Monday, 6 June 2016

Terracotta Temples of Gurap

In search of some obscure terracotta temples, I ended up in the village of Gurap in the Hooghly district, 70 km to the Northwest of Calcutta (Kolkata), on a Sunday in April, 2016. Accompanying me were Amitabha Gupta, well-known blogger and travel writer, and my mother. Narendranath Bhattacharya’s book on the antiquities of Hooghly district (published by the State Archaeology Department) pointed to the presence of several temples with terracotta ornamentation in the village. But the book was more than 20 years old. How much of what the author had documented still remained, we wondered?

Sri Sri Nandadulal Jew Mandir of Gurap


WHAT IS TERRACOTTA?

Bengal is famous for its terracotta temples, and the most well-known of these are in and around Bishnupur. Since stone is not easily found in Bengal, the material of choice for construction was brick. The word terracotta is actually a conglomeration of two Italian words, terra meaning earth and cotta meaning cooking or baking. Bengal’s brick temples were decorated with “baked earth” tiles. These tiles often contained floral and vegetal patterns, but what they are more famous for are intricately sculpted scenes, often from the great Hindu epics and myths, or even contemporary life and society. Amitabh Gupta in his recent article on the terracotta mosques of Bengal for Outlook Traveller magazine suggests that it was patronage from Islamic rulers that helped terracotta first attain prominence in the state. On my recent visit to Gauda, Bengal’s ancient capital, I found intricate terracotta decorations on many of the mosques there. (For more on that story click here)

THE NANDADULAL TEMPLE OF GURAP

Nandadulal Temple - facade

Rasmancha of the Nandadulal temple
The principal attraction of Gurap, without a doubt, is the Nandadulal temple, formally the Sri Sri Nandadulal Jew Mandir. Jew has nothing to do with the Jewish religion, it is simply an antiquated form of the word “Ji”, used in Hindi as a suffix of respect. Jew is often added after the names of Gods in older Hindu temples. Built in 1751 by Ramdeb Nag of the prominent Nag Zamindar (landlord) family of Gurap, the Nandadulal temple is in Bengal’s traditional “aatchala” style. Aishee’s rather helpful website, says, “…in the char-chala type of temple, four triangular roofs meet at a point, with the ridges of each chala and also of the cornices curved. If the roof of a char-chala temple is truncated and a miniature duplicate char-chala temple is added on it, then it becomes an at-chala temple”. The temple has a Rasmancha, Dolmancha, and a Naatmandir, but what it is most famous for are the intricate terracotta tiles that cover its fa├žade.

Panel on the left shows celebration. One of the right depicts combat or a hunt of some sort.

Mrityulata - the creepers of death
Above the arched entrance, the terracotta tiles form delicate vegetal patterns. Inserted rather crudely into this area, is a stone tablet, containing details of the temple’s construction. Since Nandadulal is another avatar of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna, the temple’s base panels contain details of Krishna’s life, including his birth (Janma Leela) and his slaying of the tyrannical ruler of Mathura, Kamsa. Terracotta panels on the columns supporting the arches contain snakes and birds. In fact, birds seem to be a speciality of the Nandadulal Temple. I don’t remember seeing so many intricately portrayed terracotta birds anywhere else. Many of the terracotta tiles that had fallen off have been replaced with new tiles. Before you cringe in horror, let me tell you that whoever was responsible for this, made an attempt to be as authentic as possible by getting tiles from Bengal’s terracotta hub, Bishnupur. The additions, therefore, don’t look too bad. However, the new tiles are easy to spot since they are not as intricate as the older ones, and have a lot less depth. Why the lack of depth, I asked? I was told that the skill to create tiles with such depth simply does not exist anymore. Not a very satisfactory answer in my opinion. Surely, people can be trained?

Birds are a speciality of the Nandadulal Temple

Mysterious ruins outisde Nandadulal Temple

Another interesting feature of Nandadulal’s terracotta is a series of panels forming what is called a “mrityulata”, literally meaning creepers of death. Two such series can be seen on the corner panels. Mrityulata portrays death, in the most gruesome form, of both humans and animals. For example, on the bottom panel, a rider on horseback kills an animal, on the panel above it, a tiger devours the rider, on the panel above it, a demon devours the tiger and so forth. But what is the purpose of this macabre display? What is its function and meaning? I am afraid I do not know. But it certainly makes for a fascinating study.

From left to right - Krishna and Balarama meet the hunchback Kubja, then meet and kill Kamsa's elephant Kuvalyapida before encountering and dispatching his wrestlers. In the final panel, they advance on Kamsa and pull him down from his throne.


Erotic terracotta?!
The Nandadulal idol, which to my great surprise I was allowed to photograph, is made of black stone, while the idol of his consort, Radharani, is made of ashtadhatu, an alloy of 8 metals which Hindus consider auspicious. From what we saw, it seems likely that all sides of the temple were once covered in terracotta tiles, but now only the ones on the front remain. However, high up on the Southern wall, there was one solitary tile left, and it looked like two people having sex! Erotic terracotta? Oh my! Both the Dolmancha, which is inside the temple’s walled compound, and the Rasmancha, which is immediately outside, appear to have been built at around the same time as the temple itself. Both are in the “rekh deul” style. But it seems likely that the Naatmandir was added or modified at a later date. Outside the Nandadulal temple, we found a heap of bricks overgrown with weeds. It certainly looked like this was a construction of some kind, but were these the ruins of a temple? Narendranath Bhattacharya’s book mentions a Gopeshwar Shiva temple in the immediate vicinity of the Nandadulal temple and another Navaratna style temple which was in ruins at the time of publishing (1993). Could these ruins be either one of those temples? I am unable to say for sure.


THE TWIN PANCHARATNA SHIVA TEMPLES OF THE NAG FAMILY

Pancharatna Shiva temples of the Nag family

Pancharatna Shiva Temples - terracotta
The Nag family was the zamindar or landlord of Gurap. Apart from the Nandadulal Temple, they had established several other temples in the village, among which are the twin shiva temples which are in the “pancharatna” style. These temples are a short distance away from the Nandadulal Temple. The “pancharatna”, meaning five-jewelled style of Bengal’s temple architecture, consists of a superstructure with a large central tower and four smaller towers at the corners. These twin Shiva temples did contain terracotta decorations at one point, but today, most of it has decayed. The temples, however, are still in use, and apart from the loss of the decorative tiles, are in good shape. These two temples were built sometime in the 19th century.

KESHAB DHAM: HOUSE OF MATHEMATICIAN K.C. NAG

Keshab Dham

While books are a necessary part of research, I find that if one talks to locals, one can often find interesting details that are not mentioned in any book. People walking around with big cameras face a lot of good-natured curiosity in India in general, and I have found that if I smile, answer people’s questions politely and tell them what I am there for, they will often point out things to me that I did not know. As I was taking photographs of the twin aatchala Shiva temples, a villager asked me if I had seen K.C. Nag’s house. That name is one that every student in Bengal is familiar with, and one that strikes terror in the heart of those who dislike mathematics (such as myself).

Gurap village scene

Keshab Dham plaque
Born on the 10th of July 1893, into the Nag Zamindar family of Gurap, Keshab Chandra Nag showed early signs of being a promising student. From village schools, he moved to Ripon College (now Surendranath College) in Calcutta, and passed the Indian Civil Service examinations in 1914, securing First Class. He taught mathematics in various schools, until famous Bengali educator Sir Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay heard of him, met him, and brought to Calcutta to teach at the Mitra Institution. Like many intellectuals of the time, Nag was drawn to Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement, and his activities earned him a prison term under the colonial government. From the 40’s, his books on mathematics began being published, bringing him fame and recognition. K.C. Nag would eventually move to Gobinda Ghoshal Lane in Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Bhowanipore area in 1964. He died on the 6th of February 1987. Three decades after his death, his books are still part of school syllabi, and the proceeds from their sales go to two charities which he established. K.C. Nag’s house stands in a lane opposite the twin “pancharatna” Shiva temples (scroll to the end to see GPS position).

TWIN AATCHALA SHIVA TEMPLES OF THE NAG FAMILY

The twin Aatchala Shiva Temples, also of the Nag family

Remains of terracotta on the Aatchala Shiva Temples
Approximately 300 metres North of the Nandadulal Temple, at the North Eastern corner of a T-junction, stand two more temples in the Aatchala style. These were also built by the Nag family sometime in the 19th century. Both temples only have a small amount of terracotta decoration above their doors, which are severely decayed. The body of the temples have been smoothed over with modern cement. It was common for damaged terracotta temples to be “renovated” in this fashion. Has the same happened here? It is impossible to say.

THE TEMPLE WITH NO NAME

The Shiva temple at Mandir Bakul

Detail of terracotta on Mandir Bakul Shiva temple
About 80 metres further North from the twin aatchala Shiva temples is a place that Google Maps calls “Mandir Bakul”. Here, in a small open square on the Eastern side of the road is a Durga Dalan, or Durga temple which was established in 1936. But what is more interesting is an aatchala Shiva temple, hemmed in by the surrounding buildings. When I asked locals what the name of the temple was, they could not say. There is no plaque on the temple with details of the year of construction, or who built it. The temple does not appear in Narendranath Bhattacharya’s book either. The temple contains some terracotta decorations above the entrance and around the base of the columns of the arches, although much of it has decayed. The panels above the main arch contain, what I think, are scenes from the Ramayana. There are monkeys, men with bows and arrows, a character with 10 heads, and what appears to be a giant demon swallowing men whole. The ten-headed figure is clearly “Ravana”, the demon king of Lanka in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Confusingly, though, some panels contain men wearing what looks rather like the head-dress worn by Muslim royals. No further details about the temple could be gleaned from locals, and it appears the temple is not in regular use. Portions of the temple’s porch were being used as a storage space.

GAUDESHWAR SHIVA TEMPLE

Gaudeshwar Shiva Temple - view from across the pond

The road from Mandir Bakul leads North and then turns West. At the end of the lane, in a place called Panchanantala, to the South East of a large pond, stands the Gaudeshwar Shiva Temple. Since the road to the temple was being repaired, we took a roundabout route, ending up on the Northern side of the pond, from where we walked. It was the end of a long day, it had been exceptionally hot all day, and I had been sweating profusely. I expected to find something interesting, but what I got was an utterly unremarkable modern temple that looked like it had been built yesterday! “Wow! The most important discovery of the day”, I remarked sarcastically, making Amitabha Gupta explode into laughter.

Gaudeshwar - naatmandir

The Guadeshwar Shiva Temple was constructed in the 19th century but recent renovations have completely destroyed its heritage character. The temple has been painted an obnoxious orange and the naatmandir in front of it has been painted peach. The present “shebait” family of the temple are the Mukhopadhyays, and it seems likely that the temple was built by their ancestors. If the temple ever had terracotta tiles, none of it remains now. There are a lotus and conch shell on the wall above the entrance, but that certainly did not look like terracotta to me. This is the trouble with any active religious site. Since people keep streaming in, those in charge feel the need to keep things looking good. But unfortunately, renovation and preservation are often the antitheses of each other, and in many places, beautiful terracotta decorations have simply been plastered over and painted.

A Honda in Hooghly! Mom decides to wait in the car while Amitabha Gupta and I, explore the Gaudeshwar Temple

Terracotta, whether on temples, or mosques, is part of Bengal’s unique heritage. While Bishnupur contains the best-known examples of Bengal terracotta, if you look around you will find terracotta temples in every other village in Bengal. It is a pity the Bengalis, who are known to love travel, do not spend more time exploring their own state.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


TRAVEL TIPS FOR GURAP

  • TRAIN - Some 30 local trains connect Gurap with Howrah. The journey takes between 1 ½ to 2 hours. Local transport inside the villages may be tough to come by. You will have to walk.
  • ROAD - Want to drive to Gurap? It is possible to get to Gurap within 2 hours by the Kona and Durgapur Expressways. My car, which doesn't have great ground clearance, was able to travel right into the village without bottoming out even once.
  • FOOD – the Azad Hind Dhaba (GPS - 23°00'07.3"N 88°08'48.8"E) serves excellent food. Looking for a beer with your lunch? Food and alcohol are both served by the Hindustan Hotel (GPS - 23°01'26.5"N 88°08'15.6"E). Both places have excellent car parking arrangements and AC.
  • ENTRY TO MONUMENTS – there is no entrance fee for any of the temples of Gurap. If you happen to find the Nandadulal temple closed, ask around for the priest, who lives nearby. If you request him, he will open the temple for you.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS – to capture details of the terracotta tiles, you will need a telephoto lens. My kit 18-135 lens served me well. While all other temples get the best light in the afternoon, the Nandadulal temple’s entrance faces east, and hence this one temple must be visited in the morning.


GPS POSITIONS OF GURAP’S TEMPLES

  • Nandadulal Temple - 23°02'01.1"N 88°06'37.5"E
  • Keshab Dhaam - 23°02'06.3"N 88°06'35.6"E
  • Twin Pancharatna Temples - 23°02'04.3"N 88°06'37.4"E
  • Twin Aatchala Shiva Temples - 23°02'11.8"N 88°06'37.9"E
  • Unknown Aatchala Shiva Temple - 23°02'14.6"N 88°06'37.1"E
  • Gaudeshwar Shiva Temple – 23°02'15.5"N 88°06'30.0"E


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS



SOURCES
  • Bhattacharya, Narendranath – Hooghly Jela-r Purakirti
  • http://aishee.org/
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