The Crumbling Temples of Chandrakona
Chandrakona and its once beautiful temples could have been a popular tourist destination and heritage hotspot like its celebrated neighbour, Bishnupur, whose astonishing terracotta marvels bring visitors here in droves. It is, after all, a historical town with names of its ancient rulers mentioned in Mughal memoirs like Tuzk-e-Jahangiri and chronicles like Baharistan-i-Ghaibi and Padshahnama.
Instead, Chandrakona, in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal, gained notoriety as a Maoist hotbed until 2012. Even though the town has since turned itself around by shedding the traces of the violence in the Maoist era, rapid urbanization has forced its rich heritage to take a back seat.
Once the seat of the Chouhan dynasty who ruled the region in the 16th century, Chandrakona and its surrounding areas are dotted with laterite stone and brick built beautiful temples. Their intricate carvings, exquisite ornamentation and superb articulation of the local architectural style tell of a rich and vibrant culture. Similar temple towns in the vicinity was that of Bishnupur and temple complexes similar to Ambika Kalna were built at Chandrakona too.
The laterite stone temples built by the Chouhans are the earliest of which hardly four remains. The remaining existing temples were mainly built during the period of Burdwan Kings in the area. Of these, some were brick built with terracotta decorations and some were brick built. Around 20 odd such temples still exist within the vicinity of Chandrakona Town itself and over 40 exists within the jurisdiction of Chandrakona municipality under Ghatal subdivision.
Yet many of these shrines have collapsed and many others have been distastefully painted on the pretext of renovation.
History of Chandrakona
The first mention of Chandrakona or ‘Chander Kona’ (‘a piece of the moon’, चाँद का टुकड़ा ) as the capital of a kingdom called ‘Bhan Desh’ is in the Sanskrit geography text Deshavali Vivriti by 17th-century scholar Jagamohan Pandit. It had the Bagri Kingdom to its west (present-day Garhbeta) founded by Gajapati Singh in 1364, and Mandalghat Pargana to its east (the area between the Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers).
Bhan Desh or the Bhan Kingdom (comprising of modern-day areas around Chandrakona Town extending upto Ghatal ) was located between the Shilaboti River to its east and Kangsaboti River to its south. Its area is mentioned as 13 yojana (12–15 km), a measure of distance used in ancient India. The land was fertile and agriculture flourished. Bhan Desh was famous for its textiles and jute production. The kingdom welcomed people of all religions and, besides its several temples, Chandrakona townhouses two ashtals (Vaisnava Math or a monastic organisation), a gurdwara and several mosques.
Once thick uninhabited forests, the earliest known rulers of the region were the kings of the ‘Ketu’ Dynasty about whom very little documentation is available. It is assumed they ruled in the area till early of the 16th century until they were overthrown by the Chouhan Dynasty (alias Bhan rulers). Local folklore mentions that the most renowned of the Ketu kings was Chandraketu I, who gave the town his name. It is also said that Chandraketu I (No records of reign available, probably middle of 14th century) in all probability constructed the Malleswar Temple at Chandrakona. Five generations of descendants of Chandraketu I ruled Chandrakona, before their last ruler Chandraketu II was defeated by Birbhan, the founder of the Chouhan or Bhan Dynasty at Chandrakona. The origins of the Chouhan rulers in not known, but their family has been traced their origins to the Rajpur warriors from North India who settled in the region in the beginning of the 16th century. Jogesh Chandra Basu - a scholar on the history of Medinipur, mentions in his book Medinipurer Itihas ( History of Medinipur) mentions that the Chouhans built two forts named Lalgarh and Ramgarh. He mentions that in 1522, the family deity Raghunathjiu was established in the Ramgarh fort. The deity was later shifted to a Nabaratna temple in Lalgarh fort. Nothing remains of these two forts at present.
A foundation stone of the demolished Nabaratna Temple discovered in the Lalgarh area in Chandrakona provides the genealogy of the Chouhan or Bhan Dynasty. It seems the temple was built by Queen Lakshmanabati, daughter-in-law of King Birbhan, in 1655 CE. She was married to King Harinarayan and was the daughter of a Malla King of Bishnupur. This suggests that the Bhan Kingdom had cordial relations with the Bishnupur royal family. Queen Lakshmanabati’s son was King Mitrasen, the most prominent Chouhan ruler of Chandrakona. In all probabilities, his reign started in 1650 as per historian Pranab Roy who mentions this in his book “Ghataler Kotha” ( Story of Ghatal).
The Bhan kings built (several temples in and around Chandrakona town. There is no record of the number of such built temples of which only around four remains, two of which are in Chandrakona Town. They were mainly built of laterite stone. During the reign of King Mitrasen, Chandrakona prospered greatly. Local folklore says there were as many as 52 markets and a network of 53 inter-linked roads in his time. Many localities in Chandrakona today bear the prefix ‘bazaar’, which harks back to these times. During this period, the handloom industry flourished as did dairy products, brassware and bell-metal and copper built musical instruments named RamSinga (Local trumpets).
The Bhan kings initially rebelled against the Mughal empire, references to which can be found in a number of Mughal texts. The Mughal emperor Jahangir’s autobiography Tuzk-e-Jahangiri mentions King Harinarayan or Haribhan ( reigned during the 16th century) as a rebel, while a 16th-century Persian chronicle of Bengal, Baharistan-i-Ghaibi mentions Birbhan as a ‘rebel zamindar’ of Chandrakona. However, it seems that over time the Bhan kings accepted Mughal suzerainty as Mughal text Padshahnama, the contemporary chronicle of the Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign, mentions that Haribhan was a mansabdar (military commander) of 500 soldiers on behalf of the Mughal Emperor.
King Mitrasen had developed several fortifications around the city as there were a group of dacoits prowling the region, ransacking cities in their wake. In some documents relating to this period dated 1669, Chandrakona is mentioned as ‘Mana’. Jogesh Chandra Basu confirms that Chandrakona was previously known as ‘Mana’.
King Mitrasen died childless and his kingdom was ultimately taken over by the neighbouring Malla King, Ragunath Singh, who ruled over Bishnupur. Ragunath Singh was ultimately overthrown by Maharaj Kirtichandra of Burdwan, where the kings of Bardhaman had built a colossal complex that housed several temples similar to those of Ambika Kalna in Purba Bardhaman district of West Bengal.
Chandrakona came under the British East India Company in 1760. While this hit the textile industry hard, the town held its own as an important centre of trade and commerce. In the 19th century, Chandrakona was still known for producing quality brass utensils.
There is no tour guide available or any detailed description of the temples at Chandrakona. The only references are from the West Bengal State Archaeology handbook on Medinipur published in the late 1980s. The localities have changed and many temples no longer exist.
A typical heritage tour of Chandrakona may start from one of the oldest temples in the town – the Malleswar Temple at Malleswarpur in Chandrakona. The original temple built by Chandraketu I in all probabilities in the 14th century. It was renovated by Burdwan Maharaja Tejchandra in 1831.
Built of laterite stone, the temple is a five-pinnacled structure with excellent decorations on its walls. It has a triple entrance and a circumambulatory passage around the inner sanctum. The deity is a Shiva Lingam, which is worshipped daily.
The Malleswar Temple originally stood within a fortified enclosure. It used to boast a double-storey gateway, with a marble plaque outside the gate detailing the renovation work done by the Burdwan Maharaja. The gate is now in terrible shape and the plaque is missing and I am told it is in the custody of local heritage enthusiasts.
There was a natmandir (assembly hall) in front of the temple till 2017, which was demolished by locals, providing a reason that the crumbling structure was a potential threat to the passerby. There is an urban structure growing rapidly nearby. The temple is located along the road from Kharagpur town (a major railhead) to Chandrakona and is being encroached upon by rapid urbanisation. There is a pond near the temple and it can be accessed via a flight of stairs that leads to it from the temple.
Just 500 metres from Malleswar Temple is the Dakshinbazar area. Inside a narrow lane stands a colossal laterite temple built in Jor Bangla style. The Jor Bangla Temple style involves two structures that resemble the traditional village huts of Bengal, one that serves as a porch in front of the other, which serves as a shrine.
The temple was renovated by the West Bengal State Archaeology Department a long time ago. It has exquisite stucco decoration on its wall but the structure itself is in need of immediate repairs. It is believed that similar to the Malleswar Temple, this one too was built by the Bhan kings. The rest of the temples at Chandrakona date to the 18th and 19th centuries and were built by local families and landlords.
Besides these two temples, there are seven other significant temples and a temple complex at Chandrakona town and its close outskirts. There are two Shantinath Shiva Temples - one in the Ilambazar area, and the other in the Mitrasenpur locality.
The Shantinath temple at Ilambazar is a five-pinnacled structure with a triple-arch entrance. The façade has terracotta and stucco work. Close to this temple is another five-pinnacled structure – the Radhagobinda Temple built by the Chabri family in 1792.
The Shantinath Temple (This is the second temple with the same name) at Mitrasenpur is an exquisite nabaratna or nine-pinnacled temple built in 1828. It has impressive terracotta plaques which showcase the battle between Rama and Ravana, Dasavatar of Bishnu, several musicians, several scenes from Krishna Lila, Bhisma on a bed of arrows, etc.
The temple has been ‘renovated’ by local authorities in recent times, using multicolor paints and new panels. Thankfully, the original terracotta panels have not been painted grossly enough to obliterate all the relief work from them.
In Mitrasenpur again, a house has been built in the front of the 1899-built, flat-roof Temple of Anantadev There used to be terracotta panels of Dasavatar forms of Bishnu on its walls.
The arch panels over the triple entrance used to have stucco work on them. On the rooftop of the temple is a four-armed figure, above which are two stucco-built lions, side by side. Their glass eyeballs still exist.
The other significant temple, which has not been ‘renovated’, is the five-pinnacled Shymachand Temple of the local the Chowdhury family at Jayantipur, on the outskirts of Chandrakona.
Built in 1845, it is 3 km from Mitrasenpur. The temple has a triple-arch entrance. The facade is decorated with terracotta panels depicting scenes from Krishna Lila, like Krishna leaving for Mathura, weighing gold to equate the weight of Krishna, the coronation of Krishna at Dwaraka, etc.
Chandrakona town itself showcases two large temples. One is the 18th century, the nine-pinnacled Temple of Rasik Raya damaged during the 1910 earthquake. The other is the 17-pinnacled Parvatinath Temple, built in 1871 and reconstructed with no thought to its heritage value. In the process, several new plaques have been added.
The last place I visited in Chandrakona town was Raghunathbari, a temple complex renovated by Burdwan Maharaja Tejchandra in 1831. This is very much like the fabulous temple complex of Ambika Kalna also built by the Burdwan Maharajas. This temple complex alone could have been the star attraction of Chandrakona. Unfortunately, the complex is in ruins.
The main outer wall collapsed a long time ago and all that remains of a double-storey gate are some ruins. According to researcher Tarapada Santra, there was a marble plaque with a 16-line inscription comparable to the one at the Malleswar Temple. The plaque is no longer there. However, Santra says the plaque not only mentioned Maharaja Tejchandra and the year of completion, but detailed the structures inside the premises too.
Inside the complex, the first prominent temple one encounters is a five-pinnacled, laterite-built structure. Since its foundation stone is intact, one can tell that despite the cow-dung cakes smeared on its walls, this is a Rameshwar Shiva temple, also referred to by some as a Panchanan Shiva Temple. Adjacent to the temple is an old Rasmancha.
Go past the Rasmancha and you walk through a decorated gate. Beside the gate is a ruined, double-storey structure, which was perhaps a nahabatkhana, where musicians used to perform. Inside, the first temple you see is a ruined Deul of Raghunatha. One part of the temple’s tower has collapsed.
Adjacent to the temple is a natmandir and a charchala-shaped structure, which was used to store valuables belonging to the temple. Behind the temple is a tulsimancha, an age-old Bengali tradition of planting a tulsi (basil) plant at home or beside a temple.
Adjacent to the tulsimancha is a bhogmandapa, a hall of offering where the bhoga or mahaprasadam of the deity was distributed. Just beyond the bhogmandapa is the famous Laljiu Temple, where the family deity of the Bhan kings was kept. The deity was earlier worshipped in the ruined Nabaratna Temple of Lalgarh. The famous plaque describing the genealogy of the Bhan kings was also kept there. The deities were shifted to a nearby five-pinnacled temple, from where they were unfortunately stolen. The plaque is now in the possession of a local resident.
I was expecting a ruined structure of Laljiu Temple just like the Raghunatha Temple. Instead, I was shocked to find that Chandrakona’s most famous temple is now just a pile of bricks. This shrine, as described in books written by Tarapada Santra and Pranab Roy, once boasted exquisite stucco work. Nothing remains of it today.
When I emerged from the Raghunathbari, the light was fading and it cast a mellow hue on the temples of Chandrakona. It felt as if the last relics of the region’s history were fading with the disappearing rays of the sun. Given the sorry state of these beautiful shrines, Chandrakona’s history could soon be no more than a footnote in history.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of India for travel magazines and publications.