By Monidipa Dey
Various murtis found from different parts of West Bengal, temples illustrations in manuscripts (two Buddhist manuscripts), and mentions of temples in 2 inscriptions (ref: Akshaykumar Maitreya, ed., Gauralekhamala, 1919) show beyond any doubts that once the landscape of West Bengal was dotted with a large number of temples that were dated from the Gupta era to the Sena period. There are also mentions of these temples in the travel accounts of
the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang or Yuan Chwang, who recorded seeing more than 300 temples while travelling in Bengal. In his travel notes Xuanzang says that he saw 100 temples in Pundravardhana, 100 in Samatata, more than 50 in Tamralipta, and 50 in Karnasuvarna, which were names of the different kingdoms existing in Bengal from ancient times. Unfortunately, very little of these temples now remain, and except for few extant structures that are seen mostly in the peripheral part of south-western Bengal, structural evidences of pre-Islamic era temples in West Bengal are a sad story of ruined structures, often reduced to just the plinths, walls, or basement remains. In fact, many of these temples have come to light only after various ancient mounds or dhipis were excavated that had preserved their remains under the ground.
What remained above the ground in fairly preserved conditions were the Bhakti movement era temples that were built post 15 th c. CE, and these were very different from the ancient-medieval Gupta-Pala-Sena era ones, in terms of art and architecture. As understood from the manuscript illustrations, the temples which were seen during Pala and the Sena periods were of many types.
Among these, the best extant example of the temple type showing a tiered superstructure surmounted by a curvilinear shikhara, is the Siddhesvara temple at Barakar, usually referred to as Temple IV of Barakar (Burdwan) in archaeological records.
Siddhesvara temple at Barakar
The Siddhesvara temple at Barakar is placed at 8 th c. CE (early Pala era) and shows a modest tri-ratha (actually depicting a transition from tri-rath to pancha-ratha) structure rising to a height of 36.5 feet. The shikhara is divided into seven planes (or bhumi) as clearly evidenced by the six bhumi-amlakas that mark the planes. The
shikara shows ornamentations carved in shallow relief. The most interesting aspect of the Siddhesvara temple, however, are its several aspects that tend to resemble some of the temple features seen in Odisha, Gujarat, Kathiawar, and Rajasthan. The similarities between this temple and Parasuramesvara temple (Odisha) are in
the temple plan, the broad vertical divisions of the temple body, and positioning of miniature temples on the walls. On the other hand, the rectangular offsets on its base mouldings and the amalakas of this temple with their concave indentations are similar to some temples seen in Gujarat and Rajasthan (Osian).
The temple shows a garbagriha (sanctum) holding a shivlinga, and antarala (vestibule), while the ruined mandapa was later rebuilt. At the edge of the neck of the shikhara there are four lion figures placed as four corner projections. Though the walls of the temple lack ornamentation, there are pretty votive chaityas near the bottom;
while the shikhara shows some carved panels, depicting various figures, generally from the epics and puranas (dasavataras, stories associated with Shiva), and other non-celestial figures such as apsaras, gandharvas, etc. The temple sukhanasa has a relief of Lakulisa with his disciples, thus showing the Saivite nature of the
Travel tips: Barakar is around 275 km from Calcutta, and if travelling by train, it is the station just after Asansol. A road journey takes around 6 hours to reach Barakar, while a train journey takes around 4 and 1/2 hours to reach. Besides the Barakar temple complex, which has three other later period temples, nearby is the Kalyaneswari temple which also makes for a good visit. The Maithan dam is also nearby and definitely worth a visit. Asansol has many good hotels where one can stay the night.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)