic quality of the early shrines of Morena appear to support this claim.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
 Meister, Michael. “Construction and Conception: Mandapika Shrines of Central India” East and West. (New Series, Vol 26 – Nos. 3-4, September-December 1976).
Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and has photographed the evidence. He’s also writes articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines and is the author of three books.