Dasghara: Be Alice for a Day
Dasghara is an unlikely setting for a Lewis Carroll fairytale, yet you get a distinct feeling that you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. In a corner of this hamlet in rural Bengal is a wonderland with European-style mansions, elaborate terracotta temples, beautiful gardens, a clock tower and a Victorian-style gateway, all of which invite you to be Alice for just a day.
Positioned at the far end of a small lake, their reflection leaping off the water on a clear and still morning, the buildings are remarkable for their fusion architecture and exquisite detail. They are among many others that comprise a settlement developed by zamindars and merchants in the 18th century.
– But the recorded history of Dasghara goes back much further, around 800 years.
A small village in Hooghly district about 65 km from Kolkata, Dasghara is a gram panchayat under the Dhaniakhali block, which is famous for its handloom jamdani saris. Historian Sudhirkumar Mitra, in his book Hooghly Jelar Itihas O Bangasamaj (1962), and Narendranath Bhattacharya, in his book Hugli Jelar Purakirti (1993), state that around seven thousand fifty years ago Dasghara was an important trading area in Bengal on the banks of the Bimala and Kananadi rivers, branches of the Damodar River. Since the fortunes of the town were tied to these rivers, the good times lasted till the Damodar River changed its course.
During this time, Dasghara was the capital of Baraduari Raja, about whom very little is known. The remains of a fortress, temples and a tank namely Bisalakshir pukur at a place known as Baraduari are contrary popular belief to their royal palace. When the Bimala and Kananadi rivers started to dry and their banks silted up, Baraduari Raja shifted his kingdom to Medinipur. Mitra says the name ‘Dasghara’ loosely applies to a collection (in Bengali ‘das’ means ‘ten’) of neighbouring villages, that is, Aglapur, Dighara, Gangeshnagar, Gopinagar, Ichapur, Jargram, Nalthoba, Parambo, Srikrishnapur and Srirampur.
The Biswas Estate
Dasghara became a prominent settlement in the early 18th century when Jagmohan Deb-Biswas settled at Dasghara at the instance of Ramnarayan Pal Chowdhury, a successor of the Baraduari Raj family. The father of Jagmohan Deb-Biswas was a close associate of Advaita Acharya, a senior contemporary of Sri Chaitanya. Sir Amiya Kumar Banerji, in his book ‘West Bengal District Gazetteers: Hooghly’ (1972), mentioned that “Jagmohan’s son Rammohan was a man of means and influence. His numerous acts of charity earned for him the leadership of the Dasghara society which pre-eminence was retained by his descendants for long.”
A wealthy resident of this village, Biswas Family built his mansion in Victorian style fusion architecture with the Gopisagar Lake as its backdrop and lent his name to the settlement – Biswaspara. The mansion, with an insignia of three horses on its pediment, was the kachari house (administrative building) of the family. (Previously Biswas family used this mansion as an admin building. Now this mansion is only used to celebrate cultural and religious as well as family programs).
The mansion is truly the star of the Biswas estate, its majestic porch supported by six tall pillars. The two-storey structure, painted white and red, boasts an overhanging balcony. The corridor on the top storey is covered with iron railings and green shades while the main entrance door opens into a courtyard.
A nat mandir (dance hall) inside this Victorian styled mansion adorned with several pillars, and a beautiful thakur dalan or a courtyard with a covered altar for the worship of Goddess Durga during Durga Puja. Durga Puja is celebrated here every year, with pomp and show. The Durga idol of the Biswas family is unique as it has four hands.
This four-armed warrior Goddess Durga is called ‘Joydurga’ and she holds a snake, a trishula or a trident, a scimitar and a shield, one in each hand. The Biswas family also takes out a ratha yatra, when the idols of Radha-Gobinda Jiu are placed in a chariot with nine churas. The ratha yatra, initiated by the Biswas family, is one of the main festivals of Dasghara which is attended by a fair attracting huge crowd from all over the Bengal.
There are other beautiful structures on the property. Of these, the baithak khana (a sitting room for receiving guests), square dolmancha, octagonal rashmancha with its nine spires and terracotta Gopinath temple draw tourists even today.
The dolmancha is a temple-like structure on a raised platform, where the deities of Radha-Krishna are placed for worship on the occasion of Dol Purnima or Holi. The white octagonal rashmancha nearby, a larger temple with arches, houses the idols of Radha-Krishna for worship during the Rash festival on the auspicious day of Kartick Purnima. There is also an atchala (eight eaves) Shiva temple nearby but it bears no terracotta work on its walls.
The estate has other buildings, which were built later where the Biswas family lives. During Durga Puja, ratha yatra, the Rash festival, Dol festival, Janmashtami and Jhulan, Biswaspura erupts in festivities initiated by the Biswas family, who invites everyone to participate.
Terracotta Temple A member of the Biswas family, Sadananda Biswas built a five-pinnacle Gopinath temple in 1729 on the property. Situated just behind the mansion, the temple houses an idol of the Biswas family’s presiding deity, Sri Sri Radha-Gopinath Jiu. The temple is decorated in intricate terracotta work, its beautiful panels featuring scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as scenes from daily life. It has a triple-arched entrance like other terracotta temples in Bengal.
The left arch has scenes of Krittibas Ojha’s Ramayana, a prominent panel depicting a scene where the mythical bird Suprasha attacks Ravana’s chariot. Sadly, most of the panels on the left arch have been ruined over time. The central arch of the temple is in excellent condition and features the Rama-Ravana battle of the Ramayana in great detail. Rama, Laxmana, the ten-headed Ravana and the monkey army are beautifully depicted in the terracotta panels of the central arch. The right arch also carries scenes from the Ramayana. A prominent panel here features a scene where Kumbhakarna is devouring monkeys.
The panels also depict rare sequences from the Mahabharata. For instance, one sequence shows Arjuna sitting near the feet of a sleeping Krishna while Durjodhan sits above. This depicts the story of their arrival at Dwarka to pledge Krishna’s allegiance. Another panel depicts a child Krishna pulling apart the beak of Bakasur as he tries to swallow Krishna.
Lord Shiva playing tanpura and Gopinis crying as Krishna and Balaram leaving for Mathura in Akrur’s chariot are another unique terracotta panels of this temple. The other panels depict exquisite terracotta works including Mohisasuramardini Devi Durga, Goddess Saraswati with veena, scenarios from Krishnalila, performances of the musicians, hunting scenes, glimpses of regular life, and floral motifs, etc. Few terracotta plaques of this temple were supposedly included at a later stage, although these are distinctive in all over India.
Dasghara High School
The Biswas family has always been involved in philanthropic initiatives. They patronized Sanskrit as well as Islamic learning and donated generously to charity. Dasghara High School was founded by Mangobinda Biswas, a descendant of Jagmohan Deb-Biswas, around 160 years ago. One of the oldest schools in West Bengal, it was funded by the Biswas family up to 1920 and is now run by the state government. It is built in the traditional British colonial style of architecture.
Dasghara High School was a premier institution and has produced many scientists, judges, engineers, leaders and teachers. Eminent Physicist Professor Satyan Bose founded the Satabda Smaranika (centenary building) in its centenary year, in 1958.
Clock Tower & Gateway
The Biswases were not the only wealthy family that settled in Dasghara; the Roy family was another pillar of the community. Sudhirkumar Mitra, in his book Hooghly Jelar Itihas O Bangasamaj, claims that they Roys are descendants of Baraduari Raja.
Bipin Krishna Roy aka Beepin Kristo Roy (1851-1919), the mainstay of the Roy family, would go on to make a great fortune as a stevedore at the Calcutta port He built a huge Victorian-style gateway to his estate with an octagonal clock tower adjacent to it. The clock tower and gateway were renovated a few years ago by the Roy family, who still lives on the estate.
The Gothic pillars of the gateway are well decorated and the structure boasts floral motifs and three human statues on the top in addition to two lion statues.
The clock tower is topped with a European-style statue of a maiden and has four giant clocks manufactured by J M Dass & Bros, Calcutta, on four of its eight sides. However, the hands of the clocks have stalled with time.
Pass through the gateway and you will see a grand mansion just behind the clock tower, with a garden that still has marble statues of Venus. A part of the two-storey colonial styled mansion is now used as Dasghara’s Post Office. Other parts of the estate are in ruins and there are several damaged gates crowned with lion statues.
Beepin Kristo Roy built a dispensary opposite his mansion and handed it over to the District Board of Hooghly for use as a charitable dispensary. It is still functioning today. A stone plaque on the wall outside states that it was inaugurated by Surgeon General G F A Harris CSI, IMS, on 30th January 1915.
Roy Family’s Rasmancha
Walking distance from this dispensary is the rashmancha complex of the Roy family. The complex is inside an enclosure and it has European soldiers, stucco floral motifs and a Ganesha statue on one of its walls. The name ‘Beepin Kristo Roy’ is engraved below the Ganesh statue in Bengali. The rasmancha is built on four walls with archway openings. It has pillars and one arch each with beautiful stucco decorations. Each pillar contains multiple small pilasters.
Adjacent to the rashmancha is a three-arched thakur ghar, where the presiding deity of the Roy family, Sri Sri Krishnaroy Jiu, resides. A cement stage in the same compound is used for religious gatherings, where devotional songs are chanted. It is also used as a theatre or yatra during various festivals such as Rash, Dol, Janmashtami and Jhulan.
Roy Family’s Grand Thakur Dalan
The thakur dalan in the Roy mansion is a central courtyard surrounded by the main buildings on the state. It contains rich stucco work that bears a distinct European influence. The solitary and stark Durga idol with her family is kept in the thakur dalan throughout the year and the silent hamlet comes alive in autumn when Durga Puja is celebrated according to the old traditions.
The thakur dalan has four pillars, three arches and remarkable European-influenced stucco work in the corridors. Each pillar contains multiple small pilasters. Another row of archways and pillars of similar design is there in the inner sanctum of the thakur dalan, where the solitary and stark Durga idol resides.
Pictures of the Dasa Mahavidyas (Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala) are embedded in the walls. Only a few years ago, the rooftop of the courtyard of the thakur dalan was covered in coloured fibreglass.
This building has a grand, 24-foot-wide gari varanda (a roofed platform that runs along the outside of a building). Legendary filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh shot a few portions of his debut film Higher Angti (1992) in the Roy bari premises.
The property has a bungalow on it on the banks of a water body named Sri Sri Krishna Roy Jhil. A plaque at the entrance mentions that Beepin Kristo Roy built this bungalow and dedicated it to the Magistrate Collector of Hooghly district, F B Bradley-Birt, the first individual to stay here in 1915. The bungalow was later used by other Englishmen and guests of the family. It served as a backdrop for famous film director Tapan Sinha, who shot his film Bancharamer Bagan (1980) on these premises.
Although the showpieces of Dasghara, the Biswas and Roy estates are not the only treasures here. An atchala (eight eaves) temple was built by the Bandyopadhyay family in 1746 at Bisalaxmitala of the Dasghara village. The outer wall of the temple bears a few floral and bird motifs in its panels. The Bandyopadhyay family also built a Jor Bangla temple, a style of Hindu temple architecture in Bengal. This temple is devoid of rich terracotta work. Both temples were recently renovated.
Dasghara is off the main tourist trail but those who visit the temple town of Tarakeshwar 12 km away usually make it up here. Others, who have already heard of this ‘European village’, come to Dasghara to revel in its architectural charm. A trip to the hamlet is a refreshing weekend tour but visiting during Durga Puja and Janmashtami is a bonus as you get the full package, pomp and show thrown in for free.
– LHI Travel Guide
(a) The nearest railhead is Tarakeswar, which is well connected to Howrah Junction Railway Station. Buses will take you from Tarakeswar railway station to Dasghara. (b) Alternatively, you can take a train from Howrah station to Dhaniakhali halt via the Howrah-Barddhaman Chord line. From Dhaniakhali halt, buses are available to reach Dasghara. (c) One can drive along the National Highway 6 from Howrah and then turn left to locate the Dhaniakhali Connector to reach Dasghara.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Sk Abdul Amin is a research scholar and visiting faculty at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is a travel writer and heritage enthusiast with an interest in history through the lens of art, culture and religion.