The Terracotta Temples of Ghurisha

Located 20km west of Bolpur in West Bengal, the village of Ghurisha was once a great centre of Nyaya Shashtra, one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, and was also a center of Sanskrit learning. Today it is home to a couple of exquisite terracotta temples that are well worth visiting if you are in the area.

Sri Raghunath Mandir

Thanks to the foundation stone that still exists here, we know the east-facing Sri Raghunath Mandir was built by Raghunath Bhattacharya in 1633 CE and was originally dedicated to Rama. Some locals claim that the temple once housed a golden image of Rama which was taken away by Maratha raiders sometime between 1742 and 1751 CE.

Built in the charchala style of architecture, this is one of the earliest brick-built temples still standing in the Birbhum district, and is devoid of any imagery depicting Europeans which are quite commonplace in nearby temples.
The temple was partially renovated in 1964 by the then owner, Rammoy Panchatirtha, who was 88 years of age. It was around this time the temple was rededicated to Shiva.

The temple is built on a raised platform with steps on the eastern side. The temple has two doors, one on the eastern and the other on the northern wall, these are the only elevations with terracotta ornamentation.

Terracotta panels above the entrance on the the eastern side depict Shiva riding a bull, flanked by the four-headed Brahma riding his swan, and a much damaged Vishnu riding Garuda.

One of the panels here also seems to depict Chamunda, dancing on a corpse and wearing a garland of skulls, although this may alternatively be Kali (please let me know your thoughts!). I’m not sure I’ve seen Chamunda in terracotta before or since, but I need to check that.

Other terracotta panels on the eastern side show Shiva and Parvati riding a bull, Sarawswati and Lakshmi, Dasa Mahavidya (ten Hindu Goddesses), and Dashavatara (ten avatars of Vishnu). The detail on most of them is exceptional considering they are nearly 400 years old and exposed to the elements.

The northern side of the temple showcases a familiar scene in terracotta of Rama in battle with Ravana, but we also have the battle between Arjun and Karna, Gajendra Mokhsha, Vishnu in Ananta Shayan posture, Ras Mandala and scenes from Krishna Lila.

These panels are again in wonderful condition for the most part, which sadly is not the case for the panels running along the base of the temple. Aside from a few battle scenes, most of them are badly worn or have been completely replaced by plain brick.

Lakshmi Janardan Mandir

100m due east of Sri Raghunath Mandir is the much later but equally impressive Lakshmi Janardan Mandir.

It is believed this temple was constructed in 1739 by Kshetranath Dutta, a Gandha Banik (caste) who traded in Lac with English Merchants living in nearby Illambazar. Lac is a scarlet resinous secretion produced from a scale insect (Laccifer lacca) which is also known as a Lac. The substance was used as wood finish, lacquerware, skin cosmetic, ornaments and dye for wool and silk in ancient India, and was once imported in sizeable quantities into Europe along with Eastern woods. The word Lac is derived from the Sanskrit word lākshā’ (लाक्षा) representing the number 100 thousand, which was used for the Lac insect because of their enormous number.

The east-facing navaratna (nine pinnacles) temple stands on a raised platform and has a triple arched entrance leading to a closed verandah before the entrance door to the sanctum. Kalyani Nag from Bahadurpur renovated the temple in recent times in memory of her family. The temple is in pretty good shape overall.

Terracotta ornamentation can only be found on the front elevation, but their condition is excellent with some impressive detail. The central entrance arch panel depicts Shri Chaitanya and Nityananda Mahaprabhu singing and dancing with other Vaishnavites. Just below this there is a woman sitting (possibly Radha) on a throne surrounded by other women. Note the fine detail on the clothing.

The arch panel to the right has an exquisite motif of Tripura Sundari. The Goddess is in meditation posture, sitting on a lotus which grows from the naval of Shiva. Shiva is lying on a bed (or throne) which is held by Brahma, Vishnu and three other forms of Shiva – Rudra, Ishana and Sadashiva. The Godesses does not hold anything in her hand, but the closed fists suggest that originally she may have been holding items such as five arrows of flowers, a sugarcane as a bow, a noose and a goad – traditional objects held by Tripur Sundari.

The arch panel to the left has not survived in its entirety, and we are now only left with the lower half of it. Here there are several motifs of Radha Krishna, and a large image of a lady sitting with young Ganesh on her lap. One would think this might be Durga but the image appears like an ordinary woman and doesn’t give the impression of being a Goddess at all.

Above the arch panels is a large horizontal panel depicting Rama and Sita seated on a throne surrounded by several subjects and saints. A second horizontal panel would have been immediately below this, but that too has been lost.

Elsewhere we have traditionally dressed European women, Hindu Gods, soldiers, and numerous social scenes of the time.

The panels adorning the base of the temple have survived in good condition and include a number of depictions of boats, including Kamale Kamini from Mangal Kavyas.

If you’re in the mood to visit more terracotta temples in the area, just 7km south-west of Ghurisha is the Radha Binod Temple at Joydev Kenduli, and 7km south-east of the village is the unusual Hath-tala Gauranga Mahaprabhu Temple at Illambazar.

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