With the possible exception of districts which are an extension of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, West Bengal is mostly lacking in stone. It is because of this that builders in the region have favoured brick, and also why terracotta has become the dominant style of the region. The English word “terracotta” comes from the Italian words terra, meaning earth, and cotta meaning cooking. Terracotta, thus, means cooked or baked earth. In Bengal, terracotta was always a folk art form, before being elevated to a fine art through the patronage of the Sultans of Gaur and Pandua, who used terracotta on their mosques. 200 years after them, an explosion of terracotta temples happened across Bengal, and most of the surviving terracotta temples that we can see today, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, lop-sided promotions on the part of the government and private tourism bodies have meant that most people identify only Bishnupur with terracotta temples, when in reality, terracotta temples are spread across multiple districts in West Bengal, especially in southern West Bengal. Located approximately 9km south of Shantiniketan, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal lies the village of Supur, home to no less than 6 terracotta temples, only one of which has been chosen by the state for preservation.
THE LEGENDS OF SUPUR
For a tiny, nondescript village, Supur has a lot of legends. The earliest legend is one concerning a local king named Surath. He is said to have established the temple of Suratheswara, which is still exists, although it has been reconstructed. Remains found in the area, suggest that the original temple was from the 11th century. Surath is said to have built a palace on the northwest side of the village, some ruins of which were unearthed later. He was a cruel king, and the Hindu deity Durga is said to have appeared to him in his dreams and asked him to live a life of virtue. To appease her, Surath sacrificed 100,000 animals in a place still known as Balipur (from the Bengali “bali” বলী, for animal or human sacrifice). This story finds mention, according to Debkumar Chakraborty of the State Archaelogy Department, in the Markandeya Purana, and the Swapur mentioned in the text, is the Supur of today.
Other legends concern the brothers Iswar Ray and Bhagwan Ray, two skilled physicians who settled in the village. A girl who married into the family is said to have complained that there was no bathing ghat in the village. Ganapati Ray of the family immediately had a brick ghat constructed, which had a brick pathway extending to his house. In 1910, when L.S.S. O’Malley wrote the Birbhum District Gazetteer, a part of this path was still extant. There is a somewhat more unpleasant legend associated with Ray family, however. One of the descendants is said to have become enormously rich and had no one to pass on his money to. He therefore determined to have all his valuables entombed with a live boy, who would turn into a “jokh” or Yaksha, and watch over them. This tradition is common in Bengal, and I have grown up on stories of jokhs. An orphan boy was found for the purpose, and as the door of the tomb was about to closed forever, the descendant asked the boy if he wanted to have a last meal. The boy said he would like to have whatever he laid eyes on first, the following morning. The door was therefore left open for him, but the first thing the boy saw when he woke up, was a calf. The descendant was unable to slaughter the calf, being a Hindu, and the enraged boy invoked terrible curses upon him. While the tomb cannot be located, villagers do identify a specific pond in the village as being the pond haunted by the jokh.
Other legends concern an individual by the name of Anand Chand Gosain (or Goswami), who was a resident of Supur, and was said to be a holy man with miraculous powers. Apparently part of the Goswami order of trading monks (one of whom also ran the Bhot Bagan Math in Howrah), he became enormously rich because whenever a Vaishnava in the village died without issue, the property was passed on to him. In the early 18th century when the Maratha “Borgi” hordes under Bhaskar Pundit were pillaging Bengal, looting, raping and slaughtering everything in sight, they had ravaged Supur’s neighbouring villages and had prepared to march on the village. Anand Chand exhorted the villagers to defend themselves, and placed himself at the head of the phalanx. When the Marathas came, it is said, Pundit was dumbfounded when he found Chand appearing in 4 places at the same time, mounted on a white horse. Impressed with the Gosain, the Borgis spared the village.
THE TWIN DEUL TEMPLES OF LALBAZAR
|The twin Deul temples of Lalbazar|
The twin Deul style temples of Lalbazar are the best known temples of Supur and most visited. If you have no idea what a Deul is, then you need to read about Bengal’s temple types. Go through this article by Amit Guha and you should be good to go. Of the two temples, one is square shaped, while the other is octagonal. The octagonal temple has been chosen for preservation by the state, and perhaps deservedly so, because it has profuse terracotta decoration on all 8 sides, as opposed to the other temple, which only has terracotta above and around its entrance. Both temples face south and both are dedicated to Lord Shiva.
|Central panel of the square Deul|
|All 8 central panels of the octagonal Deul|
Nether temple has a foundation stone, which makes it impossible to accurately say when they were built, but pioneering terracotta scholar David McCutchion says that all the temples of Supur are from the 19th century. The square Deul has the coronation of Rama on its main panel, which is a common scene in this part of Bengal, as opposed to districts like the 24 Parganas or Hooghly, which mostly have Ramayana battle scenes. The octagonal Shiva temple is much more profusely decorated, with various religious scenes on its main panel, including one heavily damaged Mahishasuramardini. There are also vegetal and floral patterns, social and battle scenes. Both temples remain active and “nitya puja” or daily worship is conducted by a local priest.
DAMAGED TEMPLES OF HATTALA
|Hattala, with one Deul and Pancharatna temple visible. Ruins of the Indigo factory on the right|
Hattala gets its name from a “haat” or village market that used to happen here at one point of time. It doesn’t anymore, and the whole area is covered in bricks, probably from a nearby structure that collapsed. More on that later. For now, there are 3 terracotta temples in the area, none of which are in good shape.
|Damaged terracotta panel of the Deul temple of Hattala|
The only Pancharatna type temple of Supur may be see in Hattala. The temple faces south and unfortunately most of its terracotta panels are now gone, minus a few panels in the arch above the entrance. McCutchion however mentions that this is one of only 3 examples of a Pancharatna with ridged rekha turrets, single entrance and tri-ratha projections in West Bengal. Thankfully, the foundation stone still survives, which gives a date of 1224 by the Bengali calendar, which translates to 1817.
|The Pancharatna temple of Hattala|
|Foundation stone of Pancharatna temple of Hattala, on the arch above the entrance|
To the south of the Pancharatna temple is a south-facing Deul
type temple which is heavily damaged. It’s a real pity, because the temple had
some lovely terracotta panels at one point, and only fragments of them survive
now. Damage to the panels was noted by Debkumar Chakraborty of the State
Archaeology Department in 1979. The terracotta panels seem to contain Vaishnava
scenes, such as Gouranga and Nityananda engaged in “kirtan”.
|Northern Shiva temple of Hattala|
North of the Pancharatna temple lies another Deul type temple dedicated to Shiva. Unfortunately, as far back as 1979 it was noticed that the temple had been “renovated” probably by some villagers, using thick coatings of lime, which have completely obscured the terracotta panels. The temple does not seem to have ever contained the typical large panel above the entrance, but rather has a large number of small panels all over the temple.
TEMPLE NEAR SHYAMSAYAR POND
|Deul temple of Shyamsayar|
Immediately to the south of Shyamsayar pond, there is another large Deul type temple with entrance from the south. Terracotta decorations are found only on the southern and eastern faces. However, almost half of the large central panel on the southern side has collapsed. Some enterprising soul has also seen fit to rub copious amounts of cement on the foundation stone (above the central panel on the eastern side) thus rendering it illegible. On the southern panel we see Rama seated on his throne, with Sita and his retinue. On the eastern panel there appear to be mostly Vaishnava scenes, including two cows nursing calves.
|Damaged terracotta panel of Shyamsayar temple|
But the most thrilling discovery for me at Supur was the ruins of the French indigo factory, but before we get into that, a bit of background about indigo will be helpful.
INDIAN BLUE – A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDIGO
Indigo is a kind of blue dye that was once produced from plants, yielding a colour that we commonly see on blue jeans today. Throughout the Middle Ages, indigo was exceedingly rare in Europe, but relatively common in the tropics. It has been used traditionally by many cultures, including the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert, whose men cover their faces in indigo-dyed cloth, leading to their faces turning blue over the long term. But the country to be most well-known as the place of origin of indigo, is India. It was because the ancient Greeks imported this blue dye from India, that it came to be known as “Indikon”, meaning Indian. This was latinised to Indicum, which became anglicised to Indigo. Such was the demand for Indigo in the west, and so high were the prices it fetched, that it was referred to as “blue gold” and Jenny Balfour-Paul, a dye specialist and an authority on indigo, says the term ‘royal blue’ came from here.
It was the Dutch East India Company which first began importing considerable amounts of Indigo from India to Europe around 1630’s. However, they met stiff resistance from Woad growers, who created an alternative blue dye from the flowering plant that was common in Europe. This led to bans on Indigo across almost the entire continent, including France and England, where Indigo was declared poisonous. When the restrictions were relaxed, it was a group of Frenchmen who first tried establishing Indigo cultivation on a large scale in Bengal around the 1770’s. As their efforts met with success, the East India Company poured men and capital into Bengal, to expand Indigo cultivation in the region. By 1833, as the East India Company was deprived of its commercial characters, and its activities limited purely to administration, a new class of private planters entered Bengal. Through the Bengal Indigo Contracts Act, Act 10 of 1836, which apparently still remains in force, they were given a free hand and indulged in horrific repressions. The planters loaned money to cultivators at extremely high rates of interest, on condition that they cultivate Indigo and sell it to the planters at a rate they fixed. However, the planters paid far less than the actual value of the Indigo, often as little as 2.5% of market value, leaving cultivators perpetually indebted and reducing them to “a state not far removed from partial slavery”.
By 1858-59, matters had come to a head. The Bengali playwright Dinabandhu Mitra laid bare the savagery of the Indigo planter in his play Nil Darpan. Translated into English and published by the Reverend James Long, the play attracted an enormous amount of press attention. In February of 1859, the storm that had been brewing for all these years, finally broke. As the Barasat Magistrate Ashley Eden issued a notice which stated the cultivators were free to decide what they would cultivate, and compelling them to cultivate Indigo was out of the question, cultivators across the region rebelled. Led by the likes of Bishnucharan and Digambar Biswas of Jessore, Rafique Mondal of Malda and Kader Mollah of Pabna, the Indigo revolt, spread across the Bengal countryside. Groups of armed farmers laid siege to Indigo factories, in several cases burning them down and attacking planters. As the government of Bengal took action against the excesses committed by planters, Indigo cultivation moved to southern and western India. But German scientists had been working on synthetic Indigo since 1865 and when in 1897 German chemical giants BASF started selling synthetic Indigo, the industry in India crashed. Production and export of natural Indigo rapidly dwindled over the next decade and by 1912 had all but ceased to exist.
THE REMAINS OF THE FRENCH INDIGO FACTORY AT SUPUR
I discovered the remains of the French Indigo factory of Supur completely by accident. Approximately 40 metres to the east of the damaged Deul type terracotta temple of Hattala, I noticed a mound, approximately 4 metres high. The mound was completely covered in vegetation, but the severely hot and dry weather meant that the plants were mostly devoid of leaves. On top of the mound I could see portions of a wall, made with the slim bricks that one commonly finds in older structures in Bengal. I climbed up the mound to find a portion of a wall, with more collapsed sections strewn around. On the western side was an arched gateway, while the intact portion of the wall appeared to have an arched door or window, along with several recesses in the wall and rectangular holes in the wall for wooden beams. I was clearly looking at the upper part of a room and the ceiling would have been lower than where my head was, standing erect (I am 5 feet 6 inches tall). Since this portion of the wall was visible above the mound, it would be reasonable to suppose that the rest of the structure was now hidden under that mound and excavations would reveal it.
|Remians of the French Indigo factory of Supur, on top of the mound|
At the time, of course, I had no idea what I was looking at. I only knew that I had found something that no one I knew had written about, and that I needed to photograph it in detail. It is only when I came back to Kolkata, and talked to my friend Dr. Tathagata Neogi of Heritage Walk Calcutta, that I realised that I had stumbled upon an ancient Indigo factory, or Neel Kuthi. O’Malley writes in the Birbhum District Gazetteer that Indigo manufacture was an important industry in Birbhum, and the centres of the business were Ilambazar and Supur. The French had been active in trade in the Birbhum district for quite some time, although they traded only through “gomastahs” or native agents. In 1768, a certain Monsieur Le Seigneur came to Birbhum and purchased a few bighas of land from a “Ghussein” (probably Gosain or Goswami) named “Aunund Chund” (probably the one referred to in the legends about Supur). Here he erected an Indigo factory from where he hoisted the French colours, and exercised authority equal to that of an EIC agent. Around 1774 Monsieur Le Seigneur left Birbhum and around 1777 the records show the French factory was being managed by Messrs. Chaubon and Arrear. However, the French flag was no longer permitted to be flown. In 1793 when war broke out between England and France the factory was taken over by the English and placed under the authority of John Cheap, commercial agent of the East India Company, along with “one mutilated house in Supur which was French property”. After a century of operation, the factory of Supur was finally abandoned in 1887.
|The ghat at the Shyamsayar pond|
Approximately 80 metres to the east of the mound that contains the remains of the French Indigo factory, there is a large pond which the locals call Shyamsayar. On the southern side of the pond are the remains of a very large ghat, made of bricks. Most of the steps have now disappeared, but the very thick walls that bound the staircase remain. Villagers assume that this was built by the local zamindar, but that is unlikely. The local zamindar lived in Surul, and therefore all major constructions commissioned by him would have been in that village. What this is likely to have been, is the “Kuthi Ghat” attached to the Indigo factory. Manufacturing Indigo required large amounts of water, and as such the factories were located near either a large pond or a river, and many had such ghats attached to them. I regret not having spent more time in the village, because although there have been several recent constructions in the area, with some exploration, the remains of the processing pits, where the Indigo leaves were fermented, will also probably be found.
While the very name Indigo, or the phrase “neel chaash” (নীল চাষ) conjures up images of rapacious “Neel-Kar” sahibs in the minds of the average Bengali even today, the fact remains that these Indigo factories are a part of our history and preserving these factories, many of which survive in Bengal even today, will promote tourism and will inform a whole new generation about our history. As for the terracotta temples, disproportionate attention has been given to Bishnupur when it comes to terracotta both in terms of preservation and promotion, leading to a situation where most Bengalis are not even aware of the fact that there are spectacular terracotta temples spread over every village in every district in south and central Bengal. As these temples decay and disappear, I wonder if new technologies can be used to save these temples. We can start with mapping all of them on Google maps and making them easier to find. But it is a mammoth task, and not one that any person can accomplish singlehandedly.
- By Deepanjan Ghosh
GPS COORDINATES OF TEMPLES AND HISTORIC REMAINS IN SUPUR
Twin Deul temples, Lalbazar - 23°37'43.4"N 87°41'11.1"E
Damaged Deul Temple, Hattala - 23°37'46.6"N 87°41'02.3"E
Pancharatna Temple, Hattala 23°37'47.1"N 87°41'02.7"E
Shiva Temple, Hattala - 23°37'48.4"N 87°41'03.7"E
Indigo factory remains - 23°37'46.5"N 87°41'03.9"E
Deul temple near pond - 23°37'45.9"N 87°41'06.6"E
Ghat - 23°37'46.5"N 87°41'07.1"E
- A visit to Supur can usually be combined with Surul and Itonda for a nice terracotta-themed day trip from Shantiniketan.
MORE ON THE TERRACOTTA TEMPLES OF BENGAL
Bhatia, Nandi - Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India (University of Michigan Press, 2004)
Rise and Fall of the Indigo Industry in India (The Economic Journal, Vol. 22, No. 86, Jun 1912)
Burton, Antoinette - The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Bhattacharya, Subhas - The Indigo Revolt of Bengal (Social Scientist, Vol. 5, No. 12, Jul., 1977)
Kumar Singh, Abhay - Modern World System and Indian Proto-industrialization: Bengal 1650 – 1800 Vol 1 (Northern Book Centre, 2006)
Chakraborty, Debkumar - বীরভূম জেলার পুরাকীর্তি (Govt. of West Bengal, 1979)
McCutchion, David J. – Late Medieval Temples of Bengal (Asiatic Society, 1972)