Next weekend you can be at... Itonda

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By Soumitra Das
  • Published 19.12.04

Bolpur is Rabindranath. But it is also terracotta temples, whose panels are more exquisitely moulded than the better-known and larger temples of Bishnupur, Bankura.

Long before the poet decided to establish Santiniketan there, and Ajay river had changed its course, this region used to be a thriving trading post of the East India Company, and was famous for its indigo industry.

The temples are situated on the outskirts of Bolpur and some are already tourist spots, like Ilumbazar. Itonda has some of breathtaking beauty. Busing or driving 19 km down a road that snakes through hard red laterite and farmland to Itonda could be quite exciting.

The cluster of temples comes as a revelation after the dusty drive past Panchshwa village. The history of Itonda is not well documented, though oral traditions are considered a valid source of information.

At the end of a dirt track is the first temple inside a cage of scaffolding. Dedicated to Kali, it is being restored by Intach. Most of the panels have been removed from this Jor-bangla temple (modelled on a thatched hut) as the floods this year have ravaged the terracotta motifs of deities, gunboats and moustachioed British soldiers.

While one has to imagine the richness of the panels of this temple, a little further, in the heart of the poverty-stricken village, are three jewels that belong to the Sadhu family. An elderly Nirmal Kumar Sadhu says these were erected by Rasananda Sadhu, the primogenitor of the family, about 180 years ago.

Three branches of the family are trustees of the 2.44 acres that Rasananda left behind as debuttar property. It used to be a mango grove. Now it is a paddy field that some family members are selling off to outsiders, alleges Nirmalbabu.

As one crosses the threshold of the mud gateway to the cluster of hutments in which his family lives, one is confronted by the most unexpected presence a Palladian mansion in miniature.

With its rows of columns and arches on both storeys, it is the picture of desolation and decay. Inside, one can make out the painted stucco as delicate as chikan work, as rich as the decoration in the thakurdalan of Krishnagar palace. It is dedicated to Sridhar and the deities are a shalagram shila and Narugopal. Rasananda built it after returning from a pilgrimage to Vrindavan.

The other two temples further down the lane are dedicated to Shiva. Rasananda had built these too, a striking example of how people from the lower rungs of society commissioned projects considered a high-caste preserve.

Survival Kit
• Sturdy walking shoes
• Camera
• A love of old architecture
• The perseverance to find your way

(Pictures by Soumitra Das)

Close to each other, one is the shikhara type with a single spire, while the other boasts five ? fine example of pancharatna. Both are ornamented with motifs of Ram, Sita, Dasavatar, Radha, Krishna and a menagerie of beasts.

Further afield are a dozen or more temples in various stages of dilapidation, exposed to the elements and vandals. Surul Rajbari, about 30 to 45 minutes by cycle-rickshaw from Bolpur, has four beautiful terracotta temples. Their panels have been drastically cemented over.

How to get there:

There are seven trains to Bolpur at all hours of the day. Ganadevata Express: 6.05 am (Howrah), Kanchenjunga Express: 6.20 am (Sealdah), Santiniketan Express: 10 am (Howrah), Inter-City Express: 3.40 pm (Howrah), Visva-Bharati Fast Passenger: 4.40 pm (Howrah), Kanchan Kanya Express: 7.30 pm (Sealdah), Darjeeling Mail 10.10 pm (Sealdah). Taxis can be hired at the station but not many drivers are aware of the wonders of Itonda, 19 km away. It is better to stop and make inquiries at every village. The people are helpful. Local bus services to Itonda are available. One has to trek from the bus stop to the temples. Rickshaws will take visitors to Surul Rajbari. That takes about 30 to 45 minutes.

Where to stay:

Bolpur being the nearest railway station, one may stay there. For night halts, the West Bengal Government Tourist lodge is a good option. It’s reasonably clean and cheap. There are countless other private places for tourists to stay in.