Approach the Bansberia temple complex a short drive from Kolkata and you are struck by the red spires of what appears to be a fairytale castle in the distance. Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, there are 13 spires, conical and sitting atop a white structure, drawing you in to explore a fascinating page from the region’s history.
The Bansberia temple complex is the site of two temples belonging to two wholly dissimilar sects – the pacifist Vaishnavites and the Shakti-Tantric cult – but they have been coexisting peacefully alongside each other for more than a century. To explore them is not only a visual treat but introduces you to a Bengali zamindari family with a twist in the tale.
The temple with the tall spires is the Hanseswari temple dedicated to Goddess Hanseswari-Kali, a favourite of the Shakti cult. It stands cheek-by-jowl with an ancient Vaishnav temple, the Ananta Vasudeva temple. This shrine, a Vishnu temple, is one of the earliest examples of intricately carved Bengal terracotta temples, while its neighbour, the towering five-storey Hanseswari temple, built more than a century later, is made of Chunar sandstone. Historians cite these two structures as significant examples of how temple design evolved over time.
The older of the two, the terracotta Ananta Vasudeva temple, was built in 1679 CE, by Rameshwar Dutta (Roy), a local zamindar (land owner). His father, Raghab Datta Roy, had been appointed as a zamindar by the court of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Rameshwar, a devout Vaishnav, built this temple in the Bengali ek chaala style. That is, it is a ‘hut-roofed’ temple with an octagonal sikhara or central tower. Interestingly, this single tower, that is, ek ratna, or jewel, was an early form of what gradually developed into five towers or panch ratna or more, in later terracotta temples.
Three sides of the temple are decorated with richly carved terracotta panels, depicting scenes from Krishna Lila, gods from Hindu mythology and even the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. From caparisoned horses to swans, peacocks, processions of dancing girls, moustachioed men blowing conch shells, intricate designs and floral motifs – all carved on the temple walls. The two thick pillars forming the triple-arched entrance of the temple are covered with detailed carved panels offering the visitor or devotee visual stories in terracotta.
What is remarkable are the scenes of daily life found in these carvings – palanquin bearers, scenes of royal courts, hunts and musicians.
One panel has a boat decorated with a dragon’s head, while another terracotta panel has men with European top hats! The skill and mastery of the artisans is extraordinary.
Professor of Art and Religion, Pika Ghosh, in her pioneering study “Tales, Tanks and Temples: The Creation of a Sacred Center in Seventeenth-Century Bengal”, (2002) published in the Asian Folklore Studies journal, discusses how Vaishnavism in Bengal resulted in the prolific temple building activity that flourished here. She highlights how temple structures adapt the local tradition of mosque building of their former Islamic Sultanate rulers.
The Ananta Vasudeva terracotta temple, a contemporary of the famous Bishnupur terracotta temples, sports a similar template. Says Describing these Bengal terracotta temples Ghosh says, “The low structure with triple-arched entrance consisting of cusped arches supported on squat faceted pillars, profusion of shallow terracotta surface ornamentation, and the basic plan of a central space enclosed by shallow porches is adapted for the needs of a Hindu temple. The temples also turn to the region’s thatch hut, used previously as a regional marker in mosque construction, to provide a home for Hindu gods.”
It is interesting to note how, from being devout, gentle Vaishnav followers, within three generations, Rameshwar Dutta’s family became Shakti -Tantric worshippers.
They went from building the Vaishnava temple to building an iconoclastic Kali temple within the same precinct, where animals were ritually sacrificed until a decade back!
This change in faith that occurred over a century was primarily due to Rameshwar Dutta’s great-grandson Raja Nrisingha Deb, who spent a long time in Benares and was deeply influenced by and studied Tantric philosophy during his stay there. Returning to Bansberia, the Raja started building the temple in 1801 in the ‘Tantrik Sat Chakra Bhed’ design.
Since he died before the temple was completed, it was finished by his Queen, Rani Shankari, in 1814. According to local lore, Goddess Hanseswari, a form of Kali, appeared in a dream to the Raja and he decided to build a temple dedicated to her.
The presiding deity of the Kali temple is the four-handed Goddess Hanseswari, locally worshipped as a form of Kali. The idol is made of blue, neem wood. Alongside are several Shiva Lingas as well as a rare idol of Shiva.
Significantly, the Hanseswari temple is a unique instance of a temple built aligning with Tantric architectural norms. The design is allegedly based on the sacred architectural designs outlined in the Vastu Shastra. The temple is laid out in the dimensions of the human body with its seven chakras representing microscopic worlds.
Also, the five-storey temple represents the five parts of the human body, according to the Shastras. The most stunning element are the red spires. These 13 spires or ratnas resemble unopened lotus buds. The peak of the highest ratna has a metallic image of the sun inside an eight-petalled yantra representing the Kali Yantra ie. a geometric symbol of Shakti – tantric worship.
Saptarshi Sanyal, professor of architecture and architectural conservation, writing in the journal SPACE (of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi), in a 2016 article titled Cultural Plurality and Innovation in Design of Temples in Bengal – Tradition and Continuity, states: “The Hanseswari temple demonstrates several significant departures from traditional ways of building temples in Bengal. The most visible of them is that of the material—Chunar sandstone, quarried from the vicinity of Varanasi. It also uses the reddish Bhilwara sandstone from Rajasthan. Both these materials are used in highlighting the temple’s central areas, alongside the local brick and lime plaster finish.”
This temple interestingly displays a wide range of influences, especially in the construction of its arches and cornices. The peripheries of its towers have running stone chhajjas, or sunshades, which were commonly seen in Northern and Western India at that time.
Mohini Dutta Ray, a descendant of the Dutta-Roy family, has written about the temple and its pivotal role in her zamindari family. In her dissertation thesis submitted to McGill University, Montreal in 2008 titled “Monumentalizing Tantra: The Multiple Identities of the Hamses’vari Devi Temple and the Bansberia Zamindari”, explores in depth the iconography of the temple, the rituals in worship of the goddess Hanseswari and the Dutta Roy zamindari family’s motivations in particular which led to the building of this iconoclastic Shakti temple in colonial Bengal.
Despite the diametrically different faiths represented by the two shrines in the Bansberia complex, devotees pray at both temples. It’s a tradition that hasn’t changed for decades. The temple complex is undoubtedly a living heritage and is intricately connected to the lives of the locals. The devout flock here in large numbers, especially on festival days like Kali Puja.
Incidentally, the ruins of the ancestral home of this royal zamindari family are visible around the temple compound and only an old mansion, presumably an office block, stands today. Although the Dutta-Roy family no longer exerts the kind of influence they used to, the temple complex keeps them relevant in the lives of the local population.
Kavita Chowdhury is a freelance journalist writing on development, politics, women’s issues and the arts.
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