The Terracotta Temples of Bankati

Situated 6km south-west of Illambazar on the south bank of the river Ajay, Bankati is an ancient and no doubt once prosperous village in West Bengal. In this quiet now almost forgotten place are a few terracotta temples worth exploring, which can be easily combined with a visit to the Hath-tala Gauranga Mahaprabhu Temple a short distance away in Illambazar.

Gopaleshwar Shiva Temple

The most interesting and best decorated temple in the village is the south-facing Gopaleshwar Shiva Temple (sometimes known as Gopeswar), classified as a Pancha-ratna with ridged rekha turrets and single entrance by David McCutchion, who documented this structure in the 1960s.

Built in 1832 CE, the temple is set on a raised plinth and has some wonderful terracotta decoration on the front elevation that is very well preserved.

The subject matter here is quite varied, both religious and secular, and includes Ramsita in the royal court, Kali, Chinnamasta, Tripurasundari, Kamala, Ghajalakshmi, Durga, horse-drawn chariots and carriages, and European soldiers.

This is certainly one of the more obscure locations I visited during my three week tour around West Bengal. I suspect I only came to know of it by scouring google maps as I planned my route between more well-known temple locations. As a result, very little information is available on-line or in books about this place. We can probably safely assume the temple was funded by a rich family who gained their wealth as a result of textile or indigo production, and association with the French/British East India Company. Anything more specific remains a mystery, at least for now.

A shed immediately next to the temple houses a brass chariot that appears to be an almost exact scaled down replica of Gopaleshwar, no doubt used during festivals. For whatever reason I didn’t photograph it !

Five Terracotta Temple Complex

250m due north of Gopaleshwar are a cluster of temples worth including in a visit to Bankati village. On first glance there are five terracotta temples here; three east-facing sharing the same plinth, and two north-facing temples. Both sets create two sides of an open courtyard, a far more recent temple (not photographed) defines this courtyard on the north side.

The terracotta work here is far less refined, and is limited mostly to the panels above each temple entrance. The three almost identical temples are all dated to 1834 CE.

Gospeshwar Temple
The first in the cluster of three temples, the terracotta panel above the entrance depicts Kali standing on the chest of Shiva.

Umeshwara Temple
The middle temple of this sub-group, the terracotta panel appears to depict Durga.

Kaliswara Temple
The last of the trilolgy sharing the same plinth, with another depiction of Kali over the doorway.

Next we have the two almost identical north-facing temples, both attributed to a construction date of 1782 CE. Their terracotta decoration is far more simplistic.

Umeshwar Temple
Ganesh is depicted above the temple door, flanked by miniature Shiva temples.

Viveshwar Temple
Durga Mahishasuramardini is shown here, flanked by floral terracotta motifs.

Beyond the courtyard is yet another more recent east-facing temple in a very poor condition and appears to be used as a shed. The front of this temple has what appears to be a series of small clay ovens dug into the ground.

Further east from here the vegetation has engulfed what appears to be a number of interesting ruined brick structures. My attention was grabbed by yet another brick temple in the distance, barely visible through all the foliage. I was keen to explore this, but warned off by the family living here as there were likely to be snakes.

That concludes a short virtual tour of the terracotta temples I visited in the village of Bankati. My visit to the small terracotta complex was made all the more memorable for the family I met there, who were extremely welcoming after the initial shock of receiving a visit from an outsider. They did inform me that the temples were founded by a Laxmikanta Ray, of the Ray family dynasty. But my subsequent research has not yielded anything further, so I’m including this “fact” here for completeness.

There is one further terracotta temple in Bankati, a pancharatna Shiva temple located in the Hat-tala (market) area of the village. This has been “over renovated” in recent times, with coats of paint applied over the images.

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