Just outside Kolkata, the villages of Bengal have many stories hidden within them. Like novels or soap operas, generations of prominent families have risen and fallen, leaving behind only a few traces in the form of great buildings, temples and monuments.
One of these is the ‘Mitra Mustafi’ family, whose architectural legacy can be seen in their mansions, temples and religious structures in Ula-Birnagar (now in Nadia district of West Bengal), Sripur-Balagarh (now in Hooghly district) and Sukharia-Somra (also in Hooghly district).
Our story begins with the family patriarch, a first-generation trailblazer. In the late 17th century, Shaista Khan, the then Mughal Governor of Bengal (1664- 1688), appointed a man named Rameshwar Mitra in the Accounts section of the Bengal Governorate. A descendant of the Kayasths who had migrated from Kannauj to Bengal, Rameshwar Mitra excelled at his work and over the years built a formidable reputation.
In time, he became so pivotal in the administration that, in 1700 CE, when Murshid Quli Khan became Governor of Bengal, he sent Rameshwar Mitra on a special deputation to the imperial capital of Delhi, to work in the Accounts Department of the Mughal court. Impressed by his work, Emperor Aurangzeb conferred on him the title of ‘Mustauphi/Mustafi’ in 1704 CE. The Emperor also presented him a golden palm (royal seal).
James Hugh Eliot Garrett, in his book Bengal District Gazetteers – Nadia writes, “The Mustafi family was founded by one Rameswar Mitra, who visited Delhi in the time of Aurangzib, and who is said to have much impressed the Emperor with his scholarship and personal appearance, and to have obtained from him an introduction to Murshid Kuli Khan, then Nawab of Bengal. The Nawab gave him a high post in the Accounts Department...”
Rameshwar Mitra grew to become a wealthy and influential personality and built many architecturally beautiful structures in his native village before he died in 1630 Shakabda (c. 1708). He had ten sons and a daughter, who would fan out across three villages and build magnificent mansions and temples, many of which are still standing.
Rameshwar Mitra’s father, Mohan Mitra, settled near the banks of the Bhagirathi River in a village called Ula-Birnagar (now in Nadia district of West Bengal) in 1657. His son Rameshwar built a huge mansion named ‘Mitra Mustafi House’ in the village, in addition to many other architectural gems including several mansions, temples and other religious structures.
All that remains of Mitra Mustafi House is an arched gateway whose crumbling bricks jut out of its walls. The old mansion has long since crumbled and the gateway is all that’s left of those glorious days. The gateway leads to a chandi mandap built by the family, where Durga Puja is performed every year. The wooden chandi mandap was once covered by a thatched roof that has been replaced by corrugated tin sheets.
A stone’s throw from the chandi mandap is a famous Jora Bangla Temple (twin-style temple) built in 1694. Belonging to the Mitra Mustafi family, it is one of the few Jora Bangla temples still in comparatively good condition. The triple-arched temple has elaborate terracotta work on its façade. It also boasts terracotta plaques from the Krishna Lila, Hindu Goddesses, floral motifs and panels that depict scenes of everyday life in exquisite detail.
A ten-minute walk from the Jora Bangla Temple brings you to a complex of 12 Shiva temples known as Dwadash Shiv Temple. This temple complex was built by a descendant of the Mitra family, Ishwar Chandra Mitra Mustafi, who made a huge fortune trading in indigo. The family, which built several religious structures in Ula-Birnagar, had also produced several persons who have contributed to the fields of medical service, technology, business and art.
In the early 18th century, Rameshwar Mitra’s eldest son, Raghunandan Mitra, migrated to Sripur-Balagarm (now in Hooghly district) to take advantage of the river trade to make his own fortune. Not only did he amass great wealth, he also built a fort complex in Sripur.
Raghunandan Mitra built large mansions, Shiva temples and a Rash Mancha (a hall for Krishna worship during festivals) in Sripur even though he was a follower of Shaktism. From then on, Sripur saw a cultural assimilation of Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism. Raghunandan Mitra died in 1661 Shakabda (c. 1739).
The white, octagonal Rash Mancha he built has nine pinnacles, one in each corner, and a larger central one. During Rash Mela, the presiding deity of the Sripur Mitra Mustafi family, Sri Sri Radha Gobinda Jiu is placed in the Rash Mancha and worshiped. Just beside the Rash Mancha is a triple-arched dalan temple dedicated to Sri Sri Radha Gobinda Jiu.
Mitra Mustafi Garh, the family house built by Raghunandan Mitra, is near the temple complex and 3 km from the Balagarh railway station. Not far away is a two-storey Dol Mancha, which is crowned by a decorative railing, elegant pillars and decorated arches. The Dol festival is celebrated every year with pomp and show.
Stroll down from the Dol Mancha and you arrive at a Twin Shiv Mandir crowned by a pinnacle. Sadly, attempts at restoration have plastered over the original terracotta work and only some of it remains, on the wall of the shrine.
Further down the road is the main temple complex including the Radha Gobinda Mandir, Atchala Shiva Temple, an octagonal Rash Mancha with nine pinnacles, a nat mandir and the most famous attraction of Sripur, the wooden chandi mandap.
Built by Raghunandan Mitra in 1707, the inner, wooden walls of the chandi mandap are highly ornamental. The decorative work on the pillars and the roof beams is spectacular and bears icons of the Hindu Goddesses, and floral, geometric and figurative designs.
Like the chandi mandap of Ula-Birnagar, the one in Sripur too had a thatched roof that has been replaced by corrugated tin sheets. Durga Puja is held every year in this chandi mandap, which stands in front of a nat mandir with elegant pillars.
Rameshwar Mitra’s fourth son, Anantaram Mitra, arrived in Sukharia-Somra (now in Hooghly district) in 1712 CE. His fourth son, Tilakram Mitra Mustafi, bought land in Sukharia, Punui and Gopinagar from the Burdwan Raj Estate in 1757.
In 1813, Anantaram’s nephew, Bireshwar Mitra Mustafi (son of Shambhuram Mitra Mustafi), erected a three-storey Ananda Bhairavi Temple crowned by 25 pinnacles. The temple’s architecture is unique as there are only five Panchabingshati (25-pinnacled) temples in Bengal. The first level of the temple is crowned by three pinnacles at each of the four corners (3 x 4 = 12); the second level is crowned by two pinnacles at each of the four corners (2 x 4 = 8); and the final level is crowned by one pinnacle at each of the four corners (1 x 4 = 4) along with a central pinnacle (12 + 8 + 4 + 1 = 25).
The idol of Anandamoyee Kali is worshiped in this temple, whose reflection is clearly visible on the waters of a huge lake. The temple once had spectacular terracotta work but many of the panels have been lost in the course of time. The main Ananda Bhairavi Temple is flanked by two parallel rows of six temples each. Five temples in each row are eight-sloped atchalas and one temple on in each flank is a five-pinnacled pancharatna. This temple complex has undergone repeated renovation.
A stone’s throw from the Ananda Bhairavi Temple is Radha Kunja, the huge mansion of the Mustafi family here. The great-grandson of Shambhuram Mitra Mustafi, Ramjiban Mitra Mustafi, built this palace, which is now crumbling. The huge columns and stucco on its walls are only vestiges of their former glory. Legendary filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s film Akaler Sandhane (1980) featured a ruined Radha Kunja and a spectacular 25-pinnacled terracotta temple.
Ratneshwar Mitra Mustafi established a mahishasura mardini idol of Devi Durga named Shivmohini made of ashtadhatu or eight metals, which is quite unique in India. The Devi Durga idol is worshipped twice daily, without Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartick and Ganesh. Durga Puja is performed here, every year, following the Vaisnav rituals. Next to the idol of Shivmohini is an idol of Sri Sri Radha Gobinda Jiu, carved out of touchstone or kasthi pathar. Previously, Radha Gobinda Jiu resided in a temple behind the thakur dalan.
Another spectacular temple named Hara Sundari Temple was built by Ramnishi Mitra Mustafi, a son of Tilakram Mitra Mustafi, in 1814. Unlike the Ananda Bhairavi Temple, this shrine has nine pinnacles and is flanked by two parallel rows of seven temples each. Just beside the Hara Sundari Temple are an orphanage and a charitable health centre run by the Mitra Mustafi family.
Walking distance from the Hara Sundari Temple is another dome-shaped temple with nine pinnacles, called the Nistarini Temple built Ramnishi Mitra Mustafi’s nephew, Kashigati Mitra Mustafi, in 1847. There was once a nat mandir next to the temple but it is now in utter ruin. This is not all. Sukharia-Somra was home to several mansions, thakur dalans, more temples and other religious structures built by the Mitra Mustafi family but these have not stood the test of time.
Good times last only so long and, as happens with most prosperous families, the Mitra family too went into decline. Many branches died out, some members migrated from their native villages and some prospered. Inevitably, the glory days can be savoured only through the souvenirs these families leave behind and, in the case of the Mitra Mustafis, we have not one but three Bengali hamlets to remind us of those glory days.
LHI Travel Guide
From Kolkata, the most convenient way to reach these hamlets is via local train. It is a roughly two-hour journey. No direct buses are available from Kolkata.
Ula Birnagar: The nearest railhead is Birnagar railway station on the Ranaghat-Krishnanagar line in Nadia district. The village is 81 km north of Kolkata in the Sealdah railway division. From Birnagar railway station, local conveyance is available to reach the Mitra Mustafi House.
Sripur: The nearest railhead is Balagarh railway station, which is well-connected from Howrah Junction (65 km) via the Howrah-Katwal local train. Cycle rickshaws are available to reach Sripur Bazar.
Sukharia-Somra: Take the Howrah-Katwal local train and alight at the Somra Bazar railway station (67 km from Howrah Junction). Then take an autorickshaw or a cycle rickshaw to reach Sukharia-Somra, which is 5 km by road from Sripur Bazar. The temples are located close to each other and can be easily accessed on foot.
Sk. Abdul Amin is a research scholar and visiting faculty at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is a travel writer and heritage enthusiast with an interest in history through the lens of art, culture and religion.