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Bansberia is a rural town located about 50 km north of Kolkata. It was once part of a large urban settlement called Satgaon, which was an important port in medieval Bengal. Its importance in pre-Muslim Bengal was religious, owing to its location at the tribeni or confluence of three rivers (Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati). In the late 13th century Satgaon was occupied by a Ghazi or warrior-saint named Zafar Khan but it continued to be an important city as a military base, mint-town and port. After the Mughal conquest of Bengal in the mid-16th century, the region started to decline as trade and royal patronage moved east. Economic activity on a smaller scale continued upto the 19th century in towns like Bansberia, controlled by semi-independent zamindars who built several temples in the area.

Ananta Vasudeva Temple
This large ek-ratna temple was built by Raja Rameshwar Datta in 1649. The Bansberia estate was already well established when Rameshwar became zamindar but he was further enriched by a sanad and title of Raja from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as a reward for ousting zamindars in the area who had defaulted on revenue payments. 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 the region it must have been a source of amazement to 17th century visitors. It also seems to have served as a prototype for future artisans building temples in and around Hugli (the 18th century Ramchandra temple in nearby Guptipara is heavily inspired by it). The Ananta Vasudeva temple remains one of the finest terracotta temples anywhere in Bengal.

Ek-ratna Turret
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 platform on the roof. 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. The deity was brought up here every evening so that a gathered Vaishnava congregation could view him from the temple courtyard. He was also ceremonially brought up to the roof on annual Vaishnava festivals like Ras and Dol. 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.

Centre Arch Panel
The arches are heavily cusped and have high finials at the centre with multiple kalasas. A series of miniature at-chala shrines lines the arches, they are busy 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. Above and amongst this are a pair of 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 (Krishna surrounded by a dancing circle of gopis).

Right Arch Panel
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 another band 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 all the walls but only on the facade do they contain figural panels. The frieze at the top is narrow and the one at the bottom is wide. This format would become standardized in the 18th century along with the content of the panels: Krishnalila scenes above and contemporary social scenes below. In this temple, however, the content is less certain. Both Ramayana and Krishnalila scenes occur in the top frieze while at the bottom social scenes are interspersed, unexpectedly, with Krishnalila and other mythological scenes. In fact, the upper row begins with an early scene from the Ramayana: 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. Another Krishnalila panel shows him lifting the Govardhan mountain (here depicted as a series of curved bumps) to shelter animals, herdsboys, and gopis.Scenes in the lower register include a long, impressive panel with two moyurpankhi boats facing each other. Also common are scenes of processions of noblemen on bullock carts and palanquins. Unexpectedly, there is also a battle scene possibly from the Bhagavat Purana in which Krishna (left) faces Rukma (centre) while Balarama (right) looks on. All the characters are depicted on makara-chariots with charioteers and flag-bearers. Behind Krishna is the figure of Rukmini, the main character in this episode, who was in love with Krishna but betrothed to Sisupala. Just before the wedding, Krishna rescues Rukmini and carries her away on his chariot. Rukma, Sisupala, and their ally Jarasandha decided to avenge this, but Balarama routs them all except Rukma who faces Krishna in the battle depicted here (only to be taken captive, but later released on Rukmini's request).

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.

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).

Arch Panel on South Facade
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 but plain Hansheswari temple is located next to the Ananta Vasudeva temple and is far more popular with visitors to Bansberia. It contains Tantric deity considered to be particularly powerful. The temple was commissioned by a later zamindar of the Bansberia Raj, Nrishinghadeb Ray, who built it after several years of Tantric study in Benaras. It was completed in 1814, after his death 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 temple is classified as 'modified ratna' by David McCutchion but it is architecturally unique amongst the temples of Bengal and seems to have been heavily influenced by European architecture. The interior structure and overall design are said to have Tantric symbolism reflecting Nrishinghadeb's spiritual education.

Entrance to Zamindar House
The grounds and house of the zamindar are located next to this temple complex. The entrance to the grounds is a two-storeyed building with a chamber above corresponding to a nahabat-khana where drummers and musicians would perform to welcome guests entering the zamindar's palace.

Photos and Text © Amit Guha