Terracottas of the Ruined Temples of Bengal
— Angela Latham
Angela Latham, the author of this sensitive little write-up on brick
temples of Bengal, was an artist herself, and wife of noted musicologist and
critic Peter Latham. She was at Santiniketan in late 1940s, and visited the village of Surul with Mukul Dey where he was
photo-documenting the temples then. Angela’s write-up was published in Art and Letters (The Journal of the
Royal India, Pakistan & Ceylon Society), vol. XXV, No. 2,
in 1951. In her article, Angela Latham notes the architectural similarity of
these terracotta shrines with the traditional mud houses of rural Bengal. She also appreciates the photo-documentation of
the temples by Mukul Dey. Most of the illustrations, which accompanied the article, were by Angela Latham herself.
Unfortunately, most of Dey’s photographs are yet unpublished, so is his original typescript titled Temple Terracottas of Birbhum, which Mukul Dey had authored in 1953.
The village of Serul in Bengal is one of hundreds of half-ruined and deserted relics of past glory which are rapidly being invaded by jungle, and whose beauty, unless steps are taken to record it at once, will be soon be lost for ever. It lies to the north-west of Santiniketan, on the Bolpur loop line, some three hours’ train journey from Calcutta.
During the rains only sure method of transport for the last few miles is a bullock cart, for motors, which are scarce, cannot negotiate the sandy tracks between the paddy fields. But to those who loves village India how well worth while is the pilgrimage, and what nostalgic charm survives in the exquisite brick temples (Fig. 1) among their gleaming emerald palms. We find the great tank overgrown, and the neglected gardens bear witness to malaria, which undermines the energy of the few villagers, and fine houses seem haunted by a past as do those in fairy tales.
Here, when the British Indigo Company thrived, numerous shrines were endowed for worship, and in about 1750 the ancestors of the present Zamindar erected one of loveliest pillared halls that I remember. Even now in desolation it is magnificent, with colonnaded cloister and temple, with stabling, dwelling house and refectory, a grass court, green as chrysoprase and the old brick cookhouse for pilgrims.
At the time of my visit a great Durga image was being modeled in the central hall of the temple in preparation for the rice festival (Fig. 2). It was still headless and unpainted, but one saw vague outlines of grey clay taking shape over the straw-covered armature—Ma Durga, the mother goddess, standing with one foot on a splendid lion and the other on the demon of evil, whom she slays. On one side of her Lakshmi to bring luck and wealth, and on the other Sarasvati for wisdom and education, both graceful and alluring figures, showing how the long tradition of modeling in India survives to the present day.
Near the Zamindar’s house is a group of wonderful shrines—a large Vishnu temple with five pinnacles and a carved façade supported on three coloimns (Fig. 3), and two small pepper pot shrines with narrow doorways, dedicated to Siva (Fig. 4). The decoration of these buildings in red baked tiles is most charming and dignified. The flat effect and miniature scale gives an impression of engraved sandstone, yet each tile is beautifully modeled and baked without warping, individually lovely, and part of a satisfactory scheme. The subjects on this carved façade are taken from the Mahabharata and from Hindu folklore, and each group deserves long study, but time and the jungle press, and you notice how many of the doorways are already marred by the gaping hollow places where terracottas have fallen or been taken as toys. We must look at some of the other buildings in this lovely village (Fig. 5). Crossing a grassy space between mud houses whose thatched roofs suggest the lines of the temples, we find another five-pinnacled shrine dedicated to Siva (Fig. 6). Notice the rectangle of tiny portrait heads peeping out of niches as from windows.
This traditional form of decoration has survived from very early times, and is used on most of the Serul doorways (Fig. 7). Above the arch we often see pairs of figures in European dress, and are reminded that the date of these shrines (which is found on the tile above the centre of the arch and looks pale in the photograph) is only some eighty years ago (Fig. 8). On every side are pretty little shrines, no two alike, some of plaster (Fig. 9), but most of brick covered in fine moulded clay tiles. Doubtless the building and decoration was undertaken by the travelling guilds of craftsmen who moved from village to village as required, using the best local clay, which here is extremely fine and of a rich red colour.
Mr. Mukul Dey of Santiniketan (Fig. 10), who took me to Serul, told me that the black lingam stones for the Siva shrines were carved in dark granite in Benares and brought to the villages by river and bullock cart, and that during the last century alone some hundred thousand were set up in Bengal. Mr. Mukul Dey has been for years discovering and recording these small shrines, but it is work for the lion-hearted. There are thousands of unknown and forsaken villages in Bengal and Birbhum filled with such gems. To photograph them entails camping in malarial sites, sometimes after a three week’s journey by bullock cart—an expensive labour which requires endowment, and unless funds can be found abroad the hundreds of photographs already taken cannot be published. During his exploration of these temples Mr. Mukul Dey has found much throws light on the technique of the travelling guilds. He showed me the instructions in baked brick where the covering tiles had vanished, which indicated the exact position of each one. Evidently the façades were more carefully designed, several of each moulded tile made and only the best used. It is a thousand pities that for the lack of funds these delightful little treasures should decay unrecorded, as they are so rapidly doing.
How lovely, too, might be the new buildings in India could her craftsmen be again employed to mould the façades of secular erections as so recently they were employed on these shrines. One finds the old ability in the makers of Puja figures (Fig. 11). There are quarters in Calcutta devoted solely to this craft, and before the smooth finish and crude colour are added the figures show magnificent modeling. Often the feet and hands are moulded, as were the figures on our temples, but as these statues are destined to be drowned in the river after the festival, and only enjoy some ten days of life; they are not baked or made of hard clay.
Some of the groups are so fine that one regrets their transience, but since it means that all the while new figures must be made, which employs the craftsmen the whole year round, it has advantages.
May I end with one more plea for the endowment of Mr. Mukul Dey’s records, since the publication of the exquisite terracottas he has found would prove an inspiration to lovers of beautiful things. No one who has not seen his photographs can have any idea of the incredible wealth of design which is being lost with these neglected temples.