A once prosperous Gupta town now lies forgotten, on the right bank of Betwa River and to the west of Lalitpur hills. Home to the oldest Panchayatna temple in India, Deogarh is the hidden treasure trove of archeological finds that is often overlooked in favour of its more illustrious neighbours like Jhansi and Orchha. It is situated 33 kilometres south-east from Lalitpur town, 125 kilometres south of the divisional administrative centre at Jhansi and 235 km from Gwalior.

Deogarh’s strategic location in Northern India on the ancient route to the Deccan Plateau made it a historically important place. It was part of the Bundelkhand region, which had trade and cultural links with the Deccan. At various points in history, it has been referred to by different names, depending on the rulers of the time.

It was known as Lauchcchagira (as per a ninth century CE inscription of King Bhoja). A fort was constructed here and the village thereafter was named as Karnali-ka-kila (the fort of Karnali). However who was this Karnali and when this name change happened is still unknown. The town witnessed another name change when the Chandelas won over this region from the Paramaras of Kannauj in 1097 CE. An inscription of the Chandela king Kirtiverma engraved by his minister, Vats-raj, informs that the Chandelas emerged victorious in this war and the place is referred to as Kirti-giri-durg. The present name, Devgarh, is probably due a local Dev dynasty, which flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth century CE.

The remote location of the fort and the temples therein has ensured that it is one of the most magnificent temple ruins to be found anywhere in India and also one of the least visited. Deogarh has an impressive array of Gupta period temples, rock cut caves and 2 rock cut Ghats or steps leading down from the fort to the Betwa River. Known as Nahar Ghati and Raj Ghati, these rock cut valleys are a major attraction for tourists. While climbing down these steps, you can see several rock-cut carvings depicting scenes from Hindu and Jain mythology.

There are many monuments in and around Deogarh, the most prominent and magnificently built among them is the Gupta temple, locally known as the Dashavtara (Dashavatara, meaning “ten incarnations”) Temple. Built around 500 CE, it is one of the earliest Hindu stone temples still surviving today. It is also the oldest Panchayatna temple (Temple surrounded by 4 subsidiary shrines) in India. Dedicated to the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, the temple is a fine example of Gupta period architecture. It has a richly adorned entrance and beautifully carved panels on all three side walls. This is probably the only surviving temple of the Gupta period which has a shikhara (tower). Presently, the shikhara is damaged and the idol of the main deity is missing from its square garbh griha.

Though it is in poor condition, the temple nevertheless has a compelling presence. The ornate decorations and structural complexity as created in the early to late 5th century are still on display here.

As a sacred pilgrimage town for Jains, Deogarh received patronage under the Pratihara, Chandela and Kalchuri rulers. There are about 32 Jain temples of different sizes, age and character inside the fort. All these are dated later than the Hindu temples. During the Islamic iconoclastic depredations the temples were devastated; this was compounded by the growth of vegetation and neglect of maintenance. The Jain community is managing the temples since 1939 and have done some restoration work.

The most prominent among the Jain temples is the Shantinath Temple. Built in 862 AD, the temple is built in the Sandhara style, with a garbh-griha enclosed by a pradikshana path, antarala, mahamandap and ardhmandap. It has a huge sanctum measuring 39 feet by 34 feet and houses a beautiful statue of Shantinath measuring 5.40 meters. Jain sculptures lie scattered on both sides of the path from the gate, on the walls of the fort. A notable pillar seen here is called the Manastambha. The complete images of each of the 24 tirthankaras depicting the emblem of a bird, flower or animal are seen here. Thousands of sculptures are seen embedded in the walls surrounding the complex. The large number of idols lying scattered around the fort area is attributed to the fact that this was the sculptors’ workshop.

There are several other temples in and around Deogarh with archeological, artistic, cultural and religious significance. The Ghatis, the river, the fort and the lost-in-time ambience of the place attract the discerning tourists looking for a dash of history, culture and solitude.

Once the epitome of Gupta architecture, Deogarh is now the hidden gem that few know about. Explore the village steeped in history and be amazed at the artistry of our ancestors that still survives after thousands of years.