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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 came to be known as Chamunda. Godessess Kali accompanied by Goddesses Chandika along with Matrikas fought with Chanda, Munda, Sumbha, Nishumbha and their mighty demon army and defeated them all, this classic scene of Hindu mythology is depicted in the terracotta plaque. One of the demons is depicted riding a horse wearing a Mughal Jama and shoes with a curved sword.
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 figures of Goddesses Kali going around the entrance doors. Lotus medallions, flowers, birds have also been incorporated all combined impart a wonderful visual appeal.
Lord Vishnu standing on a lotus and the traditional figures of Godessess Kali.
The Western temple
The Western temple has exquisite decorations but not to the tune of the Northern temple. Here as well battle sequences adorn the entrance archways. The ornamentation pattern is not the same as of the Northern temple. In one of the battle scene Godessess Kali is shown riding upon a chariot driven by two horses and fighting the enemy. Above the central arch is an elaborate battle scene where Godessess Kali riding a horse accompanied by female warriors is shown in combat mode holding a demon by the hair, the latter is riding an elephant. Above the right side arched entrance a battle sequence is shown where probably Lord Rama chaired by one of his accomplice fights the demons riding on chariots, horses. The tunics that the demons are wearing are Mughal jama. The terracotta panels with episodes from Ramayana and Krishna’s life adorn the walls, like the Northern temple it runs from the base going all around the arched entrance.
Devi Kali in action slaying demons, in the left panel of the Western temple.
Godessess Kali slaying a demon about to chop off his head, above the cusped arches notice the small rathas, this is on the centre arch of the Western temple.
Another battle sequence from the right side arch entrance, probably a scene from the Ramayana, Ram is seen lifted by a Banara to fight the demon army, the demons are wearing the Mughal Jama.
Depictions in panels the various episodes from Ramayana, and Krishna’s life.
The Southern temple lack the ornamentation as in the Northern and Western temple, the panels which were supposed to house the terracotta plaques are blank reminding the blank panels of Katara Mosque. Only the central entrance show lotus medallions spread all around the entrance arch. The Eastern temple also lacks elegance although using lime plaster work than terracotta for reasons unknown, one reason may be to reduce the cost. Here above the entrance arches we see battle scenes showing warriors fighting on chariots, horses and elephants difficult to guess the subject of all these action packed scenes, one may be tempted to fancy that these episodes are from the Mahabharata. The arches here are reminiscence of Mughal arches the kind of cusped arches we see in Diwan-i-Am in Agra Fort. The panels above the entrance arches portray the life of Krishna especially his romantic overtures with Radha.
The Eastern temple
The Eastern temple of lime plaster, devoid the grace of the Northern temple yet rich in ornamentation.
In its entirety the char-bangla is a marvelous achievement, it is not unique but it is certainly elegant and exquisite. It also depicts the popularity of terracotta temples throughout Bengal, and Murshidabad not being an exception.
Biography of Rani Bhabani:
Rani Bhabani (1716-1795) the commissioner of the char-bangla temple is commonly known and remembered as the ‘Zamindar of Natore’. Natore is a district under Rajsahi division in Bangladesh, her palace at Natore is still present. The oldest aristocracy of Rajsahi can be traced from the Patiya family when the founder of the family Batsaryacharya helped the troops of Man Singh sent on by Emperor Akbar to discipline the Pathan Subedar of Rajsahi -Laskar Khan. Man Singh was so impressed by the wise counselling of Batsaryacharya that he obtained a firman from the Emperor to install the latter’s son Pitambar as the new Zamindar of Laskarpur. From there on the Patiya family had been ruling the Laskarpur estate until a new change knocked at the door. It was during the Zamindari of Darpanarain Rai that a Brahman called Kamdev lived in Mouza Natore. Kamdev had three sons, Ramjiban, Raghunandana, and Vishnuram. One day interestingly Raghunandana who was collecting flowers for puja in the garden fell asleep and lied down on the grass. A snake is said to have spread its hood while he was asleep to protect him from the Sun. The news of this rare event spread near and far and when it reached the ears of Darpanarain Rai he predicted the future glory of Raghunandana. Subsequently Raghunandana was appointed a clerk in the office of Darpanarain, he quickly learned the rules of the game as he soon rose to prominence. From an ordinary clerk he won the favour of Murshid Kuli Khan and became the Diwan of the Nawab of Bengal. Raghnandana was shrewed, clever and cunning customer, on acquiring the post of Diwan he acquired various estates by hook or crook in the name of his brother Ramjiban. In Murshidabad it was an unashamed custom to pass on the Zamindari of non profiting, defaulting estates into the hands of important dignitaries in the Nawab court.
Rare photo of char-bangla temple shot almost 100 years ago. Source-The Musnud of Murshidabad, PC Majumdar
In a short span within the lifetime of two brothers Raghunandana and Ramjiban, the Natore estate was the second biggest Zamindari and was commonly called, ‘the estate of 52 lakhs’. When Raghunandana died the entire reigns of the Natore estate fell into the hands of Ramjiban and Vishnuram. The 18 year old Ramkanta the adopted son of Ramjiban succedded the Natore Raj and was married to Rani Bhabani then 15 years old. Ramkanta proved to be short sighted, inefficient ruler who could not keep things under control and the Estate suffered losses. After his death in 1748 the Natore Raj came into the possession of Ramkanta’s widow Rani Bhabani. In a men’s world Rani Bhabani turned out to be a seasoned campaigner, she had an amazing personality, and unusual mix of character, one hand she had a great business mind on the other the traits of a great benefactor for her subjects. She had to fierce competition as well from men like Hastings who took away a portion of her estates saying that a woman could not be entrusted with Zamindari and handed it over to the son of his confidant Kantobabu.
Rani Bhabani donated enormous sums of money; she built 380 asylums in Benares, guest houses and Thakur Baris. She constructed a road surrounding Benares measuring ten miles, which connected Benares with Sarnath the Rome of Buddhists. She erected number of temples in Murshidabad and Natore, bequeathed land for temples and priests. She had offered a generous personal gift to Munni Begum the wife of Mir Jaffer an exquisite palki with thirty bearers. Mr. Holwell mentions of Maharani Bhabani in his account, “At Natore about ten days travel from North-East of Calcutta resides the family of the most ancient and opulent of the Hindu princes of Bengal. Rajah Ram Kanta of the race of Brahmins who deceased in the year 1748 and was succeeded by his wife a Princess called Bhabani Rani whose Diwan was Dayaram of the Teli caste or tribe, they posses a tract of country about thirty five days travel and under a settled Government, their stipulated annual rent to the Crown was 70 lakhs Sicca Rupees the real Revenue was one Crore and a half’. From this account one can gather the enormous revenue the Natore Raj generated.
With all her opulence, and the prosperity of her Estate the seed of disintegration was slowly germinating in the form her adopted son Ram Krishna. Her son turned out to be a devout Sakta he conducted his meditations on a seat placed over five human skulls under a Bel tree. Ram Krishna ironically was caught up between the spiritual and material World, the estate suffered immensely. The best and the profitable lands were slipping away, commensurate with the increasing loss Ram Krishna enhanced his Tantric devotion as he deeply indulged in rituals and sacrifices. During her lifetime, the zamindari under Ram Krishna had suffered so much that few zamindaris were sold off in a public auction. Rani Bhabani had an immensely beautiful daughter named Tara. It is said that Nawab Siraj-ud-daula wanted her badly and at all costs. The Maharani trembled in fear to learn about the Nawab’s lust, she immediately fled from the Palace to Benares, eventually Clive dethroned the whimsical Nawab and Maharani’s daughter was saved. To save her daughter from suffering the wretched predicament of widowhood she had summoned learned astrologers from Benares, Mithila, Deccan, the committee fixed an auspicious date and the marriage took place. However the misfortune did befell and Tara became a widow following the death of her husband. Rani Bhowani set up an invesgation committee and it was discovered in the review meeting that the astrologers had missed the Sapta salakha making the day most inauspicious one! However all these personal tragedies did not shake the Maharani’s devotion to Gods, she went on with her charity and faith. The result is some of the best temples which still survives today as a testimony to the Art of Bengal in the 18th century.
[i] The Hindu Temple, Stella Kamrisch, Raymond Burnier 1976.
Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.