Undivided Bengal, often considered to be the richest province in Akhanda Bharat thrived under the patronage of the invaders namely the Delhi Sultanate, Mughals and the British. This province gradually imbibed the culture, language and religious norms of the invaders.
Though the Mughals were less than pleased with Hindus and Hindu kings and went out of their way to desecrate temples and sacred sites, some temples managed to survive the test of time and have more or less been restored to their former glory. The Zamindars who took Bengal to its zenith built opulent mansions, temples and halls contributing extensively to its rich history with the support of royal families, Mughals and the British which have now fallen into a state of disrepair owing to decades of neglect by the descendants of the families and the state government.
An extraordinary example of temple architecture is the lesser-known Chandranath Shiva Temple in Hetampur village in Birbhum district. This stunning jewel has been mentioned in several books written by architects, historians and archaeologists since the late 1800s.
There is a little confusion over who built this temple with some locals saying that it was built in 1847 by Govinda Sundari, sister of Maharaja Ramranjan Chakraborty of the Hetampur Raj family while historians say it was built by Raja Krishnachandra Chakraborty. The octagonal temple with its nine octagonal pinnacles is one of the rarest temple designs found anywhere in India.
The navaratna (nine pinnacles) is fairly common and found in several temples in remote villages in Bengal built by the affluent Zamindars who ruled over those lands but pinnacles shaped as an octagon are highly unusual. Each pinnacle has a figure with its arms positioned to convey some message which no one has been able to decipher yet.
The most striking feature of this temple is the profusely decorated panels on the facades. It is a unique combination of Hindu icons and British figures. The main door has lovely terracotta panels of stories from the Hindu scriptures and Puranas, Lord Krishna, Goddess Durga, Gajalakshmi, floral motifs, creepers and typical horizontal and vertical geometric patterns.
Interestingly, Queen Victoria makes her appearance at the top of the entrance doorway with the Coat of arms of the East India Company being repeated in several panels on the sides of the facades. There are panels with ladies whom historians claim are eminent British personalities, nuns, men in their typical fashionable hats and what appears to be people praying. The terracotta figures of the British are largely a mystery and one can only speculate the purpose of including them in a temple.
There was a rasmancha nearby which has since disappeared. The exterior panels are indeed fascinating and one can spend hours trying to understand the stories narrated by the artisans. This temple sadly is crumbling and is in dire need of government intervention.
This remarkable temple should be preserved for its individualistic style and portrayal of the social life of Bengal in the 1800s. There is not much information about how and why this temple was built in the way it was but one can presume that it was intended to welcome the British to stamp their authority over India.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)