Field Notes | History & Culture

The terracotta temples of Maluti

The intricate carvings on Terracotta.

The intricate carvings on Terracotta.   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Maluti is a tiny village in Jharkhand with more than 70 exquisite terracotta temples dating back to the 17th century. Now, they are being restored

Deep in Jharkhand’s hinterland lies the village of Maluti. Flanked by mud houses and a handful of concrete buildings, narrow lanes lead to several open spaces right in the middle of the village — spaces that bear testimony to more than 300 years of rich temple architecture.

Once home to 108 temples, the village is now but a poor shadow of its past, with only 72 shrines remaining — but the sheer number puts Maluti on the heritage map of India. With intricate terracotta carvings of mythical scenes on their façades and walls, which have survived harsh weather and the ravages of time since the early 17th century, Maluti’s terracotta temples are now being restored.

The temples, mostly of Shiva, are dotted in five different clusters — Sikir Taraf, Rajar Bari, Madhya Bari, Chhoi Taraf and the Mauliksha temple complex.

Situated in Dumka district, the village is close to the border with West Bengal, and Chala architecture, inspired by traditional Bengali huts with their sloping roofs with curved edges, is a distinct feature of Maluti’s temples. Also, the influence of the exquisite Keshta Raya terracotta temple at Bishnupur in Bengal’s Bankura district can be seen clearly in every temple. The 17th century masonry technique using moulded bricks has been applied extensively.

Some of the temples that are still standing

Some of the temples that are still standing   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Conflicting narratives

Dumka-based historian Surendra Jha, who has written a voluminous book on Maluti, points out that the terracotta plaques were neither carved on the walls nor were they like stuccos; rather, they were stuck on using vajralepa. This is a paste prepared by mixing local sand, betelnut, horsehair, coconut fibre, brick powder, molasses, an astringent made of Aegle marmelos trees and oil gum resin beeswax, and allowing the mix to decompose.

But why is an otherwise nondescript village like Maluti home to so many temples? There are conflicting historical narratives. “In the early 16th century, Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah of Gauda awarded a zamindari to one Basanta Roy, a poor Brahmin of Katigram village, as a reward for catching the pet hawk, or baj, that belonged to the Sultan’s wife. Roy, who came to be known as Raja Baj Basanta, founded a dynasty that had its capital at Damra (some 8 km to the south). Later, it was shifted to Maluti,” says Shree Deo Singh of the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development (ITRHD), which has taken up the temple restoration work. And instead of constructing palaces, this king’s successors competed for prestige by building more and more temples on auspicious occasions.

Jha, however, has a different take: “The clash of egos between the women of the zamindar family appears to be the reason behind the construction of so many temples in such a small village. Oral history says that they would take offence if they had to visit a temple built by another woman’s husband. Most of these temples are dedicated to women, indicating that temple building had become a status symbol.”

It is believed that the temples began to be built in the early 17th century. With the passage of time, they began to crumble due to lack of maintenance, and a number of them have been overrun by vegetation. Several terracotta panels have been stolen over the years. The Bihar government did repair the temples in 1985-86, but there has been no sustained maintenance since there is no trained local manpower to handle conservation on a regular basis.

Years ago, Gopaldas Mukherjee, a retired schoolteacher, wrote a detailed research paper on just how this precious heritage could be protected, but it wasn’t until Jharkhand’s tableau based on the temples bagged a prize in the Republic Day parade of 2015 that the national spotlight fell on Maluti. Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to have taken a personal interest in the restoration work.

Worrisome methods

There is, however, a glitch. Jha and others have raised sustained questions about the conservation methods being used. “The terracotta structures would have survived for another 100 years if this conservation work had not fallen in the wrong hands. Guidelines are being grossly flouted. Iron, cement and chemical colours are being used. I am very worried about Maluti’s terracotta. I worry that its beauty will vanish forever,” says the historian.

ITRHD’s Singh is dismissive of these allegations — “The Archaeological Survey of India, the country’s apex body on heritage conservation, is monitoring our work. The ASI itself has certified that the cultural and archaeological values are being maintained and the conservation manual followed,” he says.

ITRHD has completed the restoration of 20 temples in the Rajar Bari cluster. “Temple No. 38 is the tallest of all. It has been brought back to its earlier glory,” says Singh. “It wasn’t easy to find masons with expertise in terracotta and 17th century construction. We are being aided by masons who have worked for decades in ASI monuments. We are using burnt-clay bricks (lakhauri) and lime-crushed brick aggregate (surkhi) mortar, lime, chhoa (molasses) and bhel (Aegle marmelos) fruits — the same material used 300 years ago,” he adds.

Mihir Kanti Sarkar, former Deputy Superintending Archaeological Engineer, ASI, emphasises the importance of continuous supervision of the ongoing restoration work. “One should stay away from any alteration or modification to the original structures, as we don’t have previous architectural or photographic documentation. If we make such changes, their aesthetic value will be lost forever,” he warns. Is ITHRD listening?

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 3:28:56 AM |

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