Monuments around Santiniketan

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Item Code: IHK026
Author: Pialee Mukherjee
Publisher: Shubhi Publications
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788182902060
Pages: 193 (Illustrated Throughout In Color and B/W)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.3 inch X 6.4 inch
Weight 390 gm
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Book Description

It is a matter of great pleasure that INTACH Santiniketan Chapter has been successful in publishing the documentation of the heritage sites around Santiniketan, in West Bengal. The book will help give the much needed visibility to these heritage sites and thereby generate concern amongst our people for their restoration and future preservation.

Santiniketan enjoys a special position in West Bengal. This small university town is a centre for art and culture and attracts students and tourist not only from other states of India, but from other parts of the world as well. Rabindranath Tagore’s contribution to Bengal’s heritage has been very significant. Tagore was a leading spokesperson of compassional humanism and culture of not only India but the world as well. His deep and pervasive sense of the ‘universal’ in thought and culture is reflected in his brainchild: santiniketan. The unique identity of Santiniketan’s architectural heritage is a reflection of the Poet’s need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’.

Around Santiniketan, the architecture primarily consists of hut-style temples with gabled roofs. The Bengal temples are usually small in structure and cannot be termed grand, but are rich in their aesthetic appeal. Most of these temples are covered on the outer surface with exquisite terracotta reliefs. This architectural form is unique to West Bengal and its preservation would be much desired. The 13th century Muslim influence on the architecture of this region cannot be overlooked either. The extant tombs in Bengal are small in number but show significant variety and interesting adaptation of the conventional Islamic form to regional tastes and requirements.

Preserving our Monuments is of deep concern to us, as we can then retain the historical and cultural legacy that has been handed down for centuries. During its 23-year history, INTACH’s mission has grown from preserving architectural heritage to include a broad perspective of heritage in all its aspect: natural, material, cultural, heritage tourism, advocacy and capacity building efforts to support landmark preservation activities in over 120 Chapters all over the country and three Chapters abroad. The efforts made by INTACH Santiniketan Chapter in this direction have been commendable and will serve to inspire future endeavours to preserve our heritage in the region.


From the very beginning of INTACH Santiniketan Chapter, we had wanted to start a project that would locate, identify and list monuments in the surrounding area as the extant evidence of the cultural heritage that the district of Birbhum in West Bengal has had over hundreds of years. Our four years (from 2001 through 2004) of search and hard work in the region outlying Santiniketan have eventually paid off. We have succeeded in preparing this publication containing an array of visual presentation of what we have found, a treasure trove indeed, diligently compiled, catalogued and written about, for the preservation of the district’s magnificent heritage. It is sad that much of that is now in decay.

INTACH Santiniketan Chapter was founded in August 1988 through the continuing efforts of a formidable band of people from the area, committed to the task of preservation of heritage and environment. I was then the convener of INTACH Santiniketan Chapter. It is now a matter of great pride that we have finally succeeded in offering this presentation to you and for posterity as well.

Locations that once housed dominant families, temples, and other places of worship and community activities provide ample evidence of an artistic craftsmanship of the highest order. They, in fact, are found as far as 120 km from Santiniketan and most of them predate buildings and sites that have remained hallmarks of Visva-Bharati University located within Santiniketan Ashram. Heritage buildings in Santiniketan campus area also deserve a special mention for its extraordinary architectural plotting that blends with the ragged contours of arid Birbhum. We have brought them into this family of overarching illustrations of cultural sites around Santiniketan.

This project led by Shri Subir Adhikari (the then co-convener), garnered active participation from a ground of committed members who made a significant contribution towards completing this major task.

We can now hope this accomplishment would generate a cultural consciousness among all of us for strengthening a demand for its preservation.

Editor’s Note

Santiniketan is home to a central university founded by Rabindranath Tagore enjoying a culture enriched by Tagore’s presence, which is so alive in Bengal even today. This small little town with a population of around fifty thousand people, abounds in heritage buildings, open-air sculptures and mural paintings, which attracts tourists from both India and abroad.

Santiniketan lies in the Eastern part of the district of Birbhum in Bengal, having its own unique identity. The rest of Birbhum is a treasure trove of terracotta art which is primarily showcased in the innumerable temples that dot the countryside. The history of terracotta craft can be traced from the Indus Valley culture at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, almost three thousand years before Christ. From the Indus Valley, the craft spread eastwards and flourished in areas where stone was scarce, like Bengal. Beautiful terracotta craft of the Gupta period have been discovered in North Bengal, particularly in the Birbhum district. Terracotta craft attained its perfection in Bengal by the middle of the 18th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of Siva, Vishnu and Kali temples were built across Birbhum. They are mainly built of brick, sand and lime plaster, and are of varying sizes. Most of these temples lie in ruins, but in many of them still remain beautiful specimens of baked clay terracotta depicting figure compositions in decorative panels.

The thousands of terracotta panels found in the derelict temples of Birbhum depict mythological as well as modern scenes. Some of these panels give an insight into the traditions and manners, costumes and jewelry, even court dresses worn by women and men of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some houses and temples, there are lime plaster figures of animals and birds, damsels, angels and male figures of different types. Besides these, the craftsmen have touched upon different aspects of human and animal life, as well as ornamental designs of trees, creepers and flowers. In some temples, European life is also depicted in terracottas. Religion and art rested in the temples and shaped the character and thoughts of the people.

INTACH Santiniketan Chapter initiated the documentation of the sites in Birbhum in August 2001. A total of 118 sites were documented by March 2004. This book attempts to give a cursory glimpse of these sites. I felt that folklores and stories associated with some of the sites, as well as the historical backdrop of this area would enhance the reader’s interest, as well as understanding of this region and its architecture. The monuments in Santiniketan are enclosed in the first section of the book even though geographically it lies in the eastern part of Birbhum, primarily because these have a separate architectural identity and could not really be clubbed with the rest. There was an initial dilemma as to how to sequence the sites in the Eastern, Western and Northern parts of the district: in the chronological order of their date of construction, or the location of the site with Santiniketan as the point of reference. It was easier to decide on the latter as the date of construction of many of these sites were often not available and secondly, it would make it easier for the reader who might want to explore this region.


Birbhum, sandwiched between two important and prosperous districts of Burdwan and Murshidabad, was never a popular destination mainly for its limited connectivity. It consisted of thick forests infested by wild elephants and other animals, arid laterite and rocky land and the fertile alluvial riverine plains in the east. The rivers Ajay, Mayurakshi, Kopai and other minor channels sustained ancient Stone Age settlements. Archaeological remains of dwellings and religious structures, inscriptions and artistic remains from historical periods point to the antiquity of the land though no clear and continuous history can be formulated, especially for the earlier period. Birbhum was a part of the ancient Rarh region, later more specifically Uttara Rarh; the dividing line between North (Uttara) and South (Dakshina) Rarh was the river Ajay. Several villages of Birbhum find mention in early inscriptions, but not any town till the 13th century - indicating late urbanization. In AD 1260, Minhaj-ud Din Siraj in his Tabakat-I Nasiri described the kingdom of Lakhnauti (Lakshmanavati) which lay on the banks of the river Ganga. The eastern part was called Raal (Rarh). Lakhnaur being the principal two of that region, has been identified with Nagor near Suri, which later developed into a fortified city called Rajnagar. Pilgrims, however, flocked to Bakreswar, Tarapith and Kankalitala, Kendubilva and Nannur - places associated with the great devotee poets, Jayadev and Chandidas.

Rapid changes took place in the 18th century, when the combined forces of the Nawab of Murshidabad and the British army defeated the Pathan Rajas of Birbhum, who ruled much of the area until AD 1760, and the British started to make inroads. After years of famine, deprivation and oppression the areas close to the rivers and the fertile plains to the east prospered through the establishment of ‘new industries’ like indigo-and silk-making by the British (and to a lesser extent by the French) and places like Ilambazaar, Surul, Suri, Ganutia and Supur came into prominence. This led to the growth of a class of affluent landlords, officials and agents in nearby towns and villages who built imposing pucca mansions and temples for their personal deity. Within a short period, of almost seven decades the whole countryside in eastern and central Birbhum was dotted with brick temples, embellished with superbly designed terracotta panels-the earliest surviving one is the temple at Ghurisha, situated between Illambazar and Dubrajpur. With the advent of the Vaishnavs this ancient land of Siva and Sakti worship turned into a land of happy communion of three principal Hindu cult religions. The terracotta panels on the temples depicted dasamahavidyas of the Mother Goddess along with dasavataras of god Vishnu, panels from Krishna-lila, Ramayana and Mahabharata along with yakshas, kinnara-kinnaris, demons and composite figures. Hermits, Yogis, musicians, and European soldiers mingled with women wearing European costumes or village women busy with their daily chores. Several, temples worthy of mention for their exquisite craftsmanship, are those at Sonatorpara (Suri), Kalikapur, Itanda and Illambazar. Clay was not the only material used for decoration of the temple, the skilled artisans also tried their hand at phulpatha, a kind of fine grained, not-too-hard stone, found among Ganpur group of temples.

Maharshi Devendranath Tagore’s choice for a quiet place of worship in the emote gravel land north of Bolpur and not far from the prosperous settlement of Surul started a new era in this part of Birbhum. He built a house that was named Santiniketan where he could spend time in peace and harmony and selected the adjacent piece of land to build a Brahmo Mandir. His youngest son Rabindranath completed this task and started a unique and exclusive school to impart non-formal education to the students. His decision to spend his life in this place and work for the community transformed the entire character of the area. The tiny school at Santiniketan, and the place acquired its new name, developed into a sprawling center of learning identified with the unique ideas and universal ideals propounded by Tagore and started attracting visitors from all over the world. New settlers started flocking to this ‘Adode of Peace’ giving this place a fresh identity.

With improved road, rail and transportation system and a new interest in touring around the countryside, a large number of affluent and not-so-affluent people from nearby areas have started travelling to Birbhum. People coming to visit Santiniketan or the popular pilgrim centre of Tarapith, Bakreswar and Joydev are fanning out to the countryside to look at the temples in nearby villages. Unfortunately the temples once shining like jewels amidst the lush green countryside, have mostly been deserted by their owners who have migrated to cities or lost their steady income due to changes in the social and economic fabric. Time, vagaries of nature and years of neglect have started taking their toll on these ancient monuments. In some places even the names of those who commissioned the temple or the deity who adorned the inner chamber have been forgotten. Vandals, thieves and antique collectors have denuded many of them of their beautiful terracotta panels.

In order to address the problems facing these priceless treasures, the Santiniketan Chapter of INTACH took up the task of closely looking at the monuments and compiling a basic list before preparing a detailed status report. While doing so it was realized that even this basic list would be useful not only to the experts but also to the large number of tourists and interested visitors who are keen to visit them and know more about their history - the basic details of who built them and when, who was responsible for their planning and construction and the story associated with the site and the deity installed there. The task of making a photographic survey, a with the constraints of time, money and manpower. Without waiting for a detailed and a perfect monograph it was decided to go with whatever information and photographic record could be compiled.

The temples of Birbhum has attracted the attention of scholars over a long period of time. The earliest account in L.S.S.O Malley’s Gazetteer for Birbhum District first published in 1910 still retains its value as a sourcebook. The 1961 District Census Handbook on Birbhum, essays by David McCutchion, the Lalit Kala Academy portfolio Birbhum Terracottas by Mukul Dey, with many striking photographs (1959), and the essays and notices by David McCutchion (published in various journals from 1967 onwards), P.C. Dasgupta (1966), Binoy Ghosh, Amiya Kumar Bandopadhyay (1980), Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal (1963 onwards), Tarapada Santra (1971 onwards), Sukhamoy Bandopadhyay (1984) and the West Bengal Government publication, Birbhumer Purakiriti, by Devkumar Chakravarti (1972), and many other essays and publications have focused on them in various ways.


Acknowledgement v
By S.K. Mishra
By Chidananda Dasgupta
Convener’s Note
By Subir Adhikari
Editor’s Note
By Pialee Mukherjee
By Dr. Asok Das
Birbhum: A Brief History of the District xix
Part One
Santiniketan: Abode of the Poet
Santiniketan and its Architectural Heritage
By Dr Partha Ghose
Part Two
Eastern Part of Birbhum
Part Three
Western Part of Birbhum
Part Four
Northern Part of Birbhum
Glossary 168
Index 174
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