By Nishi Pulugurtha
Our desire for venturing into the little known led us on our trip to Santiniketan to visit places which do not feature on the regular tourist circuit. And what a treat we had in store – terracotta temples tucked away in the heart of small villages and vast, dilapidated mansions that stood testimony to times past.
Located about eight kilometers from Ilambazar in the Birbhum district of West Bengal is a small village, Ghurisa. This village was famous as the centre of Sanskrit learning and is home to innumerable temples of which two stand out in grandeur – the Raghunath temple and the Gopal Lakshmi Janardan temple. A turn from the highway leads us through dusty roads, past mud houses with cow-dung cakes spread out to dry on their walls, cackling geese lining up to the nearby pond. There is not a tourist in sight. The local residents come out, surprised, as our car moves into the village. There, not very far away into the village, stands the Raghunath Shiva Temple, constructed in the traditional charchala. Built in 1639, the temple has exquisite specimens of terracotta art on its walls. The panels depict stories and deities from Hindu mythology and episodes from the epics, along with floral motifs.
The Lakshmi Janardan temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, is located a little distance away. Built in the nineteenth century, the intricate terracotta panels on its walls fascinatingly depict social scenes, traditional figures of gods, and goddesses with prominent facial expressions.
Our next stop is Deul in the neighbouring district of Burdwan. Travelling through the dense forest, with the red earth and the green foliage all around, is a delight in itself. Nestled close to the river Ajay is a 50-feet-tall temple, called the Deul. Estimated to have been built by Ichai Ghosh in the eighteenth century, this structure stands out in sheer size and magnificence and reveals the influence of the temple architecture of Orissa. Now under the Archaeological Survey of India, the upper part is decorated with motifs and human figures and the walls with terracotta bricks.
The dense forested region of the Garh jungle is home to the oldest Durga puja in Bengal that was organized in the Shyamarupa temple located deep in the forest. The original temple, built a thousand years ago, is no longer there. A smaller temple exists in its place.
The village of Kalikapur lies very close to the border with the neighbouring district of Burdwan. More than a century ago, Paramananda Roy, a wealthy local, constructed two temples dedicated to the lord Shiva. Legend has it that two groups of masons vied with each other in constructing these two temples, each of which has some wonderful terracotta art on its walls.
Our next destination is the village of Moukhira, home to twenty temples, of which one is dedicated to Vishnu and the rest to Shiva. The temples are built on a plinth that is about seven feet high. Inscriptions on the temple date it to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Some of the terracotta panels depict young, beautiful European girls as well.
Close to Bolpur is Raipur, home to a Shiva temple that has brilliant specimens of terracotta. Varied in subject and setting, the terracottas depict episodes from the Ramayana. One panel shows the goddess Durga on a lion slaying the demon, Mahisasur with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik flanking her. In spite of the fact that the temple is in a state of ruin, some of these terracotta panels have remained intact. Another village, close by, Supur, is also home to two terracotta temples, one built on a square plinth and the other on a hexagonal one. The walls of both temples have beautiful terracotta panels depicting stories from Hindu mythology and myriad patterns and motifs.
It is a sheer pleasure travelling through these small, nondescript places, tucked away from the crowd, to glimpse the glory of the temple architecture, the terracotta artwork, intricate and delicate, affording fascinating insights to the days of glory and magnificence. These beautiful structures, almost all in a state of neglect, bear testimony to a glorious past, marvelous sentinels that reveal the breath and purity of the red earth whereon they stand.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu
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