The Bengalis are a travel loving community. Some never tires to go to the same tourist spot repeatedly over the years , while some tries to find out offbeat spots in remote areas or near their favourite familiar places.
Apart from the famous Di-Pu-Da Circuit (Digha, Puri and Darjeeling), one of the favourite holiday spots of Bengalis is Santiniketan. Not only limited to Bengalis, this University town founded by Nobel Lauarete Rabindranath Tagore is popular to tourists all over the country and from many parts of the world.
However, this blogpost is not about how to spend an usual weekend at Shantiniketan. This is about the Brick temples around them, which is unknown to most of the tourists.
Tourists mainly visit the Viswabharati University Campus along with its adjacent Sriniketan and Prakiti Bhawan, stroll along the Kopai River, listen to Baul’s singing at the Khowai region and do local shopping at local village outlets or shops like “Aamar kutir”. Religious minded persons pay visit to Kankalitala. In winters Poush Mela is a big tourist attraction. In that season, some even drive to Joydev Kenduli to enjoy the Kenduli Fair.
As mentioned earlier, there are few takers for the brick temples adorned with exquisite terracotta work on their walls scattered around in different localities within just 30 km radius of Shantiniketan. I mentioned about such a temple in one of my earlier blogpost of Joydev Kenduli Fair.
In this blogpost and posts following it, I will write about seven such settlements around Shantiniketan which showcases several brick temples with rare terracotta murals on their walls. A few of them have been undertaken by the State Archelogy, but many of them are in decaying condition. I will start with the village of Surul, which is only 5 km from Bolpur.
1. Temples of Surul
In the 18th century, Surul featured a commercial residency under John Cheap of East India Company who had a sugar factory running in the area. A busy port named Saheb Ghat existed at Birbhum’s Ilambazar, with numerous British & French ships in its vicinity. It is in this Ilambazar, one Srinivas Sarkar built up a colossal fortune by selling sails for these ships to the East India Company. Business flourished and eventually Srinivas Sarkar acquired and built the Surul Rajbari to its present condition. In 1835, the East India Company gave up its mercantile dealings. Later the Sarkar family played a vital role when Viswabharati University was formed here.
The present Surul village is a non descriptive village. There is not much choice of communication from Shantiniketan, except pre hired auto rickshaw or car. The Surul Rajbari alias Surul Boro Bari is famous for its Durga Puja Celebration started 250 years ago which continues till the present date. Though the past generation pomp and show are not present to that extent, yet during the four days of Puja the Rajbari is decorated with fancy Jhar Lights. Local artiste performs theaters and the immersion of the idol is done with a gala procession.
Adjacent to the Surul Rajbari is the 19th century built five pinnacled (pancha ratna) Lakshmi Janardan Temple. Amidst familiar scenes like battle between Rama and Ravana, rare terracotta specimens like court of Ravana is visible. Here the Demon king is seen busy discussing strategies with his generals. Just below this scenario, a panel shows Sita surrounded by Cheris (Female Demon). Hanuman can be seen on one of the trees.
The coronation of King Rama is visible in another arch panel. Rama is sitting bit side faced here and Sita looks trivial insignificant in stature. The detail of this work is remarkable. Just above it one can see Sita’s purification by fire (Agni Pariksha) surrounded by the sages. The centrally placed figure of Sita is severely damaged. Only the flames below reveals her identification.
Sadly, like many temples of Bengal electric wiring has been done with thick electric pipes on one of the walls of this temple. The deity of the temple is a Salgram Sila, which is regularly worshiped.
Just besides Lakshmi Janardan temple are the two Rekha-Deul types Shiva temple of Sarkar Badi. From their foundation stone it is understood that they were built in 1831. The most promiment terracotta work here is the enthronement of King Rama over arch panels. Interestingly some of the subjects are wearing attire like the Europeans.
There is Dasabhuja (Ten-armed) Goddess Durga with full family, but unfortunately the figures are totally defaced. Other notable terracotta work is of women in European dress and Dasavatara images. The founder of all these three temples is Srinivas Sarkar. Lately the Jora deuls have been painted with white colours. Thankfully the Terracotta panels have been spared from white paint like many other similar temples. Nothing has been done to protect the Lakhsmi Janardan temple. Its terrcotta panels looks fragile and if there is no proper renovation done in near future, I am afraid some of them may cease to exist.
If one is interested about more temples, Surul has more to offer. On the South western side of the village there are two more temples founded by Srinivas Sarkar. They are quite close to Surul Rajbari. The first temple is a 19th century Aatchala with triple entrance. Here you get to see Ratha of Jagannatha in terracotta in the central arch panel which is in somewhat eroded condition at present. Islamic influence is visible in this temple, specially on the pillars besides the arch panels.
The second temple is Rekha Deul type. Just above the arch panel which showcases yet another enthronement of King Rama, there is a horizontal panel showcasing several figures. One can find unique artwork here like Shiva playing Tanpura with Devi Parvati nursing Ganesha. On the extreme right (to the viewer) of this panel there is a motif of Ganga sitting on Makara with Bhagirath standing besides her. There are numerous other figures like Yama, Kartick and other Gods. Dasavatara motif is also visible.
2. Temples of Supur
Supur is just five km to the South of Surul. Taking a cue from Markandeya Purana of the Hndus, it is usually believed that Supur was a part of the Kingdom of Kalinga’s King Suratha. The king was desperate to get a win over Karnat Empire, but suffered immense loss. On advice of Sage Medhas, he prayed to Goddess Chandi and with her blessings attained victory. As a gratitude, he offered Goddess Chandi one lakh sacrifices (Humans, not Goats. Traitors and Enemies, to be precise). As per this opinion, the kingdom of Suratha has been named in the Purana as Swapur and the present name of Supur is considered to be derived from it. There used to be a Suratheshwar Shiva temple at this village, which no more exists. A modern temple replaced the old one.
There are parallel schools of thoughts which opine that the gentleman residing at Supur was not a king, but just a Zamindar named Surath. The Zamindar was a tyrant. Once he had a dream of his dead enemies chasing him. To which he prayed to the Goddess and offered her one lakh human sacrifices to clear him of his sins. Although I am not sure how one offer can repeated Manslaughter to the Goddess to relieve him of earlier killings, this is what the local author Gurulal Gupta has written in his book “Rural Sketches”.
Supur had several temples in its vicinity, but only few remains at present. Out of them the 18th century Jora Shiva Temples alias Jora Mandir of Lalbazar area is the best example of Terracotta Art at Supur. The temples fall on the right hand side of main road inside the village and can be easily located.
The Twin Deul temples are located inside an enclosure. Till date there is no confirmed evidence about the founder of these temples. Although the temples are under the jurisdiction of West Bengal State Archeology, yet there is no signboard around. Out of the two structures, one is a Ridged Rekha Deul located on the western side while the other is Octogonal Ridged Rekha Deul located towards the east. Both the temple has open verandah on all sides. Five Stucco lotus can be seen one above other on the top of both temples along with a Trishul and a Chakra.
The western side temple has only terracotta work on its Southern side. The only prominent Panel over the entrance of the door is that of Ram and Sita on throne flanked by Rama’s courts men. Most of the faces have suffered severe damages. The quality of the work is of much lower standard compared to that of the two panels of Court of Rama as seen as Surul.
The eastern side octagonal temple has terracotta on all its eight sides. Apart from being a class apart in temple structure its terracotta panels are unique. Besides having panels displaying human figures, its floral designs do impress enough. Among the panels displaying human figures there are many exquisite panels, but there is a repetition of themes. Above each eight doors there is a prominent arch panel which is subdivided into three sub panels.
The lower sub panel is replicated in all arch panels. Each of this subpanel shows Chaitanya Maha Prabhu dancing with a bearded man besides him, a five headed man dancing with others and child being bathed by four women. The bearded man may be Advaita Acharya Prabhu as out of Chaitanya’s all disciples he had beard. The child seems to be Krishna. David J. McCutchion also opines this figure as Krishna. I have no clue about the five headed man.
Among the interesting top sub panels which are unique for each panel, I was impressed to see a panel from Ramayana showing Rama fighting against his son Lava and Kusha over the Ashwamedh Horse. I have seen a similar panel at Joypur, Bankura. However in this temple the human figures are more prominent.
One sub panel shows soldiers (British?) with guns sitting on an elephant and horses. Other showcases Goddess Durga with family. The sub panel showcasing the Goddess is rather interesting. It is divided into three parts. The central portion displays Durga as Mahishashur Mardini with Lakhmi and Saraswati. The faces of the three Goddesses have been defaced with the vagaries of time. Ganesh and Kartick get more prominence here with each having more space. In fact they are seen here with woman companions. Ganesh sitting on a lotus is accompanied by two women, probably his consorts Riddhi and Siddhi. Kartick seated on his Vahana – the peacock is accompanied by a single woman probably his wife Devsena – daughter of Indra. Among the other panels a relatively less damaged arch panel is that of Gour Nitai dancing with other followers.
The lower panels of the temple also showcase severe repetition of themes. Among the common themes was Krishna sitting on Garuda, Krishna with King Bali, Vastraharan Scenario and soldiers marching in a row with guns. Just below the lower panels there was a thin small panel showcasing similar looking faces within round frames.
The lower panels are in a severally decaying stage, probably due to lack of proper maintenance and damp. The premises were dirty with several undergrowths and shrubs. I have seen in several monuments undertaken by Government in worse condition (best example is Henry’s Pagoda at Serampore), so I was not surprised. However, the floral panels are intact and has some intricate detailed patterns.
It may be significant to mention that legendary director Satyajit Ray shot a portion of his epic film “Ashanti Sanket” in front of these temples. There was a sequence where Soumitra Chatterjee as Gangacharan watches in horror the first victim of 1943 famine in his village being carried way. The temples on his background are these two temples. In fact Ray first zooms in the panel portraying soldiers with gun sitting on elephant and then focuses on Soumitra.
Among other temples at Supur are the flat roofed Shyamroy Temple and two temples at Hath tala, The flat roofed temple has no terracotta work on it. Of the two temples one is a small Pancharatna and the other is a Deul. The condition of the temples is poor, specially the Deul looks in a dilapidated state.
The Pancharatna temple has a foundation stone from which we come to know that it was constructed in 1817. It had some small terracotta panels, but unskilled painting has robbed them of their identity. The Deul seems to be of eighteenth century. There was a panel just above the door which depicted Gour – Nitai singing songs. But at present it does not exists anymore. There are no other panels in this temple.
Heading back from Supur gave me the feeling which Ray wanted to convey through his shot in “Ashanti Sanket”. It is one of those villages which had seen enough prosperity at one time. At present the village may not be undergoing a famine, but nonetheless the present town of Supur is a small and rather unknown settlement. Expect some heritage interested enthusiasts, it hardly has any takers.
3.Temples of Itonda
There are some villages in West Bengal, where if you go by car you feel like an odd man out. People stare at you as if you have come from a different planet or you have come from any department of Government. Itonda alias Itanda is such kind of a village. In fact my smart driver Abhijit at Bolpur did not look so smart and assuring; when I told him I wish to visit the place. In other words, he did not know about this village!
From Supur we took a right turn drove straight towards the Bolpur Station. The road was extremely crowded near the Station. Instead of getting into the station, we crossed the rail bridge and took the Bolpur Palitpur Road. Asking for directions from the local and consulting the Google Map, I guided my driver to take right from the Bahiri Nimtala Bus stop. Driving for another eight kms and making more queries at the village pf Panchshwa took us in front of a tea shop. One enthusiastic man directed us towards a village road which led to Itonda. Driving past non descriptive old houses, we stopped in front of three temples. Two of these belong to the Sandhu Family.
It took us around 50 minutes to drive the 19.5 km from Supur to Itonda. I met an elderly lady from the family of Sandhu Family. I was informed that Rasananda Sadhu, the last well known ancestor of this family had built two temples out of these three a little less than 200 years ago. He constructed them after a pilgrimage from Vrindavan. Not surprising, as Itonda also had reaped the benefits of the area being flourishing during the Nineteenth and later in the twentieth century. All temples have foundation stones.
The first temple is a small south facing single entrance Rekh Deul, whose foundation stone says it was built in Bengali year 1222 (English calendar 1815. Just add 593 to Bengali calendar to get the result), which makes it the oldest of the three. From Sukhamay Bandhopadhyay’s book “Temples of Birbhum“, we come to know that this temple was built by one Gadadhar Pyne.
The deity is a Black Shiva lingam. A descendent of the family, Subhas Chandra Pyne renovated this temple in 1944. On the sides of the foundation stone, small panels of Dasavatar are visible. The arch panel over the single door depicts Krishna and Radha dancing with Gopinis.
The second Temple is a Pancharatana Shiva Temple, which was build in 1828 (1235 in Bengali). On the foundation stone, Rasananda Sadhu’s name is mentioned as well. The arch panel over the single entrance is also Court of Rama, but the quality of the figurines is much better at Supur. Hanuman and Jambuban are clearly understandable, though Ram and Sita each have lost a hand. Some scenes of Dasavatar, a severely eroded Kali wearing a sari (as seen in Sonamukhi of Bankura or Kotulpur of Hooghly) and some bearded noblesman wearing a crown type head gear.
There is an interesting monster face near the base, which seems to be chewing something with its teeth clearly visible. However, this is not an ordinary monster face and can be seen in the base or arch panels of only Shiva Temples. Incidentally both these temples are dedicated to Shiva. In one of my coming blogpost, I intend to write on these faces elaborately.
The next structure which can take the visitor by surprise is a palatial structure inside the courtyard of the Sandhu family. At first it looks like an old Zamindar Palace. However, as you get inside the premises, you understand that it is a double storied Flat roofed alias Chandni. I have seen double storied Chandni at Kotulpur and Sonamukhi of Bankura, but none beats this one as per structure or in decorative elements. This is the Sridhar temple where Vishnu is worshipped as Salgramshila along with Narugopal.
The foundation stone in the inner sanctum of the temple says the year of construction is 1844 (1251 in Bengali). The temple is adorned with pillars and arches in its both floor.
The elderly lady of Sandhu family may be of the age my mother. She informed that since they do not have enough money to repair the temple, no renovation has been done. This dialect is known to me while visiting the terracotta temples of Bengal, so I barely shook my head. I cannot do anything here, but describe what I have seen in as much details possible.
10 years ago Soumitra Das wrote about the interiors of the temple in an article in The Telegraph in this fashion – “ Inside, one can make out the painted stucco as delicate as chikan work, as rich as the decoration in the thakurdalan of Krishnanagar palace.”
Surprisingly the stucco work still exists in the interiors of the time. It is indeed a work of art to behold. The top floor also has painted stucco work, but I felt embarrassed to disturb the lady to open the lock to the door the stairs. Instead I used the Zoom to shoot the stucco work, which is visible from the courtyard. There are more colours in the upper floor stucco work, but I liked the ground floor better.
Taking a leave from the Sandhu family, we drove forward to check out the star attraction of this village – the Jora Bangla styled Kali Temple.
This magnificent work of art was in a perilous condition and the State Archeology with the help of INTACH did a commendable job in renovating the structure over the years. The road from the Sandhu family’s temple leads to a pond. Just before the pond a pathway on the left leads to the temple beyond some brick houses. Legend says that 200 years ago this temple was housed by a band of robbers named as Hadkata group. Since they worshiped Kali, they were supposed to have founded this temple. It is also said by the locals that Portugese renovated this temple at the beginning of 19th Century! Well, that was unique as I have never heard Europeans building up a terracotta temple in Bengal! Finally a local family from Suri was in charge of this temple for sometimes.
The temple looks good after renovation. In the article of Soumitra Das, I had read that many panels of this temple were damaged by floods. Also In the book of Sukhamay Bandhopadhyay, it says that a Banyan tree had taken permanent possession of the roof. But now all those were gone and the structure looked gorgeous.
The temple stands on a raised platform , but it has no enclosure. There is the State Government’s blue signboard with text written in Bengali which says by the order of Zila magistrate this temple is a heritage property of West Bengal and India, which is not be damaged or altered.
On this signboard some clothes were drying. Many clothes were scattered around for drying too. In ASI protected monuments, I have seen gardens around such structures. However in State Government protected structures, there is no such provision. Thankfully no clothes were getting dried on the temple premises!
The exquisite terracotta panels are a treat to watch. At the base panel there is naval gunfight scenario between two warships, armed with canons. Other interesting motifs at the base are a lion hunting scenario, women making curd, battle scenes, Goddess Kali, Devi Chandi sitting on lion and fighting with demons. I do not know what do vandals have against Goddess Chandi, but invariably either she is defaced or her arms broken in most temple sculpture.
Just above the base panel there are rows of Soldiers marching with guns. On the wall panels, there are multiple similar looking panels showing elite noblemen wearing a crown type head gear in robes with folded hands. The motif is similar to the one seen in the Pancharatna temple of Sandhu family. There are two soldiers in this motif wearing gumboots having weapons in hand. They seemed to represent henchmen of the elite noblemen.
The wall panels also have Dasvatar and Dasamahavidya motifs which have been designed with extreme details. On the corners of the top wall there are chariots. One was clearly understandable –the bird Suparsha (as described in Krittibas Ramayana) trying to engulf the chariot of Ravana when he was kidnapping Sita. In one motif we see a young Hanuman attacking Surya-the Sun God. Surya is in his chariot driven by his winged charioteer Arun, brother of Garuda. The horses of the chariot have wings too (Or else how could Surya fly over the skies). This is a story taken from Hanuman’s childhood days when he went to engulf Surya, thinking it as a red ball.
The floral design and the vertical friezes on the walls of the temple were masterly done too. It was great to see that such a work of art being saved by state archeology initiative. I hope someday the Sridhar Temple will get renovated too by the State Archeology or any private organization.
But first we need more heritage loving tourists visiting these places who will promote them with their blog posts and photographs. In next blogspot i will write about Temples of Ilambazar and Ghurisha.
Visiting Supur, Surul and Itonda in a day
You will need to hire a car from Bolpur to visit these three places. You can do it as an extension of your trip to Shantiniketan, or do it as a single day trip from Kolkata.
Bolpur Station to Surul Boro Bari – 5 km
Surul Boro Bari to Surul Jora Mandir – 5 km
Surul Jora Mandir to Itonda/ Itanda via Bolpur Palsit Road, Bahiri Nimtala Bus Stop and Panshwa village – 20.5 km
Itonda/ Itanda to Bolpur Station – 15 km
Doing a Day trip from Kolkata
In case you are doing a day trip take the Ganadevata Express at 06:00 from Howrah and reach Bolpur by 9:00 in the morning. It should take around 4-5 hours to complete the tour, depending on how much time you will give upon visiting the temples.
There are no descent eateries in these three loaclities, so carry food and water with you. Also except the in-house refreshment room of Bolpur Railway Station, there are no proper eateries around the station. Some good restaurants are available near the Jamboni Bus Stand, located 3 km away from the Railway Station.
There are local eateries on the other side of the station. I had local rice meal with fish curry in one of them (Hotel Ajoy), but I doubt if it will suit everyone’s appetite
1. Suman Roy who accompanied me to Surul
2. Argha Guha who acoompanied me to Supur and Itonda
3. Banani Bhattacharya, who deciphered me some terracotta panels
4. Ruby Chatterji who allowed me to use two of her photographs in the blog
1.Temples of Birbhum by Sukhamay Bandopadhyay, BRB Publications, 1984
2. Birbhum Bibaran – Vol 1 (Chapter- Supur Kahini) by Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay, Prakashbhumi (2009 – 2nd Edition)
3. “Next weekend you can be at… Itonda” by Soumitra Das, The Telegraph, 19.12. 2004
4. Brick Temples of Bengal – From the Archives of David Mccutchion by George Mitchell,
Princeton University Press, 1992