The debate continues till date. Which is the ultimate temple town of Bengal – Bishnupur or Ambika Kalna? Bishnupur is indeed more popular among tourists as it has connecting trains providing the luxury of travelling in AC Chair car and many standard accommodation facilities. Sadly till date, for travelling to Ambika Kalna by train you have mostly unreserved local trains. There is one Intercity express with AC Chair car facility but in reaches it the afternoon and is not ideal for day tour. Lodging facilities are just two or three at the most. Till date, the best way to reach Ambika Kalna is by road. The journey takes about 2.5 to 3 hours and you can cover the city easily in a day trip.
Bishnupur is way ahead that any temple town when it comes to variety in terracotta art. However, if you consider the variety of temple structures, Ambika Kalna is way ahead. You name a style in Bengal temple structure and this town in the Burdwan district has it to showcase. Also if you are strictly talking about temples with terracotta panels, Bishnupur has only four such temples. Rests of the temples at Bishnupur are made of laterite stones. Whereas in Ambika Kalna the number of “terracotta temples” are more than double than that of Bishnupur.
HISTORY OF AMBIKA KALNA
The town of Ambika Kalna is a very ancient one. Ambika Kalna was known as ‘Ambowa Muluk’ between 15th to 16th centuries as evident from Mangal Kavya (Bengali Hindu religious texts) of 1495. A map of Bengal made by Von den Brook in 1660 mentions the town ‘Ambowa’. In fact, some fifty years ago two Bishnu idols were recovered from Bhigarathi River flowing beside the town. In the opinion of archaeologists, these idols date to 10th or 11th century. If this can be considered as some sort of proof, the age of the town dates to almost 1000 years.
Historians opine that Ambowa was an important Military base of the Muslim Rulers after Jafar Khan conquered Saptagram in 1298. Several Mosques were built here from 1490 – 1559 during the rule of Hussein Shahi dynasty. During early 16th century at Ambowa, arrival of Shree Chaitanya Dev resulted in expansion of Vaishnav Religious cult at Ambowa.
However, the famous temples of Ambika Kalna were not built till the arrival of the kings of Burdwan in the area during 18th to 19th century. By then the name of the place has been changed to “Ambikanagar”. Popularly it is believed that the name is derived from “Ambika” – one of the many names of Goddess Durga who is being worshipped for several years by people in the city. It is also believed that early settlers of the area were Jains. The Goddess Ambika was earlier a Jain deity, who later was adapted into a Hindu deity.
It is to be noted here that the name Kalna came into limelight after the arrival of British, that too as late as 1790. In fact, in the 1776 published Rennel’s map, Kalna (spelled as Calna) and Ambowa ( spelled as Ambooah) are shown as different places.
TEMPLES OF AMBIKA KALNA
I have visited the town of Ambika Kalna by embarking a two-hour local train journey as well as driving through the smooth NH2 and the scenic Boinchi Kalna road. After a local train journey, the lanes of Kalna do not affect you much. However, after the road journey through the scenic roads (especially that of Boinchi Kalna Road), the chaotic lanes of Ambika Kalna comes as a culture shock. From the State highway 6, as you drive through the bylanes it looks more narrow and crowded as you get in the interior areas. A city with so much tourism capability has only a designed gate constructed in recent times as tourism promotion effort. Thankfully the Boinchi Kalna road has been recently renovated. Only in recent time tourism in Ambika Kalna is being promoted by some handful private tour operators providing all kind of facilities.
The total temples of Ambika Kalna are large in number which cannot be covered in one day visit. Therefore I list here the prominent temples of the temple town. My favourite way of visiting the temples is to take the early morning Katowa local of 5:38 from Howrah station to reach Ambika Kalna by 07:30. This follows a rickshaw ride (Toto ride in recent times) to the temples. The best way to see the temples of Kalna is by hiring one these vehicles. Even travel agents taking tourists to Ambika Kalna has to depend on Toto ride for visiting some parts of the town.
Nava Kailash Temples
Ideally a visitor to Ambika Kalna should start the temple tour by visiting the Nava Kailash Temple complex. Literally, Naba means new and Kailash is considered to be Mount Kailash – the home of Lord Shiva. Locally these are known as 108 Shiva temples, but as per the stone inscription at the entrance of the temples, there are 109 temples. The inscription also states that the temples were constructed by the then King of Burdwan Tejchandra in the year 1809.
The temples have been constructed in two concentric circles. The inner circle has 34 temples with White Shiva lingams. The outer circle has 74 Shiva temples with Black and white Shiva lingams in alterative temples. The number 108 is very auspicious & represents the 108 beads in the rosary. Right in the middle of the inner circle there is a covered well, which is said to have been constructed with great precision.
There are many theories about why the inscription says 109 temples when there are only 108 Shiva lingams in a similar number of Aatchala temples. I have not found any of them logical, but in the outer circle, there is an aatchala temple like structure which has no Shiva lingam and is always under lock and key. I confirmed from the caretaker that it was originally a gate which has been closed down. it seems logical as because it is in the same axis as the main gate to the premises which also looks like Aatchala. The inner circle also has two gates in aatchala style.
Kalna Rajbari Complex
Just opposite to Nava Kailash is the Rajbari Complex. Both are ASI protected. The Rajbari premises is the star attraction of the Ambika Kalna and is very well maintained. It even has toilets in the premises which come as a rare scenario in heritage tourist spots of West Bengal. Also the temples are lighted with colourful lights in the night. However, I never saw the temples in lights since I always have made day tours to Ambika Kalna.
The Rajbari complex temples have been built at different periods by Kings of Burdwan and their family members. After their family premises and temples at Dainhat got destroyed due to Bargi attack, Burdwan kings chose this town for building a Thakurbari or Rajbari complex. Similiar Thakurbari was constructed at Chandrakona town of West Medinipur. That Thakurbari was known as Raghunathbari. I have a plan to write a separate blogpost on Raghunathbari.
Inside the Rajbari complex, the visitor first encounters the Odishi Deul structured Pratapeshwar temple. This temple was built in 1849 by Ramhari Mistri under the supervision of Pearykumari Devi, first wife of Raja Pratapchand (son of King Tejchandra). Pratapeshwar temple has unparallel terracotta works on its four walls. Check out for plaques with the battle of Ram and Ravana with Goddess Durga as Mahishashurmardini in the centre, Rama as king of Ayodhya with Sita seating beside him, and a huge horizontal panel showing the various forms of Krishnalila. There are terracotta plaques on all the outer walls of the temple as well as in its inner sanctum. Various social scenarios as well as scenes from Krishnalila can be observed here. There are Terracotta decorated false doors on three sides of the temple.
From Pratapeshwar temple walking straight, one bypasses a Rasmancha to the left. This structure has one dome shaped pinnacle with two sections. The outer section has 24 gateways whilst the inner has 8 gateways. The roof has been completely demolished with the vagaries of time. In the era of Burdwan kings, during Ras festival, the deities Laljiu and Madan Gopal Jiu used to be enacted here amidst great pomp and show. The structure of this Rasmancha is as unique as that of Bishnupur.
From the Rasmancha the visitor walks straight into an enclosure with a gate surrounded by high walls. This enclosure houses the Laljiu Temple and the Giri Gobardhan Temple.At the entrance of the enclosure, there three horse statues can be seen hanging above. A horse was the mascot of the Burdwan Raj family. Out of the five Panchabingshati (25 pinnacled) temples existing in West Bengal, Ambika Kalna boasts of three such temples. Laljiu temple is the oldest of these 25 pinnacled temples. The pinnacles are distributed in 12+8+4+1 style. On the first floor roof, there are 12 pinnacles. On the octagonal second floor there are 8 pinnacles and the top there are four pinnacles with the final giant pinnacle in the centre.
Built in 1739 by Raja Kirtichand Rai of Burdwan for his mother Brajakishori Devi, Laljiu temple has a huge multi open entrance Naatmandir alias assembly hall of Chaarchala( Four sloped roofs) style standing on several pillars in its front. The structure is unique and one of its kind. Interesting terracotta panels can be seen on its walls. Once it had several Terracotta work on its walls and its triple entrance Jagamohan (Porch) which has been reduced to a handful at present. Besides usual Krishnalila scenarios, one can observe hunting scenes of Europeans on horseback and British soldiers with guns which reflects social scenarios of that period. Near the roof of Laljiu temple, one can see an exquisite stucco work showing an elephant with floral designs. On the corners of the temple, there is well-known “death creeper” (Mrittulata) styled plaque which usually adorned corners of architectures in a vertical fashion. One can see figures soldiers hunting one over other in a repeating fashion.
The deity of temple is Radha and Krishna. It is said that the idol of Krishna was obtained from a poor Sadhu (known as Lalaji) by Brajakishori Devi. The Sadhu was initially reluctant to part with his idol, but the king’s mother proposed a marriage of Krishna with her Radha idol. Lalaji stayed back at Ambika Kalna to worship his idol and died here. It is said that the name of the Laljiu temple has been coined by his name.
In the same enclosure opposite to Laljiu is the 1758 built Giri Gobardhan temple. The roof is designed like a mountain with several figures of human and animals. This is a rather late style in Bengal school of temples. As I mentioned earlier, you will get almost all style of temple prevailing in Bengal at Ambika Kalna.
From Laljiu one takes a turn on the left towards another 25 pinnacled structure – 1751 built Krishnachandra Temple. On the way the visitor crosses 1764 built Rupeswar Shiva’s Chandni alias flat roofed temple and five small Aatchala styled temple. Since the flat roofed temple was built by King Tilakchandra’s first wife Rupkumari Devi, the temple was named as Rupeswar. The temple has a triple-arched entrance. Once it had many terracotta decorations on its wall which ceases to exist at present. The Aatchala temples are plain.
The Krishnachandra temple is also as imposing in structure like the Laljiu temple. Like Laljiu it also has a small Ekchala styled small Mandap (popularly known as Jagamohan) with a triple entrance in its frontal side. Here the pinnacles are distributed in 12+8+4+1 style. Built by Raja Trilokchand in the name of his mother Lakshmikumari Devi, the temple has top quality terracotta works on its wall and even on the Natmandir. Scenes from social life, Krishna & Balaram leaving for Dwaraka, Foreign Pirate Ships, Horseback Soldiers, Zamindar on an elephant, Queen on a palanquin and Vaishnavas dancing with musical instruments are worth noticing. The main deity of this temple is Krishnachandra and Radha.
Just behind Krishnachandra temple, is the medium sized Aatchala styled Vijay Vaidyanath Temple. Only the front side has some terracotta work. King Trilokchand’s mother prayed to Shiva for a son. On fulfillment of her wish, she later asked Trilokchand to build this temple when he became the king.
Temples adjacent to Rajbari Complex
There are two Pancharatna Temple just outside the entrance of Kalna Rajbari premises. The one located on the eastern side of Kalna Rajbari is known as Ratneshwar and the other located on the western side of 108 temple premises is known as Jaleshwar. Both the temple have ridged pinnacles in Orissa temple style. Much information is not available about these temples. It is estimated that they were constructed around the 19th century.
Coming out through the Northern entrance of the Rajbari Premises and taking a brisk walk on the lane just behind the backside boundary of Laljiu temple, a curious tourist will come across a solitary Aatchala structure with a triple-arched entrance. It is easy to miss this temple. As per its foundation stone, the temple was built in 1783 by Bishankumari – mother of King Tejchandra. The temple looks very similar to Vijay Vaidyanath temple but has very less terracotta work.
Siddeshwari Kali Temple
From Rajbari the popular destination is the religiously famous Siddeshwari Kali temple. Although it was actually renovated by King Chitrasen Rai (Son of Kirtichand Rai) in 1741 (Shakbda 1663 as per the inscription in its foundation stone), the original structure of this Jor Bangla style temple is the oldest temple of Ambika Kalna. At present, the first line of the inscription consisting the original year of the renovation of this temple has been wiped off its foundation stone. The premises also houses three other Aatchala temples.
However, I consider 1663 as the correct date as the oldest reference I have found about this inscription is in a book named a corpus of dedicatory inscriptions from Temples of West Bengal (C 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.d.) by A.K. Bhattachayya. This book was published by Nabhana Publishers in 1982. Here the date of renovation has been given as 1663 along with a photograph of the foundation stone showing the first line. The first line was in a bad condition 24 years ago, so it is not astonishing that it got wiped out at a later stage. The inscription also says that the temple was constructed by Ramhari Mistri.
Local fable says that the original temple was established by Ambu Rishi in the 7th century. At that time there was no idol, but the deity was a ghot (religious clay pot). One of his descendant disciple Iswarish made the idol out of Neem Wood. The idol was that of Siddheswari Kali, which was named as Ambika Siddheswari Kali because of its previous association with Rishi Ambu. It seems there is apparently no connection between the original Jain deity Ambika and the present deity Ambika Siddheswari Kali.
After the original idol decayed down and a second idol was made. However, over the years the temple’s condition went from bad to worse. One day King Chitrasen Rai while out hunting in the jungle came upon this temple. The temple was immediately taken over and renovated to form the present day structure. Even if one does not believe in folklores of Ambu Rishi, there is hard evidence that Siddeshwari Kali was in existence at least 100 years ago before Chitrasen built the temple. Rupram Chakraborty mentions Ambua’s Kali in his Dharma Mangal Kavya which was written 100 years ago.
Siddheswari Kali is the most sought after Goddess in Ambika Kalna. Other than the Siddeshwari temple, the temple complex houses three other Aatchala temple. Once there was enough terracotta work on them, but repeated painting on the walls has made the terracotta figures beyond recognition.
Near to the Siddeshwari Kali temple lies the Aatchala styled temple of Anantabasudev. Once there was exquisite terracotta work on the walls of the temple which decayed over the years and could not be saved during the renovation of the temple by the Birlas. As per the foundation stone, this temple’s name is Baikunthanath’s temple.
Raja Chitrasen was Childless. After his short reign for four years which saw the destructive Bargee attack in Bengal, his cousin Trilokchand Rai succeeded him. Trilokchand had built this temple in the name of Chitrasen’s grandmother Brajakishori Devi in the year 1754. The present name of the temple is due to its deity. The four-feet idol of Basudev made of Kastipathar is an exquisite work of art. On one side of the idol’s feet is the idol of Devi Saraswati and on its other side is the Devi Laksmi idol. On the top of the idol , on one side one can see Dasavatar – five on each side.
Goplajiu’s Temple at Gopalbari
Just before reaching Siddheswari Kali’s temple there is a lane on the right. This takes to the Gopaljiu’s temple at Gopalbari which falls on the left of the lane. Gopaljiu’s temple is the third of the 25 pinnacled temples in Ambika Kalna. Like Krishnachandra Temple, this temple also has a Jagmohan. However this Jagmohan is devoid of any terracotta work and is painted yellow. Also ,both Krishna Chandra and Laljiu temple are south facing, while Gopaljiu is east facing. During the era of Trilokchand’s rule, Krishnachandra Burman of the Royal family built this temple in 1766.
Numerous terracotta work adorns the walls and entrance pillar and arches of the temple. Other than several social scenarios, floral designs, one can observe quite a number of erotic terracotta plaques on its wall involving European Men and Local Women. However, the human figures in erotic plaques are rather crude.
Temples of Jagannath Bari
Usually the last destination of temple lovers are the twin temple of Jagannath Bari. Built by two queens of King Chitrasen -Chandakumari Devi and Indukumari Devi , these two temples are in a dilapidated condition. One of the temples has a foundation stone stating that it was built in 1753. There is a third temple here also which can crumble down any day. It is extremely sad as the terracotta works on these two temples displaying scenes like Portuguese War Ships, Battle between horsemen and elephant riders, zamindar smoking hookah on palanquin are worth preserving. With the present plan of conservation of heritage structures in our state, we hope these two temples would be considered for preservation.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS OF AMBIKA KALNA
It is said that Shree Chaitanya visited Ambika Kalna twice along with Nityananda. Both time he came by boat from Shantipur to meet Gauridas Pandit. Gauridas Pandit was a devotee Vaishnav who is said to be formerly Subal, one of the cowherd friends of Krishna and Balarama in Vrindavana. Shree Chaitanya gave Gauridas Pandit a handwritten Bhagabat Gita which is still kept at Mahaprabhu Bari. It is not for public display.
Gauridas Pandit was the first to install the image of Chaitanya and Nityananda at Ambika Kalna. He constructed the first ever temple of Shree Chaitanya at Ambika Kalna which is known as Mahaprabhu Bari. Two idols of Lord Chaitanya and Nityananda made of Neem Wood are regularly worshipped here. The idols are not always kept for public display. A visitor has to request the priest for a “Jhanki Darshan” (Sneak Peek) of the idols. Then the door of the inner sanctum is opened for some seconds so that the visitor can view the deity. Photography inside the Mahaprabhu bari is strictly prohibited.
Shyamsundar Mandir alias Gadi of Suryadas
For some odd reasons, whenever I have asked a Rickshaw puller at Ambika Kalna to go to Mahaprabhu Bari, he promptly reaches Shyamsundar Mandir. It creates no problem as the Mahaprabhu Bari is at a stone throwing distance from Shyamsundar Mandir
Gauridas Pandit had an elder brother named Suryadas who was in service with Sultan Hussain Shah. After he retired from service, he became a disciple of Nityananda and built a small hut for his own stay. It was later known as “Gadi of Suryadas”. I am not sure what Gadi means, but it probably means seat. Suryadas installed the idol of Shyamsundar in his house and kept himself busy worshiping the idol. Initially, there was no temple. Later his disciples build up the temple and Natmandir.
After the death of Shree Chaitanya, Suryadas offered his two daughters Basudha and Janhabi’s hand in marriage to Nityananda and requested him to enter family life. At Shyamsundar Mandir, one can see the Shyamsundar temple and the place where Nityananda got married to Basudha and Janhabi. However, there is no historical evidence of this being the place where Nityananda got married.
Ambuli Brikkho alias Tamarind Tree
This Tree is said to be 500 years old. It is said that Gauridas Pandit met Shree Chaitanya for the first time under this tree. There is a footprint under this tree which at present covered with a small temple like structure. This is said to be the footprint of Shree Chaitanya.
It is up to the visitor to believe whether this is actually the footprint of Chaitanya. However, it is sometimes better to believe than to reason. It is difficult to get a clear shot of the footprint as because it is covered with flowers given by devotees most of the times.
DatanKathi Tala Masjid
The DatanKathi Tala Masjid is the oldest surviving mosque in the city. Once there were abundant terracotta walls on its wall. Now very few remains. There are several pillars in this mosque which seems to be of some Hindu temple.The mosque has been distastefully painted with blue during preservation work. From its inscription stone, it can be understood that the mosque was constructed in 896 Hijri alias in the year 1490. This makes the mosque more than 500 years old.
Ambika Kalna can be a tourist’s hotspot provided State-sponsored efforts are made to promote this historical town, especially towards providing more accommodation facilities.
For a day tour take an early morning Katowa bound local train from Howrah Station which takes two hours to reach Ambika Kalna. Cycle rickshaws/ Toto take Rs 100 – Rs 300 depending upon the places you wish to visit. Totos charge Rs 50 per hour, and destination wise Rs 10 to Rs 20. In case you want to stay and roam around Ambika Kalna, take the Intercity Express at 15:15 and reach Ambika Kalna by 16:34. You can check into hotel and take a look at the temples at night with the lights.
By Road, you will have to drive on NH2 via Singur, Dhaniakhali, and Gurap and then leave the highway, drive left and then turn right to take the Boinchi-Kalna Road to reach Kalna via Boinchi.
Fooding & Lodging:
There are some decent eateries near Ambika Kalna Bus stand. However, there are no State tourism lodges at Kalna. There is a PWD lodge, though, but it needs permission to get accommodations. Hotel Priyadarshini (03454-255615, 9732076690) near New Bus Stand is the only decent option for lodging. However, it serves typical Bengali Non-Vegetarian food.
If one is coming by road, then for more variety of food, one can try Azad Hind Dhaba and Hotel Hindustan on NH 2 near Gurap.
There is no restriction of photography in any of the temples. Even the idols can be easily photographed. However in Ambika Kalna Rajbari and 108 Temple premises you have to purchase a ticket paying Rs 25/- for video photography. Still Photography is free.
Around Ambika Kalna:
You can take a tour to two other nearby heritage towns – Guptipara and Baidyapur.
Apart from Durgapuja in October, Charak or Gajan during April is a major attraction. Krishnadebpur near Ambika Kalna witnesses a grand fair during Charak/Gajan.
A. Ambika Kalnar Itihas Samagra, Edited by Sumalya Das, Tatabhumi Prakashani , 2012
B. Bardhaman : Itihaas o Sanskriti : Part 3 by Jaggeshwar Chowdhury, Pustak Bipani, 1994
C. Banglar Mondir Sthyaptya O Itihas by Pranab Roy , Pustak Bipani, second edition 2004 ( 1999 first edition)