Temple Terracotta

Discussed here is the Hat tala temple in Ilambazar in Birbhum district of West Bengal. When it was constructed it was located right at the centre of the main market or hat of Ilambazar, an intrinsic part of the existence of the locals, but since the town has spread over the years it is no longer in the central position of the town. A temple built with much devotion and love it now lies neglected and in a dilapidated condition with cobwebs all over it. 

The Ilambazar hat tala temple, similar to terracotta temples in West Bengal, has beautiful terracotta ornamentation all over it in the form of plaques and each plaque has a different set of images on it. A unique feature of all the terracotta temples is that not one plaque will be similar to the other; the images will all be different. Birbhum district is dotted with a large number of such terracotta temples, smaller and larger, and they are all presently in similar or worse states of disrepair and anonymity. 

Ilambazar is a strategically important town as it is located on the bank of the river Ajoy, twelve miles southwest of Santiniketan, Tagore’s ‘Abode of Peace’. Due to its location near the river it was once a prosperous village noted for indigo factories, brass and lac work, and with a huge population, but now it is almost deserted. There are seven temples in Ilambazar, though terracotta is found on only three. This hexagonal temple, situated in the Hat-tala bazaar, was possibly never completed as its roof and dome are now covered with corrugated iron turrets and does not display the construction of any roof. On the walls are innumerable terracotta panels, depicting gods and goddesses, Europeans, animals, soldiers marching and riding, and numerous decorative motifs. Most of these plaques are damaged and crumbling and there seems to be no effort at either conserving or maintaining it. 

Temples with terracotta plaques as surface ornamentation is unique to Bengal, such ornamentation has not been found in any part of India.  The material used for these plaques was the soft and malleable clay from the beds of the river Ganges, probably the most easily available material for temple construction. 
The clay used in temple construction in Birbhum district is brownish in colour, which is why the temples have taken on a different hue. This clay was often mixed with fine sand and bits of laterite and sometimes with mashed jute for better binding for executing larger pieces of terracotta else the panels would not hold any ornamentation and break off with time. 

The most intriguing feature of these terracotta temples has not only been in terms of the origin of their designs and motifs on the plaques but their whole conception and execution. 

The craftsmen involved in the construction and ornamentation of the terracotta temples were part of a guild led by a master craftsman called Sutradhar. He was expected to take collective responsibility of the guild for the construction of a temple when it was commissioned. The main function of this group was actually story telling, whether it was from the Puranas, Epics or legends and myths. They were experts in narrating and telling these stories in any form and media - like painting through patachitra, like theatre and live performances through yatra (drama), like musical recitals through kirtan or though the more concrete and solid medium of temple building. The guild would move from village to village with their Sutradhar and take up a variety of projects; they would stay in that village till the temple was constructed and the patron was satisfied and then leave when their task was complete. 

Most of the terracotta temples of West Bengal belong to the 18th century, when the local landlords, zamindars, merchants, manufacturers, agents of traditional landlords, or officers of local governors and businessmen who mainly belonged to the lower sections of society gained wealth and prosperity due to increased trade relations with the Portuguese, French, Dutch and the British. This new economic class of people actively indulged in the act of temple building not only as an act of piety but in addition to further and consolidate the proof of their newfound status. 

The predominant themes in the terracotta temples are stories, incidents, episodes and myths from Lord Krishna’s life and the Mahabharata. Other gods and goddesses are also featured in their popular iconographic context like Durga as Mahisashurmardini in a big plaque in this temple but various aspects of Krishna’s life dominate. This can be attributed to the importance of Gauriya Vaishnavism that swept through Bengal during the 16th and 17th centuries and became an intense religious movement that had followers from different strata of society, especially the lower castes, including the tribal population. 

Most temples in Birbhum are dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu, though later due to the strong presence of the Tantric cult many places of worship sprang up that were dedicated Tantric centres. These temples were not only built and patronised by local zamindars and Brahmins, but several affluent sections of the local population like Kayasthas, jewellers, betel leaf growers, lac traders, coal merchants, distillers and sellers of wine, people from all walks of life. 

The terracotta plaques found in the temples, of Birbhum and other places, also give an insight into the customs, manners and costumes of the men and women during the 18th and 19th centuries. These temples serve as an extensive visual archive and we can make out that the women wore ghaghra, choli and odhni and various styles of saris, the men wore turbans, kundals (earrings), coats and paduka (shoes), the angira or angavastra, dhoti and chaddar (the court dress during the last 300- 400 years). It is very interesting to note that in spite of the strong religious context in which these plaques were created social themes were also portrayed, even in a comical note at times, and we do not come across objections or taboos on these. There was a gracious amalgamation of both the religious and social themes. Since some Europeans stared living in Ilambazar, Suri, Surul and Gunutia in Birbhum the temple terracotta depict scenes of European life in Bengal too.