Ambika Kalna: Terracotta Temples of Burdwan

By: Rajesh K Singh
Ambika Kalna is a small town in West Bengal, made famous by its terracotta temples which are devoted to the gods and goddesses of Indian mythology. The various sculptures etched in terracotta synthesise a wide range of indigenous architectural forms of the Bengal country side.

Located in Burdwan district, about 75 kms north of Kolkata, Kalna is one of the very few places where a wide variety of terracotta temples can be seen. As per several historical sources the town takes its name after Goddess Ambika Siddheswari – one who fulfils the cherished desires. The composite nomenclature is ‘Ambika-Kalna’.

Kalna’s location on the bank of river Hooghly had led to its development as an important port. Its location enroute to the holy cities of Puri, Varanasi and Prayag (Allahabad) further helped the town to become a pilgrimage centre. The port of Kalna gained importance during the 15th and 16th centuries and retained its dominant position as long as the river served as the only channel of communication and trade. With the introduction of railways in the 19th century the importance of Kalna as a port declined. However, its remarkable brick and laterite temples have ensured that it retains a permanent place of prominence on the pilgrim and tourist map of India.


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Terracotta Temples

The temples of Kalna were built between 1739 and 1849 by the royal families of Burdwan. These temples showcase a sublime synthesis of a wide range of indigenous architectural forms highlighting the art of the country side of Bengal. Since Bengal’s Gangetic basin is bereft of stone, to make the bricks used in the temples the artists seem to have been creatively motivated to use the locally available red laterite soil – Kalna is no exception. The ingenuity and experimentation is reflected in the temple architectural styles characterised by the top structures namely, Deul, Ratna and Chala (sloping roof surfaces). The walls consist of moulded baked clay panels with geometrical patterns, floral decorations, war scenes, lifelike portrayals of people, everyday life of the then contemporary society and scenes from mythological episodes especially the Mahabharata and Ramayana. These miniature masterpieces highlight the various religious and art influences that entered Bengal at different times. Following are some of the significant temples:

Lalji Temple: One of the most important and popular temples, it is dedicated to Lord Krishna. Built in 1739 by Rani Brojo Kishori, this is also the oldest of the terracotta temples at Kalna. The component parts, a natamandapa, dancing hall, and a mountain like temple known as Giri Govardhana Temple are enclosed by a rectangular wall. The shikhara, spire, consists of a four storied structure with panchavimshati (25) ratnas, ornate spires. These twenty five spires are arranged in four successive levels of 12, 8, 4 and 1, imparting the structure a unique architectural style.

Krishna Chandraji Temple: The Krishna Chandra temple towards the southeast was completed in 1752. This temple too has its panchavimshati ratnas. It has an elongated Chala type front veranda with three arched entrances. The embellished façades and pillars depict the legends of Krishna.

The cornices projecting above the walls of both Lalji and Krishna Chandra temples are decorated with floral motifs, stucco of human figures, scenes from everyday life, hunting and fighting. The corners have warriors riding different animals and engaged in fights with beasts. With the exception of these two temples devoted to Radha-Krishna, others are dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Panchratna Temples: This is a group of five small temples of differing sizes, arranged in a linear pattern. As the eight roof surfaces of each temple are arranged in two vertical layers of four sloping sides, these temples are known as the Aath, eight, Chala temples. Set on low plinths with sloping curved roofs, these temples look like the beautifully proportioned huts of erstwhile Bengal villages.

Dolmancha and Pratapeshwar Temples: A roofless brick built ras-mancha stands near the Lalji Temple. It is an imposing octagonal structure used for organising religious ceremonies before and during the Doljatra or as it is more commonly known Holi. The Pratapeshwar temple is located within the same premises and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Smaller in size and built in 1849, the temple is raised on a high platform and is one of the finest specimen of the single tower shikhara style temple in Kalna. The temple has four arched doorways, one of which provides entry to the sanctum. The four arches have themes from the Hindu mythology adorning them, including the figures of Durga, Sita-Rama and Radha-Krishna.  This temple is adorned with terracotta tiles of exquisite beauty portraying a variety of human figurines in different moods and postures, events from the epics and scenes from daily life.

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The ingenuity and experimentation is reflected in the temple architectural styles characterised by the top structures namely, Deul, Ratna and Chala.

Nabo Kailash Mandir

Close to Pratapeshwar Temple, there is a group of temples known as Nabo Kailash, built in 1809. The sanctum of each temple houses a Shiva lingam. There are a total of 108 Shiva shrines arranged in two concentric circles. The outer circumference contains 74 temples while the rest are part of the inner circumference. Such an arrangement is a rarity in temple art in India. The temples face inwards and because of the architectural style present an interesting interplay of light and shade.

Ambika Kalna temples represent an artistic synthesis of the various traditions which were popular in north India particularly in Bengal and Orissa in the past. The temples are now cared for by the Kolkata circle of the Archaeological Survey of India as national monuments of importance.

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