“Char chak, chodda para, tin ghat; ei neye Rajbalhat” (four crossing, fourteen localities and three bathing areas; consists of Rajbalhat) goes an old saying. Today Rajbalhat is a non descriptive town in the Jangipara block of Hooghly district but its history dates back to the 16th century when it was the capital of the Bhursut (Bhurishrestha) Empire.
The 16th century temple housing the idol of Devi Rajballavi, after whom Rajbalhat is named, can still be seen to this day but sadly the temple has been renovated several times and in the process wiping out centuries of history.
The strange idol of Rajballavi, about six feet in height, is white in colour and his left leg rests on the head of seated Birupakha Mhadev and right leg rest on the chest of Mahakal Bhairab. The right hand has a dagger while the left a sindoor case. The temple is still active and devotees from the surrounding region converge to Rajbalhat to pay tribute to the Goddess. Rajbalhat also houses a couple of terracotta temples and offers an interesting mix of pilgrimage and history, ideal for your next Sunday gateway.
Haripal is the nearest rail head and the morning Tarakeshwar local is the best way to get there. From Haripal a bumpy ride on an overcrowded trekker takes you to Rajbalhat. Get down at the Rajbalavi temple complex. Built by Raja Rudranarayan of Bhursut the Rajballavi Temple complex also houses four shiva temples, one of which is octagonal in shape. Sadly the entire complex has undergone several renovations and has lost all trace of its 500 years of history. But the strange idol of Devi Rajballavi, still reminds one of the historic days of the temple. The temple is still active and pujas can be offered.
Bidding farewell to the Rajballavi Temple Complex head for Silpara, housing another temple complex. This temple complex houses several temples but the star attraction is the 1724 built terracotta temple of Sridhar Damodor. The front faced of the temple is covered with intricate terracotta works. Sadly the overenthusiastic locals have given it a multi coloured facelift and in the process partially destroying the century old art. The terracotta panels consist of war scenes from Ramayana, elaborate images of ships and boats and last but not the least scenes from day to day life.
During the British period Rajbalhat was an important centre of silk industry and in 1789 East India Company set up a Commercial Residency in Rajbalhat. The silk survives to this day and the sound of the hand loams can still be heard in Rajbalhat. Bobbins of thread left to dry are a regular sight.
Take a narrow lane past the temple complex and walk past the textile workshop with its battering loams. Walk past women spinning cotton thread on charka (spinning wheels). The lane meanders on reminding one of North Calcutta or even of Beneras. Finally the lane emerges in Rajbalhat Bazar and a short walk takes you to the grand temple of Radhakanta in Ghataktala.
Built in 1733 the Radhakanta temple stands on a square base of approximately 20 feet length and rises to a height of about 50 feet. The front face consists of elaborate terracotta and luckily the locals have spared them of their bizarre decorative effort. The panels remain in their authentic brick red colour.
The aat chala temple has a triple arched entrance with the arch panels consisting of elaborate battle scenes of Ramayana.
The base panels mainly consist of images of ships & boats and of royal chariots & processions.
Finally it is time for home but if you are still hungry for more do visit the more famous terracotta temples of Aatpur on your way home.
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On 24th December 1886 at Aatpur nine disciples, including Swami Vivkanada, of Shri Ramkrishna Paramhansa took the oath of leaving their families and dedicating their lives for the welfare of mankind. Today the place is marked by a memorial and every year on 24th December devotees from far & wide come here to celebrate the historic occasion.
But the history of Aatpur dates far behind the days of Ramkrishna. Exactly a hundred years before the historic event Krishnaram Mitra, the Dewan of Maharaja of Burdwan, constructed the huge Radhagobinda Temple. The towering aat – chala temple has a triple arched entrance and the entire front face is covered with the finest terracotta.
There are interesting stories about the origin of the name Aatpur. According to some Aatpur was named after the jamindar Atar Khan while other believe the Aatpur is a combination of eight villages of Bhuri Shreshtha kingdom and hence the name Aatpur (or Antpur).
Located about 50 km from Calcutta Aatpur probably has the distinction of housing Calcutta’s nearest terracotta temples.
Although Aatpur is well connected by road and busses are available from Esplanade & Howrah, but for the most comfortable journey it is best to take the morning Tarakeshwar Local. Haripal is the nearest railhead and a short but crowded trekker ride takes you to Aatpur.
The temple was constructed during an important transition period of Bengal history. This period marked the end of Muslim rule and the beginning of European era. The terracotta panels reflect this transition. Apart from traditional panels showing images of Gods & Goddesses, scenes from Ramayana & Krishnalila it also houses a vast number of panels showing European lifestyles. European soldiers with bayonet mounted guns and hunting scenes with dogs are abundant on the walls of the temple.
An elaborate Durga panel complete with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik & Ganesh on the central pillar is the prime attraction of the temple. A panel of royal procession complete with horse drawn chariots, elephants, soldiers and musicians are bound to attract the visitors attention.
The temple complex also houses five Shiva Temples. Built in the late 18thcentury these temples are smaller in size and lack the grace of towering Radhagobinda Temple. Three out of the five temples have only traces of terracotta. The complex also houses an octagonal Rashmancha and a square Dolmancha. Another attraction of the complex is the hay thatched wooden Chandimandap. Built by Krishnaram Mitra the mandap has intricate wood curving on its pillars and ceiling beams.
Ramkrishna Moth is worth a visit. Apart from the Dhuni Mandap, the place where the historic oath taking took place, the math has several other shrines dedicated to Ramkrishna, Sarada Ma and Vivekananda. Aatpur also happens to be the home of Baburam Ghosh (later Swami Premananda), one of the nine disciples of Ramkrishna, who took the holy oath. Several relics from the Ghosh family are also on the display. Sadly photography is strictly banned inside the Ramkrishna Moth, however photography is allowed from ouside the gate.
- Hooghly Jelar Purakirti by Narendranath Bhattacharya.
- Next weekend you can be at … Antpur by Somen Sengupta, The Telegraph
- Links from my website Aatpur Travelogue.
List of my Blog entry on West Bengal