Next weekend you can be at ... Rajbalhat
In the 16th century, Rajbalhat was the bustling capital of the Bhursut kingdom, which was spread across the present Howrah and Hooghly districts. Five centuries later, it is a nondescript town in Hooghly’s Jangipara, known locally for its fascinating terracotta temples.
The 16th-century temple housing the idol of Devi Rajballavi, after whom Rajbalhat is named, can still be visited. However, it has been renovated several times — wiping out centuries of history in the process.
The idol of Rajballavi, about six feet in height, is white, with the left leg resting on the head of the seated Birupaksha Mahadev, and the right on the chest of Mahakal Bhairab. The right hand has a dagger; the left, a case of sindoor. The temple is still active, and devotees from the surrounding region converge on Rajbalhat to pay tribute to the goddess. Rajbalhat also houses a couple of terracotta temples and offers an interesting mix of pilgrimage and history, ideal for a Sunday getaway.
Haripal is the nearest railhead and the morning Tarakeshwar local is the best way to get there. From Haripal, a bumpy ride in an overcrowded Trekker takes you to Rajbalhat. Get down at the Rajballavi temple complex. Built by Raja Rudranarayan of Bhursut, the Rajballavi temple complex houses four Shiva temples, one of which is octagonal in shape. The renovations notwithstanding, the idol still gives an impression of what it used to be like during the glory days of the kingdom.
Your next stop can be Silpara, which has another temple complex. This complex houses several temples, but the star attraction is the 1724-built terracotta temple of Sridhar Damodor. The front of the temple is covered with intricate terracotta work. Local residents, however, have given it a multi-coloured “facelift” — again destroying several centuries of history at one stroke. The terracotta panels depict war scenes from the Ramayan, elaborate images of ships and boats and scenes from everyday life, making it a treasure-trove for the history enthusiast.
During the British era, Rajbalhat was an important centre of the silk trade. In 1789, the East India Company set up a Commercial Residency here. The silk-making survives to this day, and the sound of the hand looms can be heard till today. Bobbins of thread left out to dry are a common sight.
Take a narrow lane past the temple complex and walk past the textile workshop with its looms. You could walk past women spinning cotton thread on the charka (spinning wheel). The lane meanders on, reminding one of north Calcutta or even those of Varanasi. The lane emerges in Rajbalhat Bazaar, and a short walk takes you to the temple of Radhakanta in Ghataktala.
Built in 1733, the temple stands on a base of approximately 20 feet square and rises to a height of about 50 feet. The front face displays elaborate terracotta work. Here, the locals haven’t yet got around to bizarre experiments in decoration. It was a pleasure to watch the authentic brick red of the panels.
The aatchala temple has a triple-arched entrance, with the arched panels depicting battle scenes from the Ramayan. The base panels have images of ships, boats, royal chariots and processions.
It’s time to go home but if you are hungry for more, there are yet more terracotta temples at Atpur, where you can drop by on the way home.
From Howrah station, it’s a one-hour train journey on a Tarakeswar local to Haripal. From there, it’s a 30-minute Trekker ride to Rajbalhat. Both Haripal and Rajbalhat have eateries serving basic breakfast and lunch. Once there, walking is the only option.
(METRO ON SUNDAY THANKS READER RANGAN DATTA FOR THIS CONTRIBUTION. PICTURES BY AUTHOR)