The Four Shiva Temples of Uchkaran

The mid 18th century heralded a wave of temple construction in West Bengal. As Muslim rule started to diminish, Hindu zamindars demonstrated their wealth by building new temples, richly decorated with fine terracotta ornamentation, a statement that their stature had been regained after many centuries.

In the small village of Uchkaran 18km east of Bolpur one such zamindar, Harendranath Sarkhel, built four exquisite charchala Shiva temples in 1768. Almost nothing is known about him, but he left a legacy of architecture and ornamentation that is hard to surpass anywhere in West Bengal.

The four west-facing temples all share a common plinth and are decorated with beautiful terracotta panels. They have recently been renovated by the State Archaeology department, and for all my criticisms regarding the condition and maintenance of many terracotta temples in West Bengal, I have to say that at Uchkaran they have done a great job. For the purposes of documenting each temple, I have numbered them 1-4 going from left (east) to right (west) as you face them.

Temple 1

The terracotta decoration of Temple 1 is limited to the main panels above the entrance, any ornamentation that once adorned the walls has since been lost.

This depicts a relatively rare panel of Lakshman fighting against Ravana’s son Indrajit (Meghnad). The craftsmanship here is a sign of things to come with the subsequent temples, there’s a lot of dynamism in the scene. The Lankan soldiers are attacking with swords, bows and arrows, while the monkey army are attacking with tree branches and clubs.

This is the only temple to have a foundation stone, and being the first in the row probably was intended to cover the whole group. It states that the temple was built in 1175 (of the Bengali calendar), which equates to 1768 CE. The foundation stone is alongside an image of Radha Krishna high above the temple doorway.

Temple 2

This temple probably displays the most impressive terracotta panels out of the group. In addition to a fantastic central arch panel, quite a few of the wall panels have managed to survive, which gives us a small window into just how spectacular all four temples would have once looked.

The Central arch panel is both rare and remarkable, depicting the Goddess Kali on the battlefield. What catches the eye is that there are two forms of Kali, standing side by side. The first one appears to be Shamsan Kali, dancing naked wearing only a garland of skulls and a headdress, below her is a severed head and a vulture. To the right is Dakhsina Kali, wearing a sari and frantically dancing with Shiva at her feet.

This central arch panel also depicts two instances of the Goddess Durga as Singhabahini (riding a lion) attacking demons. In the first image she is attacking demons riding on elephants, in the second she is seen pulling a demon from horseback by their hair, and about to decapitate them with her sword. Note how the lion here almost looks like a half-lion half-horse creature. Below Durga’s feet is a lion killing a man, while a fox and a vulture feast on the strewn bodyparts and corpses. The detail of these images is exceptional.

One interesting element about this panel is just how many female warriors are shown in action, in fact all the soldiers depicted are women. I’m not aware of a parallel to this anywhere in West Bengal, so it may well be unique.

The terracotta wall panels that have survived are well worth a closer inspection. Here we have Sage Narada with a Veena on hand sitting on Dhenki, Vishnu as Khagendra, a four-headed Brahma sitting on a swan, Harihar (a fusion of Shiva and Vishnu) and Shadabhuja Gouranga (combining Rama, Chaitanya and Krishna).

There are countless other terracotta wall panels higher up the temple façade, but difficult to photograph well.

Temple 3

The central arch panel of Temple 3 depicts a very familiar scene which can be found on many terracotta temples in West Bengal, the battle between Rama and Ravana. Rama is shown with Lakshman on a symbolic chariot with a Makara head, with the chariot wheels hardly visible. Behind them is a larger figure shooting arrows who I am struggling to identify – possibly Vibhishana ?

Ravana is shown supported by an elephant rider, with a band of musicians with drums and trumpets to compliment the war cry. There also appears to be two of Ravana’s heads at his feet, speared by arrows.

This is an incredibly impressive depiction of the battle, very few temples can boast of such minute details of a Ramayana war sequence.

The terracotta wall panels of Temple 3 depict images such as Lakshman cutting nose of Surpanakha, and a married Bengali couple playing dice.

Temple 4

The last temple in the row, this has a central arch panel showcasing Rama and Lakshmana fighting Ravana’s brother Kumbhakarna, who is busy devouring monkeys. Alongside Rama are Hanuman, Jambuban, and Ravana’s traitor brother Vibhishana. A plethora of monkey warriors can be seen fighting with the demons. Once again the dynamism of the figures is wonderful.

That concludes a virtual tour of these spectacular terracotta panels on the four Shiva temples at Uchkaran. To find such high levels of craftsmanship on these temples tucked away in a sleepy nondescript village is astonishing. These unknown artists have rendered in terracotta such vivid animated details of the Hindu epic, they must surely be among the finest Ramayana temples in the whole of West Bengal.

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