It is a matter of great pleasure that INTACH Santiniketan Chapter has been successful in publishing the documentation of the heritage sites
around Santiniketan, in West Bengal. The book will help give the much needed visibility to these heritage sites and thereby generate concern
amongst our people for their restoration and future preservation.
Santiniketan enjoys a special position in West Bengal. This small university town is a centre for art and culture and attracts students
and tourist not only from other states of India, but from other parts of the world as well. Rabindranath Tagore’s contribution to Bengal’s heritage
has been very significant. Tagore was a leading spokesperson of compassional humanism and culture of not only India but the world as well. His
deep and pervasive sense of the ‘universal’ in thought and culture is reflected in his brainchild: santiniketan. The unique identity of Santiniketan’s
architectural heritage is a reflection of the Poet’s need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’.
Around Santiniketan, the architecture primarily consists of hut-style temples with gabled roofs. The Bengal temples are usually small
in structure and cannot be termed grand, but are rich in their aesthetic appeal. Most of these temples are covered on the outer surface with
exquisite terracotta reliefs. This architectural form is unique to West Bengal and its preservation would be much desired. The 13th century
Muslim influence on the architecture of this region cannot be overlooked either. The extant tombs in Bengal are small in number but show
significant variety and interesting adaptation of the conventional Islamic form to regional tastes and requirements.
Preserving our Monuments is of deep concern to us, as we can then retain the historical and cultural legacy that has been handed down
for centuries. During its 23-year history, INTACH’s mission has grown from preserving architectural heritage to include a broad perspective of
heritage in all its aspect: natural, material, cultural, heritage tourism, advocacy and capacity building efforts to support landmark preservation
activities in over 120 Chapters all over the country and three Chapters abroad. The efforts made by INTACH Santiniketan Chapter in this
direction have been commendable and will serve to inspire future endeavours to preserve our heritage in the region.
From the very beginning of INTACH Santiniketan Chapter, we had wanted to start a project that would locate, identify and list monuments in the
surrounding area as the extant evidence of the cultural heritage that the district of Birbhum in West Bengal has had over hundreds of years. Our
four years (from 2001 through 2004) of search and hard work in the region outlying Santiniketan have eventually paid off. We have succeeded in
preparing this publication containing an array of visual presentation of what we have found, a treasure trove indeed, diligently compiled,
catalogued and written about, for the preservation of the district’s magnificent heritage. It is sad that much of that is now in decay.
INTACH Santiniketan Chapter was founded in August 1988 through the continuing efforts of a formidable band of people from the
area, committed to the task of preservation of heritage and environment. I was then the convener of INTACH Santiniketan Chapter. It is now a
matter of great pride that we have finally succeeded in offering this presentation to you and for posterity as well.
Locations that once housed dominant families, temples, and other places of worship and community activities provide ample evidence
of an artistic craftsmanship of the highest order. They, in fact, are found as far as 120 km from Santiniketan and most of them predate buildings
and sites that have remained hallmarks of Visva-Bharati University located within Santiniketan Ashram. Heritage buildings in Santiniketan
campus area also deserve a special mention for its extraordinary architectural plotting that blends with the ragged contours of arid Birbhum. We
have brought them into this family of overarching illustrations of cultural sites around Santiniketan.
This project led by Shri Subir Adhikari (the then co-convener), garnered active participation from a ground of committed members
who made a significant contribution towards completing this major task.
We can now hope this accomplishment would generate a cultural consciousness among all of us for strengthening a demand for its
Santiniketan is home to a central university founded by Rabindranath Tagore enjoying a culture enriched by Tagore’s presence, which is so alive
in Bengal even today. This small little town with a population of around fifty thousand people, abounds in heritage buildings, open-air sculptures
and mural paintings, which attracts tourists from both India and abroad.
Santiniketan lies in the Eastern part of the district of Birbhum in Bengal, having its own unique identity. The rest of Birbhum is a
treasure trove of terracotta art which is primarily showcased in the innumerable temples that dot the countryside. The history of terracotta craft
can be traced from the Indus Valley culture at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, almost three thousand years before Christ. From the Indus Valley, the
craft spread eastwards and flourished in areas where stone was scarce, like Bengal. Beautiful terracotta craft of the Gupta period have been
discovered in North Bengal, particularly in the Birbhum district. Terracotta craft attained its perfection in Bengal by the middle of the 18th
century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of Siva, Vishnu and Kali temples were built across Birbhum. They are mainly built of brick,
sand and lime plaster, and are of varying sizes. Most of these temples lie in ruins, but in many of them still remain beautiful specimens of baked
clay terracotta depicting figure compositions in decorative panels.
The thousands of terracotta panels found in the derelict temples of Birbhum depict mythological as well as modern scenes. Some of
these panels give an insight into the traditions and manners, costumes and jewelry, even court dresses worn by women and men of the 18th and
19th centuries. In some houses and temples, there are lime plaster figures of animals and birds, damsels, angels and male figures of different
types. Besides these, the craftsmen have touched upon different aspects of human and animal life, as well as ornamental designs of trees,
creepers and flowers. In some temples, European life is also depicted in terracottas. Religion and art rested in the temples and shaped the
character and thoughts of the people.
INTACH Santiniketan Chapter initiated the documentation of the sites in Birbhum in August 2001. A total of 118 sites were
documented by March 2004. This book attempts to give a cursory glimpse of these sites. I felt that folklores and stories associated with some of
the sites, as well as the historical backdrop of this area would enhance the reader’s interest, as well as understanding of this region and its
architecture. The monuments in Santiniketan are enclosed in the first section of the book even though geographically it lies in the eastern part of
Birbhum, primarily because these have a separate architectural identity and could not really be clubbed with the rest. There was an initial
dilemma as to how to sequence the sites in the Eastern, Western and Northern parts of the district: in the chronological order of their date of
construction, or the location of the site with Santiniketan as the point of reference. It was easier to decide on the latter as the date of
construction of many of these sites were often not available and secondly, it would make it easier for the reader who might want to explore this
Birbhum, sandwiched between two important and prosperous districts of Burdwan and Murshidabad, was never a popular destination mainly for
its limited connectivity. It consisted of thick forests infested by wild elephants and other animals, arid laterite and rocky land and the fertile
alluvial riverine plains in the east. The rivers Ajay, Mayurakshi, Kopai and other minor channels sustained ancient Stone Age settlements.
Archaeological remains of dwellings and religious structures, inscriptions and artistic remains from historical periods point to the antiquity of
the land though no clear and continuous history can be formulated, especially for the earlier period. Birbhum was a part of the ancient Rarh
region, later more specifically Uttara Rarh; the dividing line between North (Uttara) and South (Dakshina) Rarh was the river Ajay. Several
villages of Birbhum find mention in early inscriptions, but not any town till the 13th century - indicating late urbanization. In AD 1260,
Minhaj-ud Din Siraj in his Tabakat-I Nasiri described the kingdom of Lakhnauti (Lakshmanavati) which lay on the banks of the river Ganga. The
eastern part was called Raal (Rarh). Lakhnaur being the principal two of that region, has been identified with Nagor near Suri, which later
developed into a fortified city called Rajnagar. Pilgrims, however, flocked to Bakreswar, Tarapith and Kankalitala, Kendubilva and Nannur -
places associated with the great devotee poets, Jayadev and Chandidas.
Rapid changes took place in the 18th century, when the combined forces of the Nawab of Murshidabad and the British army defeated
the Pathan Rajas of Birbhum, who ruled much of the area until AD 1760, and the British started to make inroads. After years of famine,
deprivation and oppression the areas close to the rivers and the fertile plains to the east prospered through the establishment of ‘new industries’
like indigo-and silk-making by the British (and to a lesser extent by the French) and places like Ilambazaar, Surul, Suri, Ganutia and Supur came
into prominence. This led to the growth of a class of affluent landlords, officials and agents in nearby towns and villages who built imposing
pucca mansions and temples for their personal deity. Within a short period, of almost seven decades the whole countryside in eastern and central
Birbhum was dotted with brick temples, embellished with superbly designed terracotta panels-the earliest surviving one is the temple at
Ghurisha, situated between Illambazar and Dubrajpur. With the advent of the Vaishnavs this ancient land of Siva and Sakti worship turned into a
land of happy communion of three principal Hindu cult religions. The terracotta panels on the temples depicted dasamahavidyas of the Mother
Goddess along with dasavataras of god Vishnu, panels from Krishna-lila, Ramayana and Mahabharata along with yakshas, kinnara-kinnaris,
demons and composite figures. Hermits, Yogis, musicians, and European soldiers mingled with women wearing European costumes or village
women busy with their daily chores. Several, temples worthy of mention for their exquisite craftsmanship, are those at Sonatorpara (Suri),
Kalikapur, Itanda and Illambazar. Clay was not the only material used for decoration of the temple, the skilled artisans also tried their hand at
phulpatha, a kind of fine grained, not-too-hard stone, found among Ganpur group of temples.
Maharshi Devendranath Tagore’s choice for a quiet place of worship in the emote gravel land north of Bolpur and not far from the
prosperous settlement of Surul started a new era in this part of Birbhum. He built a house that was named Santiniketan where he could spend
time in peace and harmony and selected the adjacent piece of land to build a Brahmo Mandir. His youngest son Rabindranath completed this task
and started a unique and exclusive school to impart non-formal education to the students. His decision to spend his life in this place and work for
the community transformed the entire character of the area. The tiny school at Santiniketan, and the place acquired its new name, developed into
a sprawling center of learning identified with the unique ideas and universal ideals propounded by Tagore and started attracting visitors from all
over the world. New settlers started flocking to this ‘Adode of Peace’ giving this place a fresh identity.
With improved road, rail and transportation system and a new interest in touring around the countryside, a large number of affluent
and not-so-affluent people from nearby areas have started travelling to Birbhum. People coming to visit Santiniketan or the popular pilgrim
centre of Tarapith, Bakreswar and Joydev are fanning out to the countryside to look at the temples in nearby villages. Unfortunately the temples
once shining like jewels amidst the lush green countryside, have mostly been deserted by their owners who have migrated to cities or lost their
steady income due to changes in the social and economic fabric. Time, vagaries of nature and years of neglect have started taking their toll on
these ancient monuments. In some places even the names of those who commissioned the temple or the deity who adorned the inner chamber
have been forgotten. Vandals, thieves and antique collectors have denuded many of them of their beautiful terracotta panels.
In order to address the problems facing these priceless treasures, the Santiniketan Chapter of INTACH took up the task of closely
looking at the monuments and compiling a basic list before preparing a detailed status report. While doing so it was realized that even this basic
list would be useful not only to the experts but also to the large number of tourists and interested visitors who are keen to visit them and know
more about their history - the basic details of who built them and when, who was responsible for their planning and construction and the story
associated with the site and the deity installed there. The task of making a photographic survey, a with the constraints of time, money and
manpower. Without waiting for a detailed and a perfect monograph it was decided to go with whatever information and photographic record
could be compiled.
The temples of Birbhum has attracted the attention of scholars over a long period of time. The earliest account in L.S.S.O Malley’s
Gazetteer for Birbhum District first published in 1910 still retains its value as a sourcebook. The 1961 District Census Handbook on Birbhum,
essays by David McCutchion, the Lalit Kala Academy portfolio Birbhum Terracottas by Mukul Dey, with many striking photographs (1959), and
the essays and notices by David McCutchion (published in various journals from 1967 onwards), P.C. Dasgupta (1966), Binoy Ghosh, Amiya
Kumar Bandopadhyay (1980), Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal (1963 onwards), Tarapada Santra (1971 onwards), Sukhamoy Bandopadhyay (1984) and the
West Bengal Government publication, Birbhumer Purakiriti, by Devkumar Chakravarti (1972), and many other essays and publications have
focused on them in various ways.
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