A Lesser Known Terracotta Motif Depicted in the Shyama-Raya and Madana-Mohana Temples of Bishnupur: Some Preliminary Observations

Ardhendu Ray, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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This essay discusses the cultural significance of a lesser known terracotta motif Navanarigunjara in the temples of Bishnupur and relates it to various types of representation of the same motif found in Pata paintings. Moreover, it looks into its origin and evolution and its position in temples.

Bishnupur (23005′ N and 87019′ E), like the neighbouring regions of West Bengal, forms part of the eastern fringe area of the Chotanagpur plateau and at the same time it extends in the west to the lower Gangetic delta. Bishnupur, in spite of being a small town, is quite rich in archaeological data—in the form of temples, sculptures, handicrafts and heritage. The town derives its name from Lord ‘Bishnu’, to whom many temples were dedicated by various Malla kings at various periods. In the days of its glory, Bishnupur was the capital of kingdom of legendary kings of the Malla of the late medieval period. This kingdom was a large territory known as Mallabhum, which comprised besides the entire district of Bankura, extensive areas in the district of Midnapur and Bardhaman. The religious heritage of Bishnupur is closely associated with the rise of Vaisnavisn in Bengal in the post-Chaitanya era. The relevance of Vaisnavism and the religious character of the Bishnupur are most significant feature, so far as the rise and development of Vaisnavism in Rarh of Bengal is concerned. This region has still retained its a wide reputation as a living centre of crafts in terracotta, metal, cotton weaving.

 Historical Background

Since medieval times Mallabhum[1] has been well recognized as the seat of art and culture. Bishnupur has a long history since c. 695 CE; the throne of this kingdom was occupied by many kings. Besides their political and socio-cultural interest, they spread their spiritual spirit and beliefs among their subjects.

 The most noteworthy component of Hinduism which, to a large extent, shaped the cultural history of Bankura from the beginning of the 16th century onwards has been the Gaudiya Vaisnava Bhakti cult. The advent of this new religious faith in the Bankura region under the aegis of the Malla kings of Bishnupur has been dealt with Radha-Krishna worship among their subjects. It should however, be pointed out that Vaisnavism in the form of Vishnu or Narayana worship was not unknown in Bankura before. As far back as the fourth century CE we find an example of Vishnu (Chakraswami) worship in Bankura[2] from an inscription on the wall of a cave in the Susunia hill. There is also dependable evidence to prove that the Vaisnava text Bhagavata used to be performed regularly in the Malla Court prior to the conversion of Bir Hambira to Chaitanya-Vaisnavisrn. Among the upper-caste Hindus as well as the Bagdis of Bishnupur sub-division, the Gaudiya Vaisnava Bhakti cult has taken a very deep root.

 General features of the Temples

The temples of Bishnupur mainly follow a style exclusively developed in Bengal with a slight variation of north Indian type. There are also some deul-type temples showing how the Bengal sthapatis (architect) had acquired considerable proficiency in erecting temples in different style.[3] The monumental temples which are magnificent in their architectural style and the terracotta decoration formed upon the walls of most of these temples, preserved in an excellent state. The Malla kings of Bisnupur patronized the evolution of the Bisnupur style. Late mediaeval terracotta art in Bengal was filled with Vaisnavism.[4] The Radha-Krisna legend became the favourite subject of the unknown terracotta artists.

 The Shyama-Raya Temple

The temple of Shyama-Raya (fig.1) stated to have been built by Raghunatha Singha in 1643 CE and dedicated to Radha and Krishna, is a temple of the pancha-ratna style and may be regarded as the most outstanding one because of the decorative engravings on its walls. Besides floral and vegetal designs, the decorations reveal Krishnalila scenes, scenes from the Puranas, Ramayana and the Mahabharata.[5] The most outstanding feature among these decorations, a representation of a circular Rasamandala, showing Krishna in the centre surrounded by dancing Gopis in one or more concentric circles.[6]

The Madana-Mohana temple

Of the eka-ratna variety, the temple of Madana-Mohana is built in brick. This temple was erected to enshrine the tutelary deity of the Mallas in c. 1694 CE. The façade of the temple was decorated with scenes showing Krishnalila episodes, scenes showing dancers and dancing party and a row of ascetics. The area upon the arches are found covered with scenes depicting war while the lower parts are found decorated with figures of animals and birds, Krishnalila, Dasavatara (ten incarnation of Vishnu) scenes, legends and stories from Puranas.[7] The pillars display groups of figures engaged in dancing and singing and the arched facades are found filled with battle scenes from the Mahabharata. The Madana-Mohanatemple (fig. 2), dedicated to Krishna as Madan Mohan (the alluring form in which Krishna seduces even Madan, the God of Love)[8] was decorated with the stories of Krishna’s life drawing upon the Gaudiya perspective reflected in the literature and songs of the tradition.

Fig. 1.Shyama-Raya Temple: General View.                            Fig. 2. Madana-MohanaTemple: General View.
Fig. 1.Shyama-Raya Temple: General View. Fig. 2. Madana-MohanaTemple: General View.

The pillars framing the entrance, on the temple’s south facade, depict Krihsna’s adventures with Radha and the Gopis. The upper segments present rows of figures that dance around the column in rings. The individual panels depict Krishna, either alone or accompanied by one or more Gopis, drummers, and other musicians, reflecting the activity that takes place in the courtyard. Together, they perform rasalila, the circular dance formation in which Krishna multiplied himself to dance with each of the Gopis. This dance is resonated in the spandrel medallions of the sanctum doorway arch framed by the pillars.

 The Lesser Known Terracotta Motif

The terracotta panel (Fig.3), installed in the lower portion on the right column of entrance gate in the inside portion of the Madana-Mohana temple, is an exceptional one: an elephant formed by varied positioning of nine women with a couple seated on the back of this elephant in an amorous posture..  The question is what was the purpose of this motif?

Fig. 3. Position and close-up view of the Navanarigunjaramotif, Madana-Mohana Temple.
Fig. 3. Position and close-up view of the Navanarigunjara motif, Madana-Mohana Temple.

Later I found this same motif from Shyama-Raya temple installed on one of the columns of the backside (western) of the temple (Fig. 4). It is fragile in comparison to Madana-Mohana Temple and the seated couple is not clearly visible. Literary corroboration also confirmed regarding this particular motif in D.P. Ghosh’s work on Medieval Indian Painting[9]. However not much  discussion is there about it.

Fig. 4.Position and close-up view of the Navanarigunjara motif, Shyama-Raya Temple.
Fig. 4.Position and close-up view of the Navanarigunjara motif, Shyama-Raya Temple.

The first mention of this type of motif, was found in the Odishan pata (Fig.5) paintings. This motifi known as Gajarasa in Odisha pata paintings. It is otherwise known as Navanarikunjara. Many scholars also call it as Kandarpa Hasti. The reason for such nomenclature is that nine numbers of maiden ladies of Gopapur designed themselves like an elephant. They actually intersect and entangle among themselves in such a way that the ladies appear like that of an elephant. This design is also known as Kamakunjara.[10]

The above mentioned terms are related to elephant, firmly in erotic sense. Therefore we adopted Navanarigunjara, most suitable for the motif depicted in Bishnupur temples. It is revealed from the Vaisnava literatures from Bengal that this Navanarigunjara occupies a prominent place amidst the Rasalila (Love making) of Sri Krishna. The story goes like that[11]

Fig. 5.Gajarasa in OdishanPata Paintings. (After Sahu, 2009: 170)  Fig. 6.Navanarigunjarain OdishanPata Paintings. (After Ghosh, 1982: plate 43)
Fig. 5.Gajarasa in OdishanPata Paintings. (After Sahu, 2009: 170) Fig. 6.Navanarigunjarain OdishanPata Paintings. (After Ghosh, 1982: plate 43)

“Once upon a time Krishna and Radha got separated due to some reason and both were having a sorrowful life without the presence of the beloved. At that time Radha along with her other eight friends embrace each other to fulfil their sexual urge and lust desire; in the shape of an elephant. Their actual intention was to attract Krishna towards Radha. In the meanwhile Krishna appeared on the spot, searching his beloved Radha and saw the strange posture of the ladies designed like an elephant. He then sit on the back of the designed elephantand started to play flute. Sri Radha felt sigh of relief from the pain of love. The Gopis got back to their original position; as a result Krishna fall down. The Gopis united Radha and Krishna in their way and performed dance and music.”

Literally speaking, Navanarikunjara means an elephant comprising nine women. In Vaisnava literatures, elephant has been used as an erotic symbol, especially in context with limbs and gait of Radha.

Almost similar kind of description with comparative example has been observed in D.P. Ghosh’s masterpiece on Medieval Indian Painting.[12] He mentioned a fantastic creation of painted Navanarigunjara (Fig. 6), nine naked Gopis in the shape of an elephant (Fig. 6), carrying on its back, Radha and Krishna playing with the flute is a multifaceted product of elusive imagination.

A far superior execution of the multi-coloured Navanarigunjara scene is provided by Krishnalila scroll from Bankura probably of the 17th century CE which depicts Krishna playing with a flute in seated posture on the back of an elephant replicated by nine Gopis who have cleverly inclined themselves in a mutually interlocked position as to create a complete in the masterly treated terracotta  Navanarigunjara in the Shyama-Raya temple relief, Bishnupur, of the 17th century where the composition is much more compact revealing the lumbering gait of the strolling elephant.[13]Ghosh’s account is unlike from others in the way as the painting showing them in the naked postures.

While describing Krishnalila depiction on the temples of Bengal, George Michell writes, “Gopis are sometimes combined to form elephant bodies. This theme appears infrequently, and then only as a decorative motif on wall panels, column panels and sometimes as part of large compositions as the principal wall panels above arches”.[14]

During the Mughal period few motif paintings like Navagunjara (a mythical animal consisting of several human and animal forms), Kamakunjara (an elephant formed with composition of women figures), etc. were very much popular in Odishan paintings. Interestingly earlier they did not appear in Odishan sculpture, though all these paintings are religious in nature. The Navagunjara motif is also found in the Pahari and Deccani School of paintings.[15]Scholars from Odisha are of the view that this motif purely has the Odishan origin as its reference available in the Sarala Mahabharata (Odia translation of the Mahabharata).[16]

 Concluding Remarks

The motif, amorous and playful Krishna and Radha riding on this elephant, shows that the love between Krishna and Radha, a divine manifestation of Shringar is above all other emotions or Rasas. It can be assigned the nine rasas to the nine sakhis of this image. This specific sculpture is purely related with the erotic insignia. Several palm leaf manuscripts and pata paintings of Odisha also depict of sexual activities among Krishna and Gopis, where influences of Gitagovinda and other classical literature of eastern India can be detected. Probably these paintings influenced the sculptor of this region to carve this theme regarding Rasalila and place on the temples. Interestingly this motif found in both the temples on the columns only. It needs further investigation regarding this specific motif, why it was installed on the columns, not any other place.

The motif no doubt was Odishan in origin and it was very much popular in Odishan Patachitra. It was not seen in the temples of Odisha. The possible reason for the absence can be attributed to the fact that most of the temples are devoted to Saivite tradition. Another reason that speaks of its absence in Odishan temples is that the motif came into existence during Mughal and later Mughal period when most of the Odishan temples were already constructed.

Bishnupur group of temples were made during the late medieval period (16th to early 19th century) and specifically the Shyama-Raya (1643 CE) and Madana-Mohana (1694 CE) temples bear this motif. Local artist adopted this particular motif and other design due to influence of Vaisnavite sect because of the geographical and cultural proximity of Odisha and Bengal. It is surely a very rare decorative motif in the temples of Bengal as George Michell stated.[17]

 Acknowledgement: I am thankful to Mr. Santosh Kumar Mallik, Rajesh Sahu, Deepak Kumar, AnimeshSarkar and Dr. Swapan Kumar Patra for their various help and support for this write-up.

Notes and References

[1]For the descriptive History of Bishnupur/Mallabhum see Abhayapada Mallik, History of Bishnupur-Raj: An Ancient Kingdom of West Bengal, Published by the Author, Calcutta, Bankura, 1921; Hitesranjan Sanyal, ‘Mallabhum’ In Surajit Sinha ed., Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-Colonial Eastern and North Eastern India, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, 1987.

[2] For an overview of the origin and development of Vaisnavism in Bengal and particularly in Bishnupur region see, Ramakanta Chakraborty, Vaisnavism in Bengal, Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Calcutta, 1985;  S. C., Mukherjee, A Study of Vaisnavism in Ancient and Medieval Bengal. Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Calcutta, 1966.

[3]B. K. Dutta, Bengal Temples, Munshiram Manoharlal,New Delhi, 1975.

[4]David J. McCutchion, Late Medieval Temples of Bengal, Origins and Classification, The Asiatic Society Monograph Series, Vol. XX, Calcutta, 1972, pp. 17-19.

[5]S. S. Biswas and Zulekha Haque, Terracotta Temples of Bengal, Friendship Publishers, Calcutta, 1995,  pp. 12-13.

[6]‘Style’, George Michell, Chapter 6, In George Michell, ed., Brick Temples of Bengal: From the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1983, p. 93.

[7]Biswas and Haque, Terracotta Temples of Bengal, p. 12.

[8]Pika Ghosh, Narrating K???a’s Biography: Temple Imagery, Oral Performance, and Vai??ava Mission in Seventeenth-Century Bengal, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 65, No. 1 (2005), p.41.

[9]D.P. Ghosh, Medieval Indian Painting, Eastern school: 13th century A.D. to Modern Times including Folk Art, Sundeep Prakashan, Delhi, 1982, p. 55.

[10]Rabindra Nath Sahu., Odisi Patachitra, State Institute for Development of Arts and Crafts, Bhubaneswar, 2009, pp. 170-171. (in Odia)

[11] Ibid.

[12]Ghosh, Medieval Indian Painting, p. 55.

[13] Ibid.

[14]‘Iconography’, George Michell, Chapter 7, In George Michell, ed., Brick Temples of Bengal,p. 139.

[15]Mohammed Yamin, Impact of Islam on Odishan Culture, Readworthy publications, New Delhi, p. 249.

[16] D. N. Pathy., ‘A Search for Muslim identity in Odishan Paintings’, In P. C. Panda ed., Impact of Islam on Odishan Culture, Directorate of Tourism, Sports and Culture, Bhubaneswar, 1981, p. 33.

[17]Michell, Brick Temples of Bengal,p. 139.

Ardhendu Ray Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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