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Akui is a small village in the Indas area of north-eastern Bankura. This somewhat isolated village and was once difficult to reach, as attested by Sri Amiyakumar Bandyopadhyay in his 1971 book Bankura Jelar Purakirti. But the journey, he notes, is worth the effort because in the south (Dakshinpara) of this village is a magnificent, richly decorated pancha-ratna temple to Radha Kanta, that is remarkable for several reasons. The temple, within a walled garden-compound and raised on a high plinth, has a facade filled with innumerable large terracotta panels depicting Ramayana and Krishna stories and a wide variety of social and religious scenes. The size of this temple and the quality and variety of its ornamentation make it one of the finest temples in Bankura. A stone inscription tablet below the cornice mentions that the temple was built in 1761-62 by Dewan Kanuram Das (who served Raja Tilakchand Ray of Bardhaman) for his wife Champa Dasi. It also mentions (unusually for an 18th century temple) that the architect (karigar) was Sri Ishwari of Balyara village which is perhaps today's Bahulara. When I visited the temple I was told a story about Raja Tilakchand visiting Akui on an elephant to investigate rumours that the Dewan was misappropriating funds from the royal treasury to build the temple. But on seeing the temple the Raja was so impressed that instead of admonishing the Dewan he granted him further tax-free lands to maintain it.

Radha Kanta Temple
The temple has rich decoration above the triple-arched entrance and on the octagonal porch columns. Exceptional, however, is the wide band of terracotta panels in triple rows, that flank the entrance and sweep below the cornice. At the base of the facade is a continuous frieze of intertwined leaves and buds and below this are wider panels with simple flowers above ridged rectangles. At the corners of the facade, horizontal mouldings separate six segments each with nine vertical scrollwork panels on each face. Above this the triangular panels have large, elegant leaping yalis eating (and surrounded by) lotuses. Up on the roof, the five ratna towers have been recently renovated but they retain the traditional ridged rekha deul forms, and are surmounted by ghanta, kalasa, and a metal finial terminating in a chakra. The massive central deul ratna is still in use. The deity is taken to this upper-storey shrine (via a spiral stairway on the south) on festival days so the worshippers can view him, and on hot summer days so he can partake the cool evening breeze.

Centre Arch Panel
The triple arch panels are each framed by a narrow raised band containing alternating flowers and leaves. Surrounding this is a wider ornate band of curved leaves each encircling a bud. Within the arch panels flame-like projections emanate from the sides ending in lotuses being eaten by birds. The central panel has two registers. The lengthy mathura-gaman scene above has Krishna, Balarama, and Akrura in a rath at the centre, flanked on both sides by stylized trees and by women distraught at Krishna's departure. They gesticulate, faint, and throw themselves under the rath, while others comfort or rescue them. In the register below this are two scenes separated by the arch finial. On the left Krishna dances on Kaliya's head while the serpent-wives of Kaliya supplicate (or worship) him. An unusual addition here is an image of Garuda flying above while devouring a snake. Unusual also is the depiction of a crocodile and fish in the waters from which Kaliya rises. On the right is the climactic scene of Kamsa-badh. Krishna grabs Kamsa by his hair to pull him down from the throne. Kamsa's bodyguards attempt to save him while his chhatri-bearer looks on.

Left and Right Arch Panels
The left arch panel has a single register with a lively Ramayana battle scene. At the centre, Lakshman waits his turn while Ram prepares to launch an arrow at Ravan, as their chariots hurtle towards each other, horses rearing up in anticipation, driven by energetic charioteers. Surrounding and between the chariots are Ram's rowdy allies, the banar army, hurling trees and rocks at the enemy, climbing on the rathas, and also climbing on the rakshas pulling their hands and heads. Below this are a series of small flower-like roundels and a row of deuls along the arch. The right arch panel also has a single register containing a rasamandala. At the centre Krishna embraces two gopis, and he also (miraculously) dances with each gopi in the surrounding circle. Roundels of various sizes fill the space around this, with musicians performing atop some and birds and peacocks appearing in between others.

Porch Columns
The porch columns are in the traditional heavy style, octagonal in the centre, square at the top and the base, and profusely decorated throughout. The main panel in the left porch column shows a seated Siva and Parvati at the centre surrounded by their children: Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesa, and Karthik. This is unusual: the central figure in such compositions is Mahisamardhini. A story that I heard at Akui could explain this. Some years after converting to Vaisnavism, Dewan Kanuram Das wished to celebrate Durga Puja. But this was a sakta festival and Vaisnavs were not allowed to worship the violent image of Durga slaying Mahisasura. Kanuram Das turned to his Vaisnav guru who advised him to worship a less furious form that Durga assumed when she was calmed down by the gods after her battle with Mahisasura. Since then an unusual Durga puja has been celebrated at Akui with an image of Durga seated on a lotus and adorned with a garland of tulsi flowers. On the right porch column, the main panel is of Ram's coronation with a seated Ram-Sita and standing Lakshman at the centre, while the flanking panels have Hanuman and possibly Bibhisan (other panels are eroded).

Column Capitals
The octagonal portion of the columns is demarcated by double mouldings. Small panels between them show Saiva sadhus (identified by their dreadlocks) engaged in various activities like preparing or pouring bhang, worshipping the linga, playing the drums, and sharing food beneath trees. Similar panels on the engaged columns on the sides show Krishnalila scenes including Brahma Vimohan Lila where Brahma bows down to Krishna to acknowledge his divinity after he magically restores the cows that Brahma had hidden away. Another column has the Nauka-Lila (Krishna as a boatman to the gopis crossing the Yamuna), and Krishna dancing with gopis.

Right Wall Panels
Triple rows of wall panels extend along the sides of the temple and across the top, a remarkable total of 216 panels. Unfortunately some panels at the base are eroded and the new coat of paint has deprived all of them of their crispness and terracotta colour. But most panels are in good condition and documenting all of them would be a worthwhile effort. Each panel has a criss-cross frame and within it one or more figures, usually beneath an arch. A raised continuous band of alternating flowers and leafy bows surrounds the panels. To the right of the entrance the panels show Krishnalila scenes, starting with childhood mischiefs and miracles: stealing butter, being bathed with Yamuna water, kicking the cart, and killing demons like Putana, Bakasura, and Aghasura. Two charming panels show the women of Gokul complaining to Yasoda, and then Krishna tied to two trees, kneeling between them, facing the viewer. Stories of Krishna as a cowherd follow, starting with him blowing horns with Balarama, and then three panels with the episode of Brahma Vimohana: the cows hidden away, then Brahma confronting Krishna, and next the cows reunited with the cowherds. Further above are more miraculous scenes: Krishna lifting mount Govardhan, drinking the forest fire and Chir-Haran (stealing the bathing gopis' clothes). Panels at the very top (just below the cornice) have diverse (seemingly unrelated) scenes of warriors, Europeans, men on horses, and men battling tigers, interspersed with images of gods and avatars.

Left Wall Panels
The wall panels to the left of the entrance have Ramayana scenes but the episodes are hard to identify and seem disorganized. The panels at the bottom are eroded and the first set of good panels shows Rama and Lakshmana hunting in the forest and fighting demons there. The next scenes are of vanars in discussion and of Hanuman in a tree. The story of Sita's abduction is skipped but the next panel shows Sita seated beneath the ashoka tree from which hanuman is handing her Ram's ring. Next, Hanuman tells Ram that Sita is captive but well and the vanars start to build the bridge to Lanka. Next, above this, the battle starts abruptly with Ram and Ravan in adjacent panels shooting arrows at each other. Lakshman is mortally wounded in the next panel, lying in Ram's arms. Then, Hanuman fights the demon sent by Ravan to prevent him from bringing Lakshman the life-giving sanjeevani herb, and then returns eventually, with the entire gandhamadan mountain. Two rows of Ramayana panels above this are undecipherable.

Panels flanking Left Arch
Just above the porch columns and between the arches are four large terracotta panels. Their size and workmanship make them the finest panels in the temple. The leftmost such panel above the left engaged porch column shows the Vamana-Trivikrama story in continuous narrative with Bali sealing the contract by pouring water while Vamana fulfils it by taking three steps to cover swarga above, marta the earth, and pushing Bali's head with the third step into patal. The next panel depicts the tulabharam episode. Krishna is being weighed against gold that will be given in charity to Narada who is shown standing on the left. But Krishna weighs more than all the gold and jewels in Dwaraka and Satyabhama sits below, despondent while another woman (Rukmini, perhaps) pleads with Narada. This unusual scene is perhaps one of the finest Bengali terracotta panels.

Panels flanking Right Arch
The next such panel shows European vessels that are engaged in or proceeding to battle. The smaller river-boat on the right has an oarsman and four other Europeans with hats and guns. This boat seems to be tied to a large, elaborate ship with sails and more Europeans on board. Faces peer out of the lower deck above cannon-holes. A monkey-like creature seems to have climbed onto the stern of the ship, men seem to be climbing up or falling down the sides of the ship. Although the panel is beautifully portrayed, it is the only one with ships which is unusual for a temple of this size. The final large panel shows a woman (perhaps Yashoda) seated on a platform and a young boy (perhaps Krishna) brought unwillingly to her by three women. Perhaps this is a reference to the complaints made against Kanuram Das to the Raja. Please contact us if you have a more certain identification of this scene.

Photos and Text © Amit Guha