About

In these pages I explore 16th-20th century Indian (South Asian) art, architecture, and history, with a special focus on Bengal.

The landscape of Indian art-history is vast, varied, and endlessly beautiful. Scholarship over the last fifty years has immensely advanced our understanding of this field, but many periods and regions still remain unexplored. In these pages I write about my extensive travels and research in this field over more than twenty years.


Indian Architecture

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 chance upon many majestic Adil Shahi monuments.

On the way back to Bangalore, on an impulse, 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.

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Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur

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,  amidst ancient monuments that are picturesque and ornate and yet desolate.


Articles on the Art and Architecture of India

The Chalukya Temples of Alampur
Durga in Indian Architecture
David McCutchion’s Collections


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.

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Raghunath Temple, Parul

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.


Articles on the Architecture of Bengal

Terracotta Temples of Bengal: Architecture
Terracotta Temples of Bengal: Krishnalila
Terracotta Temples of Bengal: Social Influences


Terracotta Temple Lists

Bardhaman (422)
Bankura (141)
Birbhum (114)
Howrah (30)
Hugli (320)
Murshidabad (35)
Bangladesh (102)

The lists are actively maintained. Please contact me about any errors or omissions.

Acknowledgement: In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s researchers like David McCutchion, Pranab Ray, Sambhunath Mitra, Hitesranjan Sanyal, Amiya Bandyopadhyay, and Tarapada Santra painstakingly traversed the Bengali countryside to survey and write about Bengali temples. The lists above are compiled from their research, from the Jela Purakirti (District Archeology) series of books published in the 1980s, and on more recent fieldwork by me and many fellow researchers and travellers.


Conservation

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.

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Rajrajeswara Temple at Kotalpur

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.