Published:  06:10 PM, 29 May 2024

The Historical Terracotta Kantaji Temple at Kaharole in Bangladesh

The Historical Terracotta Kantaji Temple at Kaharole in Bangladesh
Sangram Datta: Historical Kantaji Temple  is a late medieval Hindu temple located at Kantanagar village in Kaharole Upazilla of Dinajpur district in Bangladesh. Built by Maharaja Pran Nath, its construction started in 1702 C.E. and ended in 1752 C.E during the reign of his son Maharaja Ramnath.
It boasts one of the greatest examples on Terracotta architecture in the then undivided India and now in Bangladesh and once had nine spires, but all were destroyed in an earthquake that took place in 1897.
People of Dinajpur  always feel proud for Kantaji Temple, a world-class archeological establishment ever found in dinajpur district, built by veteran Maharaja Prannath at Kaharole police station in Dinajpur District.
Although It's a Hindu temple, but thousands of beautifully decorated terracotta display and picturesque serene atmosphere are attracting thousands of pilgrims and visitors every year across the world.
This Navaratna Krishna temple was built in 1752 although the great earthquake of 1897 had demolished all its nine towers.
However its beauty was exaggerated more. About 13 miles north from Dinajpur district town, on the west of the river Dhepa, this temple is also called Kantanagar temple, as it is located in the village of KantaNagar. Terracotta Decoration Every available inch of its wall surface from the base to the crest of its three stories, both inside and out, pulsates with an amazing profusion of figured and floral art in unbroken succession. The vast array of subject matter include the stories of the mahabharata (Mahabharata) and the ramayana (Ramayana), the exploits of Krishna, and a series of extremely fascinating contemporary social scenes depicting the favourite pastimes of the landed aristocracy.

The astonishing profusion, delicacy of modeling, and the beauty of its carefully integrated friezes have seldom been surpassed by any mural art of its kind in Bengal.
However, even in its bewildering abundance of diverse motifs, one can observe a carefully arranged thematic scheme in the composition of subject matters at different levels and spaces on the temple wall.

 A hunting scene in terracotta, Kantanagar Temple in general pattern of terracotta decoration of the temple's outer walls, the lowest four basal panels, running parallel across the four faces, depict from bottom upward, immediately above the plinth.
A recurring floral motif, consisting of full blown rosettes alternated with a four-foiled foliate pattern. The second frieze portrays contemporary social scenes and the hunting parties of the landed nobility.

 The second register depicts animated hunting scenes of wild games, royal processions of elephants, horses, camels, and dainty ox-carts of the nobility with their retainers in Mughal dress and arms. The richly caparisoned majestic elephants and splendid stallions, their chariot and harness are vividly delineated; corpulent zamindars are seen squatting in their gilded palanquins puffing from luxurious hukkas with long sinuous pipes. Still other panels portray river cruises on long slim boats crowded with revellers; squads of soldiers often wearing European dress are also shown marching with drawn swords and even muskets.

 Mythological scenes on the third register depict the nativity of Krisna; the demon King Kangsa; successive attempts to kill the infant Krishna; Krisna's killing of the Putana ogress and the Bakasura or crane-demon; the lifting of Govardhana mountain, the killing of Keshi; the quelling of the snake-demon, Kaliya, and Krisna's pleasure ride on a long slim boat with revellers. The south face of the temple also presents stories from the Ramayana in a somewhat confused sequence. Ramayana stories continue on the east face. Here the exile of Ramachandra, Sita, and Laksmana in the Panchavati forest; Laksmana's striking off the nose of Shurpanakha; the abduction of Sita by Ravana from Dandakaranya; Jatayu's futile attempt to obstruct the chariot of Ravana; the captivity of Sita in Ashoka Forest; the fight between Bali and Sugriva with their monkey followers for the throne of Kiskindhya; Ramachandra's sapta tala veda and Sugriva with his monkey followers and their palaver with Ramachandra are shown in striking details.
The north face predominantly portrays scenes of Krisna and Balarama. Thus Krisna's various marriages and cowgirls carrying milk and curd pots in shika (string bags) suspended from pole etc are shown. In the second register an interesting European battle ship is depicted in great details with soldiers and a cannon.

 The entire western face of the third register depicts various episodes from the Krsna legend, ending in the slaying of Kangsa, the demon king of Mathura. It includes the annihilation of Kuvalayapida, the monstrous killer elephant of Kangsa; and Radha's fainting fits on her failing to dissuade Krsna from participating in Kangsa's sport tournament in Mathura. Of particular interest is a group of cowherds carrying milk and butter in string bags, suspended from a pole on shoulder, which is still a familiar scene in rural Bengal.

 The elaborate panels over the spandrels of multi-cusped arches exhibit animated battle scenes from the great epics and also rasa-mandala, with dancing Radha-Krsna couple within circles, and a host of accessory figures. The spirited battle scenes of Kuruksetra and Lanka are depicted with great vitality and invention by the folk artists.

In the seemingly inexhaustible store of terracotta mural decoration on the temple wall, the folk artists, mostly from Krsnanagar, often have left behind the imprint of their keen awareness of the environment in which they lived. The deities they depicted in panels were sometimes treated with an astonishing sense of reality and as intimate and familiar members of their society. For instance, an extremely interesting series of upright western panels on the bottom register of the western face, depicts Krsna plucking coconut from the tree and handing them over to one of his companions climbing halfway up the trunk, who, in turn is delivering these to another companion waiting on the ground. It is a familiar scene in Bengal where the deity is intimately shown as one of the members of society. Individual plaques often display idiosyncratic compositions such as the one found at the inner face of the corridor on the south face where Radha-Krsna are shown dancing on an elephant very cleverly composed of a dozen human figures. Again, on the northern face, Krsna is depicted with one of his newly wedded bride seated on a pidi (low wooden stool) under a canopy where she is coyly holding her veil with one hand over her head and bashfully peeping at her lord. This, of course, is an endearing familiar wedding scene in rural Bengal. In the bewildering crowd of friezes, one may even find Krsna squatting nonchalantly with folded knees, tied with a gamchha (a strip of cloth) round the knees and back, in a posture altogether uncommon among Bengalees, but common among the working classes in adjacent Bihar.
However, one distinctly delightful aspect of the fabulous terracotta ornamentation of the Kantaji Temple (Kantajir Mandir) is its restraint in depicting erotic scenes. In this, it is unlike Orissan and South Indian temples.

The endless panels of terracotta art embellishing the wall surface of the Kantaji temple, have a life and vitality of their own and are deeply imbued with the spirit nourished for thousand years on the silt-laden soil of Bangladesh. In a country like Bangladesh, being formed by enormous volumes of fertilizing soft alluvium, the development of an indigenous terracotta art was a logical outcome, given the absence of stone. The tradition of this plastic art is rooted in the early historic period, especially during the Pala-Chandra period, when Buddhist temples at paharpur (Pahadpur), mainamati, bhasu vihara, Sitakot and other monuments were enlivened with floral and figured terracotta art. These plaques are however, large and usually archaic, but the terracotta embellishments on the Kantanagar temple walls are of totally different nature. They represent a highly sophisticated mature art with a very carefully integrated scheme of decoration. Contrary to the earlier tradition of isolated and somewhat unrelated composition, the art in this temple was composed of several individual plaques, integrated into an extended composition so that the entire space followed a rhythm. The effect often is more like a richly decorated carpet or embroidered tapestry than an architectural composition.

It boasts one of the greatest examples on terracotta architecture in Bangladesh and once had nine spires, but all were destroyed in an earthquake that took place in 1897. So naturally this was a place of interest to us.

There is around 15000 terracotta works installed on the walls of the temple.

It is the most visited religious site for the country's Hindu community and is frequented by devotees from other countries as well.

Also known as Kantanagar Temple, the eighteenth century brick temple is situated about 12 miles north of Dinajpur town, and about a mile west of Dinajpur-Tetulia highway across the Dhepa River.

On December 4, 2015, militants attacked the temple using explosives. IS later claimed responsibility. Police pressed charges against 13 members of banned militants of JMB on June 30, 2016.

On 01 March 2024, newly elected Dinajpur-1 lawmaker Zakaria Zaka laid the foundation plaque for the mosque on the land of the iconic religious structure. The construction began the very next day, stirring much controversy.

On 13 March 2024, Ronojit Kumar Singha, an agent of Raj Debottar Estate in Dinajpur, where the temple stands, sent a letter to the deputy commissioner, urging a halt to the mosque's construction.

Speaking to the local media He said, "The mosque was supposed to be built on eight decimals of land of the temple, but they took over 16 decimals and have already gathered construction materials there. The distance between the temple and the construction site is about 500 metres."

Local newsmen saw the papers relevant to the land of Kantajew Temple.

According to Khatian-5 records, the 94.07-acre land was recorded to Maharaja Jagadishnath Roy. It is located around a mile west of the road across the Dhepa river in the Kantanagar village.

The land spans several plots (daags) surrounding the temple. Daag-16 is around 6.48 acres, where the mosque was being constructed.

Ronojit also said that around 63 acres of the land, according to Khatian-5, is under the possession of Raj Debattar Estate while the rest was illegally grabbed and many people have been living there with their families.

"Cases were filed several times to recover the grabbed land."

The Estate committee has been paying the land tax regularly till even last year.

This has enraged the Hindu community in the area. The piece of land is looked after by the Dinajpur deputy commissioner’s office.

Besides, there is a committee formed by the Raj Debtara Estate that looks after the supervision and maintenance of the land.

The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council has expressed deep concern over the construction work on the land behind the temple of Kantajew, a historical archaeological monument.

In a statement, the three presidents of the rights organization, Ushatan Talukder, Prof Dr Neem Chandra Bhowmik, and Nirmal Rosario, along with General Secretary Advocate Rana Dasgupta, strongly condemned and expressed anger over the laying of the foundation stone for the mosque's construction in Kantajew Temple area by the local MP.

The statement also highlighted that the involvement of the MPs and the deputy commissioner in this attempt to destroy the nation's image and communal harmony goes against the peace and order of the country.

The council has called upon Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to intervene urgently to protect the temple's sanctity and ensure the Hindu community's religious freedom.

Some leaders of upazila Awami League have complained that a quarter has misled the local member of parliament, prompting him to inaugurate the construction.

On 24 March 2024, The Dinajpur district administration yesterday banned all kinds of construction work on the land of the Kantajew Temple in Kaharol upazila, 23 days after the construction of a multi-storey mosque had begun there.

At a news briefing on 24 March 2024, Shakil Ahmed, deputy commissioner of Dinajpur, confirmed the ban on all kinds of construction on the Kantajew Temple land.

Visiting the temple area in the morning, he spoke to members of the mosque construction committee and ordered them to suspend the work.

He also met the leaders of the upazila's Hindu community at his office.

At the briefing, the DC said the mosque was being reconstructed on "Debattor land" (land of the Deity) of the Kantajew Temple without any permission taken by the authorities concerned, rendering the construction illegal.

Shafiqul Islam, Kaharol's upazila nirbahi officer, went to the construction site on 24 March 2024 and hung a notice banning all sorts of construction on the land.

Meanwhile, leaders of Dinajpur unit of Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad and Bangladesh Hindu-Bouddha-Christian Oikya Parishad expressed their dismay over the construction on the temple's land.

Swarup Bakshi, president of Dinajpur's puja udjapan parishad and Dinajpur Press Club, said the DC suspended the work but we want a permanent solution so that such incidents do not recur.

"Since the construction began, most of the basement work has already been completed."

Former Dinajpur-1 lawmaker Manoranjanshil Gopal said, "This [construction on Deity land] will definitely hurt the communal harmony."

High Court ruling said Debattor land belongs only to the Deity in 1999.

The terracotta Kantajew Temple dates back to the 18th century. It not only globally represents Bangladesh but also is a UNESCO-listed site in the Indian subcontinent.

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