The idea of a trip to see the Terracotta temples of Hooghly came to me from a chance encounter with some beautiful photographs of ruined temples. The images evoked loss and desolation but also stirred ones memories and cultural roots. These photos were taken by a close friend’s school-mate who happened to be a Government officer with a dual passion of photography and terracotta temples. That was the start of my journey about these popularly little known and acknowledged part of Bengali heritage. My earlier trip in the autumn of 2017 took me deep into the Hooghly hinterland- historically prosperous villages, trading towns and river ports in a land of agricultural plenty.
Some of the beautifully carved Terracotta temples in these villages and towns are in dire need of preservation like the Raj Rajeswar temple in Kotolpur. I was awestruck by molten gold colour of its perfectly preserved sunlit facade but the temple was overgrown and roof had collapsed. Some other temples seen in that trip like the Aatpur Aatchala temple is well looked after by the owning families. Some others have been badly preserved. One specific one which I saw in my previous trip I was horrified to learn have been painted over by some lurid red exterior paints. There are only a handful of temples in Hooghly which have been restored and are maintained by the ASI which I could not cover in my previous trip. The intention was to cover those temples this time around.
This time our journey took us into a different direction- towards north eastern Hooghly and the historical spiritual heart of Bengal around Kalna and Guptipara. We started our day with an early morning trip along the Grand Trunk Road towards Hooghly and took a break while passing by a strikingly beautiful memorial standing alone by the roadside. It is the Memorial of Susanna Anna Mariain the outskirts of Chandannagar. Rumoured to have married seven times this was an unusual memorial to who was no a doubt a formidable Dutch lady in 19th century Bengal. She is rumoured to be the inspiration behind Ruskin Bond’s acclaimed short story “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”.
1. Susanna Anna Maria Memorial: Chandannagar
2. Hooghly Imambara: Hooghly
On our way to Bansberia we took a small detour to visit the beautiful Hooghly Imambara on the banks of the Hooghly river. Built between 1841-1861 by noted philanthropist Haji Muhammud Mohsin this Imambara (a Shia mosque complex and prayer hall) is unusual as its Twin Towers on the entrance Gateway host a Big Ben style clock which rings every 15 minutes. The sound is exactly the same as that of the Big Ben in London. The clock was procured from London around 1849 and is in perfect working condition.
|Hooghly Imambara: Twin Towers|
|Hooghly Imambara: Left Wing|
The Hooghly Imambara is an awe-inspiring structure with its incongruous 19th century Big Ben style European clock and stained glass windows but in urgent need of renovation. Some repair work is already underway as you can make out from scaffolding on the twin towers.
3. Ananta Basudeb and Hongseswari Temples: Bansberia
The Bansberia temple complex consists of two temples constructed in different times in completely contrasting architectural styles. While the Ananta Basudeb is built in the traditional Bengali Terracotta style the onion domed Hongseshwari temple is completely unique with no parallels in Bengal.
Built in 1679 by Rameshwara Dutta, the Ananta Basudeb is one of the rare temples in Hooghly to be restored and maintained by the ASI. It is one of the finest and best preserved examples of the Eka-Ratna (single turret) architectural style. The Ratna style is known to have evolved from Indo-Islamic confluence in Architecture, The Eka-Ratna in Ananta Basudeb has an Octagonal Tower and the temple facade itself is well known for its beautiful and intricately designed Terracotta panel work. As in other temples religious and mythological themes dominate. But there are scenes from daily life and battle scenes as well.
|Ananta Basudeb, Bansberia: Eka Ratna temple with a garden complex|
|Ananta Basudev, Bansberia: Example of temple facade Terracotta panel work|
|Ananta Basudev, Bansberia: Scenes from daily life in Terracotta panel work|
The adjoining Hongseshwari Temple was built much later around 1814. Built in a completely alien smooth onion domed style the Hongseswari defies classification but you could argue that its a unique adaptation of the “Ratna” architecture.
|Hongseshwari Temple, Bansberia: Unique Spired structure|
|Hongseshwari Temple, Bansberia: Front Facade|
|Bansberia Raj bari: Now ruined entrance to the Raj Bari complex
(Photo courtesy © Amit Mitra)
Bansberia has been part of the prosperous Saptagram or Seven villages in the pre-middle and middle ages. One of the prosperous river port towns it was built on a revered site of Triveni or the confluence of three rivers. This temple complex is also intriguing from the coexistence of the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition with the Shakta-tantric tradition. The older Ananta Basudeb temple is dedicated to Vishnu while the later Hongseshwari temple is dedicated to Shakti.
3. Wooden bridge from 18th Century: Kuntighat
On our way to Kalna from Bansberia we stopped briefly on the Kunti river. We were told by a local about a wooden bridge which has survived from Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula’s times few minutes driving distance away.
|18th Century Wooden Bridge at Kuntighat over Kunti River|
|Kunti River, Kuntighat: Fresh vegetables being transported down river by boat just as it would have been in Siraj ud Daula’s time|
4. Nabakailash 108 Shiva Temple: Kalna
Situated on the western bank of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river Kalna has historically been an important trading hub and a spiritual centre of immense importance in Bengali culture. Along with Nabadweep in the western bank and Santipur on the eastern bank its a revered place in the Vaishnava Bhakti movement and closely associated with the life story of Shri Chaitanya. In addition its closeness to Gupitpara-the seat of Shakta and Shaivite traditions make it a holy place for the Shakta spiritual school as well.
Once the residing place of the Bardhaman royal family the town hosts a string of well preserved Terracotta temples. We started our exploration with the 108 Shiva temples complex which is also known as Nabakailash.
Constructed by the enigmatic Bardhaman Maharaja Tejchand in 1809 Nabakailash is the most beautiful example of Shiva temples which usually dot thousands of Bengal villages. The complex has two concentric rings with a deep well in the centre. The outer ring consists of 74 temples and the inner ring 34 temples. the Shivalingas in each of the temples point north- to Mount Kailash the abode of Lord Shiva.
|Nabakailash Temple, Kalna: Panorama view of the inner and outer rings|
|Nabakailash Temple, Kalna: Outer Ring of 74 Shiva temples with some of the inner ring temples visible to the right and the crown of Lalji temple visible in the centre|
|Nabakailash Temple, Kalna: Inner ring of temples with the well to the right|
|Nabakailash Temple, Kalna: Path from inner courtyard to outer courtyard|
|Nabakailash Temple, Kalna: Inside view of Shiva linga oriented towards North|
5. Rajbari Temple Complex: Kalna
Adjoining the beautiful Nabakailash temple is the stunning Rajbari temple complex with its treasure trove of Ratna, Rekha Deul and Rasmancha style temples and structures. These temples were all constructed by the Bardhaman royal family various times between 1740 and 1849.
|Rajbari Temple Complex, Kalna: left to right Pratapeshwar temple, Rasmancha and Lalji temple|
|Rajbari Temple Complex, Kalna: Pratapeswhar Temple|
As you enter the temple complex the first temple to greet you is the Pratapeswar Temple. Constructed in 1849 by Maharaja Tejchand this temple is a rare example of the Rekha Deul architecture which is similar to the Odisha style of temples. It also has one of the best preserved Terracotta facades
|Pratapeshwar Temple: Carved doorway|
|Pratapeswar Temple: Details of the Terracotta on the doorway|
|Pratapeshwar Temple: Lady in Balcony terracotta detail|
|Rajbari Temple Complex, Kalna: The Rasmancha with hints of Islamic influence in the architecture|
|Rajbari Temple Complex: Krishna Chandra Temple|
The Krishna Chandra Temple is one of the rare and best known examples of a Panchabingshati Ratna ( 25 Ratna). There are only a few surviving 25 Ratnas in Bengal today. This temple was constructed by Lakshmikumari in 1752.
|Krishna Chandraji Temple: Example of detail from Barsha (Flank)|
|Krishna Chandra Ji Temple: Example of a rare erotic themed panels|
|Rajbari Temple Complex Kalna: Vijay Vaidyanath Temple|
Unfortunately we were not able to visit the famous Lalji Temple of this complex since the temple was closed in the afternoon -it being the resting time of Lalji.
6. Gopal Jiu Temple at Gopal Bari, Kalna
|Gopalbari Temple, Kalna: Panchabinghsati Ratna|
The Gopal Jiu temple at Gopal Bari is one of the oldest surviving Pancha Bingshati Ratna temples. It was built by Krishna Chandra Barman in 1766.
7. Jagannath Bari at Jagannath Ghat: Kalna
The Jora Shiva temples at Jagannat Ghat are built with the Aatchala style. Originally on the banks of the Bhagirathi the river has now receded changing its course. It was built by Bishnukumari and has now fallen into a state of disrepair.
8. Mahaprabhu Mandir at Gauri Das Bati, Kalna
This place is not known for any Terracotta temples rather is an important part of Shri Chaitanya lore. This mandir is located in the house of Gauridasa Pandit in Ambika Kalna. Gauri Das is known to be one of five Vaishnava Sadhaks who Shri Chaitanya consulted before taking Sanyas. Gauri Das was the only one among the five who disapproved of this decision. Dissapointed, Gauri Das declined to meet Chaitanya and even refused to join the crowds thronging Santipur. Shri Chaitanya is known to have visited Gauri Das’s house to placate him. The spot where they met has his foot marks preserved under a giant Tamarind Tree (Tentul/imli tolla).
The meeting took place at night after Shri Chaitanya crossed the river with Nityananda and gifted the boat’s Oar to Gauri Dasa saying “With this you should cross over the ocean of material existence, taking all the living entities with you”.
The oar is still preserved in the museum at this house.
9. Brindaban Chandra Math, Guptipara
On our way back from Kalna we visited Guptipara. Its popularly believed that Guptipara is where Shakti or Kali worship originated in Bengal. Another ASI maintained site with a lawn, this complex has the oldest surviving Terracotta Temple in Bengal. It has the iconic Ek Ratna temple- the Ramachandra Temple.
We signed off our visit with the Brindaban Chandra Math at Guptipara. It was a fulfilling day.
This beautiful architecture is a unique testament to a people’s culture and way of living for centuries. While some of these temples are well preserved thanks to restoration by ASI there are hundreds of other temples that are languishing and fallen into various stages of ruin and dilapidation. We owe it to ourselves and our forebears to preserve these outstanding examples of temple architecture.
(special thanks to my friends Shri Amit Mitra and my friend, guide and Terracotta expert Shri Prosenjit Kolay without whom this trip would not be possible)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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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