Jainism as a religion had existed in Bengal—mainly in the Rarh region, for many centuries. Lord Mahavira himself is said to have travelled to Bengal, and if it be true, he must have preached the religion himself. A number of ancient Jain and Buddhist texts attest to the dominance of Jainism in the ancient Gouda kingdom. However, afterwards it lost much of its position in the triangular struggle involving the Brahminical Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism for dominance in various parts of the early medieval post-Pala period. In the 12th century Jainism received royal patronage from Anantavarman Choda-Ganga-Deva (1078 AD), the Odishan ruler who occupied the entire southwest Bengal up to the river Bhagirathi and created his second kingdom at Ambikanagar, Bankura. Many temples for the Digambara sect were built in Bankura and Purulia in the 11th and 12 century AD in honour of Parswanatha and Mahavira.
As the torrential rain gushes down the plastic and tarpaulin sheets of the narrow alleys in Kumartuli, covering the half-made clay idols, the smell of wet earth emanates, reverberates, encircles and rises up to announce the arrival of the auspicious occasion— Durga Puja. Finally, as the dawn of Mahalaya announces the arrival of the Devipaksha and the last ablutions are offered to seek blessings from one’s forefathers on the banks of the sacred river Ganga, the artisans of Kumartuli pronounce the occasion through invoking the powers of the female goddess by painting the eyes of the idols of Durga, famously known as Chokkhudaan or bestowing of the eyes. A popular and annual sight in the region every year, this relatively small, yet largely famous and well-renowned region of Kumartuli stands tucked within the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Sovabazar area of the northern region of the present city of Kolkata (West Bengal, India) and the relatively recent construction of the underground metro-railway station of the same name. A busy place for idol-makers, the kumbhars, their small and narrow workshops, aligned against their crowded tenements, hum with the buzz of activities at most times of the year, especially during the time of the Durga puja. Over the years, the region has experienced a surge and witnessed changes in the style of the clay idols, their expression and depictions, especially the ones made for Durga puja. Carrying forth a string of history within itself, as these depictions represent a strain of continuity of the famous worship of female deities of the region, the changes and alterations in visual depictions of the idols made in Kumartuli also help to reflect new ideas and ideologies in the age of new-media, forming an important part of Visual Anthropology. Based on an extensive fieldwork in the region of Kumartuli and various parts of Kolkata throughout the month of Aswina (September-October) between 2011-2012, this paper tries to look into the significant aspects of the representations of the idol-making formats of Kumartuli, their changing presentations and new reflections and how the local history, oral traditions and lores still manifest themselves through these changing representations.
Iconography is a field of study that concerns itself with the evaluation of symbols and their significance in religion. It aids in establishing context and helps to link the beliefs and myths of the past to the practices of the present. Any attempt to discuss iconography of temples needs to start with a look at why icons are created. The need for religious iconography is multifold in nature. First, it seeks to make the intangible concept of the gods real through physical presence. Religious iconography has a language of its own which seeks to make the god visible through a certain set of characteristics that are predetermined by rules that originated in ancient times. Secondly, religious icons in the days prior to the industrial revolution provided a unifying effect by their occurrence in temples across a region or a kingdom. Even though the actual mode of worship may differ from region to region within India, the icons themselves are pan-Indian. Icons associated with temples may also be a sign of the wealth or social standing of the person who finances the temple building process. Removing the icons makes religion itself a vague concept which is not as easily disseminated. One other function icons perform is as a record of a certain period in history. The intentional removal of icons during certain historical events can provide clues to the socio-political climate of the time and be reflective of invasion or change of patronage.
In 1673, Zamindar Rameshwar Ray left Patuli and settled in Bansberia or Banskabati as it was known earlier in Hooghly. Bansberia is located besides our holy river Ganga, and in between Tribeni and Bandel. Zamindar Rameshwar Ray was gifted this village of around 400 Bigha of Land and its Zamindari by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who also gifted him the prestigious title of King. From this time onward many of his kith and kin settled in Bansberia.
Which is the best ‘Temple Town’ of West Bengal? One group of elite travelers will award this title to Kalna; yet others will argue in favour of Bishnupur. I love both .I cannot decide which one can score over the other. Because the Editor has requested me to write about temples of Bankura, I zeroed on the photos of temples of Bishnupur in my HDD… And I decided to showcase Radhe Shyam and Radha Madhab temples—two among the less famous temples of Bishnupur—yet these two offer excellent oeuvre of wall-reliefs. These temples are of ‘Ek-Ratna’ (single spire) construction and made of laterite stone with thick white coating.
We find the finest among the ‘Panch-Ratna’ (five spires), ’Ek-Ratna’ and ‘Jor-Bangla’ temple architecture at Bishnupur. I have visited many sites of terra cotta temples in West Bengal. What appealed to me most is the sense of proportion among the architects of Bisnupur. If I were younger and equipped with a professional degree in Architecture instead of Mechanical Engineering, I would have pursued a project of identifying the dimensional proportions of West Bengal’s temples to arrive at the aesthetics of that of temple architecture!
A robbery in the Malla kingdom in 16th century changed the face of Bengal’s architecture. Vaishnav guru Srinivas Acharya and two other greats, Narattoma Das and Shyamanand were taking three cartloads of scriptures from Vrindavan to Puri . The writings were priceless…these carts contained books by great Vaishnavites Sri Jeeva Goswami, Sri Rup Goswami and Raghunath Das among others. The dacoits knew that cartloads of great treasure were being moved from one location to another. They had no other clue. There were only ten foot soldiers ‘protecting’ these cartloads. The ‘treasure’ was easily looted during one night when all the travelers were asleep. This happened at Gopalpur village, within the territory of the Malla king.
Srinivas Acharya stayed back in Bengal determined to recover the books .The robbers’ allegiance was to the local King Vir Hambir. Srinivas had a face-to-face interaction with his court’s religious supremo Vyasacharya where Srinivas Acharya demonstrated his depth of knowledge regarding Vaishnav religion. King became his ardent disciple and the books were restored to Srinivas.
Vaishnav religion had strong impact on cultural life of Bengal. Malla kingdom was free from Muslim dominance and became a hub for Vaishnav religion and culture during 16th to 18th centuries.
According to books and articles I read on temples of Bishnupur, the first ‘Pancha-Ratna’ temple built during 1639 AD did not survive. The next one to be built was ‘Shyama Raya’ temple – one of the finest in Bengal. Close to it came up ‘Jor-Bangla’ temple, Radhe Shyam temple and Lalji temple during the course of time. Radhe Shyam temple, opposite the new Lalji temple, was built by Malla king Chaitanya Singha in 1759 AD. This can be called the ‘youngest’ among the temples which were built during the heyday of Malla kingdom. ‘Radha Madhab’ temple was built by Srimani Devi, one of the consorts of King Vir Singha in 1737 AD. This temple is the 1st one a tourist comes across as s/he enters the ASI Complex , south of Lalbandh.
‘Radhe Shyam’ temple and ‘Radha Madhab’ temple
‘Radhe Shyam’ temple is ‘Ek-Ratna’ – single spire temple with a square base measuring 11.1 m and 10.7 m in height. The spire is cylindrical, with semi-spherical dome. The idea of installing a spire on top of the temple, according to some writers, came from the then prevailing Muslim architecture. The deity used to be placed in the spire during festival days so that a large crowd of devotees can view the idol from a distance. The work on this temple is most elaborate and aesthetically pleasing among the laterite temples I have come across.
Entrances to the sanctum for devotees as well as for services have three arches. The arches on the front side has lost most of the wall-reliefs. Ditto on the arches on the service side of the temple. Two rows of wall-reliefs set inside alcoves, each on right and left flanks of the front face, go up to the top. Two rows of alcoves connect these two verticals and offer the best of the oeuvre. Here, the wall-reliefs are based on Ramayana and ‘Dashavatar’ (Ten incarnations) of Vishnu.
The walls inside have excellent wall-reliefs too – much bigger size than the ones on the outside. Among them, ‘Ananta-sayane Vishnu’ (Vishnu resting on Ananta) is very well-known. A favourite of mine too. I also like the ‘Sharho-bhuja Chaitanya’ (Chaitanya Dev with six hands) and a panel on ‘Krsna Leela’. We find ‘Sharho-bhuja Chaitanya’ wall-relief in many temples including Madan Mohan temple of Vishnupur and ‘Ananta vasudev’ temple at Bansberia, Hooghly.
‘Radha Madhab‘ temple too is ‘Ek-Ratna’ – single spire temple with a square base measuring 11.1 m and 9.2 m in height. The spire is hexagonal, with ‘rekha’-styled dome. We can visualize the beauty of the temple when it was new – the ‘do-chala’ (two slanting roves) three-arched entrance adding to the same. Both the front and the service side of the temple have three arches. Arches, pillars and inside walls were quite artfully done – quite apparent from the 3rd photo here.
Sadly, a lot of the wall-reliefs are damaged. The white coat has suffered erosion because of weather and human touch. Some of the details still are quite attractive, though the laterite has been exposed. We find an ‘Ananta-sayane Vishnu’ (Vishnu resting on Ananta) here too, which was definitely as grand as the one in ‘Radhe Shyam’ temple. Time has ravaged this wall-relief – I feel sad when I see the blow-up on my computer screen. Wall-reliefs in the alcoves are quite skillfully done, very appealing to the discerning traveler. We find scenes from Ramayana, Krishnaleela, social scenes and various motifs on the pillars and arches of the temple. ASI tries to maintain green surroundings.
The readers of Chitrolekha International Magazine who want to view more photos of these temples and/or other terra cotta temples of Bishnupur may please visit my blogs in
Shyamal Chatterji is an Engineer by profession from IIT, Kharagpur (Mechanical Engineering, 1968). Presently, he is retired from professional life. He is now working on Iconography of terra cotta temples of Bengal. He is also associated with PANIIT and actively supports the IITians for ITI Project. His works can be viewed in: http://przmm.blogspot.com, http://tctob.blogspot.com & http://hubpages.com/shyamchat.
Dean Academics, Indian Institute of Crafts and Design
“As a child one of my fondest memories is of Lakshmi Puja. The whole household seemed transformed. There was activity all around the household. I could sense a joyous mood in everyone. But the most remarkable reminder of this day to me was alpona – the beautiful floor decorations which my mother and sisters made on the threshold of our household, on the doorsteps leading to the prayer alter…”, remembers Narayan Sinha, a renowned sculptor, who has spent his childhood in rural Bengal.
All materials contained on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast in any form for commercial purpose without our prior written permission. In the case of third party materials proper permission from the owner of the content must be acquired. Users can use, share, distribute and display contents for non-commercial, academic and personal use. Please contact us for issues relating to copyright, use of materials and reprint permission at firstname.lastname@example.org.