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The town of Bansberia was an important religious centre in pre-Muslim Bengal due to its location at the confluence of three rivers (Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati). After the Mughal conquest of Bengal in the mid-16th century, the region around Bansberia started to decline as trade and royal patronage moved east but economic activity continued upto the 19th century and local zamindars and traders built several temples in the area. The Ananta Vasudeva temple was built by Raja Rameshwar Datta in 1649. The wealth and prestige of Rameshwar Datta is apparent from the size, architecture, and rich ornamentation of this temple. As one of the earliest terracotta temples of Bengal, it also served as a prototype for future artisans and patrons.

Ananta Vasudeva Temple
All four facades of the temple are richly decorated but the most elaborate figural ornamentation is reserved for the main east facade. There are triple-arched entrance porches on each side and the inside walls of the porch and the sanctum walls are also filled with terracotta panels. In extent and quality of ornamentation, this temple compares with the finest temples in Bishnupur such as Shyama Raya or Madan Mohan. On the upper storey, the octagonal turret is raised on a low plinth. It has curved cornices, chala roof and single cusped arches on each of its eight faces. The east and west arches are open, leading to a platform where the deity was placed during festivals. The turret walls are richly decorated with the arch panels filled with miniature shrines, roundels and birds with large tails. Birds also occupy the triangular panels below the cornice and above the horizontal corner mouldings. Narrow columns flanking the arches are reminiscent of mihrab frames.

Arch Panels
The cusped arches have high finials with multiple kalasas. A series of miniature at-chala shrines lines the arches with parrots on the roof and Krishna with gopis within. Narrow horizontal registers above this contain a series of warriors or worshippers, interspersed with deities. Amongst this is a pair of lotus roundels next to the central figures of the panel facing each other across the arch finial. On the left arch panel the figures are of Ram and Ravan on makara chariots. On the central arch are Vishnu on Garuda and enthroned Rama and Sita. The roundels here are rasa-mandalas. In the right arch panel are Kali and Lakshmi. The arch panels are framed by bow-like motifs alternating with lotus medallions. Around this is a raised band of rosettes and then a further frame of scrollwork.

Porch Column
The porch columns are twelve-sided, heavy and ornate. On the east entrance porch they have figural terracotta panels throughout. The overhanging capital is square with receding mouldings. Below this are a row of birds along with sitting and acrobatic human figures. Below this the shaft is divided into friezes separated by high mouldings. The panels here are framed by foliate ornamentation and show Krishna embracing Radha, playing the flute, and dancing with gopis. Below this, the base of the columns is square again and contains the double frieze of base panels. The columns on the side porches retain the ornate capitals but the panels on the shaft only have a simple cross pattern. The base of these columns is circular instead of square with panels of geometrical motifs.

Wall Panels
The large, square wall panels on the facade contain small figures of yogis, women, dancers, deities, and dasavataras within wide frames of scrollwork. Three columns of such panels rise along the sides, flanked by full-height pilasters that terminate below in large rasa-mandala medallions. The panels continue arched below the cornice where they are grouped into sets of six panels by short pilasters. Similar panels and pilasters adorn the side and the sanctum walls but here they are often less ornate with some panels containing only a medallion. The corner panels are in sets of projecting and recessed vertical panels containing simple vegetal scrollwork, and separated by double horizontal mouldings. The triangular segment at the top has triple panels containing figures.

Double rows of base panels extend along around but only on the facade do they contain figural panels. Both Ramayana and Krishnalila scenes occur in the top frieze while at the bottom social scenes are interspersed with Krishnalila and other mythological scenes. The upper row begins with an early Ramayana scene: the deer-headed sage Rishyashringa performing the Ashwamedha yajna for Dasaratha. The following panels show subsequent Ramayana events including Rama's departure to exile and the breaking of Siva's bow. The Krishnalila scenes start with his childhood heroics including killing the whirlwind demon Trinavarta depicted as a circle. Other scenes are of churning butter, pulling the mortar, and killing other demons including Aghasura, the python demon. Pastoral scenes show Krishna and Balarama leading cattle.

Brahma Pravartan Lila and Battle with Rukma
In this story, Brahma hides Krishna's cattle only to discover that they have magically returned and also that every cowherd is Krishna himself. This can be seen here, the tuft of hair identifying the several herdsmen as Krishna. Scenes in the lower register include a long, impressive panel with two elaborate peacock-boats facing each other. Also common are scenes of processions of noblemen on bullock carts and palanquins. There is also a unusual battle scene from the later life of Krishna, in which Krishna (left, with Rukmini) faces Rukma (centre) while Balarama (right) looks on.

Another elaborate panel shows Kali as Tripurasundari, with Vishnu on Garuda on the left and Siva on Nandi to the right. Archers in flying makara chariots, kneeling supplicants, and wrestlers constitute the rest of this beautiful scene. Above is a wide Krishnalila panel shows the Govardhan episode where Krishna lifts the Govardhan mountain (here depicted as a series of curved bumps) to shelter animals, herdsboys, and gopis from the wrath of Indra's thunderstorms.

South Facade
The other sides have sparse and less figural decoration in comparison to the main entrance facade. The arch panels still have rekha deuls along the arch with women and dancers within. The arch finial is also elaborate with four kalasas on which is perched a peacock. But the only single figures face each other across the finial (with Rama facing Sugriva in one unusual panel). The rest of the arch panels have sparse roundels and flowers, some with birds on them. Along the borders are the usual split-palmette motifs filled with scrollwork with monkeys trying to climb these decorations at the top. The left arch panel is similar to the central arch except that the warriors across the arch finial are replaced by a large bird to the right of the arch finial.

Hansheshwari Temple
The massive Hansheswari temple is located next to the Ananta Vasudeva temple and is far more popular with visitors to Bansberia. The temple was commissioned by Nrishinghadeb Ray, who built it after several years of Tantric study in Benaras. It was completed in 1814, by his widow Rani Sankari. The structure is thirteen-pinnacled and each turret is multifaceted with arched openings and a pointed conical tower with a kalasa finial and outlines of a closed lotus bud. The interior structure and overall design are said to have Tantric symbolism reflecting Nrishinghadeb's spiritual education.

Photos and Text © Amit Guha