The Terracotta Temples of Rajbalhat

Five hundred years ago, Rajbalhat was a hugely successful and bustling capital of the Bhurshut (Bhurishrestha) kingdom, which extended across to present day Howrah and Hooghly districts of West Bengal. The town is said to get its name from an idol of Devi Rajballavi that resides in a much altered and renovated 16th century temple here, but my focus on my short visit was to specifically see two terracotta temples in the town.

Sridhar Damodar

Located immediately north of Rajbalhat Bazar in the heart of the town is the south-facing Sridhar Damodar temple, adjacent to a number of other more modern temples. Constructed in 1724, the front elevation of the temple is covered in some quite intricate terracotta work. Unfortunately, local residents have decided to apply paint on the terracotta, and looking back at past images of this temple it’s clear that this has happened many times over.

Not so long ago the use of multiple colours was adopted to the façade, which in more recent times has been replaced by a “muddy red” that does at least bear some resemblance to what lies beneath. That being said, over the decades the crisp definition of the terracotta imagery is slowly being lost by this frequent application of paint. There are also some areas where this paint seems to have disappeared revealing the natural brick and terracotta hues, which made me speculate as to whether the applied paint is even allowing the structure to breathe sufficiently.

The terracotta panels depict war scenes from the Ramayana, scenes from everyday life, and some quite elaborate images of ships and boats (mostly obscured by the entrance railings).

During the British era, Rajbalhat was an important center of the silk and cloth trade, resulting in the East India Company setting up a Commercial Residency here in 1789. Silk-making still survives to this day, with a number of textile workshops with their looms dotted around the town.

Radha Govinda

Just 300m north-west of Sridhar Damodar in an area known as Ghataktala is the Radha Govinda Terracotta Temple. Set on the edge of a small playing field and rising to a height of 15m, this east-facing temple was built just a handful of years later in 1733. Not surprisingly, this and the nearby Sridhar Damodar temple are almost exact carbon copies of each other, both architecturally and with the terracotta imagery deployed. Here, the triple-arched entrance also depicts battle scenes from the Ramayana, with the base panels showing images of ships, boats, royal chariots and processions.

For all the similarities between these two temples, visually they are worlds apart. The front elevation and terracotta work of the Radha Govinda has thankfully not been subjected to numerous coats of paint, and here one can see the more authentic red brick. It’s a far more sympathetic maintenance of the structure, which conveys a feeling that this is a building rapidly approaching 300 years old.

It’s well worth visiting Rajbalhat on route to other more well-known terracotta temple sites in the region. It was interesting to experience two very similar temples that have been subjected to very different approaches when it comes to upkeep and maintenance of the structure. I do of course prefer the more natural look that becomes blurred and (ultimately) obliterated by the constant application of paint. Having said that, one has to be thankful that these temples are still in use by the community, and haven’t been left to decay and be taken over by nature, which is a very common occurrence in West Bengal.

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