The terracotta temple of Bhattabati

Looked after by villagers, the Ratneshwar temple in Murshidabad is a symbol of communal harmony

Updated - March 31, 2019 11:47 am IST

Published - March 30, 2019 04:53 pm IST

Photo: Rana Safvi

Photo: Rana Safvi

The famous Hazarduari Palace of Murshidabad drew me to this once grand capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, now a dusty town in West Bengal.

For someone who chases monuments and forgotten ruins across the country, everything Murshidabad had to offer fascinated me.

When my guide told me about the Nawabi buildings on the other side of the Bhagirathi, I was more than happy to cross. The ferry took cars, cycles, scooters, goats, hens and people.

A post by Kolkata blogger Amitabha Gupta had already alerted me about an old terracotta temple here, and we went in search of it. And, amidst banana trees and green fields, I found the most exquisite terracotta temple.

It was a small temple, and as the sun’s rays fell on it, its red brick surface glowed, the shade from the trees adding a dappled effect.

The temple is in the village of Bhattabati. The legend goes that the place got its name from the Bhata Brahmin families who came from Karnataka and settled here in the reign of Alauddin Husain Shah (1494-1519).

Not much is known of the builder of this 18th century Shiva temple called Ratneshwar. It has five pinnacles, of which the central one is considerably taller than the rest.

The terracotta panels which cover the surface of the temple are spectacular.

The Ratneshwar temple stands on a plinth and is looked after well by the villagers, which include many Muslims. The temple is about 10 metres in height. The door to the shrine is kept locked.

Decorated panels

The terracotta panels on the temple have religious and secular scenes, and describe scenes from the life of Rama and Krishna, talk of kings, queens, dancing girls, reclining noblemen, troupes of musicians, women tabalchis , hunting and wedding scenes and more.

The figures have worn down over time. Every inch is covered by these remarkable terracotta scenes, including a lower panel with a version of terracotta warriors.

An exquisite panel on the western side depicts Durga in her mahishasura mardini form. She is flanked by Lakshmi and Saraswati. There are two rather large hunters on top of this panel. A small dog and a hawk in a cage accompany them. The detailing is fantastic.

The northern wall has a huge sculpture of Vishnu in the Vaman avatar. The sculpture shows the three steps that Vaman took to subdue the asura Mahabali. One points towards the sky, the second is on earth, and the third is firmly on King Mahabali’s head. Unfortunately, the portion showing the foot on Mahabali is damaged. Above is an exquisite ras-lila scene.

The eastern panel is a large but severely damaged statue of possibly the matsya avatar of Vishnu. This temple with its mythology, artistic perfection and message of communal harmony is something that symbolises India to me. I hope it is preserved before it is fully lost to us.

Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger who documents India’s syncretic culture.

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