Shrines by potters

Shrines by potters

The exquisite temples are gifts of the river. We didn’t know this at first, but it emerged very soon after we landed. No, we didn’t fly in and touch down in Kalna.

It doesn’t have an airport. We arrived in a much more traditional, far more romantic way: on RV Sukapha, a cruise ship of the Assam Bengal Navigation Company. We anchored on the broad stream of the Ganga, boarded our towed-along tender and landed on a riverine ghat.

People bathed and washed their clothes, as they have been doing for millennia. Some clambered up the water-glistening steps and worshipped in a small temple. The shape of the temple caught our eye. It was petite, rising in domes like inverted cupcakes. There was a certain evanescent delicacy about it, as if, at the next gust of river breeze, it would rise and float away.

We perched in our convoy of cycle rickshaws and, to a chiming of bells, rolled through the town. Then we alighted at a walled complex of temples and realised that delicacy and buoyancy were the hallmark of this architecture. All the temples rising out of the immaculate, green grounds of this complex seemed to be on the verge of soaring away.

Use of river clay

They were the famed terracotta mandirs of Bengal. Faced with a shortage of stone and wood, the ingenious Bengalis had decided to craft their shrines from the clay of the river: washed, strained, refined and purified during its long journey from the high Himalayas. These temples had been fashioned by potters, baked in their kilns and emerged permanently, glowing with the fires that had created them.

The Pratapeswar Temple was a fine example of their unusual style. It rose atop a plinth in a single sikhara tower like a rocket poised to launch. But though the surface of a space vehicle is frictionless-smooth, every millimetre of this conical tower was richly embellished with raised designs. It was clear to us that the ingenious potter-architects of Bengal had built the structure of brick and had then carefully crafted decorative clay panels, fired them and very meticulously fitted them together like the pieces of an intricate jigsaw.

They were not only objects of art, they were also illustrations of the epics, legends and folklore of our 5,000-year-old Indic civilisation.

We photographed a grandfather and grandson emerging from the temple and wondered if they were aware of the iconic significance of the shrine.

Religion and culture have always been conjoined twins. The pillared Ras Mancha, a short distance down the road, was a stage for religious festivities, displays of household deities brought out for public worship, re-enactments of the deeds of divine and semi-divine beings, even dramatised recitations of scriptural tales.

Said one of our fellow passengers, “Much like the morality plays of medieval Europe.” Then she added unhappily, “But, we’ve forgotten our roots.” Our roots were again enhanced in the walled complex of the Lalji Temple.

These were Vishu shrines with one temple built to illustrate Lord Krishna holding up a mountain to protect his devotees from a deluge. Stylistically, it seems to be built much after the decline of the delicate terracotta style. Perhaps, later generations needed a more overstated expression of religious beliefs, a sort of heavy metal version of religious art.

The Lalji temple further in the complex was again full of grace and lightness, rich with terracotta panels, including one showing a lancer attacking a deer. “What does that signify?” we were asked. “Incisive thought lancing frivolity,” we said hurriedly and felt we had been inspired.

Clearly, however, the creators of many of the terracotta temples were inspired by the bamboo architecture of Bengal’s village huts. Their curved roofs supported by flexible bent bamboos were replicated in the so-called ‘Bengal dome’.

Sanctified temple

Even the soaring Krishna Chandraji revealed this influence. It seemed fitting that such an essentially feminine architectural style should be sanctified by an image of Radha and Krishna.

Their eternal romance is one of the most human love stories found in any religious literature, anywhere in the world. It has also been interpreted as the all-encompassing spiritual involvement that mankind should have with its creator.

Such a relationship is captured in a completely different way in the complex of 108 Shiva shrines built across the road from the terracotta temples. Even the generally matter-of-fact descriptive board of the Archaeological Survey of India said that these brick temples were made out of an auspicious numerical combination in two concentric circles and dedicated to Siva. The temples represented beads in a rosary symbolically.

The shrines have 74 outer shrines encircling 34 inner ones. For the average worshipper these are just another array of places of worship, but we believe that their builder, the 19th-century Maharaja, Teja Chandra Bahadur, had access to knowledge that was only recently rediscovered by Western scientists.

Beads are common to many religions, and these repetitive prayers have the effect of insulating the mind from sensory inputs. Moreover, the Shivlings in the outer circle are successively black and white.

Black & white concept

The inner ones are only white. This succession of light and dark shrines acts like the compulsive visual stimulus of a strobe. People driving on a road with evenly placed trees or posts giving a regular pattern of light and shade have been known to fall into a semi-hypnotic sleep. The inner circle of white shrines then gives the final burst of illumination. Has this happened to anyone? We don’t know. But the similarity between observed phenomena and the sequence of these 108 shrines seems too close to be a coincidence.

Or, perhaps, our own perceptions have been heightened by a long and close encounter with the world’s most hallowed river. Like the terracotta temples, this too could be a gift of the Ganga.

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