— Satyasri Ukil
The villages of Bankati (or, Bonkati) and Ajodhya are situated at the periphery of an ancient Sal (Shorea robusta) forest on the south bank of river Ajoy in the district of Barddhaman, West Bengal. If one is travelling from Bolpur-Santiniketan in the adjacent district of Birbhum, then at Illambazar one crosses Ajoy to hit a point on the highway popularly known as “Egaro Mile”(11th mile, in English), and there takes a right turn to the twin villages of Bankati and Ajodhya.
Little more than sixty years ago, while photo-documenting the architecture of brick temples of Bengal and the terracotta decorations found on them, artist Mukul Dey had visited this location. Dey published his photographs and text in a monograph titled Birbhum Terracottas (Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1959) wherein he mentioned his visit to Bankati. Though Bankati is not a part of Birbhum, the author did not exclude it from his list of rural locations where terracotta temples are found.
What primarily attracted me to this location was the paucity of information about the particular village in Birbhum Terracottas, which was rather uncharacteristic of Mukul Dey. Later on, as the original type-script of Dey’s text was found, I came to know what shoddy editing the work suffered at the hands of Lalit Kala Akademi, who published Dey’s album. To begin with it is worthwhile to compare both the versions here.
The published Birbhum Terracottas merely gives the following details:
“The hamlet of Bankati is located about fifteen miles from Santiniketan on the opposite bank of the Ajoy river. Several temples with interesting terracotta panels are found at Bankati. None of these temples is still in worship. According to the local residents, the brick temple was dedicated by Ramprasad Mukhopadhyaya of Bankati, a landlord and lac merchant, in the early 19th century.”
“Bankati is a hamlet about fifteen miles from Santiniketan on the opposite bank of the Ajoy river. Here there are many buildings abandoned by the villagers. The occupants are dead or have migrated to the cities. A number of old temples have been found at Bankati, in different localities. In some of these temples there are interesting terracotta panels. Puja is not celebrated in any of these temples, as the villagers have become extremely poor. The first thing in the village that attracted my attention was an old brick house and in front of it a beautiful brick temple full of terracottas. Here is also is a brass ratha, which is constructed on the model of the sacred wooden chariot used once a year during the Ratha Jatra festival. On the southern side, at the top of the brass panels, an inscription in Bengali runs thus: “Ratha made in 1241 san dated 2nd Magh work begun, san 1242, 15 Asad completed”. I found upon inquiring that the brick temple was dedicated by the late Ramprasad Mukhopadhyaya of Bankati, zemindar […], who was a lac merchant. Both the ratha and the temple have five pinnacles. The ratha stands on iron wheels. At each corner joining the panel walls, the heads of elephants and warriors on horseback protrude from top to bottom. All the four walls of the ratha contain engraved panels depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, besides several beautiful engravings of Puranic and local life. Brass figures of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle, are seen on the top of the panels as if they had been installed to guard the temple. Among the engravings on the ratha, there are also two erotic subjects. As this type of erotic engraving in temples is not common is not common in Birbhum, I asked a Brahmin as the reason for engraving such love scenes on this particular brass ratha. He told me that during the Ratha-Jatra festival, at the beginning of the monsoon, people from different villages came to the festival. Some came for worship; others for pleasure. These erotic subjects gave pleasure to some people. The Ratha-Jatra festival was an occasion of much rejoicing before the peasants started paddy planting.”1
Taking a clue from Dey’s text, we visited the villages on October 7, 2010 morning. That day being an auspicious one according to Hindu calendar, a lot of activities were noticed in most of the temples. Many of them received a coat of paint, or else were applied rather a vigorous lime-wash, obliterating some of the terracotta decorations. Presently both the hamlets being fairly populous ones, no lack of enthusiasm was noticed in painting them. In fact, we came across five temples where pujas were being conducted.
At Ajodhya there are about five temples in all and we saw terracotta ornamentation on them. Most prominent among these being the five-pinnacled or pancharatna-type temple at the Hat-tala locality. It is constructed on raised plinth and has many terracotta panels of excellent craftsmanship on its walls. The central panel on the entrance shows Lord Rama as the king of Ajodhya and his consort Sita, with Hanumana and Jambuvana in attendance. In this context it should be noted that these prominent terracotta panels placed on a temple doorway give absolutely no clue to which God or Goddess the shrine is dedicated to. Thus a Rama-Sita panel does not essentially denote that the temple is dedicated to them. These Hindu epic-mythological themes are mostly used as decorative motifs only. Directly below the figures of Rama-Sita is placed a pair of mythical parrots, Shuka and his consort Sari, of Vaishnava connotation.2
Below this panel pair of dancing girls are depicted with male musicians, playing dholak [a type of Indian drum] and violin. The dancers are handsome girls, heavy breasted and broad hipped. And they don’t quite look like Bengalis, with their hair parted in the middle to form two plaits which rest on their shoulders. Both the male music-players and the female dancers’ costumes are richly embroidered or printed with clover-like trifoliate motif. They do not wear sari—but don ankle-length loose skirt in the lower part, while the upper body is clad in tight fitting bodice and wrapped in richly embroidered / printed odhnis or scarves worn in a peculiar crisscross style.
On this temple are found many interesting terracotta tiles depicting aspects of Puranic lore and scenes from everyday life juxtaposed in rich profusion. Thus one finds one such tile depicting Lord Krishna killing the demon Bakasura being placed adjacent to another on which is shown a woman nonchalantly cleaning her ear, sitting on a low morrah or a traditional Indian wicker-stool. Two door guardians to this temple are hefty fellows, mustached, and carrying ridged clubs on their shoulders. They wear their dhoti in short malkoncha-style and look fiercely menacing. They have a striking similarity to the typical 19th century armed musclemen, known popularly as lathiyals in Bengal. In this context, it is worthwhile to note that though the dvarapalas are quite common features of classical Hindu temple iconography, here the craftsmen were chiefly inspired by the common local types rather than borrowing the imagery from ancient scriptural references.
At least two walls of theHat-tala temple are decorated. While facing the temple, the right-hand wall contains a large mortar and plaster figure of a woman peeping out of a venetian-blinded door. A tiny Ganesha is placed on the alcove above. On many of Birbhum-Barddhaman group of brick temples and zamindar’s mansions such motifs are common—at Suri, Moukhira and Kalikapur identical themes are seen.
Before moving to another location in Ajodhya it is worthwhile to discuss one particular decorative terracotta tile I saw on the hat-tala pancharatna-temple here. This shows an enraged man holding his wife by her hair and is about to strike the hapless woman with a sharp bonti, which is a kind of broad bladed Indian fish-knife. What attracted my attention is its similarity to the Mohanta-Elokeshi scandal at Tarakeshwar in late 19th century Bengal.3 As the scandal got wide publicity in period newspapers and through the patachitras by Kalighat patuas, it is quite possible that the temple builders at this obscure rural location came to know the episode and had incorporated the gory climax of that unfortunate affair on a terracotta tile. This shows how popular social themes got replicated in various rural craft forms.
The peculiar correlation between different forms of popular art and craft merits special study, wherein many religious and social themes appear time and again. For example, certain typical Hindu mythological series such as Dashavataras of Vishnu and Dashamahavidya manifestations of Shakti are seen repeatedly in many different craft forms.4
At Ajodhya four more temples could be seen at another location called Kamar-para, or the colony of the blacksmiths. These temples are built in a row on a common raised plinth, which is attained by a flight of four semi-circular steps. Adjacent to the steps is a Tulasimancha with a lush green basil sapling and a fresh circular cow dung maruli in front. The plinth and the steps are in a state of disrepair, while the temples were given a most careless but vigorous lime wash, obliterating much of the terracotta panels on the facade. The modeling of the male musicians playing tabor and trumpet are noticeably masculine, with prominent pectoris and tight abdomen. The dancing-girls are voluptuous and are depicted in the similar mood and posture as found on the temple at the Hat-tala discussed above.
However, what interested me most at the village of Ajodhya is a pair of door panels with specimens of ancient woodcarving still extant on them in low relief, depicting riders on horseback lancing an animal which looks like a panther. Initially I took it for a scene of pig-sticking, but on closer inspection as the speared animal was discovered to have paws, and not hooves of a wild boar, it is most positively a carnivore. Mukul Dey mentioned in Birbhum Terracottas of having seen excellent specimens of woodcarving at the village of Barihat in Birbhum. No doubt, like the terracotta artists of the past, the art of woodcarving was prevalent in Birbhum-Barddhaman region once upon a time. Even now a group of traditional folk artists do exquisite woodcarvings at Patuli in the Kalna subdivision of Barddhaman district—almost exclusively using the wood from Kadamba tree (Anthocephalus cadamba). These craftsmen, mostly, belong to a Hindu caste known as Sutradhars and Bhaskars, who, traditionally, are considered as the children of Lord Vishvakarma—the Hindu presiding deity of all craftsmen. About them Benoy Ghose discussed extensively and mentioned, at least, in one instance having came across a craftsman of Karmakar caste, who was at once a skilled ironsmith and a woodcarver too.5
The blacksmiths or the Karmakar family whose ancestors dedicated these Ajodhya temples lives nearby. I even found a smithy still in function just in front of these temples, which doubles as a carpenter’s workshop as well. With Vishwakarma Puja celebrated less than a month ago, on September 17, the workshop looked clean and tidy, and a low partition wall was daubed with white rice-paste as used for drawing an alpona design. The man who was working at the shop with his planer and chisel could not help much in fixing the chronology of these shrines, though he emphatically claimed these temples were “built” by his ancestors. This man lives in a most interesting charchala mud house nearby. From the exterior it looked so impressive that I was almost sure to find an equally impressive interior. At his thatched dochala workshop, the man worked both in iron and wood. I could see that at the far end of his shop an anvil, a pair of tongs and a carpenter’s plane was worshipped during Vishvakarma Puja.
From Kamar-para in Ajodhya we moved to the Rath-tala locality in the adjacent hamlet of Bankati. Both the villages are so close to each other that it is difficult to perceive any gap between the two. At Bankati we visited altogether six brick temples, with terracotta decorations on them, at different locations. At the Rath-tala one temple, and at the Kali-tala another two clusters of five ancient temples in all, all of which were built during the first four decades of 19th century.
At Rath-tala is located the brass ratha, which was described so vividly by Mukul Dey. It looks like an exact miniature replica of a pancharatna brick shrine with various mythological and social subjects, including two erotic ones, engraved on it. I first came to know of these erotic engravings from a series of glass-plate negatives exposed and processed by Dey. However, those being much over-exposed and emulsion surface peeling off, I could not print them. But for a digital camera, recording the engraved lines which hardly receive any directional illumination was not a problem at all. With the editing software if the contrast, brightness and gamma curves are played with, one is rewarded with a near perfect image.
The brass chariot, which is about one hundred and seventy-five years old, is decorated in the same manner as the brick temples, i. e. quite like the terracotta panels on a temple, it has a number of engraved brass plates joined together to make a composite whole, where irrespective of the subject matter the plaques are arranged in close juxtaposition to each other. One sees human and animal forms in great profusion. At the corners of the ratha, repetitive motifs of elephant’s heads and riders on horseback hunting bear could be seen arranged in a vertical manner—an arrangement as found on the Radhabinode temple at Jaydev-Kenduli, or various other temples at Illambazar (Birbhum) and Guptipara in Hooghly district.. There is a curious depiction of a Vaishnava ascetic [?] smoking his hand-held hookah while a monkey is happily riding on his back. While an intricate rectangular horizontal panel depicting the well-known Puranic tale of Samudramanthana [churning the milky ocean] by the gods and the demons deserve special attention.
Adjacent to the brass ratha at Bankati is the exquisite pancharatna brick temple dedicated to Shiva (as inside the temple is located a massive black stone Shiva lingam), and was constructed in the year 1754 Saka era, which corresponds to year 1239 of Bengali calendar, or 1832 CE. The ruins of a fabulous brick-built house with arched doorways act as a backdrop to this shrine. No doubt, this was the mansion built by Ramprasad Mukhopadhyaya, as Mukul Dey noted about sixty years ago.6 The central panel on top of the temple door depicts Raja Rama with his queen Sita on the throne of Ajodhya, Lord Hanumana kneeling adjacent to the throne. The royal couple is being fanned by an attendant, while the other attendant holds a royal umbrella (Rajachhatra) over Rama. Just below this panel are to be seen a pair of five-pinnacled horse drawn chariots with their drivers coaxing the animals to speed.
However, it is the base of the temple, which is most interesting due to the profusion of motifs being used! Right from a little dancing Ganesha to the weird Dashamahavidya iconography of Devi Chhinnamasta and Tripurasundari down to British sepoys with guns on their shoulder and an European [?] on a horse-drawn gig—almost everything is incorporated in the design plan! At the bottom right corner tile depicts a boat with five people on it, two being oarsmen without an upper garment and rowing hard—possibly a scene on Ajoy when the river was navigable.7 Mukul Dey photo-documented this very panel, but then the piece was more intact.
At a location that is locally known as Kali-tala in Bankati, there are is another cluster of five terracotta temples. Out of these, three are single-pinnacled Rekha Deuls with Amalakshilas on top and two are Bangla charchala-type shrines containing Shiva lingams of black stone. The temple of Goddess Kali at Kali-tala is a relatively modern structure with a recent coat of lime-wash on it. According to the dedication plaques affixed on the two charchala-type temples, these were built in 1743 and 1756 of the Saka era, corresponding to 1821 and 1834 CE respectively.
The older temples have a profusion of Tantric and Shaivite decorating motifs on them, such as Devi Tripurasundari and Shaivite ascetics in kaupina (loin-cloth), and counting with rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus) rosary beads. Their stylized matted locks (jata) and top-knots are identical to the similar representations found on Kenduli temple across river Ajoy. The whole belt of Birbhum and Barddhaman was the cradle land of Tantrism in Bengal once upon a time. Local villagers told us that even now various secret Tantric practices are performed at Bankati Kali-tala.
Little off the Kali-tala quadrangle stands a massive Kadamba tree. Beneath it are placed terracotta horses as sacred offerings to Gramdevata. This is a very ancient tradition. At various rural locations in Bankura, Midnapur, Birbhum, Barddhaman or even deep in the jungle tracts of Manbhum and Singbhum it is known to exist from time immemorial.8 I examined these Bankati horses carefully and found them hand-modelled and not wheel-thrown. They are quite similar to the rare primitive types found around the tribal belts of Jhargram and Gopiballavpur areas in Midnapur district.9 At a later date, I found exactly similar terracotta horses for sale at the market square of Illambazar across Ajoy.
Before moving away from Bankati we had an interesting interview with Sh. Anil Kumar Roy who looks after the Kali-tala temples and performs puja there. He is an elderly gentleman of good knowledge of local history and archaeology. It would be wonderful to visit Bankati again just to talk to Anil Kumar Roy and record his reminiscences.
- 1. Mukul Dey’s original and unpublished type-script is located in Mukul Dey Archives, Santiniketan.
- 2. cf. Traditional Bengali Vaishnava song: “Brindabana Bilashini Rai Amader…” etc.
- 3. “In 1875-76, Calcutta was rocked by a scandal in which a young married woman by the name of Elokeshi was murdered by her husband on suspicions of adultery. The priest or ‘mohanta’ at the temple of Tarakeshwar was later convicted of seducing Elokeshi.” See Anindita Ghosh, Cheap Books ‘Bad’ Books: Contesting Print Cultures in Colonial Bengal, in Print Areas: Book History in India, ed. by Abhijit Gupta & Swapan Chakravorty, Permanent Black, Delhi 2004, p. 182.
- 4. See various patachitras, Dashavatara playing-cards of Vishnupur, terracotta decorative tiles and Dashamahavidyas depicted in coloured lithographs issued from Chorbagan and Kansaripara art studios in Cacutta.
- 5. Benoy Ghose, Traditional Arts & Crafts of West Bengal, Papyrus, Calcutta 1981, p. 96.
- 6. Mukul Dey, Birbhum Terracottas, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 1959.
- 7. cf. Jean Deloche, Boats and Ships in Bengal Terracotta Arts, Bulletin de l’Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, Vol. 78, Issue 78, 1991, p. 7.
- 8. While working in Manbhum jungles in 1964-65 British geologist Valentine Ball writes: “These potters in the jungle also roughly mould with their hands grotesque figures of horses, elephants, and various impossible animals, which when baked are used by the aborigines as votive offerings and are placed close to certain trees or rocks which are spots regarded as sacred to particular sylvan deities…” (See Valentine Ball, Jungle Life in India: Or, The Journeys and Journals of an Indian Geologist, London 1880, p. 23). Also see Benoy Ghose, Traditional Arts & Crafts of West Bengal, Papyrus, Calcutta 1981, pp. 28-29.
- 9. See Benoy Ghose, p. 28.