Prevalently branded as the Little Khajuraho, the Menal Temple Complex, said to have been built between eighth and twelfth century, is located almost midway on the 160km long Chittorgarh-Bundi highway-stretch in Rajasthan. It was in the winters of 2010 when I first got an opportunity to travel on this highway.
Having finished the first leg of our adventure-filled honeymoon at Ranthambhore, we set out for Chittorgarh to continue with our sojourn in the desert state of India. Already overjoyed with her first sighting of a Tiger in the wild, the wifey offered to navigate reading the map as well as road-signs. Unlike other regions especially a certain north-Indian states, the highways in Rajasthan are well marked with road-signs. It was this chariness of the highway authorities that saved the day for us otherwise the roadmap-books – Eicher and makemytrip – both billed as “detailed” were effusively full of errors. Both the map-books appeared to be on the same plane – of misinformation – with respect to showing a highway or a link-road connecting two destinations. Having repeatedly experienced issues with the maps on several occasions in different regions, I plan to prepare a comparative review of both the road-maps soon.
As for the road-conditions, the entire stretch of the highway right after the town of Sawai Madhopur was outstandingly favourable allowing a trouble-free drive till Chittorgarh. The traffic on the highway was few and far between. The previous night, we had identified Bassi village to be our next night-halt as it was located just a few km short of the majestic Chittorgarh Fort. The wifey was particularly interested in experiencing the hospitality of traditional Havelis of the region and the village offered just that. With their architecture borrowed from temple designs of the period as well as some Mughal-styled overtones, the renovated mansions attract constant flow of tourists and have been particularly favourite with foreigners.
Before this, the only knowledge I had of the area was that a temple complex named Menal and famed The Mini Khajuraho exist somewhere near Chittorgarh. It was solely because the wifey decided to pursue, after reading a couple of lines about the place from the guidebook we were carrying, we decided to visit Menal. So as to confirm we were on the right track, we still preferred to take directions from the bystanders on the highway. In little less than three hours we reached Menal. The picturesque green patch is not quite visible from the highway itself. The entrance of the temple complex is located somewhere behind the roadside shops and could be reached by taking a 100/120m-motorway near the Prasad shops. We parked our car inside an imposing Marriage Palace-cum-Restaurant located just off the highway ahead of the shops. As I ventured into the backyard garden of the hotel-compound, the wifey ordered some fresh chana-chaat and lemon soda for a quick and much-needed refreshment. The view from the garden was breathtakingly splendid. The transformation of landscape from sandy-green to lush green forest was swift and seemingly encompassed well thought through elements handpicked by a photo-artist to fit into a frame.
The ancient temples built with red sandstone in Hindu style situated aside the weathered and water eroded deep Menal gorge coated green by lush forest cover was a perfect blend of men’s desire and nature. Separated by the riverbed comprising eroded granite slabs, the poetic ruins of an ancient Palace as well as the temple complex dotted both sides of the now dry Menal. The steep rock-faces of the gorge bore marks of the flow of the Menal during rainy seasons. Green shrubbery of various shapes and sizes peppered the rock-faces as well as both the banks downstream. As regard the wildlife, currently the topography could unfortunately only afford some birdlife.
Marking the western fringes of the Uparmal plateau, famous for sandstone quarrying, located northwest of Vindhyas, the rain-fed Menal River before merging with Benas a few km downstream, create patches of densely wooded ravines that provide natural retreat from the scorching heat of the desertscape in summers. The nippiness provided by the green cover makes this place all the more attractive in the region. It was possibly for this reason that the great Prithvi Raj Chauhan chose Menal ravines to be his summer retreat in the desert state.
As if the magnetism offered by the landscape was not enough, the caretaker of the hotel had switched on the electrical fountain before I stepped in the backyard of the complex. His intention, which was not hard to recognise, was to make the visitors believe, through the sound of the fountain, that the flow of the river was perennial and not seasonal. Although, the spot receives fewer visitors, leaving aside the pilgrim-season, the complex surely commanded a well looked-after property; at least a state tourism department-run-restaurant. Having devoured the mini-snack meal, we rambled towards the entrance of the temple complex.
Approaching the admirably fabricated double-layered gateway to the temple courtyard, one passes through lawns carpeted green on both sides of the paved pathway recently built by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Having witnessed continuous raids as well as seizes ever since its inception in the 11th century, only a few structures including temples survive to this date. Administratively, the area was seized by Akbar from Mewar Kingdom and has since been beholding the apathy shown to it by successive governments. Only recently, the facelift of the complex and restoration of temples was undertaken by the ASI. Nevertheless, the temples have always been favourite with local population and pilgrims.
The imposing gateway is carved with figurines of Ganesha and Bhairaov. On the other side of it, in the stone-floored courtyard, lies a magnificent temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, surrounded by several ruined structures. The walls, pillars and top of the Shiva temple are finely carved with sculptures of Hindu deities. A few of the structures inside the complex were built in the 8th century.
In the absence of qualified guides or signboards depicting detailed information, we failed to decipher much out of the general layout as well as its historical and cultural resemblance. For one thing was certain, the temple strictly followed Hindu-styled architecture, prevalent at that time, and was built at a perfect place that also seemed saatvik where meditation would have been more effective and meaningful. It was the architecture and rock carvings which resembled the Khajuraho group of temples.
We then headed towards the ruins of the palace and the riverbed. No sooner we stepped on the water-eroded blackened granite slabs than a swarm of couples emerged from behind the rocks and large-sized granite boulders. Our sudden presence seemed to have disturbed them!
The structures as well as temples on the other side of the riverbed were commissioned by the queen. Lord Shiva and Parvati could be seen portrayed alongside dancers, lesser-known Gods as well as elephants and other animals. Having taken a few photographs of the landscape, we sat with a pujari who filled us in with respect to the temples and the area around. A few trails, mostly frequented by locals, from the riverbed led to other areas within ravines. A short visit to the temple complex makes for an ideal morning or afternoon destination. The view of the temple-scape in the magical light of sunset made for an interesting capture.
…Afterwards, we continued our journey to reach the palatial Haveli, at Bassi, owned by descendants of the family of a Senapati who served in the army of Mewars…