Brick Temples of National Importance

Introduction

In India, brick temples were most commonly built in the Gangetic valley where stone quarries were rare, and river clay abundant. Such temples are very wide-spread in Bengal where the brick building tradition dates back to the 7th century Pala dynasty, and continues almost unbroken into the 19th century. But the tradition goes back even earlier, for the few remaining instances of brick temples in the upper Gangetic plains are dated back as far as the 5th century. Given the fragile nature of brick buildings, it is very likely that only a fraction of early brick temples survive today.

Conserving and protecting brick temples is a complex, multi-disciplinary activity. All the monuments listed below have been designated as monuments of National Importance and have been restored and beautifully maintained by the ASI, often within walled garden compounds.

5th-10th century

Only a few terracotta temples remain from the Gupta and post-Gupta period. These are scattered over a wide area along the upper Gangetic plains (UP and Bihar). Temples built in variants of the Gupta style can be found further east in present Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

Bhitargaon Temple, Kanpur, UP

This is the earliest terracotta temple in India, built in the 5th century during the Gupta period. Pictures from the 18th century show the temple nearly ruinous but it has been conserved and stabilised by the ASI. The temple is built on a square plan, with a tall pyramidal spire over the sanctum. Its walls are decorated with terracotta panels depicting deities such as Siva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Durga Mahisasurmardini. There are also sculpture panels depicting narratives such as Ravana’s abduction of Sita and the penance of Nara-Narayana.

Bhitargaon Temple (Image Courtesy: The Hindu)

Temples in the Mahabodhi Complex, Gaya, Bihar

The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the most important holy sites related to the life of the Buddha and an important place for a Buddhist pilgrim to visit, as it is associated to the Buddha’s Enlightenment. The early temples in the complex date back to Emperor Asoka’s reign but the present temple was possibly built in the late Gupta period (6th century) with many later alterations. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick.

Mahabodhi Temple (Image Courtesy: The Huntington Archive)

Lakshmana Temple, Sirpur, Chhattisgarh

This magnificent brick temple on a stone platform is dated to the 7th century. The temple’s tower is richly decorated on all four faces with receding chaitya arches and corner amalakas. The walls have central projections with sculpture niches now empty. The basement has prominent mouldings faced with miniature chaityas. The santcum entrance is framed with superb stone sculpture of Anantasayana Vishnu, Krishnalila, and Dasavatara.

Lakshmana Temple, Sirpur (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Indralath Temple, Odisha

This early Odishan brick temple, dated to the 7th century, is an important transitional structure with elements of the Gupta style and of the mature Odishan style. The vimana is a rekha deul with prominent ratha-projections that continue along the tower. There are elegant chaitya arches above the wall niches and on the many mouldings on the ratha. A pirha porch, also profusely decorated is attached to the each entrance. Inside the sanctum are sculptures of Vishnu, Kartikeya and Uma-Maheshwara.

Indralath Temple (Image Courtesy: Kunal Nayak)

Nibiya Khera, Kanpur, UP

This remarkable brick temple complex is dated to the 9th-10th century post-Gupta period. It is built in panchayatana style with a central shrine and four subsidiary shrines. The central shrine is Nagara temple style with projections on all sides that continue onto the tower. These projections are profusely decorated with chaitya arches. The sanctum entrance has a sculpted frame with images of Ganga, Yamuna, Lakshmi, and the Navagrahas.

Nibiya Khera Temples (Image Courtesy: Saurabh Saxena)

10th-12th century

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, several monumental brick temples were built in western Bengal, mainly along the banks of the Ajoy, Damodar, and Darakeshwar rivers. The patronage of these temples is debated, but they are likely to have been built by Hindu and Jain merchants who settled along these rivers and shipped goods to the south Bengal port of Tamralipta along river routes. The architectural tradition, however, is probably from Odisha given the strong similarities with the Indralath Temple. We know that Odishan schools of temple building strongly influenced architectural traditions in the districts of Medinipur and Bankura.

Siddeswara Temple, Bahulara, WB

The Siddheshwara Shiva temple at Bahulara is has extensive cut-brick and lime-stucco ornamentation of the walls. It is dated to around the 11th century and was built as a Jain temple and later reconsecrated as a Siva temple by the Malla rulers of Bishnupur. It has a Siva lingam and also sculptures of Ganesha, and Mahisasurmardini from this reconsecration while the Parshvsanatha image on the grounds belongs to the Jain period. The temple has large central ratha projections on all four sides that continue up the tower. Prominent mouldings are along the base and separating the tower from the wall. The tower of the temple has extensive and intricate stucco decoration.

Siddheswara Deul, Bahulara

Sat-Deul, Deulia, Bardhaman, WB

This impressive, brick structure, nearly 80 feet high, was once crumbling and ruinous, but it has been restored by the ASI. It was built perhaps in the 11th century by Jain merchants for the tirthankara Risabhnatha. A stone sculpture recovered from this site has images of 144 tirthankaras with Rishabhnatha seated above. The temple is on a pancharatha plan with a wide, central projection on each sie, that extends from the base to the top of the temple. Prominent horizontal mouldings are along the base and separating the base from the tower. The tower is decorated with intricate, brick-cut, arched-chaitya ornamentation.

Sat Deul, Bardhaman

Temple of Ichhai Ghosh, Gourangapur, Bardhaman, WB

This remarkable temple is in an isolated village on the south bank of the Ajoy river surrounded by protected forests. The area seems to have been an important religious site in the past, however the date of the temple is widely debated with conjectures ranging from the 8th to the 18th century. The 60 foot high temple is a smooth curvilinear rekha deul with wide ratha projections on each side with elegant arched double niches containing brick-cut sculpture of deities. The tower rises nearly straight before elegantly sweeping into the dome at the top.

Ichhai Ghosh Temple (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Jatar Deul, 24 Parganas, WB

This majestic brick temple is situated in a remote village several miles south of Kolkata in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal. On the basis of its architecture it is assigned to the 11th century alongside the temples of Bahulara and Deulia, however it is mysteriously situated very far from the other temples that were built in this period. However it is possible that the site was accessible by Odishan architects traveling into Bengal in the 11th century. The temple is raised on a high brick plinth and has prominent ratha projections on each sides. The intricate brick-cut and stucco covered ornamentation on its tower is mostly faded, but the traces that remain show chaitya-arches and geometric patterns.

Jatar Deul, 24 Parganas (Photo Courtesy: Rangan Datta)

17th century

The golden age of terracotta temples in India is 17th – 19th century Bengal. More than 4000 temples were built over this period in a wide variety of architectural styles, and many decorated with intricately sculpted, narrative terracotta panels on the facade. The impetus for this sudden and prolific phase of temple building was the resurgence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Bengal. The Mallas of Bishnupur and other powerful zamindars converted to Vaishnavism and commissioned many temples designed for congregational ceremonies and rituals in new Vaishnava communities. These patrons (especially the Mallas) experimented with many architectural styles, which in later centuries would evolve and proliferate across Bengal.

The key structural classifications are listed below. There are dozens of variations to these basic styles as both patrons and architects innovated constantly.

Ek-Bangla Temple resembling a Bengali village hut with sloping roofs and curved edges.
Jor-Bangla Two ek-bangla temples joined together, forming the porch and the shrine.
Char-Chala Four triangular roofs meeting at a point, with curved cornices. A style favoured by the Rajas of Nadia.
At-Chala A char-chala temple with a truncated roof, and a miniature char-chala on top. Very common in Hugli district.
Ek-Ratna A chamber with curved cornices, with a single shrine on the roof. The most common style in Bishnupur.
Pancha-Ratna A chamber with a central shrine on the roof surrounded by four turrets.
Naba-Ratna A three storied temple, a chamber with a pancha-ratna temple on its roof. Became popular in the late 18th century.
25-Ratna An elaborate four-storied temple, with twenty-five turrets. A favourite of the Bardhaman Rajas.
Octagonal An eight-sided temple with an eight-sided ridged or plain tower
Dalan A flat-roofed temple with a straight cornice and arched entrances, very common in the 19th century for the Durga festival.
Deul Small shrines in the Orissan rekha deul style with ridged curvilinear towers. Became popular in the 19th century.
Grouped Temples grouped together, usually at-chala, in groups of two, six, twelve or 108 temples.
Rasmancha A subsidiary temple where deities are housed during the annual autumnal Ras festival. Usually octagonal with nine turrets.
Dolmancha A subsidiary temple where deities are housed during the annual spring Dol festival. Usually square with five turrets.

Krishna Temple, Baidyapur, Bardhaman, WB

Although the date of this temple is contested, it is acknowledged to be one of the earliest brick terracotta temples in Bengal. Both the temple and its conjoined porch have pyramidal roofs. The carved terracotta panels around the entrance and along the cornice have intricate vegetal and geometric decoration, typical of early brick temples.

Krishna Deul, Baidyapur

Ras Mancha Bishnupur, WB

This grand, pyramidal structure is one of the earliest Malla constructions, dated to about 1600. Built on a laterite plinth, it is an impressive square building with a small shrine in the centre and three-corridor galleries with vaulted roofs enclosing it. There are terracotta panels above the arched entrances with images of dancers and musicians. Deities from all the temples in Bishnupur are brought here ceremonially and houses inside during the autumnal Ras festival.

Rasmancha, Bishnupur

Shyam Rai Temple, Bishnupur WB

This is one of the greatest terracotta temples in Bengal. Built in 1643 by Malla Raghunatha Singha, it is a pancha-ratna temple with triple-arched entrance porches on all sides. It is profusely decorated with terracotta panels on all four walls of the shrine as well as on the five chambers on the roof, inside the porch, and even inside the sanctum.

Shyamrai Temple, Bishnupur

Keshta Raya Temple, Bishnupur, WB

Another magnificent commission by Malla Raghunatha Singha in 1655 in the Jor Bangla style. This temple has a triple-arched entrance porch on the south and has profuse ornamentation on terracotta panels that fill all walls. The elegantly carved panels have narrative scenes from the Krishnalila, Ramayana, and hunting processions.

Keshta Raya Temple, Bishnupur

Radha Binod Temple, Bishnupur WB

This relatively small temple was built in the At-chala style, another commission by a queen of Raghunatha Singha in 1659. The carved brickwork of this temple is very refined especially Ramayana battle-scene above the triple-arched entrance, the Dasavataras on wall panels around the entrance, and the very intricately carved lotuses and vegetal decoration above the arched side entrance.

Radha Binod Temple, Bishnupur

Madan Mohan Temple, Bishnupur WB

Unlike the several laterite ek-ratna temples built in the fort area, this ek-ratna temple was built entirely in brick by Malla Durjan Singha in 1694. It houses the deity Madana-Mohan which is the most revered principal deity of the town of Bishnpur. Many legends of the deities miracles are still remembered in the town. The temple’s south facade is filled with large terracotta panels with scenes mainly from the Krishnalila.

Madana Mohan Temple, Bishnupur

Ananta Vasudeva Temple, Bansberia, Hugli WB

This richly decorated temple is one of the earliest ek-ratna terracotta temples outside Bishnupur and was built in 1649 by Raja Rameswar Datta of the Bansberia Raj dynasty. The has triple-arched entrance porches on all four sides and an octagonal shrine on the roof. All four sides of the temple are decorated with panels but the south facade is most richly decorated. The narrative panels show royal hunting processions, Ramayana battle scenes, deities, and scenes from Krishna’s life.

Ananta Vasudeva Temple, Bansberia

Siva Temple, Palpara, Nadia, WB

The Saivite Rajas of Nadia have a long tradition of building temples in the char-chala style at their capitals. The earliest of these is in the small village of Palpara. This important temple stands within a walled garden compound. It is raised on a high plinth and has steeply curved cornices. The temple once had extensive terracotta decoration but today the single arched entrances on two sides only have some terracotta panels mainly adorned with vegetal motifs, scrollwork, and lotuses.

Siva Temple, Palpara

18th century

By the early 18th century, most powerful zamindars in Bengal started to commission terracotta temples in their capitals and throughout their domains. By the middle decades of the 18th century, patronage spread to smaller zamindars, merchants, and administrators who were enriched by the flourishing European trade. This demand for temple building was met by a group of artisans called sutradhars who were skilled in architecture, terracotta decoration, metalwork and wood carving. They formed village guilds and took temporary commissions from patrons in nearby villages. With the proliferation of temples, we also see a diversity of styles, with each patron or artisan guild building and developing individual styles of architecture and decoration.

Lalji Temple, Kalna WB

This magnificent 25-ratna temple was built in 1739 by the Bardhaman Rajas in their riverside, summer capital of Kalna. The Lalji Temple is the oldest temple in the Rajbari Complex. The temple has clusters of three turrets on each corner and large octagonal shrines on the second and third storeys. The facades were filled with terracotta panels but only a few survive today, along with vertical corner friezes of a sequence of hunters on animals. In front of the temple is a massive char-chala mandapa for worshippers.

Lalji Temple, Kalna

Char Bangla Temple, Baronagar, Murshidabad, WB

This famous temple complex on the south bank of the Ganges has four ek-bangla temples around a courtyard. They were built in the late-18th century by Rani Bhabani, the powerful zamindar-queen of Natore. Two of these temples have very rich terracotta decoration, with some of the finest panels of hunting scenes and hunting processions along the base. The large terracotta figures of Rama-Ravana and Devi Mahatmaya are also superb. Another temple facade is filled with excellent stucco decoration showing Krishnalila and Ramayana scenes.

Char Bangla Temple Complex, Baronagar

Bhavaniswara Temple, Baronagar, Murshidabad, WB

This temple is on a mound a short distance from the char bangla complex. It was built by in 1755 by Rani Bhabani, in a unique style that she patronised. The large octagonal temple has wide entrance arches on each of the eight sides, forming a verandah around an octagonal shrine. On the roof is an octagonal inverted-lotus dome. Large panels above the entrance arches have stucco decoration of Krishnalila scenes, the Ramayana battle, and Durga Mahisamardhini.

Bhavanishwara Temple, Baronagar

Radha Binod temple, Joydeb Kenduli WB

This navaratna temple was built by a queen of the Bardhaman Raj family. The date of 1683 on the ASI board is debated and on stylistic and historical grounds it is more likely to be from the mid-18th century. The temple has a triple-arched entrance porch and its south façade is filled with richly decorated terracotta panels. Particularly elegant are the registers above the arches containing Ramayana episodes and battle-scenes, and Dasavatara images. All four corners have vertical friezes of a sequence of hunters on animals.

Radha Binod Temple, Joydeb

Brindaban Chandra Temple complex, Guptipara, Hugli, WB

Guptipara was once renowned as a religious centre and for its schools of Sanskrit learning. The Brindaban Chandra Math here is a walled temple complex with four temples built by multiple patrons between the late 17th and early-19th centuries. The temples are raised on a common plinth. The main Brindaban Chandra temple built in 1810 is a large, plain atchala temple with a triple-arched entrance porch. it is interesting for 19th century mural painting on all the inner walls and ceiling of the porch. The Ramchandra temple, built in the late 18th century, is a large ek-ratna temple with an octagonal turret and a triple-arched entrance porch. It has rich terracotta on two walls, inside the porch on the sanctum wall, and on its octagonal tower. The figural decoration shows deities, Ramayana episodes, and elite hunting processions and boating scenes.

Ramchandra Temple, Guptipara

Damodar Temple, Siuri, Birbhum WB

The Radha Damodar temple in Sonatorpara area of Siuri was built by the merchant Ghanashyam Das in the 18th century. The temple stands in a large garden-compound and is an at-chala temple with a triple-arched entrance porch. Its facade is entirely filled with intricate sculpture of exceptional quality, that ranks amongst the finest in all of Bengal. The most elegant figures are above the arch panels, of Krishna stealing the gopis clothes, Krishna’s Kaliyadaman, and Vishnu Ananta-sayana.

Damodar Temple, Siuri

Group of Temples, Nanoor, Birbhum, WB

These temples are on a large mound known as the birthplace of Chandidas, a famous 14th century Vaishavite poet. There are fourteen temples here, from the 18th and 19th centuries, most clustered around a courtyard, which has the plain, flat-roofed, Bisalakshi or Basuli temple. Most of the other temples are char-chala with stucco decoration but there are also two richly decorated at-chala temples, with vegetal and figural panels of Krishnalila scenes and figures of deities.

Bishalakshi Temple Complex, Nanur

Siva Dol, Sivasagar Assam

The graceful temple of brick and stone was built by the Ahom king Siba Singha in the 18th century and is one of the tallest Ahom temples. The plan of the sanctum is octagonal and its outer walls are decorated with sculptures of various deities, geometric and floral designs. The tower is typically curved in rekha-deul style, and is surmounted by successive tiers of kalasas. The mandapa in front of the shrine is also brick built with a char-chala roof and surmounted by tiers of amalakas.

Siva Dol, Sibsagar (Image Courtesy: Yatra.com)

Rasika Raya Temple, Haripurgarh, Orissa

This temple was built in the 18th century by the Bhanja rulers of Mayurbhanj. This region borders the district of Medinipur in West Bengal and rulers of this dynasty are known to have married daughters of Bengali zamindars. This possibly explains how this very typical Bengal style at-chala temple with triple-arched entrance porch was built here. There is terracotta scrollwork above arches and figures around facade and on base. This is the only known brick terracotta temple in Orissa from this period.

Rasika Raya Temple (Image Courtesy: Odisha Tourism)

19th century

Patronage of temples continued unabated throughout most of the 19th century as merchants, zamindars, priests, and administrators built decorated temples in their villages. Regional architectural styles become more well-defined, and some new architectures such as the Durga Dalan and the Rekha Deul emerge. In sculpture, figures are depicted in European style and the themes of sculpture also change from traditional Pauranic stories to local Bengali mangala-kavya legends like Chandi Mangal and Annada Mangal. The sutradhar guilds also become more important and we start seeing names of sutradhars in temple inscriptions. Terracotta temple-building in Bengal comes to an end quite abruptly at the end of the 19th century due to lack of patronage and as new building materials become popular.

Temples of Bandopadhyay Family, Pathra, WB

This remote village on the north bank of the Kangsabati river has several clusters of temples built in the 19th century by merchants who traded in silk, cotton, and indigo. At the north of the village are the mansions and temples of the Bandopadhyay zamindar family. Three pancha-ratna Siva temples on high plinths have smooth turrets and terracotta dvarapalakas in arched niches flanking the entrance. ANearby is a navaratna rasmancha, also on a high plinth and with elegant garlic-shaped rasunchura turrets. Behind this is the abandoned residence of the Banerjee family. Yeasin Pathan, a local school-teacher has spent most of his life campaigning for the protection and conservation of these temples. He was awarded the Kabir Award in 1985 for his campaign.

Siva Temples, Pathra

Pratapeshwar Temple, Kalna WB

The Pratapeshwar temple was built by the Bardhaman Raj family in 1849 within the Kalna Rajbari complex. it is a ridged rekha deul raised on a high plinth, with rich terracotta on all four walls. Panels above arches show Ram Darbar, Rama’s battle with Ravana and his invocation of the Goddess Durga. Wall panels show dancers, yogis, acrobats, and deities, carved in high-relief. These figures are European influenced especially in the depiction of faces and garments.

Pratapeshwar Temple, Kalna