Thursday, 2 February 2017

Stone Temples of Barakar

I can think of four reasons that would make the stone temples of Begunia in Barakar, unique. First, the fact that they are made of stone makes them something of a rarity. Stone is difficult to find in Bengal and the vast majority of temples in the state are made of brick and decorated with terracotta tiles. Second, the great age of at least one of the temples. While it has not been possible to verify the exact age of all the temples, one of them is thought to be as old as 800 years. Not much has survived so intact from that long ago. The only other site I can think of is the Dargah and Mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi. Third, the architectural style of the temples closely resembles that of the temples of Orissa (now Odisha) and is very different from the “ratna” style that Bengalis are familiar with. Fourth and last, would be the sheer ridiculousness of their location – in the middle of an industrial town, in a congested residential neighbourhood, in the middle of a park! Granted, most of that must have happened after the temples were built, but still, one does not walk into a narrow suburban lane expecting to find giant old temples at the end of it.


Temples 1 & 2
The principal source of information about the temples of Barakar still remains the “Report of a Tour Through the Bengal Provinces”, written by J.D. Beglar of the Archaeological Survey of India and published in 1872-73. Beglar notes that temples 1 and 2 are both similar in structure, and contain one unique feature – the sunk position of the floor of the sanctum, which Beglar also says is common to the temples of the Manbhum area. Temples 1 and 2 are of the “rekha deul” type, commonly seen in Orissa (Odisha). Rekha in Oriya and Bengali means straight line. A “rekha deul” is a tall building, looking like a sugar loaf, which rises above the sanctum sanctorum of a temple (aka Garba-griha, i.e., womb-house). In this case locals think that the temples resemble brinjals (aubergine/eggplant) which are called “begoon” in Bengali, and hence the name Begunia.

Temple 1 mouldings
Stone flooring in front of both the temples suggest that there may have been some sort of a chamber in front of the temple’s entrance at one point, but it doesn’t seem likely to be a large structure such as a “jaga mohan”. There is a stone “nandi”, the bull which serves as the mount for the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, in front of each of the temples. One of the temples contains a stone image of the Hindu deity Ganesha, who has the body of a man and the head of an elephant. The other temple is supposed to contain a Durga image, and indeed there was a stone image, but the decay was so great and it was so covered in flower offerings that I couldn’t tell what I was looking at.

Temples 1 & 2 detail. Note Keertimukha, top right corner
Beglar noted that while the external ornamentation of the temples was not elegant, they did have great depth. There are a variety of dancing girl figures, figures which appear to hold up the temple and a variety of faces including a “kirtimukha” which has its origins in the Skandha Purana, where Lord Shiva had asked a monster called Jalandhara to swallow his own body, which Jalandhara did, and Shiva, pleased with the result gave him the name Kirtimukha, which means “face of glory”. Protruding from the deuls are also galloping horses and what appears to be a lion on top of an elephant. This is commonly seen in the temples of Orissa, and is supposed to represent the superiority of Hinduism (Lion) over Buddhism (Elephant). The shikhara, or tower of the temples is topped by a circular disc known as “amalaka”, which in turn, is topped by a “kalasha” or pot, with a large base and a small mouth.


Could these be remains of temple no. 3?
Temple No. 3 is missing. In 1872 Beglar wrote – “Close to the south of these temples stands a raised mound – the ruins of a temple. This temple contained numerous statues of the avatars of Vishnu, several of which still exist in a weather beaten and broken state”. While the park in Barakar does contain a few stones in one corner, there aren’t enough of them to immediately suggest that there used to be a temple here. I couldn’t find any of the statues that Beglar wrote about either, but perhaps those have been removed by the ASI for better preservation. Beglar speculates that Temple No. 3 was older than the other temples of Barakar, perhaps from the 6th or 7th Century, and compares its architectural style to temples from the Central Provinces (a province of British India covering modern day Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and parts of Maharashtra).

There was one thing I found which I thought was curious. All over the park, there are outcrops of rocky ground and here, I found several holes, some circular, some perfectly square. In several places, the circular holes were in pairs. These were obviously man-made. I wonder if these are remains of previous structures, perhaps places where pillars or other things had once stood? If only I could see a photograph of the mound from Beglar’s time.

TEMPLE 4 & 5

Temples 4 & 5
Temple No. 4 is similar to temples 2 and 3, in the sense that it is also a deul, but it is dissimilar in a number of ways as well. For starters, there is no evidence of a mandapa or any structure in front of the sanctum sanctorum or garbha-griha here. The ornamentation, in this case, is also much more plain and lacks the human figurines seen in temples 1 and 2. Also, unlike 1 and 2, temple no. 4 faces West. The deul is topped by the circular disc, known as amalaka, which is topped by the kalasha, but the amalaka in this case appears to be smaller than that of the two previous temples.

“The object of worship”, Beglar writes, “is a figure of a fish lying flat, serving as an argha to five lingam holes cut in it”. I found no fish on the temple floor, but there were 5 shiva lingams, surrounded by a sort of parapet created with modern cement. The purpose of the parapet is obvious – copious amounts of water are poured on the lingams as part of worship and the water has to be directed towards an outlet in the floor. No doubt locals, who have kept the temple active, have done this for their own convenience. Outside the temple are two decayed but identifiable stone “nandi” bulls, Lord Shiva’s mount.

Temple No. 5 detail
Standing adjacent to temple no. 4, 5 is significantly different from the other 3 extant temples in architectural style. The shikhara or tower, in this case, is much lower. At the top of the four corners of the shikhara are four animal figurines, facing outward. While it is difficult to say exactly what these are because they have significantly decayed, I have a feeling that these are lions. Four lions facing the four corners is something we see on top of the Kailasa temple in Ellora as well, although what purpose they serve, I do not know. The shikhara itself is much more profusely decorated, and although the stone has decayed, it is is still possible to make out that rich carvings are in a whole different class altogether. The carvings appear to depict mythological scenes though several kirtimukhas are also present. The shikhara is topped by a very large amalaka or disc, which is topped by what appears to be a very plain stone cylinder. Beglar writes that the temple may have had a metal trishula, Lord Shiva’s trident, on top at one point. Above the entrance to the sanctum, there is a sculpture of Lord Shiva, seated in the lotus position with a snake on his right. He is flanked by two other figures, one female, and one male. Decayed sculptures of Shiva with his consort appear between each of the animal figures on the shikhara.

Shiva above entrance to Temple no. 5

Temple no. 5 is also the only temple to have a mandapa, although this seems to have been added later on. This is immediately apparent from the fact that the mandapa contains windows with keystone arches, which are clearly colonial. But Beglar had found one further clue, and that is that the mandapa, in this case, seemed to be covering the mouldings on the front of the temple. In the case of the other 3 temples, all moulding or ornamentation ceases near the front, which would make sense if there was a mandapa there. Even in 1872, the mandapa was devoid of a roof, and today, a makeshift bamboo structure is used, covered by waterproof material when needed.

Inside Temple no. 5
Inside the sanctum, there is a simple lingam which is now surrounded by modern cement, probably to direct the flow of water which is poured on the lingam, to the gutter in the floor. Beglar had found several other figurines lying outside the temple, including a Ganesha, a four-armed female and a four-armed male holding a sword and trident. These have either been removed, or stolen, or in some cases have been moved inside the sanctum and have decayed so much that it is impossible to identify them.


During his original survey, Beglar had found inscriptions on the door jamb of one of the two temples on the eastern side of the complex. The inscriptions, in two distinct parts of 11 ½ lines and 21 lines, tell us the following – a temple was built by Raja Harishchandra for his beloved wife Haripriya and dedicated to Lord Shiva in the year 1382 of the Saka era, and it was repaired by a Brahmin by the name of Nanda in the year 1468 of the Saka era. I did not notice any writing of any kind on the temples, so it has either decayed, or the tablets have been removed. The dates of the inscriptions correspond to 1461 and 1547 C.E. or A.D., if you will. So who was this Raja Harishchandra? No one has been able to say with any degree of certainty. He may have been a chieftain in this part of Bengal in the period after the Muslim conquest. The lack of corbelled arches, commonly seen in many of Bengal’s brick “deul” style temples from the pre-Muslim era, also points to the fact that temples 1, 3 and 4 are from a post-Mulsim period.

Keertimukha close up
But what about Temple No. 5? Over time, many stone idols have been recovered from the Gopbhum area of Burdwan. Many of them are Shiva, Durga, and Ganesha idols, but several older ones point to the fact that Buddhism and Jainism once flourished in this part of Bengal. The Jain Tirthankara or teacher Mahavira had himself travelled through the Rarh region of Bengal, an area he described as pathless and lawless. The residents of Rarh had not treated him kindly, going so far as to set the dogs on him in one instance. Due to the greater age of Temple No. 5, and its dissimilar style, many experts have speculated that this was perhaps originally a Jain temple that was later appropriated by Hindus. Experts also note the striking similarity of Temple No. 5 to the Parashurameshvara Temple of Bhuvaneshwar in Orissa, leading them to believe that it was built in the 8th century. But while the style of Orissa can be seen in temples of Barakar, Binoy Ghosh in his “Pashchimbanger Sanskriti” points to one small but significant difference. The amalak, the disc atop the shikhara of the temples in Orissa are all convex, while in Barakar, they are concave. A small but significant difference, although what one is to make of it, I am not sure.


One special feature of the Begunia temples are the goats. They aren't temple goats but are probably being raised for milk and meat. But they have a free run of the entire temple complex, walking into sanctums and chomping on the flower offerings left for the Gods at will. Goats are a common feature in Bengal's villages and they have an uncanny ability to climb. In Barakar, you will find goats pulling off the most improbable of stunts, such and climbing on to the back of a stone "Nandi". How goes a goat, which has sharp hooves, climb a large, smooth rounded rock that is at least twice as high and has no slope to help it climb? I have no idea! But they are amazing fun to watch and photograph. Be careful with the rams, though! 


Temple no. 2 detail

TRANSPORT - Depending on the route you take, Barakar is between 250 to 300 kilometres away from Calcutta (Kolkata) and if you want a comfortable journey, I would suggest you take a train. The AC Chair Car on the Howrah-Ranchi Shatabdi Express is especially comfortable and is available on all days except Sunday. It leaves Howrah at 6:05 am, reaching Asansol, 17km from Barakar at 8:22 am. Once in Asansol, local transport is a simple matter to arrange.

FOOD – Since Barakar is near Asansol, which is a major town, there are a large variety of restaurants for every budget. We found a particularly fancy Chinese restaurant serving good food and alcohol on the outskirts of town.



My thanks to blogger Amitabha Gupta for accompanying me on this trip. Check out his blog here.


Beglar, J.D. - Report of a Tour through the Bengal Provinces
Ghosh, Binoy – Pashchimbanger Sanskriti


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