Sunday, 1 January 2017

Terracotta Temples of Bali-Dewangunj

The finest examples of Bengal terracotta and most unique example of Bengal temple architecture are to be found in a non-descript village by the name of Bali-Dewangunj near Arambagh, in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. In a precarious state now, due many years of neglect, the temples of Bali-Dewangunj present a fascinating opportunity to those who are interested in this unique aspect of Bengal’s history. Bengal has always lacked stone for temple construction, and thus terracotta (literally meaning cooked earth) was born out of pure necessity. But the heights to which Bengal’s artists took this humble medium can be seen only in Bali-Dewangunj. But why does a little village in the middle of nowhere have so many stunning temples?

Durga Temple of Bali-Dewangunj



THE RISE AND FALL OF BALI-DEWANGUNJ

The earliest available records show that Bali-Dewangunj was known as Makdumnagar, which would indicate that it was once a large town. The village is given a sort of double-barrelled name to help distinguish it from the town of Bally in the Howrah district. Bali, in this case, is the name of the village, while Dewangunj is the name of the adjacent market which was set up by the “Dewan” (minister) of the Maharaja of Burdwan. The market had been set up sometime in the 17th Century, to provide a measure of relief to locals who had been terribly affected by a flood which had covered the entire area in sand, called “bali” in Bengali. Bali-Dewangunj was famous as a manufacturing centre for silk, zari and handmade paper. So fine was the silk produced here, that Burmese pirates, known in Bengal as “Magh” would often raid Bali-Dewangunj and carry it away by the cartload. Village elders insist that the Burmese learnt how to manufacture silk from Bali-Dewangunj. Silk and other artefacts produced here reached Calcutta, Dhaka, Bhagalpur and were even purchased by Portuguese trading ships. The local Dwarakeshwar river was navigable back then, and in the 70’s, remains of a ship’s mast had been dug up from the river’s bank.

Bali-Dewangunj would eventually be eclipsed as a centre of trade and commerce by British Calcutta, but with the advent of colonialism, another important item was added to the list of its produce – Indigo. By 1910, the venerable L.S.S. O’Malley records in his Hooghly District Gazetteer, the production of silk, was in decline. But Bali-Dewangunj had become the primary production hub of brass. Exactly how and why brass came to be manufactured in this part of Bengal is not known. The metals needed and even the charcoal for it had to be imported. But the local clay was especially suited to the making of casts, needed to make brass vessels. Noted sculptor Meera Mukherjee asserts that the brass pitcher, commonly used in Bengali households, especially for worship, was first designed in Bali-Dewangunj and continues to be made based on that original design.

But demand for brass peaked during WWII, and in the 1950’s a global copper shortage drove the price of brass up (good quality brass is almost 70% copper). Coupled with this was the entry of aluminium in Bengali households. Aluminium was easy to manufacture and therefore cheap and readily available. As Bengalis switched from brass to aluminium, Bali-Dewangunj faced ruin. By 1955, demand had all but collapsed. While all over Bengal, artisans associated with the manufacture of brass items turned to other professions, those in Bali-Dewangunj were unable to do so. They had been doing it for longer than they could remember and their bodies would no longer adapt to physical labour in the fields. Brass still continues to be manufactured here, but just enough to keep the traditional artisans going. The magnificent temples and mansions are a reminder of this once glorious and prosperous past.

SHIV KUTIR

Located 250 metres to the North of Bali High School are the crumbling ruins of a once magnificent mansion. Although there are no plaques, locals refer to it as “Shiv Kutir”. This was, they say, the residence of the local Zamindar or landlord. But no trace of the family that once resided here now remains. All I could glean from villagers was that the Zamindar’s surname was Pal. No book, no publication anywhere mentions anything about the house or the people who lived here. How can we not know a single thing about a gigantic house which is right there in front of our eyes?

Shiv Kutir - frontage
Shiv Kutir’s frontage contains 5 large arches with two smaller arches at either end. These are held up by twin faux columns. I say faux columns because it seems a number of them, perhaps 6, have been arranged around each actual column holding up the roof, and therefore these are purely ornamental. The capitals of the columns are probably ionic, although the building is in such an advanced state of decay, that it is impossible to tell. The frontage still contains some remains of what must once have been profuse stucco ornamentation. Shiv Kutir is about 25 metres from north to south, with what appears to be two towers at either end on the 2nd floor. Once through the arches, one enters the eastern section of the house, which consists of a large hall, some 13 metres from east to west and with more rooms to the north and the east. The same scalloped arches and ornamental columns are found all around this hall.


Shiv Kutir - interiors
I say hall, of course, since there are no remains of walls in this large space. But the walls around it contain empty slots for what could only have been beams to hold up the roof. That roof has now all but disappeared from the entire house. The only places where a roof still remains are the two towers at either end of the frontage. These towers contain stairwells, which still permit access to the 2nd floor, although they are somewhat precarious. Years of use have worn the steps down into a slippery slope, and the northern stairwell contains large gaps. To make matters worse, there seems to have been some kind of an underground chamber at the southern end of the house, the roof of which has also collapsed, leaving a large gaping hole in front of the southern stairwell. I would not advise trying to climb this house in monsoon, and the bodies of animals inside that hole, in various stages of putrefaction, show why.

Amitabh Gupta is of the opinion that Shiv Kutir wasn’t a residence but a Durga Dalan, a large courtyard dedicated to the worship of the Hindu Goddess Durga. But blogger Rangan Datta contests his assertion. He has never seen a multi-storeyed Durga Dalan and the evidence of rooms all around the courtyard seem to suggest to him that this was a home, most possibly of the local zamindar.

LAKSHMI JANARDAN TEMPLE

Lakshmi Janardan temple eastern face. Note collapsed right corner
Less than 100 metres to the south of Shiv Kutir, to the east of the village path, inside dense jungle and consequently hidden from view, is the Lakshmi Janardan Temple. Ajay Konar of the popular Facebook forum “Terracotta Architecture of Bengal” identifies this as having been built by Dalal family. It is said to have been “Pancha-ratna” or five-turreted at one point of time, but the four corner turrets appear to have been almost shorn off, leading me to initially think that this was an “ek-ratna” or single turreted structure.

Terracotta horse - is this ashwamedha?
The Lakshmi Janardan temple of Bali-Dewangunj is in a frightening state, but before we get to that I must tell you the risks of trying to get close. Villagers use the temple’s vicinity to defecate and human excreta completely surrounds it. Watch your step! The temple faces south. The south-eastern corner has completely collapsed, along with the four corner turrets. There are 3 arched entrances on each side, although the arches on all but the southern side have faux terracotta doors. Intricate terracotta figurines may be seen on all sides of the temple, but the best examples of it are on the southern side.

Krishna and gopinis
The only way to identify the Lakshmi Janardan temple is from a foundation stone, which has also partially decayed, and only the words Lakshmi Janardan are legible. In Bishnupur, most of the temples had foundation stones made of actual stone, while here it is of terracotta, which means it decays a lot more easily. Among the terracotta panels I thought I saw scenes of Krishna with gopinis, which is pretty standard, but the one panel which had me intrigued was the one with the horse. Amitabh Gupta thought it was an “Ashwamedha Yajna” scene, but couldn’t be sure.

DAMODAR TEMPLE

The Damodar temple - as seen from the road
1.5 kilometres further south on the same road, on the western side of the road, is the Damodar temple of Ram Hari Ghosh, which was built in 1822. The identity of the temple and its builder are easy to fix in this case, since the foundation stone above the central arch is completely intact, as are most of the temple and its terracotta ornamentation. The terracotta foundation stone contains the date as per the Saka calendar and the Bengali calendar, 1744 and 1229 respectively.

Damodar temple centre panel
Damodar is one of the many names of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna, and is a reference to Krishna as a mischievous child, having a cord (dama) tied around his waist (udara), by his foster-mother Yashoda. The Damodar temple is the At-Chala or eight-eaved type of Bengal temple, with triple arched entrances. David J. McCutchion classifies the Damodar temple as “19th Century Midnapore type”. Terracotta ornamentation is limited to the panels above the arches and along the edges of the frontage. The panels above the doorway contain religious and mythological scenes, while the “Dashavatara” or 10 manifestations of Vishnu, the Hindu God of preservation, are seen on vertical panels on the right.


Damodar temple right panel
The Damodar temple is still under the stewardship of the Ghosh family, and I met a member of the family while photographing the temple. The Ramakrishna Mission had offered to restore the temple at their expense some years ago. But like all old property in Bengal, the temple too had many “shoreek”, or co-owners, and not all of them agreed to this, fearing that this would lead to the temple being taken over by the Ramakrishna Mission. Thus, no restoration work has happened here. However, sometime in the past, someone had painted the temple yellow and that paint is now slowly chipping off, revealing the brick red of the terracotta beneath. Immediately to the south and the west of the Damodar temple are two small At-Chala type Shiva temples. However, these are completely plain and devoid of any ornamentation. Both are heavily damaged and root-encrusted.


Damodar temple left panel

THE TEMPLE CLUSTER OF ROUT PARA

The star attraction of Bali-Dewangunj is a cluster of 4 temples that are in a neighbourhood known as Rout Para. Rout (or Routh), is one of the surnames of the Karmakar or metalworker caste. They cannot remember when they came to Bali-Dewangunj or where they came from, and they have been working with brass for as long as they can remember. Who built the temples of Rout Para? In the absence of foundation stones, it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. But the kangsabanik or metal trader castes have been historically absent from Bali-Dewangunj. The Routs both manufactured and traded brass. It would not be entirely unreasonable to suppose that one of their ancestors had built these temples. Village elders tell stories of a house in the village with round windows, where silver coins by the sack-load would be counted every night. This house was raided multiple times by the “Magh” pirates. With such riches at hand, could the Routs not have made the temples themselves?

DURGA TEMPLE

Durga temple of Rout Para. Collapsed Sarvamangala temple on right

If you see only one temple in Bali-Dewangunj, it has to be the Durga Temple of Rout Para which is unique for more reasons than one. First, the Durga temple is a unique example of a combination of two entirely different styles of Bengal temple architecture – the “Jor Bangla” and the “Nava Ratna”. Jor Bangla, also called Jora Bangla, consists of two “do-chala” or twin-eaved temples placed adjacent to one another, resembling two conjoined village huts, if you will. A prominent example of this is the Keshta-Raya temple of Bishnupur, built by King Raghunath Singha Dev in 1655. 
Durga temple Mahishasuramardini panel


The Nava Ratna style consists of two main levels, each with four-spired corner pavilions, and a central pavilion above, for a total of nine spires. The Durga temple of Bali-Dewangunj places a Nava Ratna above a Jor Bangla temple, creating something of which there is no other example in all of undivided Bengal. The second reason would be the massive Mahishasuramardini panel which adorns the Durga temple’s fa├žade, of which, again, there is no other example in Bengal. A Durga temple in Bengal is a rarity as it is. The most popular female deity at least as far as temples go is Kali. Durga, in Bengal, is worshipped in autumn, using a temporary idol that is discarded after worship. The final reason would be the exquisite terracotta decoration seen on the temple.

Europeans on terracotta
The temple has triple arched entrances with a smaller entrance at the side. The central arch is higher than the other two. Unlike most other temples, however, terracotta decoration is not found in the panels above the arches. Apart from the Mahishasuramardini panel above the arches, terracotta figurines are found in vertical panels on either side of the temple and on projecting vertical friezes, which separate the panels above the arch. The vertical panels contain mostly social scenes, including what appear to be Europeans, wearing hats, seated on chairs, and in one case holding rifles. The vertical friezes contain, notably, female acrobats and a “mrityulata” or “creepers of death”.

Durga temple vertical panels
The Durga temple of Bali-Dewangunj is in a precarious state at present. Years of neglect have caused bits of the temple to simply fall away. Even the unique Mahishasuramardini panel has sustained damage. Several of Durga’s arms are missing, as is Mahishasura, who she is supposed to the slaying. Weeds have taken root all over the roof while the Navaratna tower has become black with soot and dried moss. This is supposedly on the West Bengal State Archaeology Department’s list of protected monuments. I shudder to think what an unprotected monument would look like.

SARVAMANGALA TEMPLE

Sarvamangala temple of Rout Para. Note collapsed frontage
The Sarvamangala temple right next to the Durga temple provides a pretty accurate picture of what an unprotected, uncared for monument looks like. Like Durga, Sarvamangala is another form of Shakti, the Goddess. The Sarvamangala may have been “Pancha-Ratna” or five pinnacled at one point of time, but there is just one pinnacle remaining today. The entire front porch has collapsed, exposing the wall of the sanctum-sanctorum or garbha-griha. No terracotta ornamentation is currently visible on any part of the temple save for 5 tiles on one side, but there is one very curious object poking out from one of the corners.

What the heck is that?!
Was it a gargoyle? If yes, what was it? A cow? A fish? I simply couldn’t tell. The mouth of the creature breaking off has made identification considerably more difficult. Of course, this isn’t terracotta at all, but rather stucco, or at best, lime mortar. The collapse of the entire front porch means there is no foundation stone either, which makes it impossible to say exactly when the temple was built, but it doesn’t look like it could have been earlier than the 18th Century.

MANGALCHANDI TEMPLE

Topless! Mangalchandi temple of Rout Para

Behind the ruined Sarvamangala temple is another ruined temple to the Goddess Mangalchandi. Chandi is the combined form of Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga, and Mangalchandi is her auspicious form, associated with good fortune. But good fortune is something that seems to have been denied the Mangalchandi temple. Not even McCutchion, who began documenting Bengal’s terracotta temples in the 1960’s has seen the temple intact. The Mangalchandi temple was supposed to have 13 pinnacles at one point of time, which would have made it a rare example of a Trayadasa Ratna temple. Unfortunately what remains is not even one, but half of one pinnacle. All the others have vanished and their place has been taken by weeds. No terracotta decoration has survived and the foundation stone is nowhere to be seen either. However, like all the other temples in the complex, it remains active.

UNKNOWN FOURTH TEMPLE

All but gone!

The fourth temple in the complex is a little separated from the other 3 and is even more of a mystery. This temple is completely undocumented and not even a name is mentioned in any text. The fact that it is a small distance away from the other 3 temples, and the fact that it appears to be in the worst shape, may indicate that it was built earlier than the other temples. The front porch has collapsed and has been replaced by a corrugated sheet held up by wooden beams. Stumps of two pillars can be seen, which show that the temple once had a triple arched opening. Triple arches with faux doors made of terracotta are visible on the side, but almost all terracotta ornamentation has disappeared, except some severely damaged panels with monkey images.

The newer temple in the distance
Also in the vicinity is a smaller, at-chala temple, but this appears to be a relatively modern construction, devoid of any historical interest. Within the network of lanes around Rout Para I also found another curiosity. There was an at-chala temple belonging to the the Bhattacharya family, but what caught my eye was the dilapidated an abandoned temple right next to it. This was a double storeyed structure, flat roofed, with extensive stucco ornamentation, scalloped arches on the windows and doors and faux shuttered windows on the 1st floor.

The two storeyed temple
The architectural style is clearly colonial, although there are Islamic and Hindu elements blended in, which is actually pretty standard for Bengali constructions of a certain period, especially in the districts. The same style maybe seen in the “thakurdalan” of many a “rajbari” in Bengal. The at-chala temple bears the Bengali date 1226 and Saka date 1741, which equals 1819 as per the Gregorian calendar. The sad thing is that the owner seems to have decided to demolish the temple and build a residential building in its place.

WHY DO MORE PEOPLE NOT KNOW ABOUT BALI-DEWANGUNJ?

a heavily damaged temple near Rout Para
That is the mystery about Bengal. People like me are able to write such pieces and thrill and amaze, because no one seems to know anything. On the one hand, the vast majority of Indians don’t care about their heritage and history. Consequently, the government doesn’t care. Add to that the fact that awareness about tourism potential is virtually non-existent and you have a potent combination. My sources tell me that the State Archaeology Department, which is in charge of these monuments is a near defunct body, headed by men who have no interest in their work and completely lacking the funds needed to achieve anything remotely resembling success. And so, we onward we blindly stagger. But how much longer will Bengal’s relics survive?

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

TRAVEL TIPS FOR BALI-DEWANGUNJ

  • By train – the nearest railway station is Tarakeshwar, which is well connected to Calcutta (Kolkata) by a large number of trains, including local trains. The journey should take around 2.5 hours. A car can be hired from the station to visit Bali-Dewangunj and return to the station.
  • By car – from Calcutta (Kolkata), Bali-Dewangunj can be reached via Kona and Durgapur Expressway and then west via the No. 31 Road and Ahalyabai Holkar Road to Arambagh. From there, turn south, cross the Dwarakeshwar river and proceed south on Bali-Dewangunj Road. The journey takes 2.5 hours.
  • Food – strangely, there do not seem to be too many hotels even on the highway here. Tarakeshwar or Arambagh are where you will have to go if you want to eat anything more than sweets and snacks. I recommend the restaurant Bhuribhoj in Arambagh.
  • Water – best to carry bottled water with you because inside the village, you get nothing.
  • Photography – a wide angle lens will be needed for the temples of Rout Para, since they are large and there isn’t enough space to back away. A telephoto lens will be needed to capture details of the terracotta panels. For Canon users, I recommend the EF-S 10-22 USM or EF-S 10-18 IS STM and the Ef-S 55-250 IS STM unless shooting full frame. For full frame shooters, the basic 24-105 and 70-300 will have you covered.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

My thanks to Amitabha Gupta for accompanying me on this trip. Check Amitabha Gupta's post on Bali-Dewangunj here



GPS LOCATIONS OF THE MONUMENTS OF BALI-DEWANGUNJ

  • Shiv Kutir - 22°48'47.0"N 87°45'57.5"E
  • Lakshmi Janardan Temple - 22°48'43.3"N 87°45'55.7"E
  • Rout Para Temple Cluster - 22°48'24.4"N 87°46'04.0"E
  • Mukherjee Family Temple - 22°48'19.9"N 87°45'54.3"E
  • Damodar Temple - 22°48'05.2"N 87°45'34.5"E



SOURCES

Singh, Dhirendra – Bali-Goghat Brass Cluster
Mukherjee, Meera – Metalcraftsmen of India
McCutchion, David John – Late Medieval Temples of Bengal
Bhattacharya, Narendranath – Hooghly Jela-r Purakirti
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