Beyond Words

By Nandini Chakraborty

Beyond Words - Issue #16 The forgotten village- Terracotta temples of Maluti

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Beyond Words - Issue #16 The forgotten village- Terracotta temples of Maluti
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #16 • View online
Once the thriving capital of a local royal dynasty, the village of Maluti in West Bengal India, once hosted 108 temples in distinct Bengal terracotta style. 72 temples still remain, a testimony to art, culture and heritage, standing precariously on the brink of a black hole where history is lost to indifference.

It was the quintessential village scene in late afternoon. Somewhere in the border of West Bengal and Bihar in India, the peaceful silence denoted siesta time. We asked directions to famed terracotta temples, that we had travelled far to see, from a man washing up at a tube well. He pointed vaguely and nonchalantly somewhere behind him, eyeing us with curiosity and slight amusement. We would have appeared clearly city people in a hired car, come to see the temples in their village. What could be so important about these temples? was question that reflected clearly on his expression.
It was a village with 72 out of an original 108 terracotta temples that I discovered on that wonderful thing called the internet! Having grown up in West Bengal for all my life, the temples of Bishnupur were common knowledge but Maluti was a name that cropped up accidentally. The more I read about it, the more I was intrigued that this seeming treasure trove, easily accessed from Kolkata, was not more popular. It is also close to the famous pilgrimage of Tarapith which is visited by tens of thousands every year and yet many friends and family who had visited Tarapith had not gone the few extra kilometres to visit these intricate temples.
Once a the thriving capital of local royalty in a dynasty set up by the King Baj Basanta, Maluti acquired its flourish of temples in a generation which boasted four princes. Within a single generation the temple count stood at 108, the result of  competition between the brothers, each trying to outdo the other in numbers and intricate quality of temples. The result was four clusters- Rajar bari, madhyam bari, shikir bari and chai taraf- of temples and a raash manch for staging dramas and meetings.
We took the early morning Ganadevata express from Howrah to Rampurhat.
Around 10:15 we reached Rampurhat station- the usual hustle and bustle of a small town Indian station. We had booked ‘Mukherjee Lodge’ over phone, after having located it on the net. A residential building over three storeys with a colourful façade, it was tucked away just a little distance from the main road.
Kanai Banerjee the proprietor also helped us to find a car with a driver-Pintu, who would take us around. That afternoon we set off for Maluti which is only 16 km from Rampurhat.
After half an hour we passed through an abandoned WW II air strip. The car turned from the main road into the old runways before emerging on a red dust road which brought us to Maluti in around another fifteen minutes.
Our first stop was at the temple of Moulikhshya-the dynastic Goddess of the family of Baj Basanta. The image is a red face with a silver crown. She is claimed to be the sister of Mother Tara. The priest confirmed that we would have to go through the clusters of Madhyam Bari, Sikir Bari, Rajar Bari and Chai taraf.
Our proffered guides turned out to be two tongue tied youngsters hardly ten years old. We gave up on help and decided to find our way around ourselves.
The temples are small elongated cuboids, topped by conical roofs which meet at a sharp tip. The interiors are bare and overgrown, approached by a single door. Most of the existing terracotta work lies around the door and the front façade. The themes are the Goddess Durga, Ramayana, the ten Vishnu Avatars and scenes from Bengali life in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Gopaldas Mukherjee, is a retired teacher and once pilot is the lone crusader for the treasures of his village. Now in his late 80s or early 90s he is no longer able to take visitors around and no one appears to have taken up his mantle in showing off what the village holds. There was a greater crowd in the Moulikshya temple then near the terracotta temples.
There were signs of renovation but a passing villager told us that they appear to happen in bursts and spurts.
We spent an hour or so wandering around the cluster of terracotta temples, feasting on the intricately carved scenes. We left with mixed feelings- of discovering a secret but with the heavy apprehension that what is left might be lost in another generation.
(There are a number of net articles on Maluti, most of them done by intrepid travellers in Bengal or academics. This is one of them:
https://sites.google.com/a/sapasagroup.com/sapasagroup1-com/pujo/temple/mouliksha-debi-s-temple–maluti-jharkhand)
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Nandini Chakraborty

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