|The temple as seen from a neighbour's rooftop|
A little less than 30 kilometers to the South West of the city of Calcutta, is the village of Bawali. During the Mughal era, Raja Ram Mondal received from the emperor a royal charter granting him full control over fifteen villages (the East India company, in contrast, began with three). Thus began the story of the Bawali Raj family. Sometime in the eighteenth century, Robert Clive invited the Mondals to come and settle in Calcutta. In response, Ramnath and Manick Mondal moved into the area known today as Chetla, and settled by the banks of what was then the Adi Ganga; today’s Tolly Canal.
The family deity of the Mondals was Lord Krishna, and the temples that they constructed in the area, are to his various manifestations. The largest and most spectacular of them still exists, on the road named after it. Approaching the Radhanath Temple of Mondal Temple Lane can be somewhat tricky. If you’re coming from Tollygunge Phari, once you cross the bridge over the Tolly Canal, the second turn on your right is Chetla Road, but right turns into the lane are prohibited before 1pm, and therefore it is simpler to take the next right turn, a serpentine lane that connects with Mondal Temple Lane. Turn right at the T Junction, and keep a lookout to your left. The huge temple, located near the crossing of Mondal Temple Lane and Chetla Road, is easily visible even through the jigsaw of modern buildings.
|Entrance to the temple|
The entrance to the temple is simple enough to spot, thanks to the columns with composite capitals, but what must have been a magnificent and impressive gate at one point, is now topped with some rather unimaginative modern construction. Through the main door, you enter the vast portico of the temple. Huge columns support its gigantic roof, one of the largest examples of its kind in Bengal. The temple itself is in Bengal’s well known “Navaratna” style. Translated, navaratna literally means “nine jeweled”, the number being a reference to the number of spires on the temple’s roof. From the base to the top of the central spire, the temple is 90 feet tall. A black stone on the temple’s eastern wall contains details of the temple’s construction.
|The temple's pillared portico|
|Memorial stone with details of the temple's construction|
The inscriptions on the stone look familiar, but are somewhat difficult to read. This is not Sanskrit, but an ancient form of the Bengali language. Similar memorial stones may be found on all the temples of Bishnupur. Dates on the stone are according to the Saka Calendar, and when converted to Gregorian, what we can decipher is this – construction work on the temple began in 1796, and was completed in 1807. Three idols, of Radha, Radhakanta and Lakshmi Narayan were installed in 1809. The temple still houses these original idols. The idols of Radha and Lakshmi Narayan are made of “ashtadhatu”, an alloy made from eight metals, while that of of Radhakanta is made of black stone. Puja or worship happens on a daily basis, and visitors are welcome. While many say that this temple inspired the design of Rani Rashmoni’s much more famous Dakhineswar Kali Temple, this is no more than a rumor. Rani Rashmoni had never visited this temple, and had no relationship with the Mondals.
|Temple as seen from within the premises|
The Mondal family’s descendants still live in the temple premises, and control of the temple still rests with them. Plans had been made to hand over the temple to the Birlas, who maintain many of Bengals temples out of their vast funds, but these plans, we are told, have been shelved. The family has been trying to maintain the temple the best they can, but the fight against vegetation in this part of the world can be a difficult one. A contractor was recently able to clear away many of the weeds that had taken root on the temple’s spires, but work stopped when one of his workers, who some says happened to be Muslim, slipped of the temple’s roof, fell to the ground below, and died. Locals say the temple is cursed, that it is impossible to photograph straight. I would put down the unfortunate death to an accident, due, in no small part, to contractors refusing to take any safety precautions for their labourers. As for the photographing bit, distance, as we learned, can give you a better perspective.
A neighbour was kind enough to permit us to climb his roof, and from there we managed the “full frontal” so to speak, of this magnificent temple. Thankfully, the curse did not extend to us.
- My thanks to all members of the Facebook community “Calcutta – Photographs and Memories”, especially Mr. Timirbaran Pal.
- Thanks also to Mr. Soumitra Das of The Telegraph. Check out his book on Calcutta, “A Jaywalker’s Guide to Calcutta”.
- Thanks to Mr. Bidyut Kumar Singh for permitting access to his roof. Without this, photographing the temple would have been all but impossible.
- And finally, thanks to my friends Ayan Dutta and Arijeet “Poltu” Banerjee for their guidance and advice about the Chetla area, which they are intimately familiar with.
Temples in Calcutta - Pijush Kanti Roy