Telkupi: West Bengal’s Lost Temple Town

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In Purulia district of West Bengal is a magnificent site that never fails to charm those who care to visit. Rising from the shimmering waters of the Damodar River are the spires of two temples, the only survivors of the many shrines that once stood here. This is a remnant of Telkupi, a lost temple town in Bengal.

Of the original 18 temples that once blessed this region, only two are visible, partially-submerged in the river. It is only in the peak of summer, when the waters are low, that the shikhar (spire) of a third temple is visible, in the middle of the waters.

Shikhar of the third temple at Telkupi which is visible only during summer | Photo Courtesy: Tathagata Sen
Shikhar of the third temple at Telkupi which is visible only during summer | Photo Courtesy: Tathagata Sen

History of Telkupi

The early history of Telkupi is steeped in mystery. Many historians believe Telkupi is the ancient capital of the Shikhar kings whose capital was Tailakampi. Historian Nagendranath Basu, in his book Banger Jatio Itihas Rajonya Kanda (History of Bengali People, 1927) states that this area was earlier known as Shikharbhum, and in the 11th century CE served as the capital of a local ruler named Rudrasikhara. Another prominent historian, Niharranjan Ray, dates the reign of Rudrasikhara to 1070 to 1120 CE. Poet Sandhyakar Nandi (c. 1084 - 1155 CE) mentions Rudrasikhara in his epic poem Ramacharitam.

Armenian-Indian engineer and archaeologist Joseph David Beglar, who visited these temples and studied them in great detail, mentions ‘Tailakampi’, along with his findings which he published as Report of A Tour Through The Bengal Provinces (Vol VIII) in 1878. The story goes that a local ruler named Raja Vikramaditya used to come here to rub oil on his body before taking a bath at Chhata Pokhar at Dulmi. The story doesn’t seem to be true simply because the distance from Telkupi to Dulmi is over 80 km.

Local historian Subash Roy, who has researched the built heritage of Purulia, says that ‘Taila’ is a type of tax in Sanskrita and ’Kampa’ is derived from the word ‘Kampan’, which means ‘Pargana’ or a cluster of villages. According to him, ‘Tailakampa’ was the abode of ‘tax-paying regional rulers’.

But who built these temples at Telkupi? And why so many?

 The temple located close to bank of Damodar at Telkupi during monsoon with cattles grazing in the foreground
The temple located close to bank of Damodar at Telkupi during monsoon with cattles grazing in the foreground

Archaeologist Debala Mitra, former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), studied these temples in 1959 and published her findings in her book Telkupi: A Submerged Temple-site in West Bengal. Mitra believes that the Rajahs of Panchet and Kashipur, descendants of the Shikhara Kings, had built the temples.

She adds that she was also told by the locals at Telkupi that a portion of the village “with extensive remains of brick and stone structures, had been known as mahal (palace)”. While this points to the existence of a royal presence here at some point, no such palace or structure survives today.

The temple located close to bank of Damodar at Telkupi during monsoon

On the other hand, Beglar believes that “the temples here were all built by mahajans and merchants, not by Rajahs, and this confirms my inference that the place, as before suggested, rose to importance as it lay on one of the great traffic lines, and at a principal obstacle, viz, the Damuda (Damodar) river.”

If one goes by Beglar’s and Mitra’s theories, Telkupi was an important port town in medieval times, on the banks of the Damodar River. As centuries passed, the town faded into obscurity and was only rediscovered by the wider world through the reports of travellers who passed by. Through these reports, we can see just how much has been lost in the past century alone.

Findings of Joseph David Beglar (1878)

Photographs of temples at Telkupi taken by J.D. Beglar | Wikimedia Commons
Photographs of temples at Telkupi taken by J.D. Beglar | Wikimedia Commons

The earliest among these visitors was Beglar, who first visited Telkupi between 1872 and 1873. Beglar saw three groups of temples at Telkupi. The first and the largest cluster consisted of 13 temples standing on the banks of the Damodar River. He found six temples in the second group along with several stone-built deities but only four of them were worth describing.

In the third group, Beglar found three temples and a brick mound, which he considered to be the ruins of a monastery. He found several stone and brick mounds of rubble scattered around the temple. He took nine photographs of the temples, which is the earliest-known photo documentation of the temples of Telkupi.

Beglar describes a deity worshipped by the local residents, who called it “Birup”, which the archaeologist considered to be that of the 24th Tirthankara – Vira or Mahavira.

List Made by Public Works Department of Bengal (1896)

In 1896, a list of ancient monuments was compiled and published by the Public Works Department of Bengal. The only temples in Telkupi mentioned are the 13 temples of the first cluster described by Beglar. Describing their architectural style, it is said that they are made of large stones cut into perfect shapes and then delicately paired.

Stone deities salvaged from Telkupi site kept at a temple at Gurundi

It was assumed that both the Shaiva and Vaishnava communities built temples here as there are various idols of Shivalinga, Ganesha and Vishnu scattered around. The list also mentions that such a huge cluster of temples like Telkupi is to be found nowhere else in Manbhum district. It adds that the Damodar River is slowly flowing towards the clusters of the temple. One temple after another is crumbling.

Description by T Bloch (1903)

In early 1903, Bengal Circle Archaeological Surveyor, T Bloch, visited Telkupi. He saw only 10 of the 13 temples of first cluster mentioned by Beglar. He did not bother with the temples located outside the first cluster. Bloch considered two temples of very contemporary style where daily worship was performed. These two temples were known as the temples of Bhairabnath and Ma Kali. Bloch mentions that these temples usually have Shivalinga as their deity, but some temples also have the Sun God as the deity.

Visit by Debala Mitra (1959)

When Debala Mitra visited Telkupi in 1959, she saw only five of the 13 temples of the first group described by Beglar. Many, including Mitra, refer to this first group as Bhairabathan. She mentioned that the lower part of these temples is under water all year round. The full appearance of the temples can be seen only in the month of June.

During her second visit, she could see only two temples standing properly. On her first visit, she considered the brick mound mentioned by Beglar as ruins of a temple instead of a monastery. Mitra also saw idols of Vishnu, Ambika and Andhakasur in two temples. She tried to get the statues to a safe place, but was unable to do so due to objections from local boatmen.

The Flooding of the Temples

Why did the temples of Telkupi suffer such a terrible fate?

In 1957, The Damodar Valley Corporation constructed a dam across the Damodar River near Panchet, 9 miles from Telkupi. The waters started engulfing the site of Telkupi and the local villagers reported the matter to the Archaeological Survey of India and requested it to protect the temples.

The temple located close to bank of Damodar at Telkupi post monsoon (Photo courtesy : Tathagata Sen)
The temple located close to bank of Damodar at Telkupi post monsoon | Tathagata Sen

Until 1956, Telkupi was in Manbhum district in Bihar. In 1957, the district of Purulia along with Telkupi were transferred to West Bengal vide Bihar and West Bengal (Transfer of Territories Act) 1956. The West Bengal Government also sought the safety of these temples.

Debala Mitra, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the time, mentions in her book Telkupi: A Submerged Temple-site in West Bengal that “In response to this (request of the West Bengal Government) the Damodar Valley Corporation was requested by the Archeological Survey either to exclude Telkupi from the area to go under water or to postpone the scheme till a thorough documentation of the site was made. But the information was received towards the end of January 1959 that the temples had already been under water and nothing could be done to save them from submergence”.

When Mitra visited the site along with the State Director General of Archeology on 11th February 1959, they found that only the top portion of most of temples were visible and only two complete temples were seen standing. They asked for dewatering the place, which was not possible, and all they could do was document the condition of the temples. By 1960, most of the temples had caved in and were reduced to rubbles before they were completely submerged.

How To Get There

Telkupi is 55 km north-west from Purulia town via Raghunathpur. The most efficient way to get there is by private vehicle as there is no direct bus route. Be warned, the last stretch of road is rough. The deities of temples that could be salvaged are in a small, non-descript temple in the village of Gurundi, which can be visited en route to Telkupi. A bonus: From Lalpur village near Telkupi, you could hire a country boat at a small fee to sail right up to the submerged shrines.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.

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