Rupa Gopal marvels at historic temples in Kalna and traditional textiles in Shantipur, West Bengal.
Winston Churchill wrote of Calcutta “at night, with a grey fog, and the cold wind, it almost allows one to imagine that it is London”. Colonial Calcutta laboured under heavy delusion, leading to many stately buildings, and many gross edifices, fondly called palaces, built by newly rich “baboos”, in British times. “Bengalshire, Calcutta Corinthian, and Rotten Rococo” became later references to these pretentious buildings, a hodge-podge of Greek temples, Roman villas and Rajasthani or Mughal additives. Not by any stretch of imagination could one liken the present city to London — dust and dirt all over, unkempt buildings seemingly propped up only by exposed roots of the banyan, and most likely, by layers of dirt, almost everyone chewing paan, and spitting it out anywhere, hideous traffic — the senses just could not take anymore.
I decided to drive out 90 km to Kalna, and also see Shantipur-Fulia along the way — 90 km that took four hours to reach! The route seemed endless, the highway choked with traffic.
Finally out of the city, one sees fields of waving yellow and white — my spirits lifted up, assailed by the tingling aromas of mustard and coriander. The clayey dust was here too, over trees and everything in sight. I start to harangue the driver — “Are you sure we are on the right road to Kalna? How can 90 km take over three hours?” We stop to ask a few people — “Straight ahead, and then left”, they point, to the endless road. At last we turn left, bumping along cluelessly, till much later we reach the river-front — the Bhagirathi Ganga. “Nodi,” says the driver triumphantly, pointing to the very broad river. The ancient town and temples of Kalna are on the other side of the river, and there is no bridge in sight. Country boats are chugging across, laden with people, their bundles, and their two wheelers. The road with the bridge across lies around 70 km away! So near, yet so far, sank the heart, when floating into vision came two motorcars — there was a ferry service in place. Rs.220 one way! I’m driven on board — my driver too is a first-time visitor, amazed by it all. Alongside my car is a cart loaded with cartons of fresh eggs, an ox cart with two unconcerned animals yoked to it — they were probably pros at the ferry crossing, a cart loaded with lovely mud flower pots, another weighed down with 100 sacks of rice each sack weighing 60 kg, and the last boasting a hideous, green metal bureau, which I found was most popular here.
The five-minute crossing is simply beautiful, and soon we are up into the tiny lanes of Kalna, more traversed by cycle rickshaws and heavy tractors, than cars.
Located in Burdwan district, the Bardhman Rajas ruled Kalna, or Ambika Kalna, building grand terracotta temples, in the early 18th century. Nearby Shantipur and Fulia were seats of Vedic learning and Sanskrit, from the 9th century A.D. Lush paddy fields surround Kalna, along with fields of potato and jute. Refugees from East Pakistan flooded this region, during Partition.
The Rajbari or royal palace complex has the maximum temples — splendid gardens and on-going renovations greet one, the vista of temples spread out attractively. Rounded domes, somewhat reminiscent of Russia’s famous onion domes, amaze the eye, soaring to the sky.
The Lalji temple is the oldest in this complex, brick-built in 1739, rich in terracotta imagery. The Pratap, Pancharatna and Vijay Vaidyanath temples are all attractive examples of terracotta embellishment, but it is the Krishna Chandraji temple that is simply marvellous. Built in 1751, its 25 steeples are absolutely masterly. Across this layout is the huge Nava Kailash temple built by Maharaja Tej Bahadur in 1809. Standing in the centre, one can see all the 108 shrines. The Sri Gauranga temple nearby houses the personal effects of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a saint most revered in Bengal. Kalna is near Nabadwip and Mayapur, famous for its Iskcon temple, which is probably much more visited than Kalna’s temples.
Safely back across the mighty river on the ferry, I head for nearby Shantipur-Fulia, along the route back to Kolkata. “Clickety clack, clickety clack” goes the regular beat of numerous handlooms as the weavers churn out magical saris and towels in tiny bamboo and mud adobes, all along the road. Colourful cotton saris are laid out in the sun — rolled or hung on wooden poles, ready to be carted off to posh shops in the cities all over India, beginning their existence in these tiny village homes.
I go into one dwelling where an old man sits at the loom. “How old are you?” I ask him. “68,” says he proudly, and goes on to say that it takes him a day to weave one cotton sari. The colours are jewel-bright —pink, green, yellow, red, turquoise, black and white. Outside, a woman sits reeling the yarn, surrounded by cooking pots, the holy basil to one side.
The neelambari or blue dye was famous here, even in the 15th century. The indigo-dyed midnight blue sari was so enchanting that it was called “an enemy of modesty”. Jamdanis, tangail, muslin — even the names of the types of weaves seem magical. In the olden days Shantipur weavers had even risen in protest, against the East India Company.
I cross the road to another dwelling, where a new sari is laid out to dry, after stiff starching. I go into the home, into a tiny room, where two wooden bureaus store the weaver’s work, and joyfully pick three saris —so nominally priced, yet sold with such self-confidence, and pride. All along the way out of this little village one can see the cotton saris laid out in the sunny open, the weavers’ sense of colour and design imbibed from nature. I suddenly spy a man bowed down with the colourful checked cotton towels woven here.
Dusk is falling rapidly, and I still have a long way to go. It has been a long tiring day, but the mind is full of fresh treasured visions of a bygone era of magnificent temples, of simple living, and the sheer wealth of Indian handlooms.