Deep in the forests of Jharkhand in Dumka district, the heart of the Naxal insurgency hit region of India, you will find the extraordinary terracotta temple complex of Maluti. Dating back to the 17th century CE, this complex of 72 terracotta temples is all that remains of an old dynasty that once ruled here. As always there is a story behind this town and temple complex. It revolves around a small boy who lived here, over 500 years ago.
The region around the tiny village of Maluti, in the Santhal Pargana region on the Jharkhand-West Bengal border, has been a popular spot for human habitation for millennia. Stone tools from the Paleolithic period (2.6 million to 10,000 years) have been found in the riverbed of the local Chila River which flows through the village and marks the border between Jharkhand and West Bengal. Sadly, no systematic excavations have been carried out in the area and the conflict here, isn’t helping.
What we do know comes from much later times. In the 15th century, this area was under the rule of the Sultanate of Bengal. According to folklore, Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah of Bengal (1494-1519) was hunting in the area, when his pet falcon (Baj) got lost. A local lad named Basanta Roy caught the falcon and returned it to the Sultan. As a mark of gratitude, the Sultan gave the areas around Maluti to the lad and he went on to become famous as Raja Baj Basanta. His descendants ruled the area for several generations, with Maluti as their capital.
Between the 17th to 19th centuries, the Baj Basanta royal family built a complex of 108 Terracotta temples. The use of terracotta was common in the region as the network of rivers and distributaries here ensured that clay was readily available, while stone was almost absent. Sadly, over the centuries, as the family’s fortunes fluctuated, as many as 36 of these temples collapsed with no money to mend them. Only 72 temples survive today and are in various states of disrepair.
The most important temple is that of Goddess Mauliksha, the chief deity of the royal family. Interestingly, while the goddess is worshipped as a form of Durga, there is no reference to a Goddess named Mauliksha in Hindu texts. This has led experts to believe that she may have been originally a tantric Buddhist goddess. The Vajrayana or Tantric form of Buddhism was prevalent in the region till the 15th century, and over time, Goddess Mauliksha may have been incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. The deity does not have a body, only a red-coloured head sculpted out of laterite stone fixed on the temple wall.
Experts believe that Maluti may have been an important Hindu/Buddhist tantric center, as there also is an important shrine of Bhairava, a wrathful form of Shiva. He too plays an important role in tantric tradition. There is also a temple dedicated to Bamakhepa (1837-1911), considered to be one of the greatest Tantric masters of Bengal. Apparently, Bamakhepa stayed in the temple of Mauliksha and performed sadhana or penance, to achieve tantric powers. His trident is still worshiped at the site.
The rest of the temples in the complex are dedicated to Kali, Vishnu, Shiva and other Hindu deities. These terracotta temples have reliefs from the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as scenes of daily life.
The temples of Maluti were unknown to the outside world till 1979, when the first report on them was published by AK Sinha, the Director of Archaeology, Government of Bihar. However, sadly due to their inaccessibility and the violence in the region there temples haven’t got the attention, other terracotta temples like those in Bishnupur in Bengal have got.
For the last few decades, a local villager, Gopaldas Mukherjee, an ex-serviceman, has been a lone crusader trying to preserve these temples. Now in his 80s, he has written two books on the subject and he has spent the money he earned as royalties, in maintaining the temples. In 2003, he was joined by Krishnendu Bandopadhyay, a journalist, who started an NGO to raise awareness about this complex and collect funds for its restoration.
While the work done has got recognition – with the Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubir Das, even honouring Mukherjee for his efforts in 2015 and the Jharkhand state showcasing the terracotta temples of Maluti in its official tableau at the 66th Republic Day parade, a lot more needs to be done.
The wave of the radical left wing naxal led violence has hurt Maluti and the fabulous temples here. It is a pity that despite all the hard work done to restore these jewels of architecture, they remain hidden, in an inaccessible corner of Jharkhand.
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