This blog is about Indian historical architecture with a focus on the medieval architectural of Bengal.
The landscape of Indian art and architectural history is vast, varied, and endlessly interesting and beautiful. Recent scholarship has greatly advanced our understanding of patronage, ritual-use, and the evolution of Indian architecture, but many regions and periods still remain largely unexplored. In these pages I write about my discoveries and independent research in this field.
Articles on the Art and Architecture of India
ASI Monuments Lists
The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) was established in 1861 to study, protect, conserve, and preserve cultural monuments in India. Today it maintains nearly 4000 ancient monuments and archeological sites, through its 29 “circles”. It also maintains 44 regional and site museums, many of which have very important collections of sculpture and antiquities. Below are lists of all the ASI monuments grouped by State and Type.
Articles on the Architecture of Bengal
Terracotta Temple Lists
Between 1960 and 1980 researchers like David McCutchion, Pranab Ray, Sambhunath Mitra, Hitesranjan Sanyal, Amiya Bandyopadhyay, and Tarapada Santra painstakingly traversed the Bengali countryside to survey Bengali temples.
I have compiled a comprehensive list of Bengali temples from these surveys and from the Jela Purakirti (District Archeology) books published by the West Bengal government in the 1970 and 80s. The lists have been further updated and corrected through my personal travels as well as from information from many fellow researchers and travellers.
The lists are actively maintained. Please contact me about any errors or omissions.
Between 2002 and 2005, I visited many historical sites in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. My first expedition was on a rickety State Government bus from Bangalore to the town of Bijapur in north Karnataka where I spent a day cycling through dusty lanes, and turning corners to find majestic Adil Shahi monuments.
On the way back to Bangalore, I got off the bus at Hospet and cycled 10 miles to see the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire at Hampi. Sitting atop a hillock with a view of the Tungabhadra valley at sunset, I was mesmerised by the expanse of majestic, abandoned temples, palaces, and pavilions.
Since then, I have traveled to more than two hundred towns and villages across India, photographing and studying ancient and medieval temples, palaces, mosques, and tombs. The beauty and diversity of architecture across India (and the similarities that unite them) has fascinated me. In very few other places in the world is it still possible to experience the thrill of architectural discovery. Ancient monuments that are picturesque and ornate and yet desolate.
Terracotta Architecture of Bengal
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Bengal saw a spectacular surge in architectural patronage and building activity. More than 4000 brick temples, mosques, and tombs were built in this period in a variety of experimental architectural styles. Merchants and zamindars enriched by a prosperous trading economy commissioned new temples in nearly every village and guilds of village architects traveled across the land to build these temples. These monuments were surveyed and studied in the 1960s and 70s but since then have been neglected. To me, they are fascinating structures and they deserve much more study, conservation, and tourism.
Since 2005, visiting Bengal’s countryside to see terracotta temples, and to study their architecture, sculpture, and iconography, has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I have visited more than 200 villages and photographed more than 350 monuments at these sites. I also maintain lists of monuments (see below) which I have compiled from my own travels and many other sources over the years.
In 2010, I started a Facebook Group (Terracotta Architecture of Bengal) where travellers and researchers can share photographs and field notes. This carefully curated group has more than 1400 members and receives important contributions from many local researchers based in various districts of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
In 2018, I started compiling my own field notes and research on the Terracotta Temples of Bengal into a guide book for tourists and heritage enthusiasts. I aim to publish this book in 2021.
The terracotta temples of Bengal are susceptible to rapidly degrading if neglected in Bengal’s humid climate. They can suffer from lichen, damp, pollution, and flooding. Plants take root easily unless removed after each monsoon. Damage can be caused by wilful removal of panels, renovation and unscientific restoration efforts. In this way hundreds of brick monuments are now lost or have become overgrown and ruinous, and dozens of others have been renovated. Many temples that were photographed and listed by surveyors in the 1960s and 70s no longer exist.
We know that when sutradhar guilds were active, they visited temples every few years to repair the structure, the terracotta panels, the wooden doors, and the fresco paintings. They also left instructions with the patrons on general upkeep and maintenance. With the decline of sutradhar guilds, this annual upkeep has stopped. Some monuments are now protected and conserved by government archaeology departments in India and Bangladesh. However, it is not possible for the government to undertake conservation of hundreds of temples. Education and awareness at village level, responsible tourism, and carefully managed local conservation initiatives are the only way to save the vast majority of medieval brick temples.
In 2018, I started an initiative through the Bengal Heritage Foundation in London to raise funds for a local conservation initiative. We engaged directly with heritage volunteers based in Kolkata and Bardhaman. Monuments needing immediate conservation were identified in the villages of Kendur in south Bardhaman, Ghoshpur in Medinipur, Suhari in east Bardhaman, and Achkoda in Purulia. Following discussions with villagers and local government authorities, conservation work was undertaken in Kendur, Ghoshpur, and Suhari.
Conservation work in Bengal is difficult. The temples are often in remote, isolated villages that are hard to reach with no places to stay. Restoring brick structures and terracotta decoration is painstaking and time-consuming, and requires manual work in several phases under expert guidance. Very little work can be undertaken during the hot summer months or the rainy season. Complications arise due to vested interests and local politics. Not all initiatives are successful. Our conservation efforts are documented via Facebook at Bengal Terracotta Conservation.