August 17, 2013

Chandranath Shiva Temple, Hetampur, Birbhum

One of the most beautifully ornamented temples that I’ve come across my travels, Chandranath Shiva Temple is also one of the smallest standalone temples that I’ve ever encountered. Despite its miniscule size, the temple’s magnificence leaves one awestruck – at first glance the temple is so indecipherable from its surroundings that one does not even stop by to admire the sheer brilliance of the craftsmen who built it. Surrounded by a small courtyard that complements its splendor through its simplicity, the extraordinary temple is hidden behind a row of trees that have come up around it & are now competing with each other to see which one amongst them scales the height of the temple first. Camouflaged by the foliage that surrounds it & also by the now-blackened terracotta tiles that adorn every square inch of its structure, the temple is not easily distinguishable from its surroundings – we (me, Kshitish & Aakash - yep, they had disappeared for sometime but have started travelling again. Am glad!!) passed it once while on our way to the Hetampur Rajbari (“Royal Palace”) & did not even notice it, it was only when we were returning & inquiring with locals about the temple’s precise location that we chanced upon it inadvertently. Were it not for the graceful pinnacles of the temple rising above the foliage & acting as a beacon for confused visitors, we would have been completely at sea in this small village.

Terracotta dazzle!! - One of the best photos I clicked of the temple

The pinnacles have been designed in the Bengali Navaratna (“Nine jewel”) style where small domes rise around a central larger dome from a common base – a rounded pyramidal pinnacle surmounts the corners of the three sides facing to the front, the simplistic fourth side unadorned by either terracotta panels or pinnacles & hemmed in by the courtyard. Each of the pinnacle is crowned by a human figurine, it appears to be a lady with her hands outstretched – indicating that the temple’s architecture is also influenced by English traditions & art apart from the Bengali architectural style – certainly the British were officially ruling over the whole of Bengal & were the virtual rulers of the whole subcontinent in 1846 when the temple was constructed (11 years later the British would defeat the Great Mughals & the smaller independent kingdoms in the First war of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny & become the actual rulers of the subcontinent). Similar figurines adorn the gateway of the Rajbari which is situated close by. Significantly, a vintage portrait of the temple hangs within the Rajbari – perhaps it was the Nawab of the Hetampur house who commissioned this graceful temple & possessed refined tastes that came up with the fusion of traditional Bengali & English art & architecture. 

The temple's singular design, especially the pinnacled-roof, is pretty uncommon even in these parts. Notice the double courtyard extending in the front.

The cramped sanctum offers space adequate enough for only two people to stand in – a white Shiva linga (a thick phallus that is supposed to represent & worshipped as Shiva, the gentle but fierce primordial deity of the Hindus, the supreme soul who is also responsible for the destruction of the universe at the end of its lifecycle) seated on a beautiful base accompanied by a slender trident (Shiva’s weapon of choice) is all that there is inside the unadorned sanctum apart from a calendar that hangs on one of the walls. The terracotta panels that decorate three of the temple’s four sides are surprisingly intricate – apart from geometrical & floral patterns, the sculpted panels depict Indian deities, European gown-clad women & hat-wearing men & royal seals complete with a shield & lions. The walls of the temple, covered in soot & grime, blackened with time reflect its antiquity, but conspire to hide its sheer brilliance. The terracotta panels reveal patterns & mythological figurines carved with great skill & passion – gaping with astonishment & admiration at this little specimen of unmatched native art & architecture, we couldn’t help but wonder if more such temples wait for us in Bengal. The temple is flanked on one side by a shop & on the other by a house that easily dwarfs it; opposite it extends a row of shops. A small hand-pump outside the temple is the source of drinking water for fatigued travellers like us. Though the temple has made it to the list of State-protected heritage structures, however I doubt if any financial aid or expert conservation assistance reaches this small structure in the middle of a poor village along the highway (SH 14). Hetampur is like most of the Indian villages/townships scattered around the countryside - dust covered, solemnly quiet, remote & forgotten.

Patterned brilliance!!

Sadly, I could not find any information about the temple’s construction or who commissioned it, perhaps the Nawab of Hetampur could have guided us in this quest, but he was not in very good health when we visited the place – having himself suffered a stroke some months back, the old man was nursing his wife who has recently suffered a stroke & is confined to bed rest – that he permitted us to photograph the Rajbari & document its deplorable condition despite the pains that have befallen them is a big honor for which owe them our gratitude. I still wouldn't suggest a trip exclusively to visit Hetampur - there isn't anything to do & you'll be bored to death. One can instead opt for a zig-zag tour covering Hetampur-Kankalitala or Hetampur-Nalhati, but you'll have to travel long distances in rickety buses. If you are a monument/architecture buff who would not stop at anything to see one of the most splendid temples in the area, then this place is definitely for you. Happy travelling!!

Location: Hetampur village, Birbhum
How to reach: SBSTC Buses are available from different parts of Bengal to Hetampur. Alternately one can reach Suri, the headquarters of Birbhum & take a bus from there to Hetampur (1.5hr approx. distance). The temple is a short walk from the Rajbari (which is known to everyone, so ask your way around)
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Advice - Stay away from the beer, even the bottled & branded ones, available at the numerous road-side eateries ("Dhabas") here, you are going to regret it later like we did!!
Suggested - 
  1. - Chandranatha-Shiva Temple at Hetampur, Birbhum District.
  2. - Some remarkable terracotta temples of Hetampur & Illambazaar


  1. Philippe Launay-DebnathSeptember 09, 2014

    Next time I am going to WB I will try to escape from the duty to see relatives and spending more time to see these wonders

    1. Philippe there are monuments scattered all over Bengal, in fact through out India it is contended that there are 4 lakh+ heritage sites (~7500 protected)

  2. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

    Sahil, loved your advice for the beers!

  3. Lots of reasons to go to Bengal: Murshidabad, Gaur, Bishnupur, Dutch settlement trail up the Hooghly. and now this village.