The Sribati Terracotta Temple Complex

The 19th century was an eventful phase in the history of Bengal, as contact with European colonial forces resulted in far-reaching changes in almost every aspect of Bengali life. The British rule in particular presented a unique opportunity for native entrepreneurs, who established trade relations with the East India Company and quickly amassed huge wealth. The Gandhabanik community (traders and merchants) flourished during this period, and became an important force in society, gaining further social respect by constructing temples for their community.

Shobharam Chandra was one such enterprising Gandhabanik, who left Saptagram (Hoogly) in search of new opportunities. He initially explored the region around Kaithan before finally settling down and starting a family in Sribati in 1705 CE. The Chandra family prospered through successive generations, acquiring huge wealth as salt agents for the East India Company, culminating in owning 56 salt depots across north India.

Shobharam Chandra had five grandsons from his eldest son Mulukcharan, their names were Abhaycharan, Bhabanicharan, Thakurdas, Ambikacharan and Ghanashyam. All five sons established large mansions in and around Sribati, reflecting the opulence the Chandra dynasty had gained. What was once a relatively sleepy agricultural village with paddy fields and ponds became a village dominated by large colonial buildings.

All these mansions mostly lie in ruins now and are rapidly disappearing. However, the most significant contribution of the Chandra dynasty are the three terracotta temples in the village. These were established by descendants of Shobharam Chrandra’s youngest son, Gabindahari Chandra.

Due to the wealth amassed by many non-Brahmin families, a huge wave of temple building occurred in 19th century rural Bengal as a mark of social upgradation. The Chandras of Sribati were one of that class.

From the roadside facing the three Shiva temples, their names are; Chandreshwar Temple (west/left), Bholanath Temple (north/middle) and Bisheshwar Temple (east/right).

Not only do these temple showcase some wonderfully rich and extensive terracotta, they also demonstrate the gradual shift in focus for terracotta motifs from the purely religious all the way through to temples showcasing social scenes almost devoid of any Puranic stories whatsoever.

(click on any image to view full-screen)

Chandreshwar Temple

Established in 1836 CE, this east-facing rekh deul temple has some significant terracotta on the front wall, although the other three side walls have little ornamentation. The motifs are almost solely puranic, there are no social scenes depicted at all.

It’s interesting to note the general shallowness of the terracotta wall panels here compared to the other two temples. It would seem the craftsmen were less skilled at being able to create three dimensional figures, perhaps because they came from the carpenter (sutradhar) community and adapted their wood carving skills to terracotta.

We know that in the 19th century Maharaja Krishnachandra brought potters from Natore to Krishnanagar and these potters created more realistic figures. The better terracotta relief on the Bholanath and Bisheshwar temples suggest that realistic sculpting became an important feature of temple walls.

Bholanath Temple

Standing in the middle of the cluster of three temples, the south-facing Bholanath pancharatna Temple was built in 1836 CE by Ramkanai Chandra and his wife, Annapurna. It is exquisitely decorated, with a mix of both Puranic and social scenes alongside floral and geometric motifs.

The pain terracotta panel above the doorway depicts a seated Rama and Sita with Jambavan to the right. Two archers and a hermit in a panel below seem to be that of Rama, Lakshman and Vishwamitra. Sita is seen in a sari and Rama in a typical nineteenth century headgear worn aristocrats of the time. Depictions of Rama and Sita together in the central panel above the door of a temple is a common theme in many temples in Burdwan and Birbhum built between 1815 and 1849 CE. It’s quite possible that this trend came about from a group of artisans that traveled around the area and being employed by wealthy family to decorate their newly built temples.

Perhaps the most unusual terracotta showcased on the Bholanath Temple in terms of its placement, are the 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 vertically and is usually seen at the corners of a temple. 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.

On the Bholanath Temple temple this mrityulata sequence can be found framing the doorway projection on the front facade, and it has survived remarkably well.

The both corners of the front façade have a repeated sequence of five terracotta blocks, each one depicting four soldiers in standing posture. There appears to be three types of soldiers are present – Indian soldiers in short dhotis, Muslim soldiers with beard and Islamic dress, and probably Portuguese soldiers wearing hats with an upturned brim.

The base of the temple has a wealth of imagery on display including lines of soldiers, battle scenes, musicians. It is along the base of a 19th century temple that we first see the transition from Puranic to social scenes being depicted. Here that has gone a stage further, with the social scenes now extending up the sides of the temple façade.

The other three sides of the Bholanath Temple have no terracotta ornamentation, but the east elevation is interesting for the purely Islamic decoration on the false doorway, above which are a pair of damaged stucco peacocks.

Inside the temple is Shiva linga made of white marble behind which on the wall is a marble wall panel showing Krishna playing the flute. This is an unusual co-existence of Shaiva and Vaishnava cults in same temple and demonstrates the tolerant attitude of the Chandras.

Most 19th century ratna temples of Birbhum and Bardhaman have have had their pinnacles extensively repaired, to the extent that it is difficult to determine if they once were adorned with terracotta panels. The Bholanath Temple is an usual exception, and here the front three pinnacles are covered with rich terracotta. Here we have numerous busts of European men and women in different kinds of dress, plus vertically repeated Batayanvartinis (lady by the window), an image that will get further attention with the next temple.

Bisheshwar Temple

Without doubt the star of the show. Also built in 1836 CE by Ramkanai Chandra and his wife Annapurna, the three front walls of the octagonal Bisheshwar temple have a density of terracotta ornamentation that would be hard to surpass, it is almost too crammed in due to the limited space available. The images depicted deal mainly with social scenes, a clear shift in emphasis from the neighbouring Bholanath Temple that has a blend of both Puranic and social.

One of the most striking features about the Bisheshwar temple are the various representations of men and women, which include both Europeans and Indians. All the doors of the temple have rows of heads with swords at their sides. The horizontal panels above the door and the vertical panel alongside the door are not square, but leaf-shaped. At the center of each leaf is a bust depicting mostly European men and women with the occasional soldier with sword. Additional heads pop out at the four corners above and below the leaf motif, again both male and female and from a variety of backgrounds.

The social scenes are clearly heavily influenced by European life. These individuals are depicted carrying walking sticks, wearing elaborate hats, the women in particular stand out with their lace hats and frilly gowns. There also appears to be a number of aristocratic individuals depicted on this temple alongside European and native figures. It’s hard to know exactly why so many Europeans and social scenes are depicted here, perhaps it is a reflection of the exposure of the Chandras to the greater business community of northern India.

The depiction of soldiers is equally interesting. What appear to be Muslim soldiers are shown with beards in Islamic dress, whereas native soldiers are bare-chested with a short dhoti brandishing a sword.

The Bisheshwar temple is also the only temple out of the three to depict boats, and these are not associated with military activities, there are no soldiers inserted into these scenes. Perhaps this is a nod to the Chandra trading businesses that was the catalyst for their great success and wealth.

Another element of the Bisheshwar temple that catches the eye is oddly where the terracotta decoration is at a minimum, on one of the stone false doors close to the temple entrance. Here we have a Batyanavartini, a stucco female face peering through the door as if trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world. These are a popular motif on temples in the Birbhum and Bardhaman region, and further examples frame the central pinnacle of the neighbouring Bholanath Temple.

It is thought this face represents Annapurna Chandra, the patroness of the temple. The sculpture probably reflects the curiosity of the housewife about the world that exists beyond the walls, and reflects the emergence of female consciousness in the 19th century.

The meteoric rise in the fortunes of the Chandra family from their trading business fell faster than it grew. With the frequent changes in the course of the river, their river trade ceased to exist. It is perhaps a little perplexing why the family did not opt to relocate and chase the business, perhaps other economic, political or social changes at the time also contributed to their downfall.

We should be thankful that these three spectacular temples at Sribati have stood the test of time and are in such wonderful condition, compared to other structures attributed to the Chandra family that are now crumbling away. These temples with their richly carved terracotta panels reminds us of both the glorious days of river trade, and the resulting unique terracotta architecture of Bengal.

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