Distance from Kolkata: 128 km
Driving Time: 4 hours
Road Trip: 1 day
Traversing through narrow, dusty trails along the mighty Kangsabati River and crossing dilapidated bridges, we were at the very edge of losing patience when a series of temples, as if from nowhere, appeared on the horizon. Finally, we were at Pathra, our destination, where we saw and heard fascinating tales of history and a man’s unending fight for its preservation.
Pathra is located in Paschim Medinipur near Medinipur town. Enter Kona Expressway through Vidyasagar Setu and then continue straight ahead. At the end of Kona Expressway turn left into NH-6. Follow NH-6 and cross Dhulaghori Toll Tax, Uluberia, Kolaghat and proceed towards Kharagpur. At trip 111 km where NH-6 bifurcates into NH-60 and continues straight while NH-6 leads to a left bend onto a flyover – follow NH-6 to proceed towards Kharagpur Chowringhee Morh. Once you reach the huge traffic round about at Chowringhee Morh in Kharagpur, enter NH-60 on extreme right and proceed towards Chandrakona and Bankura. At trip 118.2 km look for Birendra Sasmal Setu on River Kangsabati. Immediately after the bridge, at a spot named Amtala Morh on NH-60, take a hair-pin bend towards right leaving the highway. The road narrows down and goes through Kadamtala Bazar towards Hathihalka Village. From this village take a left turn and drive through an unmetalled pathway towards Pathra.
When we visited, the road condition of NH-6 till Kharagpur’s Chowringhee Morh was superb. The next stretch on NH-60 from Chowringhee in Kharagpur to Amtala Morh was satisfactory. However, the interior road connecting Amtala to Hathihalka was narrow and rough, especially the last stretch. There is a dilapidated bridge – 1.7 km before Pathra, which although appeared terrifying was crossed with ease. The Ambassador, carrying Mr Bhaskar Ghosh, the superintendent engineer of PWD – incharge of Medinipur and Purulia who was showing us the way, had no difficulty in reaching Pathra, not to mention our SUV.
Pathra is a historical spot close to Medinipur town, which has temples dating back to 1700 centuries. Not one or two, there are 34 of them out of which 28 are worth a visit.
The importance of the region dates back to 2000-1000 BC, when this was the hinterland of Tampralipta (now Tamluk), a flourishing port town during the golden era of Gupta period, considered to be the gateway to south-east Asia for maritime industry and business.
However, the history of Pathra in particular dates back to the later Sultanate period when Alibardi Khan became the ruler of the Bengal-Bihar region in 1732. Alibardi Khan appointed a learned local Bramhin, Bidyananda Ghosal, as the revenue officer for the Ratanchowk Pargana, which was a flourishing district in those days. Dates inscribed on quite a few temple show their construction period as between 1706 and 1771.
Most of the temples in Pathra, primarily the cluster along the river, were built by Bidyananda Ghosal and his descendants who later adopted the title of Majumdar. Thus, started a new era; Ghoshal went on to establish several temples. However, the Nawab was not at all pleased with the temple-construction-spree of Ghosal. He was imprisoned and given death penalty. He was to be crushed under an elephant’s feet. According to the legend, the elephant raised its foot but refused to crush him and went away. Since Ghosal escaped inevitable death, the place got its name “Pathra” which means ‘Pa’ (elephant feet) ‘uthra’ (escape).
The Ghoshal family adopted Majumdar as their family name but the love for temples continued till the end of 18th century. Meanwhile, another branch of the family, which took the name Bandopadhyay, also started constructing temples. However, the decline began as soon as the two families shifted their base from the village. With no one to look after the temples, these began to lose their lustre and locals vandalised the priceless artefacts. Soon, many temples were reduced to almost rubble.
Initially, with no initiative from the Government or Archeological Survey of India (ASI), it was Yeasin Pathan, who waged a lonesome battle for the preservation.
As a young boy, Pathan used to visit this village with his father, who dealt in cattle. Though he belonged to a different faith he was able to appreciate the architectural importance and beauty of the temples. But his efforts raised the hackles of fanatics from both communities.
In mid 1960s, scholars like Tarapada Satra explored the place along with Pathan, who was then in his youth. It was also the starting point of his endeavour to save these temples. Pathan’s hard work and persuasion bore fruits when grants were allocated by the Government. Even IIT Kharagpur decided to render technical assistance following his persistent efforts.
In one of the houses, Pathan was not even allowed to touch the document containing their family tree, as he was not of the same faith. The Muslim dominated village also found it difficult to accept his activities. “I was an outcast to the people of my religion. I was a Kafir in their verdict”, said Pathan. “Even the royal families of the Majumdar and Bandopadhay, emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to my mission. No one was keen to preserve these sites. And everyone had vested interests” he added.
According to him, most of the pakka (concrete) houses in the villages were constructed from the bricks stolen from these temples. The situation became so bad that in late 1970s, most temples were reduced to a pile of stones or sank in the riverbed. Pathan’s fight continued. “I went knocking on all doors I knew,” he said. He wrote innumerable letters to authorities, including local politicians, IIT Kharagpur and the President of India.
Meanwhile, he was branded as a man who was trying to disturb communal harmony in the village. In December 1982, he was physically assaulted by local people for opposing the sale of stone slabs from the Durga temple. “I was slapped in public as I had taken up the issue. My life had turned into a nightmare,” Pathan recalled.
Pathan has received the Kabir Award for preaching communal harmony from the President of India, CID Gallantry Award, 24 Ghanta Ananya Sanman and many more.
However, when Pathan decided to organise a Durga Puja for the cause of the temples, things took a turn for the better. “This brought media attention and I began to get support for my work,” he said.
Today, 28 out of 34 temples of Pathra are under the supervision of ASI. They have already repaired 18 temples. All these temples have been categorised as ‘monument of national interest’.
Pathan still lives in the same old house in Hathihalka that often gets flooded when the river water overflows. Two years ago he almost went begging to collect money for his heart treatment. But he remains unconcerned. He is still more worried about procuring additional funds and technical knowhow to ensure better preservation of these temples.
In order to preserve invaluable archaeological treasures, Pathan formed the Pathra Archaeological Preservation Committee with locals, having representation from both communities. The Committee made efforts to convince the government on the importance of the invaluable archaeological treasure stored in the village. The government, too, along with ASI came forward to support, protect and preserve these temples from destruction. ASI is entrusted with preserving 28 out of the 34 temples and 20 bighas of surrounding land with Government of India granting funds for renovation.
The four main sites at Pathra are as follows:
Nabaratna Temple complex: This is on the right side of the road along Kangsabati River. It consists of a beautiful nine-pinnacled temple – the best among all. This has Shiv Temples which are rectangular shaped structures. We were told that no worshipping ever took place in Nabaratna Temple due to a family feud.
Kalachand Temple complex: This is the main site on left side of the pathway. This site consists of a house-like-structure, a temple dedicated to Kalachand or Krishna and called Kalachand Temple which has decorative pillars. Behind it are two Shiva Temples and the dilapidated Zamindar’s mansion, the staircase of which still exists and provide access to the roof. Beside the house was the Durga Mandap, made of laterite stone. Earlier, more than 100 buffaloes were sacrificed during Durga Pujas with the pool of blood flowing through a channel into River Kangsabati, turning it red. Durga Puja was revived in 1957 by the locals on a spot in front of the temple. There are two other Pancha-graha or five-pinnacled temples on this site – all laid around an open field.
Rashmancha complex – This is located 500 metres inside the Pathra village. It consists of five Shiva Temples, the Rashmancha and the Kacharibari – office of the Bandopadhyay zamindars. Pujas are held here daily in most of the temples.
Sitala Mandir complex near the Pathra Health Centre, turned out to be immaculately maintained and painted by a local.
Most of the temples were inspired by the Bengal School of Architecture with Islamic influence. Stucco lime and sea shell were the main materials used. Although most of the terracotta panels have been destroyed or defaced, a handful of them have survived.
A statue of Vishnu-Lokeswara of 9th century AD, an artifice of great archaeological value, marking clear evidences of a fusion of Hindu and Buddhist tenets, was discovered during excavation of a tank in 1961. Also discovered was a partially damaged astadhatu (eight-metal) twin statue of Radha-Krishna. Besides, two pairs of Radha-Krishna statues were also discovered in a partially damaged condition from the waters of river Kangsabati. The statue of Krishna, now being preserved by the committee, is of 10 inches in height and three kilos in weight. Apart from these, there were several other statues which are kept in the Medinipur College Museum.
Amongst the existing relics – there were innumerable earthen terracotta sculptures on the walls of most of the temples, most of which had been either stolen or defaced. Still, a few has survived, such as bird hunting scenes, Siddhi preparing Mahanta, Sree Chaitanya, Lord Balaram, Dusavatar; incarnations of Matsya, Kurma, Nrisingha, Dasharatha, Ram, Buddha, Krishna, Yasoda, Krishnalila, Rama-Hanumana-Sita and love scenes between Krishna and Radha etc.
About Rs 4.37 crore was allotted by ASI in 2010 for the development of Pathra. But due to some land dispute it has not been used in spite of regular follow ups by the ailing Pathan. He feels frustrated with the present situation as there has been no progress in the renovation and maintenance.
Over all, Pathra, is an ideal place for those with a historical bent of mind and are keen to see numerous archeological relics beside the vast Kangsabati flowing nearby. It can be an ideal day out during winters. The only point of dismay was the litters in the main temple complex and the absence of any security staff at the so called ‘ASI protected’ site.