BLOG: These temples of Bengal are a reminder of who we are as people! – PART I

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Temples of Bengal

It took an English man to show us the sublime beauty of our temples in Bengal. Armed with a tripos in modern languages from Cambridge, David McCutchion came to India in the 1950s. While teaching English in Viswa-Bharati in Santiniketan he visited some local terracotta temples and this led to his life long passion about the late medieval temples of Bengal. He travelled extensively in both Bengals sometimes on foot and sometimes on cycle and tirelessly documented thousands of beautiful terracotta temples that dot the landscape. He was responsible for helping an entire generation of Bengalis rediscover their heritage. I was intrigued by this story of a Cambridge educated gent scouring the West Bengal and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) rural landscape through the 1950s/60s till the Naxal unrest and the Bangladesh civil war stopped his ramblings.

Egged on by a close friend – my engineering college buddy Amit, I decided to trace a part of his journey during this trip to Kolkata From Kolkata the nearest bunch of these late medieval temples are in Hooghly district. We set off one balmy Saturday evening from Kolkata to Chandannagar which would be the base location from where to start our perambulation. It had been raining for the past few days and we were almost on the verge of cancelling our trip but buoyed for encouraging weather forecasts persisted. Sunday morning was crisp with clear azure skies and bright sunlight- ideal for viewing the temples. Our expert –Prasenjit, created a route which factored in the orientation of these temples. We would visit the east and north facing temples in the morning and the west and south facing temples in the second half so the temples are always bathed in light. Prosenjit is a high ranking officer in West Bengal Correctional Services and a photographer of repute. He has a passion and fierce loyalty to these temples. He has been making the rounds for the last couple of decades often on cycle van rickshaws and on public buses. He has painstakingly created a repository of photos of these temples over the years. His immense knowledge of these temples and the carvings was of great help to us on this trip.

 

Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley ©

 


The Route

 

Chandannagar–>Dwarhatta (via Haripal)–>Aatpur–>Kotolpur(via Jangipara)–>Rajbalhat–>Dasghara(via Tarakeswar)–>Senet–>Delhi Road–>Chandannagar

The proposed route would take us from the historical French enclave of Chandannagar towards Haripal.

Our first stop would be the village of Dwarhatta. Well known in medieval Bengal as a prosperous market town its slide into obscurity began with the influx of European settlements of Serampore, Chandannagar and Bandel. The European towns acted as a magnet for traders and artisans and Dwarhatta reduced in importance. On the way we passed through one of largest wholesale banana market of Nasibpur which was abuzz with activity with “Chhat” pujo!

 

Banana Wholesale Market: Nasibpur

 

From Dwarhatta we would go to “Aantpur” another prosperous Hooghly village which has a rich and well documented history going back few centuries. Known for its later association with Swami Vivekananda’s renunciation along with his 8 Guru Bhai’s have added a further spiritual dimension to Aatpur.

 

Aantpur Village

 

From Aantpur we would move towards Sitapur to reach the hamlet of Kotolpur. A relatively less prosperous and obscure village Kotolpur is reached through some Muslim majority villages. Its temple is in a dilapidated state.

From Kotolpur we would travel to Rajbalhat. Its famous for the local “Kali” like deity of Rajballavi and also for its association with Dulal Chandra Bhor well known to most Bengalis for his patented “Dulal er Tal michri” .

Idol of Local Deity Rajballavi, Rajbolhat

 

From Rajbalhat we return through a visit to Dasghara village and Senet. The intention was to conclude our day trip by visiting the magnificent Imambara of Hooghly :

 

 

1. Raj Rajeswar Temple, Dwarhatta

 

Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley ©
Raj Rajeswar Temple, Dwarhatta
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Built by the Singha Rays(Apurba Mohan Singha Ray) in 1728 this temple is dedicated to Vishnu ( Raj Rajeswara). The Singha Rays trace their ancestry to Rajasthan. They are Rajput Kshatriyas who moved to Bengal in the 1600s most possibly at the same time as the Rathod exodus after the defeat at the battle of Haldighati.

The temple is one of the best preserved examples of the “Aatchala” style. The terracotta carvings on the façade are mostly beautifully preserved. The carvings are mostly scenes from the Ramayana, scenes from daily life, Goddess Durga among others. The carvings under the lintel over the triple entrance arch is intricate and beautiful.

Raj Rajeswar Temple, Carvings on top of Arch

2. Radha Gobindo Temple, Aantpur

Built by Krishna Ram Mitra, Diwan to Maharaja Tejchand of Burdwan in 1786, this temple is one the largest built in the “Aatchala” temple with an Orissa style “Jagmohan” in front.

 

Radhagobindo Temple, Aantpur
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

The whole temple complex with 5 shiva temples (Gangadhar, Rameswar, Baneswar, Jaleswar, Fuleswar), a “Ras Mancha” and a “Dol Mancha” in addition to the main temple. The entrance to the main temple compound is located next to a 500+ year old “Bakul” tree.

 

Entrance to main temple compound, Shiva Temples on the right, foreground
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

Ras Mancha, Aantpur
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

The temple carvings are unique as they draw from world history and several religions reflecting “Sarva Dharma Samanyay”.

 

Temple carving showing Anubis on left, Guru Nanak and Kabira
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

Terracotta carving of Samudragupta playing the veena
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

“Barsha” work on the edges of the temple walls
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

Ponkho Polestara

 

Ponkho polestara work on the ceiling of the Jagmohan is very well preserved. This was an ancient mosaic technique indigenous to Bengal and neighbouring states. The technique used crushed sea shell paste mixed with other items. The patterns were decorated using knives.

 

Ponkho Polestara work on the ceiling of the Jagamohan
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

3. “Darusilpo” (Jackfruit Wood) Temple, Aantpur

 

Darusilpo (Jackfruit Wood) temple, Aantpur
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

This is the oldest surviving medieval wood carved temple. The wood used is that of the jackfruit tree with a traditional thatched Roof.

 

4. Baburam Ghosh’s (Premananda Swamy) House, Aantpur (now Ramkrishna Math)

 

Baburam Ghosh-better known with his monastic name of Premananda Swamy was one of the nine disciples of Ramkrishna along with Swami Vivekananda.

 

Baburam Ghosh’s house, Aatpur
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Baburam Ghosh’s house where Swami Vivekananda and his eight Guru Bhai’s renounced the material world and became monks.

 

Plaque commemorating the renunciation of Vivekananda and the eight disciples of Ramakrishna
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

5. Raj Rajeswar Temple, Kotolpur

 

This was the oldest temple of the day. Built in 1694 by the hazari and Bakulis, the temple is overgrown with weeds and the ceiling has caved in. However the terracotta work and the structural integrity of the façade is miraculously preserved.

 

Raj Rajeswar Temple, Kotolpur: Terracotta Carving
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

Raj Rajeswar Temple, Kotolpur
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

6. Radhagobindo Temple, Rajbalhat

 

This temple was built in 1733 by the Ghataks.

 

Radhagobindo Temple, Rajbolhat
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

7. Shibchak by the Damodar

We chose the scenic route from Rajbalhat to  Dashghara. It took us by the Damodar river bank. In our entire trip this was the only stretch of road surface that was damaged.

Shibchak: view of the Damodar



8. Gopinath Temple, Dashghara

Built in 1729 by the Biswas family(Sadananda Biswas) this is a great example of the Indo-Islamic Pancharatna style.

 

Gopinath Pancharatna Temple, Dosghora
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

The Gopinath temple is housed within the main Biswas house compound. As a result most of the terracotta carvings have been impeccably preserved.

 

Here are some examples:

 

Gopinath Temple, Krishna and Gopis
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Esraj Player
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Kaliya Daman
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Shiva playing a musical instrument
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Arjuna and Duryodhona seek Krishna
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Bal Krishna stealing butter
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

Gopinath Temple, Shri Chaitanya in ecstatic worship
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )

 

 

The Biswas Bari in Dasghara

The Biswas family built a stately home in Dasghara village in the 1700s. It is one of the best preserved old houses in Bengal.

Biswas Bari, Dosghora Village with Dol Mancha
(Photo courtesy Prasenjit Koley © )



9. Visalakshmi temple at Senet

When we reached senet it was dark so we don’t have any photos of the temple. This temple was one of the rare examples of the “Jor Bangla” style of architecture established by the Bardhaman Raj in 1822.

We also had to drop Hooghly Imambara as it was well past 6 pm the closing time after we finished our visit to Senet.

 

Kali idol at the Senet temple

 

 

Risks/Threats

 

Most of these temples are under severe  threats from one or more of the following

1. No repair/restoration causing a slow death

Some of the temples like the beautiful temple at Kotulpur have fallen into disrepair and if no repairs are undertaken it will be lost forever like many other temples which were recorded by David but do not exist anymore.

 

2. Amateur Preservation Efforts

We also saw the damage caused by amateur preservation efforts. For example at the Aatpur temple complex scotchbrite was used to clean some of the terracotta carvings. In some cases the terracotta work was found to difficult to be maintained and have been entirely removed and the temples walls plastered and painted in ghastly green or blue or some such colour. The “Jor Bangla” temple at senet is an example of the same.

3. Illegal Plaster casting and stealing

Illegal effort of creating plaster casts of the terracotta carvings have some times irreparably damaged the carvings, In some cases entire carving panels have been removed

Final Thoughts

 

  • We should be thankful that chronic neglect, utter apathy and sometimes dubious preservation efforts have not been able to completely obliterate our temples. These temples are a reminder of who we are as a people, it’s a testament of a rich and sophisticated culture of complex and talented sculpting craftsmanship.
  • The rich and varied terracotta work drawing inspiration not only from Indian mythology, spiritualism  and history but also from international and non-hindu religious themes, speaks of a tolerant culture keen to absorb and synthesise the best of different religious-cultural traditions
  • The temple architecture ranging from the traditional “char chala”, “aatchala”, “Jor Bangla” to the Indo-Islamic “Pancharatna” style shows evidence of a rich bengali heritage which is all but forgotten. The recent crop of temples are either ghastly imitations of north indian temples or concoction of plastered and cemented abominations.
  • Everywhere  we went we were met by the current family members responsible for the up keep of the temples. In Kotolpur we were almost mobbed by eager villages who are keen on saving the temple.
  • There’s an urgent need to redouble our efforts to preserve and restore our heritage. Sublime architecture as the Kotolpur temple deserve saving.  Some of the temples such as Aatpur and Dwarhatta have received plans of restoration by the ASI. But others have not. We will continue our quest and the next trip will cover the temples of  western Hooghly and the Kalna region of Burdwan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

khabarbar.com
Koushik Chatterjee

Koushik is a cultural pilgrim, Terracotta enthusiast, weekend cook and occasional blog writer. Besides these important pursuits, Koushik dabbles in IT and shared services for a living. He is based out of London with his family. For further inputs or information on the above authored blog, Koushik can be reached directly on his Facebook account.

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