Bengal is synonymous with exquisite terracotta temples. Glorious edifices of this art can be found in many districts across this East Indian State
Terracotta temples are the pride of Bengal and they are an integral part of Indian art history. Though this centuries-old, baked earth art, has been popular throughout the world, in Bengal the craftsmanship reaches a whole new level of excellence. Among the terracotta structures, Bishnupur in Bankura district reigns supreme for having some of the best examples of terracotta art in India. However, Bengal’s terracotta trails do not end there and the lesser known gems are as magnificent as the famous ones.
Hooghly district’s Ananta Basudeba temple is perhaps one of the least unsung terracotta temples of Bengal. Located in Bansberia, only 50 kilometres away from Kolkata, the temple is often overshadowed by the lotus bud domed beauty of its famous neighbour, Hanseswari temple. Built by wealthy zamindars of yesteryears, both the temples stand side-by-side and the close resemblance of Hanseswari temple to the onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow hogs the limelight.
However, for many, the best part lies in the decorative niches of the Ananta Basudeba Temple. Small, elegant and adhering to the Ratna style of temple architecture, Ananta Basudeba is crowned by an octagonal pinnacle. Built by Rameshwar Datta in 1679, this lovely temple is covered with intricate terracotta art as far as eyes can see. They are so fine and detailed that the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was said to have requested the eminent painter, Nandalal Bose, to document the terracotta panels in his sketches. Interestingly, Ananta Basudeba’s terracotta panels are a unique mix of subjects. A healthy amount of religious figures like goddess Kali and Durga and lord Krishna lie interspersed with scenes from daily life. There are also dancing girls and water-bourne voyages. Though small, the intricate details of the Ananta Basudeba temple can easily take up two to three hours to explore.
The next destination of Guptipara lies very close to Bansberia and it is on the Howrah – Katwa local train line too. The octagonal pinnacled Ramchandra Temple is a part of the complex of four Vaishnav temples, which are renowned for their exquisite terracotta panels. Collectively known as the Chaitanya, Brindabanchandra, Ramchandra and Krishnachandra temples, Guptipara’s Vaishnav temples host an interesting mix of Bengal temple architectural styles, terracotta work and frescoes.
Since the construction of these temples took place during different historical periods, they vary in their structural styles and preservation status. The oldest Chaitanya temple was built in the mid 16th century. Its terracotta carvings have not survived the passing of centuries and the fresco covered Brindabanchandra temple also shares the same fate. The Krishnachandra temple is better known for its frescoes and there is only a smattering of terracotta work on its outer walls.
The elegant Ramchandra temple compensates for their lack of terracotta artwork and every inch of this structure is covered with beautifully carved burnt brick designs. It is a single-storey temple containing a treasure trove of intricate terracotta work and the carvings depict scenes from Ramayana, royal processions, voyages, everyday life and dancing girls.
The next destination on the terracotta trail is the famous town of Ambika Kalna. Better known as Kalna, it lies in the Bardhaman district and gives Bishnupur a tough competition as the best temple town of Bengal. Located on
the river Bhagirathi, Kalna is a very ancient town which reached its golden age in the 18th century under the patronage of the kings of Bardhaman. They lavished the town with numerous magnificent temples and got them decorated with terracotta ornamentations. A few of them have been beautifully preserved and this temple town is a delight for terracotta lovers. Its main highlight is the Rajbari Complex which has the maximum concentration of temples of various architectural styles.
Built over a period of hundred years, the Rajbari Complex consists of the Pratapeshwar temple, Rasmancha, Lalji temple, Vijay Vidyanath temple, Krishnachandraji temple and more. The smallest and the most ornate among them is the Pratapeshwar temple and it has rich terracotta ornamentations covering its four sides. Scenes from daily life, Hindu mythology and gods and goddesses adorn the red burnt brick panels. The work is intricately detailed and excels in comparison to the limestone stucco work of the neighbouring Lalji temple. The beautifully preserved magnificent terracotta panels of richly decorated Krishna Chandraji temple compliment perfectly with amazing limestone stucco work and is indeed a visual delight. Despite the grandeur of the Rajbari Complex, the standalone Gopalji temple of Gopalbari turns out to be a bigger surprise in Kalna and the rich preserved terracotta panels of this temple display a staggering amount of erotic subjects. The artwork covers the entire length of the spired temple and erotica, hunting, trading, flowers, wars, dancers and European men and women are depicted by them. Their detailing is mind blowing and the miniature panels contain moustachioed men, sporting pleated turbans, bejewelled ladies, mythical figurines and animals, barges, etc., depicting Hindu religious stories. Terracotta flower wreaths delicately line along the entire panels and their open petals form irregular perfect circles. Lacy filigree mesh fills up the awkward gaps and the fine workmanship is par excellence.
The elaborate intricacy of terracotta artwork dons an intensely religious aura in Bengal and its lovely domed temples come covered in terracotta figures, flowers, animals, mythology, current social scenario to erotica. Their glazed detailed surfaces turn into magnificent storybooks and the lesser known terracotta trails in Bengal can be a very rewarding experience.
Text & Photos: Svetlana Baghawan