Terracotta Temples of Bengal

Vaishnavism swept through Bengal in the 16th century and inspired three centuries of temple-building, during which thousands of temples were sponsored by kings, merchants, and zamindars. The patrons and sutradhars (architects) of these temples clearly valued experimentation and individuality. In fact there are so many variations in architectural styles that the temples defy easy architectural classification.

Despite this diversity, Bengal’s brick temples have in common some distinctive features, derived from a fusion of 14th century Islamic architecture and local Bengali idioms. Thus, the temple facades have arched entrances, curved cornices, and walls covered with intricately sculpted terracotta panels. Inside, there is often a porch covered by a vault, and the sanctum is usually covered by a dome. The curved cornice and parapet is derived from the curved roofs (chalas) of Bengali village huts. In the late-19th century, we also start seeing European influences in the architecture: such as straight cornices and neo-classical porch columns.

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25-towered Gopalbari Temple, Kalna

In the 1970s, a group of researchers including David Mccutchion, Tarapada Santra, Hitesranjan Sanyal, and Amiyakumar Bandyopadhyay, extensively studied and documented Bengal’s temples. They pioneered a classification system based on the temples’ superstructures, that we still use today. This classification has roots in sutradhara vocabulary but was refined and systematized, mainly by David McCutchion.

Deul

The earliest temples in Bengal are deuls. This is an ancient architectural style that was common in India from the 6th century onward. The particular type of deul that is common in Bengal is called rekha deul (an Orissan name), and is characterized by a square sanctum, vertical projections (rekha) on the walls, a curvilinear tower, and chaitya (mesh) decoration on the facades. The temples have a large amalaka (ridged disc) and kalasa (pot) finial at the top. Only a few early Bengali deuls remain, but among them some brick-built examples are monumental and impressive. When the rekha style reappeared in the 16th century, it was completely transformed by features such as internal domes, arches, and terracotta decorated facades. Many such temples were built in the 19th century although they were mostly much smaller than the pre-Islamic deuls. The turrets of ratna temples, especially the central towers of pancha-ratna and nava-ratna temples, are also usually built as rekha deuls.

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Early Bengal Deul at Satdeulia, Bardhaman

The earliest example of the early rekha deul style is the 9th century stone Siddheswara temple at Barakar in Bardhaman. Examples of the 11th century massive brick-built deuls are at Satdeulia (Bardhaman), Bahulara (Bankura), and Jatar Deul (24 Parganas). The examples after the 16th century can be grouped into deuls with smooth towers, such as at Rajnagar in Medinpur, and those with ridged towers which were built in large numbers in the 19th century in Bardhaman and Birbhum. Decorated and well-preserved examples of ridged rekha deuls are the Pratapesvara temple at Kalna, temples at Ilambazar in Birbhum, and at Mankar and Debipur in Bardhaman.

Bangla

The ek-bangla (or do-chala) structure consists of two sloping roofs with curved edges or cornices meeting at a curved ridge. Internally, there is a single rectangular chamber covered by a vaulted roof. This style imitates single-celled domestic huts in Bengal and was first adopted in Islamic architecture, the earliest example being the 17th century mausoleum of Fateh Khan at Gaur. Although simple in structure, temples of this style are rare. A variant is the jor-bangla temple, with two adjacent, connected do-chala temples, one as a porch, and the other as the shrine, with a central upper turret.

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Keshtaraya Temple, Bishnupur, Bankura

The best-preserved group of Bangla temples is at Baronagar near Murshidabad, where Rani Bhabani built many temples in this style, including the char-bangla complex: a group of four ek bangla temples facing each other across a courtyard. One of the earliest and most impressive examples of the Bangla style is Jor-Bangla Keshtaraya temple, built in Bishnupur in the 17th century. Baronagar also has a fine example of this style, the Gangesvara temple, which has very rich terracotta decoration.

Char-chala

In this type of temple, four triangular roofs meet at a point, with the edges of each chala and also of the cornices curved. For some reason, the char-chala style is very rare except in the districts of Birbhum, Murshidabad, and Nadia. In Nadia it seems to have been the preferred style of the Nadia rajas. Most char-chala temples are relatively small and have a single entrance.

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Raghaveswara Temple, Diknagar, Nadia

A well-preserved and early example of the char-chala temple is the Raghavesvara temple at Diknagar in Nadia. Other examples in Nadia are the Jalesvara temple at Santipur and the temples at Palpara and Sibnibas. The patrons of the temples at Maluti (now in Jharkhand) and at Ganpur in Birbhum, also favoured this style. Other notable examples of the char-chala style are: the early 17th century Raghunatha temple at Ghurisa in Birbhum, and the Govinda temple in Puthia in Bangladesh, which is a rare example of a char-chala temple with a triple-arched entrance.

At-chala

If the roof of a char-chala temple is truncated and a miniature char-chala temple is added on it, then it becomes an at-chala temple. Though the char-chala style is rare, the at-chala style is very common, particularly in Hugli and Howrah, where it became very popular with artisans and patrons in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the architecture of the at-chala temple became common, the decorative arrangements of terracotta panels on the facade also became standardised, resulting in hundreds of similar at-chala temples in this region, many with richly sculpted facades.

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Bishalakshi Temple, Parul, Hugli

Many variations of the basic at-chala style were developed. These range from a small squat Bishnupuri type where the roofs are only slightly separated, to a massive type where the temple is placed on a high plinth. The most common type has triple-arched entrance and fully-decorated facades. This style is widespread across Hugli, Howrah, Medinipur, and Bankura districts. Some famous examples of at-chala temples are at Gurap, Mellock, the temples at Atpur, the Dakshina Kali temple at Malancha in Medinipur, temples at Amadpur in Bardhaman, and temples in villages around Arambagh in Hugli. The renowned but significantly renovated pilgrimage temples at Kalighat and Tarakeswar are also in the atchala style.

Ratna

The pinnacled or ratna design is significantly different from the chala or sloping roofed styles. Although the base structure is the same, the roof is completely transformed, becoming flattened and surmounted by one or more pinnacles called churas or ratnas. The origins of this style are uncertain as there are both Hindu and Islamic precedents of structures with one or more turrets. Islamic tombs with domes or pavilions at multiple levels are common as on Sher Shah’s tomb at Sasaram and Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra. The practice of decorating the towers of Hindu temples with miniature shrines is ancient and common throughout north and south India, for example at Khajuraho. The simplest version of the ratna style is the single-towered or ek ratna.

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Madan-Mohan Temple, Bishnupur, Bankura

Ek-ratna

Ek Ratna temples were a particular favourite of the Malla rulers who built many such temples at their capital in Bishnupur. Most of these temples are unadorned and built of laterite rather than brick. An exception is the lavishly decorated Madan Mohan temple, which has a facade fully decorated with large terracotta panels. In a slightly different style (with octagonal chala turrets) are the ek-ratna temples at Guptipara and Bansberia, both remarkable for the extent, quality and content of their terracotta decoration. Elsewhere, ek-ratna temples are rare but where they do exist they are usually from the 17th or early 18th century, such as at Daspur in Medinipur and the recently discovered, magnificent Damodar temple at Kendur in Bardhaman.

Pancha-ratna

In the five-towered (pancha-ratna) style, the superstructure consists of a large central tower and four smaller towers at the corners. This layout (particularly the construction of the turrets as small temples) recalls the auspicious panchayatana temple style of northern India (as at Khajuraho and Deogarh) where the main temple is surrounded by smaller temples at four corners of the plinth. The Malla kings built some impressive early examples of pancha-ratna temples such as the Shyamaraya temple at Bishnupur and the monumental Gokulchand temple at Gokulnagar.

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Gokulchand Temple, Gokulnagar, Bankura

Alhough some of the finest pancha-ratna temples are from 17th century Bishnupur, the style was adopted by landlords and merchants in the 19th century, particularly in Medinipur and Bankura district, where there are many examples such as the Gopinath temple at Radhakantapur, the Radha-Govinda temple at Chechua-Gobindanagar, and the Radhakanta temple at Akui. There are some notable examples outside these districts as well, such as the Govinda temple at Puthia and the Gopinath temple at Dasghara.

Naba-ratna

The next level of elaboration after the pancha-ratna is the nine-towered, naba-ratna temple which is a pancha-ratna with an extra story. Though elaborate, this style was popular in and around Bishnupur, and in the nearby districts of Hugli and Medinipur. The large number of pinnacles give smaller temples in this style an exaggerated grandeur that was clearly a source of prestige to patrons. Temples with even more complex superstructures were built by increasing the number of levels and adding more turrets at each level. The most elaborate pinnacled style is the twenty-five-spired (pancha-vimsati-ratna) temple which was patronized by the powerful zamindars of Bardhaman who built three such massive and elaborate temples at the royal centre at Kalna. In most ratna temples, the upper stories are not merely decorative but also used in daily rituals. Deities are taken up to the pavilions in the first or the second tower to rest or to take the cool evening breeze, and so that the worshippers gathered on the temple grounds can view them.

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Abandoned Temple, Krishnapur, Bardhaman

The greatest naba-ratna temple is the massive and richly decorated early 18th century Kantaji temple at Kantanagar in Dinajpur (Bangladesh). Nearly all other naba-ratna temples are from the 19th century or later, including the renowned modern temples of Dakshineswar and Talpukur near Kolkata. Other notable examples of naba-ratna temples are the Radha Binod temple in Kenduli, the temples at Joypur, the Sridhara temple in Bishnupur, the Santinatha Siva temple in Chandrakona, and the temples at Dubrajpur in Birbhum.

Octagonal

Although octagonal temples are rare, they deserve separate discussion. The richly decorated examples with terracotta panels on all eight sides and rekha deul superstructures were built in the 19th century in the Bardhaman-Birbhum area. Less decorated examples with chala superstructures also exist. For rasmanchas, however, octagonal plan with ratna superstructure is the most common style. Another octagonal style specific to a single patron (Rani Bhabani) consists of large open temples with inverted lotus-dome.

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Bhavanisvara Temple, Baronagar, Murshidabad

The best examples of richly decorated octagonal rekha deuls are at Sribati, Ilambazar, Banpas, and Supur. The Chandranatha Siva temple in Hetampur is a rare example of an octagonal temple with a nava-ratna superstructure. This temple is also unusual for the style and subject-matter of sculpture on its walls: it has sculpture of Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert, surrounding images of Durga Mahisamardhini and Siva with Parvati. The best example of the special octagonal temple style patronized by Rani Bhabani is the Bhavanisvara temple at Baranagar in Murshidabad but examples also exist elsewhere in her domains such as at Pabna.

Dalan

The flat-roofed temple style became common from the 19th century onwards, particularly in Medinipur district. Such temples usually lack a superstructure, but otherwise adopt the standard features of late-medieval temples of Bengal, such as cusped triple-arched entrances, octagonal or clustered pillars, terracotta decorated facades, and often, internal domes or vaults. The Medinipur sutradharas differentiated between large flat-roofed temples which they called dalan (the most common example of this being the Durgadalan for the annual Durga Puja common in many 19th century zamindar palaces), and smaller flat-roofed temples, which they called chandni. Towards the late 19th century, European influences became common in these temples.

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Rupesvara Temple, Kalna

The Rupesvara temple within the Kalna temple complex and the Raghunatha temple of the Nayak family at Bahadurpur in Bardhaman are examples of the decorated flat-roofed temple style. Dalan temples with modern pillars and stucco decoration are common in Medinpur, especially at Chandrakona and Ghatal, but several examples also exist at Mankar near Bardhaman town.

Grouped

Temples of identical style and size are often grouped together, arranged in a geometrical pattern. The most common layout is twelve at-chala Siva temples (called baro or dvadasa siva temple) arranged in two separate sets of six temples and placed along a straight line, often along a river bank). Two identical temples (also usually at-chala and dedicated to Siva placed side by side, is called jora siva temple and is very common. Some temple complexes have four temples facing inward onto a courtyard. The most elaborate grouping that exists is of a hundred-and-eight Siva temples arranged geometrically.

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108 Siva Temples, Kalna

Twelve at-chala Siva temples along a riverbank are fairly common. Famous examples are at Dakshinesvar and Talpukur (attached to the main nava-ratna temple), but twelve siva temples also exist independently, as at Konnagar. At Sukharia, twelve temples (2 pancha-ratna, 10 at-chala) are attached to a twenty-five ratna temple. Groups of four temples facing inward onto a courtyard can be seen at Baronagar and at Guptipara. There are only two instances of one-hundred-and-eight temples, and both in Bardhaman district and built by the Bardhaman rajas. At Kalna they are placed in two concentric circles, and at Nababhat in Bardhaman town, they are in a large rectangle.

Porches

Most Hindu temples have a porch next to the sanctum, where worshippers may gather to view the deity (darsana) and receive blessed food (prasada). In Bengali terracotta temple architecture, the porch and the sanctum are usually within the same building. But there are many instances where separate (often richly decorated) porches are added to the front of the temple. These porches are themselves in bangla, chala, or dalan styles. Some porch combinations are more common than others. Medinipur, for instance, has many examples of a rekha-deul with a char-chala porch. Besides attached porches, temple complexes sometimes contain separate subsidiary mandapas such as bhoga-mandapa (for preparing or distributing prasada), nata-mandapa (for festivals), and nahabat-khana (ceremonial entrance hall).

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Radhagobinda Temple, Atpur

Temples with richly decorated porches are the Krishna temple at Baidyapur (rekha porch on a rekha deul), the Lakshmi Janardan temple at Debipur (bangla porch on a rekha deul), Siva temple at Kasimbazar-Byaspur (bangla porch on a domed temple), the Radha-Govinda temple at Atpur (char-chala porch on an at-chala temple), and the Krishnachandra temple at Kalna. Examples of separate, subsidiary porches within temple complexes are the bhoga-mandapa of the Madana Mohana temple at Bishnupur, ek-bangla gateway of the Radha Madhab temple at Bishnupur, and the flat-roofed nahabat-khana at the Brindabanchandra complex at Guptipara.

Rasmancha

The term mancha means a raised pavilion. Many types of such pavilions were built in the temple compounds, mainly to house idols during important Krishna festivals so that the gathered devotees could see them. The rasmancha was the focus of the autumn ras festival and is usually octagonal with arched openings on each side and roofs with eight turrets surrounding a large central tower. In Medinipur, a special type of turret was developed for rasmanchas, with a bulging vase-like base capped by an inverted flower. The Daspur sutradharas called this rasun-chura (garlic-pinnacled). Manchas are usually smaller than the main temple, but in some sites, large pyramidal mancha were built, to which idols from various temples in the vicinity were brought on festival days (such as at Puthia and Bishnupur).

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Rasmancha, Bishnupur

 

Ornate rasmanchas are particularly common in Medinipur with examples at Saulan and Alangiri. Notable examples outside Medinipur is the rasmancha of Bara-taraf at Hadal-Narayanpur and at Rajogram in Bankura. Examples of monumental rasmanchas are at Narajol and Puthia. The most famous rasmancha however, is the monumental pyramidal structure built by the Malla rajas at Bishnupur for their annual ras festival.

Dolmancha

The dolmancha was the focus of the springtime doljatra festival during which the temple deity was housed in this structure. It is usually on a high plinth, has four columns or wall sections, and char-chala, pancharatna roofs, or rekha roofs.

Notable examples of terracotta decorated dolmanchas are at the Nandadulal temple at Gurap and at Talchinan. There are very large many-storied and pyramidal dolmanchas at Rajshahi and at Pabna in Bangladesh.

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Dolmancha, Talchinan, Hugli

Durga in Indian Architecture

Every autumn, Bengalis in Kolkata and around the world immerse themselves in four days of prayers, rituals, and celebration centred around the worship of the Devi Durga in her Mahishamardhini form.

Devotees and visitors to such events see the familiar ensemble of dieties on centrestage: the Devi stands astride her lion vahana and holds a spear to slay Mahisasura, who has just emerged from his buffalo disguise. In her other eight hands she holds the various astras (weapons) that the gods have lent her to fight the asuras. She is surrounded by her children, Ganesa, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Karthik, who have joined her on their own vahanas, in this final moment of triumph over the asuras. They are all watched over by Siva, whose image or photograph is usually placed above this ensemble.

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Radhagobinda Temple, Atpur, West Bengal

The worship of the Devi in this particular standardized format is a fairly recent (from the mid-18th century) and a somewhat regional Bengali phenomenon. Indeed, all the idols are fashioned and dressed to look like members of an typical Bengali household, for example, Durga’s face, make-up, jewelry, and dress is that of an ideal Bengali housewife’s, while Karthik is the perfect Bengali bridegroom. In the early 20th century, though, lithographic printing presses in Mumbai reproduced this image of Durga in a distinctly Marathi style!

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Lithograph, Anant Shivaji, Mumbai

Durga Puja in this form started becoming popular in Bengal in the 17th-18th century when Bengali zamindars, who became wealthy through trade with Europe, sponsored lavish Durga Puja celebrations in their family rajbaris (palaces). The family Durga Puja is rare now, although some zamindar and merchant families continue to sponsor highly-respected pujas in the old palaces of Kolkata and also in many villages. The recent (from the early 20th century) and more successful format has been the Sarbojanin or community celebration of the festival which is sponsored and organized by the para or neighbourhood (and recently also along with local and multinational corporations).

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Durga Pujo at Ealing, London

The past several years have seen tremendous experimentation by artisans in Kolkata both in the format of the idols and of the pandal (canopied bamboo structure) in which the idols are housed. The artistic achievements of these craftsmen are staggering as any visitor to Kolkata during the Pujas will appreciate. Pandals have been decorated in the most astonishing ways: with old LP records, biscuits, coke bottles, matchboxes, sea-shells, and terracotta bricks. They have been built to look like ancient temples, forts, ships, igloos and even the White House and Buckingham Palace!

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Alampur Museum (Early Chalukya)

But Durga as Mahisamardhini (slayer of Mahisasura) is an ancient diety. An important 5th century Sanskrit text, the Devimahatmya, contains all the details connected with Durga, her various forms, exploits, and her iconography. Durga was certainly worshipped in this form much earlier but probably came to be widely worshipped throughout India from the Pauranic resurgence of the Gupta age. During my travels in India, I have found the Mahisamardhini image depicted in many temples across the land from those of the Hoysalas in south Karnataka, to the Chalukya and Kakatiya temples in the northern Deccan.

She is depicted in Orissan temples, in ancient Gupta temples, in Ellora and in the central Indian Chandela temples in Khajuraho and of course in innumerable terracotta temples in Bengal. Indian artisans seem to have revelled in the possibility of individual expression allowed by the complexity of this scene, and have depicted the characters in an amazing variety of positions, expressions, postures, and movements.

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Alampur Museum (Late Chalukya)

The art-historical evolution of the Mahisamardhini iconography is also interesting. I have found least five different major styles in which this image has been depicted. With the passage of time, the orientation and movement of the images change slightly, and the asura seems to gradually attain an anthropomorphic or human form. In the earliest images the asura is represented in the form of a buffalo. Such images are found in the temples of the Pratiharas (Rajasthan), Pallavas (Mahabalipuram), and Chalukyas (Alampur). An early Chalukya image from the ASI site museum at Alampur (above) is an excellent example. Durga holds down the buffalo with one leg, bending its head to thrust a spear down its neck, while her simha attacks it from behind. Amidst this ferocious scene, her face is calm, and mahisasura seems to submit without resistance.

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Mahabalipuram (Pallava)

In a second variation, the goddess is shown standing triumphantly on the severed head of the buffalo, a form especially favoured by Pallava and Chola artisans. In another depiction Mahishasura is no longer represented as the form of a buffalo but has a human body with a buffalo head. Such images are found in the temples of the early Chalukyas (Aihole), Rashtrakutas (Ellora) and in Orissan temples.

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Kailasnatha Temple, Kanchipuram (Pallava)

One of the early temples in Bhubaneswar, the Baital Deul, has one of the most skilfull representations of Durga anywhere. The half-human Mahisasura seems to kneel in front of Durga as she pushes him down with her hand and slays him with her trisula. Her outstretched arms holds swords, snakes, and a shield, all in a swirl of motion but her face remains compassionate. Although constrained by a narrow rectangular frame the Orissan artist has produced an image of stunning beauty and vitality, with not a single element disproportionate or out of place.

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Vaital Deul Temple, Bhubaneswar

A fourth type depicted in late Chalukya and Hoysala temples (such as at Somnathpura) shows a human Mahisasura being slayed by Durga. In a late Chalukya example from Alampur (above) an eight-armed Durga is shown thrusting her trisula into a miniature Mahisasura as he emerges from the buffalo. Although perhaps aesthetically less pleasing than the earlier Chalukya example, this sculpture is more active. The lifeless buffalo collapses as Mahisasura emerges ready to strike. Durga gently holds the asura’s head as she kills him, while her other hands brandish weapons, a drawn sword, an arrow being taken out of its quiver, a bell being rung.

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Bangalore Museum (Hoysala)

A fifth type is found on terracotta temples of Bengal, particularly those in the Hugli and Howrah region. Here the standardized Bengali group of dieties is shown: Durga slaying Mahisasura in the centre and her children surrounding her. The images are positioned either on octagonal porch columns (in Hugli and Howrah) or as in the example shown here, in one of the registers above the entrance arches (in Medinipur).

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Janaki Ballabh Temple, Tilantapara, West Bengal

The Mahisamardhini form of the Devi has been worshipped for fifteen centuries across the subcontinent and beyond (images have been found in Angkor and in Java). Yet she remains an important part of our modern lives, loved, revered and worshipped every year in joyous autumn celebration.

ya devi sarva bhooteshu matru roopena samsthita
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaha

Devi, who is manifest in all existence as mother,
I worship thee, over and over and over again.

chechua

London, 2010

(A version of this article was published in the 2011 edition of Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design)

 

David McCutchion’s Collections

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David McCutchion

Those of us who enjoy visiting and studying the terracotta temples of Bengal, are indebted to David McCutchion for his contributions to our understanding of Bengali temples and their art and architecture.

In the 1960s and 70s, David, along with Hitesranjan Sanyal, Tarapada Santra, and Amiyakumar Bandyopadhyay, and others spearheaded a decade of pioneering research on terracotta temples. From the moment he saw his first decorated terracotta temple (the magnificent Damodar temple at Siuri), Bengal’s temples became McCutchion’s abiding passion. Stories of his tireless travels on local trains and bicycle into the Bengal countryside to discover, survey, and photograph temples are well-known to us through his letters, and from articles others have written about him.

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Damodar Temple at Siuri

McCutchion’s extensive (and carefully catalogued) collection of black and white photographs of temples is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2010, the V&A kindly gave me permission to view and photograph some pictures from this collection of thousands of photographs, collected over a period of just about 6 years, and housed in a large chest of drawers about 5 feet high, 8 feet wide, and 2 feet deep.

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David’s photos of Radhakanta temple at Akui

The size of the collection is testament to McCutchion’s commitment to discovering and documenting as many temples as he possibly could, as he was constantly worried that the turbulent political situation in 1970s Bengal might prevent him from continuing his work. In addition to photographs, the collection also has hand-drawn maps of many villages specifying the locations of temples. We know that many temples that McCutchion saw and photographed are now ruined or renovated. Digitizing the collection would create a very valuable resource for Bengali temple enthusiasts and researchers.

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David’s photos of Lakshmi-Janardan temple at Ajuria

But McCutchion’s interest in Bengali art went beyond temples. In the introduction to the book “Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal”, he mentions how during a 1966 lecture on temple art, some students in the audience commented on the similarities between temple art and scroll paintings. This seems to have initiated McCutchion’s interest in patua art.

A later article by him titled “Recent Developments in Patua Style and Presentation” shows deep knowledge and understanding of patua art. It is a highly evolved piece of writing showing several years of research into scroll painting — by studying the collections at museums in Kolkata including the Ashutosh Museum (College St), the Gurusaday Museum (Behala), the Anandaniketan Kirtishala (Howrah), and the Sahitya Parishad (Manicktala), and through personal research.

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Manasa The Snake Goddess: Behula Bhasan (c 1950)

The article starts with a discussion on various influences on patua art from early Rajasthani or Mughal influence, to European realism in the 19th century, Santhal art, and the impact of oleographs in the 20th century. He also tentatively explores regional variations, for example, discussing a Birbhum-Burdwan style as distinct from the Midnapore style, and specific regional art forms such as Bishnupur playing cards, Jadu pat, Chakshudaan pat, and Gazir pat.

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Manasa The Snake Goddess: Behula Bhasan (c 1950)

In the second half of the article McCutchion describes trends in contemporary patua art. From the article it is clear that during his temple trips, McCutchion saw diminishing but still-active patua communities in many parts of Bengal. He describes in detail the changes in the patuas’ choice of colours, styles, and themes, mostly with disapproval, but he also mentions some artists who are “meticulous and precise”. He also remarks at the “individuality of these artists: quite different styles within the same district or even village” and suggests that the individualism goes back at least to the 19th century, perhaps based on similar individualism he saw in 19th century temple terracotta.

Several paragraphs in the article are devoted to “iconographic errors” by the patuas such as not depicting Kamale Kamini correctly or “mixing up the order of the Krishnalila or Ramayana scenes”. In my view, whether these incorrect sequences are errors is debatable as they are also found on 19th century terracotta temples. He does occasionally draw the parallel with temples: “A curious example of independent transformation … is the treatment of Kamale Kamini … she should be “swallowing an elephant” – and this is what the patuas sing. But what they paint is Parvati nursing Ganesh on her lap – as in temple terracottas”.

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Ramayana: Sita Haran by Biren Chitrakar (1969)

While discussing contemporary patua art, McCutchion mentions of the patuas of Amdabad several times, in particular Biren and Panchanan Chitrakar. These artists feature again in some of his letters to his student Suhrid Bhowmick (written between 1964 and 1971). In a letter dated 8th Oct 1969 David discusses a “scheme for selling scrolls through a large London store” through a friend in England, “Derek”. In this letter he outlines in detail the potential economics and the mechanics of the scheme with Amdabad (Suhrid’s village) as the place where the scrolls are to be made.

In several of the following letters the complications and frustrations of the scheme unfold (allegations that the artists are not being paid enough to “Still no letter from Derek – always a bad sign”), but also progress as the patuas Panchanan, Biren, Santosh, and Khandu are selected as the main artists to paint the scrolls. McCutchion also encourages Suhrid to write a book on patua art (eventually published in 1999 as “Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal”). Eventually the scheme to sell scrolls in London fails as “the girl who was going to sell some scrolls as commission did not succeed and also got married!”. However, McCutchion exhibited these scrolls in Calcutta in 1969 where some scrolls did sell. The rest he probably took with him back to London.

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Ramayana: Sita Haran by Biren Chitrakar (1969)

Upon his death, McCutchion’s family bequeathed his collection of scrolls to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry. This museum was chosen because David was born in Coventry, and, according to Martin Roberts, senior curator at the museum, he was born in a building that “stood more or less where the Herbert now is” situated. Mr Roberts kindly provided me with a list of the scrolls in the collection as well as five photographs of the scrolls and permission to print them. The collection includes two rare scrolls from the 19th century, several scrolls from before the 1950s, and the rest possibly commissioned by David himself. We see some of these later scrolls attributed to Biren, Khandu, and Santosh chitrakar of Amdabad.

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Ramayana: Sita Haran by Biren Chitrakar (1969)

Art-forms in Bengal are closely inter-related and artisans are often multi-skilled or draw deeply from each other. To understand temple art, it is necessary to understand patua art and vice-versa. Temple sutradhars possibly carried with them scroll paintings from which the temple’s patron would select the scenes to be depicted on the temple. Again, both temple and patua art draw on jatra (theatre) for inspiration. McCutchion mentions patuas drawing scenes that are inspired by jatra, and we know that terracotta temple panels such as the Govardhan lila are based on how the scenes were enacted in jatra.

David McCutchion’s research and his collections bequeathed to museums in the UK reflect both the richness and the inter-connectedness of Bengali art.

(A Bengali version of this article was published in Lipinagorik)

Acknowledgements

  • Saikat Mukherjee and Ajoy Konar for the idea of writing this article
  • Martin Roberts for access to McCutchion’s collection at The Herbert Art Gallery.
  • Nick Barnard for access to McCutchion’s photos at the V&A Museum
  • Dr George Michell for telling me about David McCutchion’s archives and the work he carried out in the 1980s based on those archives

References

  • David McCutchion, Unpublished Letters and Selected Articles (Monfakira)
  • McCutchion and Bhowmick, Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal (Firma KLM)

 

Krishnalila in Terracotta Temples

Introduction

The medieval brick temples of Bengal are remarkable for the intricately sculpted terracotta panels covering their facades. From the late 18th century, this sculptural arrangement on the facade started to become standardised, especially in central and southern Bengal. Here, two-storied (at-chala) temples had large panels above the entrance arches filled with Ramayana battle scenes. On the walls were panels with images of deities, yogis, and Krishna.

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Terracotta Temple Facade (Parul)

Running along the base were two friezes: large panels at the bottom had scenes from elite social life: processions, hunts, river-boats, courts, and entertainment. And above this a second frieze had stories from Krishna’s life, starting with Krishna’s miraculous birth to Kamsa’s death. They once probably were a backdrop for minstrels who sang Krishna songs or traveling theatre groups who performed Krishnalila in front of the temple. Sadly these panels are prone to damage and only fragments of the full sequence remain in most temples today.

Krishna Stories

Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a reformist religious movement centred on personal devotion to Krishna, was started by the Bengali mystic Chaitanya in the 15th century. This movement along with religious texts such as Gitagovinda, and later Bengali Krishna literature such as Sri Krishna Vijay, provided the spiritual and artistic inspiration to medieval Hindu architecture in Bengal. It is no surprise then, that Krishna stories are so commonly and lovingly depicted on Bengali temples.

Janma Lila (Parul)

The Krishna frieze usually starts with the Janma Lila or Krishna’s miraculous birth as a crowned four-armed deity! His parents, the imprisoned Vasudeva and Devaki, are shown standing or sitting on either side. This panel is broken in many temples, but some good examples remain as at Kalna and Gurap. In some late 18th century temples, the supplication scene is replaced by Devaki actually giving birth to the baby, surrounded by midwives! The birth scene also shows the sleeping prison guards holding swords and shields, their heads are tilted to one side, or lying on the floor. Sometimes, they are arranged in a grid as at Bhalia, Rautara and Rajbalhat.

Crossing the Yamuna (Kotalpur)

The next scene shows Vasudeva with the infant Krishna, crossing the Yamuna. He is usually shown standing in the rising, stormy waters of the Yamuna, his garments fluttering in the wind, bending down to touch the infant Krishna’s feet on the river. This causes the waters to part. Also in the scene is a jackal (a form taken by Mahamaya, the personification of illusion), leading Vasudeva across the Yamuna. The final panel in the sequence, sometimes omitted, shows Yashoda seated in a pavilion with Krishna in her arms, implying that Vasudeva has exchanged her child with Krishna.

Trinavarta Badh (Parul)

Next are stories from Krishna’s eventful childhood at Gokul. Very common is the story of the demoness Putana, sent by Kamsa to kill all infants in Gokul. Putana is shown as a large figure, hands flailing in distress and eyes popping out, with the baby Krishna at her breast. Another demon-vanquishing scene is Krishna with the whirlwind demon Trinavarta. Krishna is shown subduing the fallen figure of the demon by his weight. Both figures are placed within a circle representing the whirlwind, sometimes with flourishes, as above, at Parul.

In another miracle, Krishna kills Sakatasura, who tries to crush the infant Krishna under a cart. Here Krishna is shown lying on his back and kicking the cart which is depicted as a series of wheels on the top-right or top-left corner of the pane.

Ukhalbandhan Lila (Chandannagar)

Another common scene is of the Ukhalbandhan Lila where Krishna uproots two Arjuna trees (and frees the sons of Kubera trapped in them!) as he as he tries to steal butter. He is shown crawling, with his hand in a pot of butter. In other scenes Krishna is being bathed by women with pots of Yamuna water, or they are putting anklets on this feet. Joyous scenes of celebration and music are also common. At Chandannagar (above) and Atpur, Gokul women play drums around a dancing Krishna. At Kalna and Parul, the celebration shows men surrounding Krishna and Balarama.

Bakasura and Keshi Badh (Krishnapur)

The narrative moves from Gokul to the forests of Vrindavan, where Krishna lived as a cowherd (Gopala). The panels here show Krishna and Balarama’s encounters with more demons sent by Kamsa, as well as Krishna’s escapades with gopis. A common and easily recognisable story is Krishna fighting Bakasura, a giant stork, whom he kills by tearing apart his beak. Aghasura, another of Kamsa’s demons, appears in the form of a python. The Aghasura panels usually show Krishna entering the open mouth of the python. Once inside, Krishna enlarges himself, choking Aghasura to death.

Less common is the story of Dhenukasura, a calf-demon who hides amongst Krishna’s cattle. Krishna is shown holding up the calf by his tail, just before he hurls him. More common is the episode of Keshi, the horse-demon. Krishna holds Keshi by his mane, and his other hand is raised, about to impart a fatal blow. In the story of Kaliya, the many-headed snake, Krishna jumps into the Yamuna whose waters Kaliya has poisoned, and emerges dancing on the head of the serpent who is surrounded by his many wives, their hands folded, pleading for Kaliya’s life.

Brahma’s submission (Parul)

A complex and beautiful scene is of Krishna’s strange encounter with Brahma. Suspicious of miracles by a mere cowherd, Brahma tests Krishna’s divinity by capturing his cattle and fellow cowherds. But when he returns to Vrindavan, Brahma finds that the cattle and cowherds are back. Amazed by this, he acknowledges Krishna’s divinity. The scenes selected for depiction are the hidden cattle and cowherds (shown as faces of humans and cattle hidden amidst hills or in a grid), and Brahma’s submission (with hands folde, and then bending to touch his head to the ground).

Govardhan Lila (Krishnapur)

In the Govardhan episode, Krishna tells the people of Vrindavan to stop worshipping Indra, who responds furiously by unleashing seven days rain. But Krishna lifts the Govardhan mountain to shelter his people from the flood. In this panel, a relaxed figure of Krishna holds up the mountain (shown simply as a series of wavy lines). Surrounding Krishna beneath the canopy are cattle, and men and women. Some of these surrounding figures, who resemble Krishna, are also holding up the mountain, but with poles. This depiction may be derived from jatra plays where a large canopy representing the mountain was perhaps held up by several actors holding poles.

Krishna and Radha (Chandannagar)

A common scene of Krishna with gopis is the Chirharan Lila or stealing the gopis clothes. Krishna is shown seated on a tree playing the flute while several gopis, some standing in water, plead with Krishna to return their clothes. At Chandannagar, more Radha-Krishna scenes are depicted. One panel has Krishna with Radha standing next to a tree and a peacock, perhaps a reminder of the Natvin Lila where Krishna disguised as a female acrobat amuses Radha by dancing like a peacock.

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Rasamandala (Bishnupur)

This is followed by a scene where Radha asks to be carried on Krishna’s shoulders because she is tired. Finally, Radha and Krishna are shown playing a single flute: a popular scene that is sometimes depicted on isolated wall or column panels. The Raslila scene is is rare on base panels, but is common on wall panels, usually as a rasamandala, with Radha-Krishna and Lalita in the centre, surrounded by circles of dancing gopis. In other examples, such as at Kalna, the dancers are shown in a straight line usually in a long panel above the cornice.

Daan Lila and Nauka Bilaas (Kotalpur)

In the episode of Nauka Lila, Krishna appears as a boatman, and agrees to ferry the gopis across the Yamuna. Krishna is shown at the helm of the boat, while the gopis sit with baskets on their heads. Krishna is sometimes shown multiple times, flirting with the gopis or stealing food from their baskets. In some depictions, Radha is shown seated in the boat with Krishna. In some instances, the widow Barai-buri is shown standing next to Krishna and berating him. This character was clearly recognisable from Krishna stories or plays, where she provided a comic foil to Krishna’s divinity.

A similar episode is the Daan Lila. Gopis bringing curds into the village are stopped by Krishna and his friends who demand a toll. Krishna is shown seated under a large tree. His demands are challenged again by Barai-buri who is arguing hand-raised with Krishna while Gopis carrying pots of curd wait behind her.

Mathura Gaman (Dasghara)

The miraculous, sensuous, and humorous events of Krishna’s life as a cowherd are brought to an abrupt close by his departure to Mathura to confront Kamsa. This departure scene was very popular and is shown in almost every temple. Krishna and Balarama are seated in the chariot going to Mathura. Outside are scenes of distress. Gopis are shown wailing with outstretched arms, some are shown swooning, others sit despondently. In some depictions the gopis try to prevent the chariot from leaving by lying on the road before it, or pleading with the charioteer. This departure scene is re-enacted in the annual ratha-yatra or chariot festival.

Kuvalyapida Badh (Gurap)

Krishna and Balarama receive a mixed welcome at Mathura. They encounter demons and warriors sent by Kamsa, but are also joyously greeted and welcomed by the people of Mathura. Scenes of welcome include Kubja Kritartha Lila, where Krishna meets Kubja who transfers her allegiance from Kamsa to Krishna and is blessed by him and thereby cured of her illness. The panels show Krishna touching a woman’s forehead.

Next, just before entering Kamsa’s palace, Krishna and Balarama fight the elephant Kuvalayapida. Krishna is shown holding and grappling with the trunk of the elephant, which is shown either alone as at Parul or with a rider as at Halisahar. In some examples as at Gurap or Amadpur, the elephant is shown prostrate with feet in the air, while Krishna continues to grapple with its trunk. Then, they fight Kamsa’s bodyguards. A wrestling scene is usually shown with the fighters arms and legs intertwined.

Kamsa Badh (Gurap)

The final scene of the story is the Kamsa Badh (Killing Kamsa) Lila and is depicted on nearly every decorated temple. The composition of the scene is fairly standardized. Krishna marches into the scene followed by Balarama and sometimes Akrura blowing their curved battle-horns, or holding Kuvalyapida’s tusk. He grabs hold of Kamsa, seated on a pavilion, by the hair and drags him down. In some cases, Krishna is shown fighting violently with Kamsa or even kicking the tyrant. Kamsa is usually shown starting to draw his sword and shield, but his efforts are clearly futile.

(A version of this article was published in the 2012 edition of Chitrolekha International Magazine on Art and Design)