The temples of West Bengal like temples anywhere in India is a wonderful visual sight. Over centuries of innovation, craftsmanship, socio-political changes has given the Bengal temple architecture a rare distinctness. Generally temples in India are known for their exquisite design on rock or stone, grandeur, elegance, plan all of which combined together offer an amazing spiritual ambience. Of course in a vast country like India, temples differ in architecture, ornamentation, and choice of material yet, it retains some of the basic features which have been preserved for centuries and which are fundamental elements of a Hindu temple. Bengal in particular has responded to the changes in socio-political arena and these changes are quite noticeable in the temple architecture in this part of the World. The char-bangla temple is an surviving testimony to the amazing skill of the terracotta artists of Bengal.
Much the like the Mughal architects idea of pasting sandstone art on brick wall, the terracotta plaques where pasted on brick structure. Of course stone was not very easily obtainable medium of work in Bengal hence Bengal architects used terracotta to fill the gap. The terracotta figurines are exquisite in its design and visual appeal, combining with Bengal pat-katha tradition, series of terracotta plaques were used elegantly to narrate an entire episode from Hindu mythology. The temples resembled the ordinary village hut, the Bengal temple architects widely experimented with the ‘chal’ design, ek-chala, do-chala, char-chala etc. In simple do-chala or Jor Bangla design two curved roofs meet at the centre forming a ridge, the entire structure is built on a single platform. The char-Bangla temple at Azimganj is basically a do-chala temple. The simple village hut design was not only very popular in Bengal even the Mughals at a later stage adopted this design in constructing their monuments. Abul Fazl wrote that five hundred buildings after ‘the beautiful designs of Bengal and Gujarat’ were in the Agra fort. So the lack of stone quarries and the abundance of alluvial soil inspired the Bengal architects to construct their ideas in bricks and terracotta. The sloping roof design also helped to increase the longevity of the building especially in a land where rainfall was pretty high.
The Char Bangla temple is situated about 3.2 kilometres North of Azimganj Junction Railway station in a village called Baranagar. In fact Baranagar is strewn with roadside temples now most of them are in a dilapidated condition except the magnificent Char-Bangla temple which has been preserved in good condition by the ASI. The temple complex is situated just few metres off the Western bank of Bhagirathi river. Diagonally opposite to the Char-Bangla temple at a distance of 100 metres is the Rajeswari temple also built by Maharani Bhabani. The Char-Bangla temple is a cluster of four temples on platforms forming an inner courtyard. The temples have three arched entrance housing three Siva lingas all pointing to the North. Local story says that Maharani Bhabani wanted to have all the twelve Jyotirlingas of Lord Siva in one place, the char-bangla temple houses twelve Siva lingas in all, three lingas in each temple. The Northern and the Western temple are most exquisitely decorated with terracotta, the Eastern temple is ornamented with delicate plaster, and the Southern temple show unfinished construction. Three temples except the Northern temple share a common platform while the Northern temples is built on a separate platform behind which is an old building (Kachari) probably used as guest house for devotees and worshipers.
The plan of the char-bangla temple complex.
The Northern temple with three arched entrance exquisitely decorated with terracotta.
Siva figure with Nandi and Bhiringi
The temples are identical, showing varying degree of artwork, the Northern temple as said before portrays magnificent terracotta work, while the Eastern temple show wonderful artwork on lime plaster. The temples are identical in shape it has chala design, descending beautifully from the top taking the shape of curved bow. The temple has no windows but three beautifully ornamented arched openings. On entrance to the temple complex on the Eastern wall of the Northern temple is figure of Lord Shiva seated on a decorated raised platform with his two associates Nandi and Bhringi one preparing a hookah, another busy with mortar and pestle preparing bhang. Viewing from the front the Northern temple is exquisitely filled terracotta designs from head to toe every part has been diligently carved and aesthetically presented. The entrance has beautiful cusped arches (like the entrance arch of Madan Mohan temple Bishnupur) with shikhar kalash at the centre, the art work at the both ends depict climax of a mythological scene. In the Northern temple three most common episodes are depicted in the arched entrances. The centre depicts an animated battle scene of Rama and Laxmana chaired by two giant Banaras in action against Ravana who is shown in ten heads. Ravana is shown in folded hands perhaps portraying the ultimate triumph of Truth against evil.
The finale of the battle between Rama and Ravana above the arched entrance, interestingly Ravana carries a straight sword, upon his chariot, with ten heads and twenty hands.
The terracotta panel on the left entrance shows the Goddesses Kali battling Chanda one of the generals of the mighty demon Sumbha. According to Hindu mythology Devi Kali decapitated Chanda and Munda henceforth she
At the top of the arched entrance are lions eating itself.
Just below the battle scene sequences are figures of Lions in an act of eating itself. The figure of Lion devouring itself has a connection with Lord Shiva, “one legend similarly recounted in the Padmapurana, and the Skandapurana narrates how Rahu as messenger of Jaladhara, the Asura, demanded Parvati from Siva whom he was about to wed. Siva thereupon produced a terrible being from his third eye. Lion faced with lolling tongue the eyes like lightening, hair on end looking like another Narashimha, it rushes at Rahu; but Siva stops and bids it to devour itself”[i] Siva was very amused to see animal devouring itself, it did not cease to eat until nothing was left except the face, ‘Kirttimuka’ as it is called, Siva then promised the strange creature to adorn the door of entrance of his temples.
Above the right arch entrance we see the killing of Kansa by Krishna and Balaram, the latter is shown with his plough. In the other panel we see Krishna fighting with the elephant Kuvayalapida holding the elephant’s tusks.
Devi Ganga on her vahana the Makara.
The wall on the sides is ornamented with figures of the Devi, with elaborate designs on both sides. One of the interesting features in this temple is the beautiful figure of Goddesses Ganga on Makar on the top corners of the temple. The Devi is shown resting on her Bahana the Makar. Just below the figure of Devi Ganga on the corner detailed, exquisite geometrical, rosette patterns are noticeable. On the right corner in a suspended state is Lord Vishnu standing on Lotus elaborately ornamented. It is understandable that the artists used moulds to make these decorations. Beside the corner decorative column (like minarets of a Mosque) are multiple panels with