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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)