After traversing through the small lanes that make up the Kanchanpara locality in Bardhaman, Bengal, I came across a wide swathe of open land in the center of which a motley group of boys played a cheerful game of cricket. With no wickets, a single bat & a torn ball, the game progressed as naturally as it would have on the grounds of Eden. The boys, with not a care in the world & immersed in their revelry, were used to the ancient structures that stood around them & once again reminded me that we humans do not value what we have close to us. As Rabindranath Tagore put it in vernacular, "we travel far & wide at great expense to see the mountains & the oceans, but fail to appreciate the beauty of the dew drops glistening on the ear of the corn at our doorstep". Bardhaman is an ancient city, with structures & spots even older – here was I, a guy from Delhi, documenting the architectural heritage of the city & enjoying the game of cricket played by the boys who were ignorant of their temple’s history but were easily impressed by the flash of a camera. The temple that I was looking at is one of its kind in the country. Dedicated to Goddess Chamunda, a form of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death & destruction, the temple is locally known as Kankal Bari (“House of the skeleton”, pronounced "Kon-kol-Bari") or Rakta tola (“Temple of blood”) – the name could not have been more suited.
Kali has always been depicted in terrifying forms – her red tongue sticking out of her mouth, eyes glaring, bosom naked, a neckpiece of human skulls & a waist band of severed hands being her only modesty. She is death incarnate, the symbol of destruction, blood lust & sex. But here this depiction is carried forward to the next level – the black stone idol has eight hands & is carved in such a manner so that most of the major bones & the arterial veins of the Goddess’s body are visible. It is said that the idol was found from the bed of river Damodar after the devastating floods of 1923 (although many accounts say the temple itself was built around the year AD 1700). Belief is that the idol’s conception was influenced by the concept of “Tantra”.
|Kali - The mistress of death|
Set in a square courtyard, the small temple has three tiny rooms – the central one houses the said idol, while the other two house Shivalingas (phallus symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death & destruction & Kali’s significant other) & tridents (“trishul”, Shiva’s heavenly weapon). The shrine is entered from three arched entrances, each of which faces one of the three rooms. The temple was under renovation when I visited it, artists & laborers were at work on its roof as well as the shrine. The president of the temple managing committee was there too & so was a lady who made me believe that she held some important post in the management team. She downright refused to let me photograph the shrine, no amount of coercion could make her budge, until the president himself intervened on my behalf when I told him I would write about the place. The laborers were more than happy to have me amongst them as I proved to be a change from their daily monotonous schedule. The temple is topped by nine spires in tradition Bengali style of architecture. The front of the temple is profusely decorated with terracotta panels displaying sages, kings & mendicants. In fact, these panels are what make the Bengali temples so mesmerizing – they tell so many stories & present an entire lore through numerous scenes!! In the courtyard surrounding the temple are several smaller Shivalingas, & in one corner is a small building that houses the management committee’s office. The temple, though small, is an extra-ordinary structure - peaceful, enthralling & tranquil.
In the ground next to the temple complex, the boys had stopped their cricket game to observe me & scrutinize my activities. In one corner of the ground stands another small temple dedicated to Vishnu (the Hindu God responsible for creation & nourishment of the universe). Topped by five spires, this temple is even more brilliantly decorated with terracotta panels than the Kali temple itself. However it is relatively less known & not many people visit it. Three arched entrances lead into the shrine, each arch is bore by strong pillars betrayed by their gentle curves.
|The Vishnu Temple|
The arches are decorated with panels that depict scenes where groups of monkeys have climbed up buildings (perhaps temples, given pyramidal roofs topped by flag masts), birds fluttering around & flowers blooming in the skies. The bigger panels are surrounded by numerous smaller ones that depict sages, kings with bows & arrows, monkey-men carrying maces & mountains (Are the larger panels depicting a scene from the Hindu epic Ramayana - the welcome given to King Rama (one of Vishnu’s many incarnations) by his monkey-men army when he returns to India after sacking Ravana’s capital?? I don’t know – there are no sources that I could trace that detail the temple’s history or construction).
|Carved with precision!!|
In both the temples, what I found worth-mentioning is that the terracotta panels ornament only the front face of the temple, the embellishments stop as soon as the front wall ends & the other three walls are simply painted over with no decorations but only very small windows breaking the continuity. The single shrine within the Vishnu temple is barred by a grille, the gate of which is locked. I had to be content with photographing the shrine from the outside. The inner entrance too is ornamented with more terracotta panels, though owing to the lack of space there are no other decorations except for three big panels. The shrine consists of a depiction of Vishnu painted on the wall, the offerings are but simply holy water & a few marigold flowers. A few bronze utensils are scattered around the figurine – broken platters, lamps & an elongated spoon for burning clarified butter (“ghee”), thus completing the image of a temple where the same traditions & practices are being followed that were being performed several millennia ago. The paint itself is peeling away & flaking to reveal the temple’s ancient history. In dire need of a restoration, the temple has become blackened with time as a result of the action of the elements. I do hope the managing committee of the Kankal Bari do spare some time & effort for this temple too.
|Vishnu - The master of the universe|
As I step outside, I notice an old beggar come & spread his coarse mat expecting visitors to spare him some alms. He told me that if I wait here half an hour, the priest might come & open the grille to the sanctum. However there isn’t anything in the sanctum which I haven’t already seen from between the bars of the grille. I take my leave from the Gods, for the first time I feel sorry for leaving!! The place, remarkable & yet depressingly secluded, makes my heart cry out. The silence & the serenity invoking passive emotions & commanding me to stay some more. I feel bliss, I feel happy for having stepped out & traveled to Bardhaman. Forgetting the travel fatigue that had gripped me a few days back, I feel eager again to travel throughout India to witness these forgotten structures & write their splendid stories.
Location: Kanchanpara, Bardhaman (aka Burdwan)
How to reach: From the Bardhaman Railway Station, take a bus till Kanchanpara. From there ask for directions to Kankalbari (pronounced "Kon-kol-bari"). You will have to walk a lot from there, it is quite a trek actually (you encounter bridges enroute too!!) away & no rickshaws are available here.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil. But prior permission is required.
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
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