Medieval Terracotta Inspires Durga Images

It is once again time for Goddess Durga to arrive with her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati and two sons Kartik and Ganesh. 

The recent collapse of the Majerhat Bridge in Kolkata, has caused considerable chaos to the southern part of Kolkata—leading to changes on the road to Diamond Harbour. We will now have a new road with a railway crossing.  There was also the fire in Bagree Market, that brought chaos at the northern end.

However, the ‘Puja Spirit’ is as lively as ever and most of Kolkata is spruced up as usual. We can safely say that the city is almost all set to welcome Ma Durga with her family, in as grand a style as possible. The only unhappy lot are the Traffic Police, desperately trying to manage the hordes of shoppers. People seem to be parking their cars and doing their shopping on foot, so instead of going insane managing cars, Kolkata’s traffic police will be focusing on pedestrians!

Besides the major pujas celebrated in the same location every year, it seems that this year almost every road and lane has at least one pandal blocking half of the road. The motorbike is probably the most convenient way to travel, sneaking in from the left or right.

A number of the pandal exteriors appear to have chosen the ‘terracotta look’, inspired by the famous terra cotta temples of Bengal. Durga in the guise of ‘Mahisasurmardini’, is among the most recognisable and popular forms, seen in the temples — depicting Goddess Durga riding to war on her ’vahan’, a regal lion, carrying weapons gifted to her by the Gods. She is shown as the slayer of the Asur who challenged the oceans and the Himalayas and is often depicted in the guise of a buffalo.

Every year, there are many pujas that choose to depict their idols in the medieval terra cotta style. Fortunately, every district in West Bengal has at least one terra cotta temple, embellished with its own ‘Mahisasuramardini’.  With each having a different form, there is no lack in variety.

It is also interesting to know that irrespective of a temple being dedicated to another deity the ‘Mahisasuramardini’ motif is common to most of Bengal’s terracotta temples.

The Durga Temple at Bali Dewanganj in the Arambagh sub-division of Hooghly, is built in the Jor-Bangla style and is considered unique. Its style of presenting the theme of Mahisasuramardini, is certainly one of a kind, in West Bengal. Here the Mahisasuramardini panel is located above the arched entrance to the temple. As Durga is shown in the traditional style with images of Lakshmi and Ganesh on her left, and Saraswati and Kartik on the right, but what is unusual is that each image is framed in separate temple-shaped panels.

Another splendid temple ‘Pratapeswar’ is in Kalna, located on the west bank of the River Bhagirati. Ruled by the Maharaja’s of Burdwan, Kalna was an important port in the late 18th century and a number of splendid temples were built during this period. The temples remain to remind us that ‘Ambika Kalna’ —the name it was earlier known by—was once a rich and flourishing port.  

The Pratapeshwar Temple, was built in 1849 and unlike the other the temples in Bengal, it has a spire.  The terracotta engravings in the temple depict themes based on various aspects of day to day life and the legend of Sri Chaitanya. At this temple, the Mahisasuramardini theme is located on the wall on one side of the temple. Here again the panel of Durga is seen above an arch. Interestingly, the panel is flanked on either side by Ram and Ravan engaged in their war against each other.

Another temple located in Sribati, a small village at Katwa, in Burdwan District is also worth mentioning. This almost unknown village has three splendid terracotta temples, that are owned by the Chandra family.

The three temples known as Bholanath, Chandaneswar and Bisheshwar, have some unique panels in terracotta, on their exterior walls. Here also the Mahisasuramardini Durga panel is located above the arch of what appears to be an entrance, but is on the back wall of the Bisheshwar Temple.

Another temple worth mentioning is the Radahagobinda Temple located at Aatpur in Hooghly district. It was built in 1787 by Krishnaram Mitra, the Dewan of the Maharaja of Burdwan. The Mahisasuramardani Durga panel complete with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik & Ganesh is on the temples central pillar and is the prime attraction of the temple. The temple is unique as it marks the end of the end of Muslim rule and the beginning of the European era — its terracotta panels reflect this transition. Besides panels of the images of Gods & Goddesses, it has a number of panels showing European lifestyles. Here we can see European soldiers with bayonets and hunting scenes with dogs.

We now move on to the very heart of the area famous for the terracotta of today. The Sridhar Temple at Sonamukhi, is located in the District of Bankura. Located in Madan Gali, near the Chowrasta,at Sonamukhi, the Sridhar Temple was built in 1845 by Kanai Rudra, a prosperous textile weaver. The temple owned by the Ganguly family, has terracotta on all its four walls, but is now in a bad way and requires instant restoration. The Mahisasuramardani panel which shows Durga with her family, is located above the right side arch of the triple arched entrance.

There are countless terracotta temples in desperate need of restoration in West Bengal. Each has its own story and style... treasures that need to be preserved for posterity.

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari