Chandranath Shiva Temple - Hetampur

Chandranath Shiva Temple – Hetampur

Situated 35km north-west of Bolpur, Hetampur is a dust covered, sleepy, remote village not untypical of the Birbhum district in West Bengal. Anyone passing through on route to another destination could be forgiven for describing Hetampur as even nondescript, and yet here resides one of the most unusual temples I have ever encountered in my twenty-five visits to India.

The village gets its name from Hetam Khan, a local zamindar, and the Hetampur Raj rose from being unskilled workers of the Bankura District to being the most powerful family of Birbhum. Radhanath Chakraborty was the first prominent name of Hetampur Royal family who subdued the former Gomastas (Indian agents of the British East India Company) and Iajardars (tax collectors). Their power and wealth rapidly grew towards the end of the 18th century, buying huge tracts of lands in and around Birbhum, declaring themselves as independent kings, and refusing to pay tax to the Nawab of Murshidabad.

Flanked on one side by a shop, overshadowed on the other by a large house, and largely camouflaged by foliage on the roadside, the miniscule Chandranath Shiva Temple is both remarkable and memorable. Constructed in 1847 by Krishna Chandra Chakraborty, it is a reflection of the family’s opulence and deep-rooted association with the British administration at that time.

This temple is included in the ASI list of protected monuments in West Bengal, but I didn’t see any evidence that it is being protected or maintained, and certainly no efforts to conserve the structure have occurred. Much of the plaster that existed around the terracotta tiles has fallen off revealing the bricks beneath, what plaster does survive is covered with dried black moss, awaiting a similar fate.

The east-facing Chandranath Shiva Temple is octagonal in plan and built in the navaratna (nine pinnacles) style of architecture. Numerous examples of navaratna style temples can be found in remote villages in West Bengal, built by affluent and successful Zamindars who ruled over the region. To have the pinnacles themselves octagon-shaped is extremely unusual, but for each them to be crowned with a human figure makes this temple close to unique.

The arms of each figure are outstretched, almost trying to convey some sort of undecipherable message, but I wonder if once they were holding something, perhaps made from wood that has since decayed and disappeared.

The most striking and memorable feature of the Chandranath Shiva Temple is unquestionably the profusely decorated terracotta panels decorating three sides of the façade.

Combining Hindu iconography with secular images of British Victorian figures is in itself not unusual for temples built in the 19th century in Bengal, but here the religious imagery is kept to a minimum and the terracotta decoration is largely dominated by western influences.

None of the European people depicted appear to be directly associated with the military, instead we have gown-clad women and hat-wearing men shown both individually (as if posing for a personally commissioned portrait) and in everyday social scenes that can be occasionally hard to decipher.

Who are these people ? Are they depictions of specific individuals we could put names to, or are they more generic in nature ?

The lack of many parallels in the imagery depicted here and with no documentary evidence to assist us, answering that question is problematic. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to identify specific individuals on the terracotta panels, but in every case there is not quite enough detail to be absolutely certain.

The prime example of this is the top panel above the temple entrance, which itself is above an image of Mahisashurmardini Durga, so we can perhaps consider this the most “important” image on the entire temple. It is a portrait of a European Victorian woman wearing a headdress, with her hair tied up above the back of her neck. The style of dress is typical of a high-status woman of the 1840s. Many have identified this image as being Queen Victoria, although there not quite enough detail to be absolutely sure.

An almost identical representation resides on a lower tier of terracotta panels on the same front elevation, so clearly this person was deemed important. I have tried looking for an image of Queen Victoria that closely matches these images, thinking that perhaps they were copied by the artists from some printed material, but my quick research is inconclusive.

Mukul Chandra Dey (1895-1989), the first Indian Principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta, went further and claimed to have also identified eminent British personalities such as Lord Clive, Byron, Shakespeare, and even biblical characters such as Moses in these terracotta panels. There’s one panel that I could see as potentially being Moses, and this is one of a few of panels on the same elevation that have a slight classical feel to them.

The most frequently used terracotta design is hard to decipher as well, as almost all of them are severely weathered. They are repeated many times over on the lower half of the temple’s decorated sides, boarding the entrance and false doors. The second most frequently used design is a lot easier to identify, and is almost certainly an attempt to copy the coat of arms of the British East India Company.

The panels depicting multiple individuals in day-to-day colonial life in India are interesting to try and interpret. There appears to be an “erotic” panel involving a European man and a local woman, almost sinister in nature as she seems to be protecting herself from his advances.

The depiction of so any English Victorian women on these terracotta panels hints at their presence and their influence on local art. Memsahibs were probably quite common in the rural landscape of Colonial India, many of them came here to live here with their male counterparts.

The observant amongst you may have noticed the different colour of the terracotta panels, which made me speculate as to whether some of the images here are more recent additions/replacements. Thankfully the photograph of the temple from the 1870s puts to rest that question, everything here is completely original.

I wasn’t particularly strategic in the way I went about photographing and documenting this temple, time was short and my itinerary packed, but it turns out that I have managed to capture about 90% of the various images on display. In India I usually find myself gravitating towards far more ancient structures and remains, probably encouraged by my background in archaeology. But this little temple hidden away in the middle of nowhere has captured my imagination, and I hope the ASI soon direct some resources towards the maintenance and renovation of what is a truly unique and remarkable structure.

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3 replies »

  1. Fascinating Post.
    Just to provide some of my inputs here.

    The first time I got to know of this temple was through this post : dated 18th Nov 2013.

    While Naba-Ratna type temples having the central tower surrounded by 8 subsidiary towers in a single plane in an octagon are rare, Rāsmañcas (associated structures used during festivities — please dont mind the lack of details, I am not a Bangla) with similar shape are somewhat common.
    Some examples on this post :

    Liked by 1 person

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