There is lot of controversies on the significance of name ‘Birbhum’, but the most popular of them is the land (bhum) of Brave people (Bir). Certainly after hearing that one will be curious to find evidences from history in support of that explanation. We do not know whether Birbhum got his name from the gallantry of the kings but their opulence made them significant in the history of Birbhum. Hetampur Raj was one of them and the terracotta temples are built under their kingship left interesting spots.
Hetampur gets its name from a local zamindar Hetam Khan and the Hetampur raj arose from an unskilled worker of Bankura District to the most powerful family of Birbhum. Radhanath Chakraborty was the first prominent name of Hetampur Royal family who subdued the former Gomastas and Iajardars. By the end of 18th century more lands of Birbhum were taken by them. Even they declared themselves as independent kings and refused to pay tax to Nawab of Murshidabad anymore. Such influence was carried out by this family even after Radhanath Chakraborty.
Both Hetampur royal palace and nearby terracotta temples are the reflections of their opulence. The royal palace has a big red gateway. This gateway has interesting female figures on the top of it. Such figures are very rare with respect to other structures of Birbhum as it this is prone to Roman classical style. It would not be wrong to say that such Roman classical style was transmitted to this region through Victorian architecture. This indicates their relation with British culture and the implication of that style in various parts of royal palace and terracotta temples signify their association with British administration.
When we visited Hetampur before we went to see royal palace we were stuck by the art and architecture of a Shiva temple which was there on our way to the royal palace. We were surprised not because the art was amazing but it was peculiar. Depiction of English man and women, insignia of company royal house, representation of Victorian erotic sense are very unusual in case of Bengal terracotta temple.
Unlike the other terracotta temples this temple bore mostly European figures. Though there are figures like Mahisashurmardini Durga, but such figure is rare particularly in this temple. The image of court of arms of British East India Company, male figure with hat, coat and trouser, a lady dressed in gowns are demonstrating the British influence upon the royal family. This is beyond doubt that such representation of British culture and power did not have any influence on rural society.
Though it is hard to tell whether presence of English women were irregular in this area at the time when this temple was constructed but it would not be wrong to say that those memsahibs were not very irregular in the rural landscape of Colonial India. Many of them came here to live with their male counterparts in the bungalows and residences. Representation of the late Victorian women is clear on the temple walls.
On the other hand we have female figure as a companion of English male figure. Story which evolves around this illustration is rather a story of a sexual relation. This sexual relation evolves around a native women and an English man. It would not be wrong to say that this native woman is a prostitute who was a matter of concern from British army barracks to the board of control of Company. By addressing that history terracotta art did a first-class job. So it can be said that art on this temple is rather a portrayal of colonial life in India rather than rural cults and myths.
Unlike other places of Birbhum Hetampur does not have much treasure in its box. Those, which are alive, are not in a better position except some of them. One of them is Dewanji temple which is situated close to the previous one. This is a traditional Deul structure and it has figures of musicians playing the instruments like khol and blowing horn. God and Goddess are the most common figures of this temple. Apart from that we have various other figures like musicians, maids, dancers. Both Vishnu and Krishna are depicted in this temple. Vishnu is seen with Lakshmi and Krishna is accompanied by gopis and Radha. Probably this temple was dedicated to Vishnu or Krishna.
- Temple Terracottas of Birbhum, Mukul Dey.
- Mukul Dey archives. Chitralekha.
- The Economic life of Bengal district 1770-1857, Dr. Ranjan Kumar Gupta, 1984.
- West Bengal District Gazetteers : Birbhum by L.S.S. O’Malley & Durgadas Majumder (1973).
- “Birbhum Bibaran” by Mahima Ranjan Chakraborty .
Research – Santanu Roy.
Picture Courtesy – Sritam Mukherjee.