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Art and Architecture of the Temples of Baronagar, Murshidabad

Shyamal Chatterji

Mechanical Engineer and Researcher on Hindu Iconography


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 It was a pleasant morning in February 2010 when we visited the Baronagar temples. A couple of hours of boat-journey along the Ganges brought us from a ‘ghat’ near Hazardurai, Lalbagh to that of Baronagar. After a short climb to the shore, the magnificent sight of neatly kept four-temples complex—famously known as ‘Char Bangla’—came into our view. More were to follow.

Baronagar temples were built under the patronage of Rani Bhavani of Natore, now in Bangladesh. Rani Bhavani was a personality to reckon with in 18th century Bengal. The few temples which survived ravages of time stand out as a reflection of her achievements among the best ones of Bengal. It is said that Rani Bhavani wanted to build 108 temples here at Baronagar on the shore of the Ganges to lift the status of this settlement to that of Varanasi. She stopped at 107; I have not heard any story about the reason. Was it financial? Or, she felt Varanasi’s stature should not be breached or even equaled. Researchers about Rani Bhavani’s life may have the answer.

Among the major surviving temples here, we found that five temples are in ‘good’ condition–very likely because of restoration efforts of ASI and CAST. Bhavaniswar temple is in ‘average plus’ state whereas a smaller temple just opposite to this temple with commendable work is dilapidated. Three temples have major work of terra cotta and two temples have major work of lime mortar. A few among the terra cotta wall-reliefs are quite well-known, whereas some others have not received much recognition. The lime & mortar reliefs have not yet been published much in the web.

It will be my endeavour to present a fair section of good artwork from our collection of photos. One point I want to emphasize on: during the 2010 visit, I noted that the wall-reliefs in lime and mortar were not properly cleaned, thus reducing their appeal to viewers. But to discerning visitors, who collect photos of temple art of India seriously, these wall-reliefs are invaluable.  There are a few more temples at Baronagar—no significant art-work can be found and no genre could be traced.

There was one very noticeable trend among the team of artists Rani Bhavani engaged. They often presented work of art with a ‘different’ view point.  These temples are more than a century younger than Shyam-Raya or Jor-Bangla temples – there was a noticeable effort to stand out from predecessors in Bankura and Bansberia or a contemporary temple in Rajsahi. The prominent examples are the wall-reliefs on the very first temple of ‘Char Bangla‘ complex. “Last prayer of Ravana” is the most famous among the wall-reliefs of Baronagar. Here we see Ravana occupying the right half of the ‘canvas’, whereas Rama and Lakshmana share the left half with others. We also see adult Krsna in a combative mood slaying Kubalayapeerh. I have not come across any above-the-arches display where Krsna-in-combat has been depicted. Krsna’s defense against Kansa’s demons during his childhood at Vrindavan—as given in the 10th canto of SrimadBhagavat—is most common and it has been presented in smaller wall-reliefs. Presence of ‘Shaktas’ among the team is very evident from a wall-relief showing huge ‘Kali in battle’  on an arch and from numerous smaller ‘Shakti’ wall-reliefs in both the terracotta temples in ‘Char Bangla’ complex.

The lime and mortar wall-reliefs in the left hand temple of this complex present a large ‘Kurukshetra’ scene above one of the arches—again very uncommon on a temple of Bengal. Above the other two arches, we find ‘Kali in battle’ as well as scenes from the Ramayana.  These works are interesting for study in aesthetics. The lines of the figures on this temple are so unique that even a common Radha-Krsna scene looks interesting and very different from those in terracotta wall-reliefs.

The terra cotta temple opposite to this one has many interesting works too. So has the small Gangeswar temple – an exquisite example of Jor-bangla construction. This temple, in a cluster with other smaller ones, is a distance away. One has to go past Bhavaniswar temple and Baronagar residence of Rani Bhavani— now dilapidated and partly occupied by her descendents. Perhaps it was not as large and elegant as her residence at Natore. Coming back to Gangeswar temple, I shall mention that the space above the arches have no scenes from mythology – only horses and designs. This is quite in contrast to the Char-Bangla temples.  But the temple’s pillars have details of Krsnaleela and Ramayana which deserve one full article.

The tall lime and mortar Bhavaniswar temple is remarkable for two reasons. The roof of this octagonal temple looks like an inverted lotus and it has a corridor, decorated with large floral motifs, around the inner sanctum. There are figures on the space above the arches too; these may be interesting to historians, but they cannot be reckoned among the best work of art at Baronagar.

Before I round up the presentation on the temples of Baronagar, I must add highlights of Rani Bhavani’s life and achievements. She was born on 1716 AD and died on 1795 AD when she was 79 years old. She was married to Raja Ramakanta, ‘zamindar’ of Natore of Rajshahhi district, now in Bangladesh. She became a widow at 32. She ran her ‘zamindari’ smoothly, handling her relationship with East India Company well, with able assistance of her Dewan Dayaram. She was a person of austere habits. Her philanthropic activities earned her a good name. She and Rani Ahalyabai Holkar are remembered with respect till date for their patronage to Varanasi. The traders’ town Azimgunj got a prominent place in the archeological map of Bengal because of her developing this one to temple town Baronagar.

 Notes

  1. Ziagunj and Azimgunj are now well-connected with Calcutta by rail. Berhampore is more well-known to tourists for night-halt not only for rail connection but also because it offers good options of  hotels.
  2. My suggestion is Manjusha Hotel at Lalbagh right on the bank of the Ganges. Close to Hazarduary and an active ‘Ghat’, one can cover a lot from this hotel.

 References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rani_Bhabani,

http://murshidabad.net/history/places-topic-places-zone-four.htm http://www.banglapedia.org/httpdocs/HT/R_0124.HTM .

 Shyamal Chatterji is an Engineer by profession from IIT, Kharagpur (Mechanical Engineering, 1968). Presently, he is retired from professional life. He is now working on the iconography of terracotta temples of Bengal. He is also associated with PANIIT and actively supports the IITians for ITI Project. His works can be viewed in: http://przmm.blogspot.com, http://tctob.blogspot.com & http://hubpages.com/shyamchat. Email: shyamalchatterji@gmail.com

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