Located in the corner of a busy marketplace in the town of Illambazar, the 19th century Hath-tala Gauranga Mahaprabhu Temple (also known as Sri Gouranga Mahaprabhu Mandir) is one of the more unusual terracotta temples you will encounter in West Bengal. Octagonal in plan and prefusely decorated, the temple was first formally recorded by David McCutchion in the 1960s, who noted at the time this ridged rekha style temple had no roof at all. Today there is thankfully a roof, but one fashioned from tin sheets. While effective, it does seem to be a bit of an insult to the wonderful works of art that lie beneath the roof canopy.
This has to be one of the most difficult temples I have ever tried to document. Firstly, I happened to be in Illambazar on the morning of market day, so even getting close to the temple was a struggle at times. This was compounded by the fact that I try to go about my work as inconspicuously as possible, which here was simply not going to happen. Further difficulties include a low wire fence that closely surrounds the temple, and an adjacent pink Natmandir which is practically touching the temple on one side. So seeing the terracotta panel above the main entrance is difficult, and impossible to photograph. The last challenge was the lighting, with strong bright sunlight coupled with deep dark shadows, it makes bringing out detail difficult. I have done by best to compensate for this.
Starting from the top down and ignoring that tin roof, the crowning glory of the Hath-tala Gauranga Mahaprabhu Temple without doubt are the decorated panels above each of the false doorways, most of which are very well preserved.
First we have a detailed depiction of Krishna Leela, where the four-headed Lord Brahma (only three are visible though) is seen hiding the calves and cowherds inside a forest and Lord Krishna manifesting himself as the missing calves and boys to take their place for a whole year. These terracotta panels are in near perfect condition.
Next is an equally spectacular and well preserved set of panels depicting the battle between Lord Rama and Ravana. The carved figures on the sides with traditional motifs are equally amazing.
That is followed by Goddess Durga, probably as Mahishasura Mardini, seated on a lion flanked by Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi on her right and Goddess Saraswati and Lord Kartikeya (both on poor condition) on her left. There is a traditional chalchitra representing the divine radiance of Goddess Durga emanating from her as waves.
Another panel depicts Bhagirath bringing Ganga to Earth surrounded by idols of prominent Hindu Gods. Due to the location of this panel it was a little tricky to capture properly.
This large panel I have not been able to identify conclusively, but it is interesting for the depiction Roman (non fluted) Corinthian Columns.
Finally we have a Raschakra panel, partially damaged and with accompanying panels relaced by plain tiles.
On the outer corners of the temple where the walls meet are vertical friezes, known as mrityulata (death-vine or creeper of death). A mrityulata is a vertical terracotta panel containing a vertical series of human and animal figures, each poised to attack the figure below. This panel is then repeated running the whole length of the temple side.
Scholars believe these vertical rows of figures have their origins in the architecture of wooden chariots constructed in Bengal. Chariots were constructed with vertical panels at the outer corner of the main body of chariots consisting of vertical rows of human and animal figures, which is called a “Barsha” panel. As the builders of chariots and temples were from the same “Sutradhar” or Carpenter community, the pattern in the chariots was later assimilated in Bengal temple architecture.
At Hath-tala Gauranga Mahaprabhu Temple there are a number of differing examples of mrityulata, some appear to be quite weathered and probably original, others are more pristine and perhaps part of some renovation effort. The most convoluted repeated sequence I could find was tiger -> dog -> human -> horse -> lion -> human (repeated) -> elephant.
The false doors immediately below the decorative panels are themselves wonderful works of art, although sadly they have been much tampered with. At some point it was decided to create windows in these doors, an effort that was undertaken without much care or attention it would seem. This was probably done to allow more light into the sanctum, this is still a living temple housing deities of Gour Nitai, but one has to question if it was entirely necessary.
Sadly, the above observation is just the start of it, this is truly a temple of two halves. For all the wonderful and well preserved terracotta work above, observing the lower portion of the structure reveals just how poor the state of this temple is. Without some urgent intervention soon, it is likely to collapse under its own weight.
Many of the lower panels have either completely disappeared or lost most of their identity. This is exposing the rough brick and mud cement beneath, which itself is crumbling away. Terracotta tiles not only add a decorative finish to the temple, they act as a protective skin from the ravages of time. In their absence, the core of the temple is exposed to nature, and here nature certainly has the upper hand.
I tried to pick out the best terracotta of what still does survive, most notably a few examples of armed soldiers and a sailing ship.
These are reminders that Illambazar was once a prosperous port, benefiting from the intersection of two thoroughfares and a river front. The French East India Company came to the area in the 1780s, driving up prices to the benefit of nearby weaving centers. The British East India Company also had a factory here and assumed direct administration of Birbhum district in 1786. In the mid 19th century, John Erskine of Illambazar was one of the leading sugar manufacturers and exporters in the area, and also had a number of indigo factories.
It’s disappointing that this temple seems to have been neglected by the state government even though it is classified as a protected monument (there was no sign to indicate this however). I imagine such temples located in the heart of a marketplace are even more at risk as they reside on a plot of valuable real estate. I hope efforts are made soon to shore up this temple (literally!), and give it a chance to survive another two hundred years. I really don’t want to be one of the last people to photograph in detail the wonderful terracotta artwork on display here.
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Nice. The close-ups are really nice and help make things clear
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Thank you !
We live close to the place. Your photographs are as usual superb.
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Thanks Asok, got a few more places to cover near to here, posted one today in fact !
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