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The small village of Tilantapara is in the Pingla block of Medinipur district in West Bengal, mid-way between the rural towns of Pingla and Sabang. The mansion of the Maity zamindar family here is now ruined and neglected: only the imposing facade with its doric pillars remains. But enclosed within a small compound nearby and standing on a raised platform is the Janaki Ballabh (Rama) temple, built in 1810. This rarely-visited mid-sized pancha-ratna temple is remarkable for being profusely decorated on all four outer walls. On three facades the decoration is in terracotta, while on the fourth side it is in pankha or plasterwork.

The Janaki Ballabh Temple
Tarapada Santra mentions in his survey of Medinipur temples that the Tilantapara temple has no parallel in Medinipur for the extent and quality of teracotta and pankha decoration. The terracotta panels on this temple are exquisite, nearly as good as in 18th century temples. The figures are lively and proportional with much attention to details of dress, ornament, and weapons (even within the crowded scenes). The plasterwork on the north wall however, is less graceful, and some figures on this wall seem like 20th century additions or repairs.

East Facade
The triple-arched entrance porch on the east has rich terracotta decoration in the standard 18th-19th century format. Horizontal registers on the arch panels are framed by a row of single panels. Double rows of panels arch below the cornice and along the side walls. Along the base are double registers comprising of Krishnalila scenes above and social scenes below. All the terracotta scenes on the arch panels here are from the Ramayana, as we would expect in a temple dedicated to Janaki Ballabh. As is common in terracotta narrative compositions, major sequences in the story are laid out in a left-to-right sequence allowing a viewer to identify and follow significant episodes. However, not every scene is chronologically placed.

East: Left Arch
One of the first scenes in the left arch panel is a favourite of Medinipur sutradhars: Jatayu attempting to engulf Ravana's chariot. A defiant Ravana attacks Jatayu with his sword while a despondent Sita sits inside. Next is a much later scene of Hanuman and other vanaras pulling down a rakshasa by his hair and pounding him with stones. The central register above this has an elaborate arch finial at the centre flanked by processions of gods: Siva on Nandi on the left with their animal entourage carrying flags, while on the right are the more sedate Vishnu on Garuda and Brahma on his Hamsa. In the register above this, loud drums, music and a trampling elephant attempt to wake a sleeping Kumbhakarna. Then Lakshmana with a bow and arrow is shown battling Meghnad who confronts him with a spear. In these scenes Rama and Lakshmana are shown with moustaches and jata (dreadlocks) as is appropriate to exiles living in a forest.

East: Centre Arch
Ramayana scenes continue with Sita's abduction as the first scene here, where she emerges from her hut to offer food to the mendicant who transforms into Ravana with his chariot. Next to this is the even earlier episode of Lakshman cutting off Surpanakha's nose: the incident that started it all. Next to this, the kidnapped Sita is shown in the Ashoka grove in Lanka, surrounded by her rakshasa attendants. The central register has the climactic battle scene. To the left of the elaborate arch finial is Rama, Lakshmana with their bows and arrows. To the right is Ravana and other rakshasas. The panel above this shows the various valiant activities of the vanaras: fighting rakshasas, building the bridge to Lanka, and extracting the spear from Lakshmana.

East: Right Arch
The battle continues on the right arch panel with Vibhisana, along with Hanuman and the vanara army commencing battle with rakshasas who are blowing war trumpets. Above this is the final scene of the victorious Rama (minus his dreadlocks) on the throne at Ayodhya with Sita. Lakshmana stands to their left holding a parasol above them while Bibhisan, Hanuman, Jambuban and other allies and followers are on the right. Hovering above Rama and Sita is a bird in a cage, with Sita pointing to it or feeding it.

East: Base Left
The Krishnalila scenes on the top frieze include Devaki in an arched house crouched over a basket as she gives birth. This is an unusual representation of Krishna's birth scene (the more common depiction being the Janma lila where Krishna assumed the form of a four armed deity). Next is another unusual scene: that of Kamsa attempting to kill the infant by throwing it on rocks. The next panel shows the child Krishna playing with his friends in the forests. Next is a small panel showing Vasudeva carrying Krishna across the Yamuna. In the next set of panels Krishna subdues various demons including the ogress Putana and the whirlwind demon Trinavarta. In the elaborate scenes below are various processions: on an elephant, European soldiers (with hats and rifles) on foot, on a camel, hunting on a horse, and a European out on a walk, shaded by a parasol.

East: Base Left Column
The main Krishnalila scenes above is the Daan lila where a seated Krishna demands a toll from the gopis, led by the formidable Barai Buri. Below are scenes of a hunter on a horse and two seated Europeans smoking a hookah. At the centre is an intricately depicted river boat with a crowded deck, animals including an elephant in the hold, and crocodiles appearing from the river below.

East: Base Right Column
The Krishnalila scenes here include Yashoda punishing Krishna by tying him to a tree, and Krishna dancing while two musicians play. Below is another scene of a mounted hunter spearing an animal, and an intricate river boat with elephants protruding from the portholes, and men descending from the boat on ropes and into the mouths of crocodiles. Next, a seated European caresses a woman while his dog looks up.

East: Base Right
The final but disorganised Krishnalila scenes include Krishna killing demons like Sakatasura (Cart-Demon), Kuvalyapida the elephant, and Kaliya the serpent. Then is a scene of Krishna being bathed by the gopis, followed by the final scene of Krishna and Balarama pulling down Kamsa from his throne. Below this are three separate panels of mounted hunters spearing an animal, and then processions on an elephant and a horse drawn carriage.

South Facade
The arches above the false doors on this facade have scallop-shell decoration, an ornament borrowed from European architecture. These are surmounted by a traditional floral finial, and the panels above the arches have the usual narrative registers, here mainly telling the Chandi Mangal story.

South: Left Arch
Of the two main registers here, the lower register has scenes from the Mahabharata, including Arjuna shooting the fish to win Draupadi's hand while his brothers and the dreadlocked Bhishma look on. Next to it is the Vastraharana scene with Draupadi on the right, saved by the magical spindle (above) with endless cloth. Above this is the climactic battle scene, perhaps of Arjuna and Karna, with the injured Bhishma below looking up. To its left, unexpectedly, Krishna and Balarama with broken tusks in hand proceed to dispatch Kamsa.

South: Centre Arch
The central arch panels have the main scenes of the Chandi Mangal episode. At the bottom right, is the scene of Srimanta's vision of Kamale Kamini: the goddess and her attendants are on lotus flowers while Srimanta stands before them with folded hands. To the left, suddenly, is a Krishnalila scene: the Kali-Krishna episode where Krishna disguises as Kali to deceive Radha's husband. Above this is a fine depiction of Chaitanya as the six-armed incarnation of Rama and Krishna, next to a four-armed Siva, flanked by worshippers and followers. Next to this is an image of the Jagannatha trio. At the top, is the climactic and elaborate scene from the Chandi Mangal where Srimanta and King Shalibahan on their elaborate boats with Kamale-Kamini in the centre but hidden from Shalibahan's view.

South: Right Arch
These Chandi Mangal scenes show Srimanta being taken away by the kings guards (bottom left) and preparing to be executed (middle-right). At the last moment, Chandi appears (top) in all her glory and saves Srimanta.

West Facade
This is an unusual facade, perhaps the only one of its kind in Bengali terracotta temples. The wall is decorated with stucco (pankha) figures and scenes in a strange mix of European and Indian styles. The arched space just below the cornice has a Gajalakshmi, flanked by seated women musicians. The space below this is divided into three vertical areas separated by doric columns. Each space has a false french window with mock slats, surmounted by and arch containing scallop-shell decoration with a floral finial. The spaces above this are divided into horizontal registers containing some unusual stucco scenes. Flanking this composition, and the false windows are standing stucco figures of men and women with dress, hair and faces modeled in European style.

West: Left Arch
The upper registers have seated figures at the centre, flanked by attendants or petitioners. It is uncertain who these figures are, perhaps the figure at the top is the zamindar patron of the temple, and below is his wife. The bottom register has erotic scenes on either sides of the arch. Women are caressed by men as they recline along the arch or stand with men, engaged in erotic acts.

West: Centre Arch
The top panel here is of a pot-bellied Siva with Parvati. They are flanked by the triple-headed Brahma on the right, Vishnu on the left, and human attendants. An animal headed attendant carries a child, perhaps Ganesha, while another child, perhaps Karthik plays below. The register below has, suddenly, the Daan lila scene with gopis bringing curds but on the right is a seated couple, perhaps the patrons again. The lowest register has erotic scenes.

West: Right Arch
The seated regal couple here are Rama and Sita, as evidenced by Hanuman kneeling at their feet. The register below has the Samudra-Manthan scene with gods on the left, asuras on the right, and a deity appearing above.

North Facade
The north wall has a single-entrance with a wooden door, and false entrances with false slats. Above these arched entrances are horizontal narrative registers with stories from the Durga Saptasathi and Krishnalila.

North: Left Arch
The scenes here are intriguing. A woman with a child looks at a performing bear. Next are musicians and dancers. In the register above are seated divinities, Krishna and Balarama, and perhaps Ganga on a makara.

North: Centre Arch
The scenes here all seem related to stories of Durga. On the bottom left is Rama invoking a seated Durga. Next to it Durga stands on her lion spearing the Mahisasura while other asuras attack her. Above this is shown Brahma on his hamsa, and Vishnu on Garuda being tormented and pursued by grotesque monsters, and then Durga as Kali attacks and asura mounted on an elephant. On the top register is the climactic and beautiful scene of the ten-armed Durga killing mahisasura, surrounding her are her four children, and flanking them various gods on their vahanas.

North: Right Arch
The top register here is Krishna's Mathura-gaman scene. Krishna and Balarama depart for Mathura on a chariot (left) while gopis raise their hands and wail or fall before the chariot. Below this is the Nauka-bilaas scene: Krishna takes the gopis across the Yamuna in his boat, and to its right, again, the Daan lila scene.

Photos and Text © Amit Guha