Religious architecture has a long and diverse history in Bengal. The first major architectural patrons were the Palas who built several monumental Buddhist viharas in the 7th-9th centuries. Between the 10th and the 13th centuries, Hindu and Jain merchants sponsored towering brick temples along riverine trade routes in western Bengal. Islamic architecture in Bengal seems to have followed Persian precedents up to the 14th century, but in the 15th century the Husain Shahi sultans made a significant departure when they developed an indigenous brick-based architectural style with elements derived from Bengali huts. These sultans and their dependents built dozens of brick mosques and tombs in this style.
In the 17th century, a new and prolific phase of Hindu temple-building commenced. In this period, temples were built in an innovative and syncretic style that borrowed elements from the Husain Shahi architecture and from North Indian and Orissan temples. The style continued to evolve for nearly three hundred years, until it died down in the 20th century due to lack of patronage.
This article explores the social influences on this fascinating, final phase of medieval Bengali temple architecture. It looks at how patrons, architects, religious rituals, and society at large influenced temple architecture and sculpture. Given the scale of temple building over this period (more than 4000 temples are estimated to have been built) this article only looks at the major influences, and each influence is only briefly touched upon. There is great scope for further research on this topic, especially on the influence of smaller patrons and regional architect-guilds in the 19th century.
As Hitesranjan Sanyal has pointed out, most temples built in the 17th century and the early part of the 18th century were commissioned by large, powerful, semi-independent zamindars such as the Mallas of Bishnupur. These rulers had the resources to maintain architects and artisans in their employment. The architectural styles developed by these royal craftsmen were deeply influenced by their patrons tastes and ambitions.
The Malla rajas of Bishnupur and their ranis commissioned more than forty Vaishnava temples in the 17th and 18th centuries in their domains across modern Bankura and Medinipur. These patrons and their spiritual advisors conceived of a new type of temple that would serve as an “abode” for Radha-Krishna and facilitate congregational worship and kirtana sessions for the newly converted Vaishnava communities.
Pika Ghosh has argued that these rulers also wanted to portray themselves as successors to the Husain Shahi sultans. Therefore they used the Husain Shahi architectural prototype for the lower story of their temples. Thus, the Malla temples have triple-arched entrances, curved cornices, and decorative terracotta panels. Inside there are domes, vaults, and mihrab-like niches. This kind of cultural assimilation was not unusual in India. Buildings in the 14th century capital of the Vijayanagara empire also has domes and arches, borrowed from the neighbouring Deccan sultanates.
The new temple style developed by the Mallas was also adopted by large zamindars elsewhere, such as the Dinajpur zamindars in their monumental 18th century Kantaji temple, and the Bansberia Datta Ray family in the mid-17th century Ananta Vasudeva temple. But other large zamindars developed their own architectures. The Saivite rajas of Nadia developed a char-chala style with early examples at Palpara and Diknagar, and later examples at Santipur and Sibnibas. The Bardhaman zamindars built temples in a variety of styles, but their unique contributions are the 25-pinnacled temples at Kalna, and the 108 Siva temple complexes at Burdwan and Kalna. In Bangladesh, Rani Bhabani, the zamindar of the vast Natore estate, built several temples in the ek-bangla style in the village of Baronagar. She also developed a large, octagonal temple style, examples of which can be seen in her domains in Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Some smaller zamindars also built unique temples especially in the 19th century when we see an efflorescence of unusual styles. In Murshidabad, the rajas of Kasimbazar conceived of a temple with a high octagonal superstructure surmounted by an inverted-lotus dome and a richly decorated ek-bangla porch. Examples are at Byaspur, Saidabad, and Kiritesvari. The Anglophile zamindar of Hetampur built the European-influenced Chandranatha Temple, an octagonal temple with inverted-vase turrets and stucco statues of maidens. On this temple’s walls are European coats of arms and portrait-sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In 19th century Kolkata, the zamindar Rani Rashmoni built monumental, nava-ratna temples at Dakshineswar and Talpukur.
From the early 18th century onward, patronage of temples started to shift from large, semi-independent rulers to smaller zamindars, merchants, priests, and administrators (such as revenue collectors and estate managers or diwans). At some point in the late 17th or early 18th century, temple architects and artisans (sutradhars), started to adjust to this new kind of patronage, by re-organising themselves into independent village guilds. These guilds began to take short-term (1-2 year) commissions from the new patrons. The commissions seem to have included the initial construction as well as annual maintenance of the temples.
From this point onwards it is the sutradhar guilds rather than the patrons that drive the evolution of Bengali temple architecture. By the mid-18th century the guilds had developed standardised templates for temple architecture and decoration. We know from speaking to the current owners of temples, that on receiving a commission the sutradhars traveled to the patron’s village, to survey and select a site. They then offered the patron a choice of architectural templates, drawn out in scroll paintings. The sutradhars’ repertoire of templates expanded through the 18th and 19th centuries as new guilds were formed, and as the existing guilds invented new styles.
The importance of sutradhars in temple building at this time is evidenced by temple dedicatory inscriptions from this period that often contain names and villages of these craftsmen. Using these, and stylistic similarities, Tarapada Santra and others have identified several guilds and the temples they built.
For instance, the sutradhars in and around Banpas village in Bardhaman are mentioned in several temples. This school excelled at vegetal and floral ornamentation on the facade. Examples of their temples are at Hat-Gobindapur, Suhari, Begut, Debipur, and as far afield as at Ranaghat in Nadia. The Banpas school also possibly invented the 19th century rekha deul. These richly decorated structures are an unusual mix of Orissan architecture and early Bengal deuls, but have interior domes, arched entrances, and richly decorated facades. Examples are widespread in Bardhaman and south Birbhum, such as at Sribati, Gohogram, Surul, Supur, Bankati, and Kalna. A variation of this style is the octagonal deul with examples at Banpas and Sribati in Bardhaman and at Ilambazar and Surul in south Birbhum.
The village of Balsi in north Bankura is known to have had several sutradhar families. They invented a new type of pancha-ratna temple, where the arch panels have one large terracotta image instead of several narrative registers. Temples in this style are at Barjora, Hadal-Narayanpur, Akui, Shankari, Amaragarh, and at Balsi. This school also invented the seventeen-pinnacled, octagonal Bankura rasmancha, with ridged rekha turrets (examples at Hadal-Narayanpur and Rajagram). Another 19th century innovation of the Bankura sutradhars (perhaps by the guild based in Sonamukhi) is the pancha-ratna Giri Gobardhan temple, in which the temple’s surface has stucco boulders and animals, in an attempt to recreate the Govardhan mountain that sheltered the people of Vrindavan. Examples are at Kalna, Kotulpur, Rajagram, and Sonamukhi.
The sutradhars of the village of Ganpur in central Birbhum specialised in char-chala temples with facades covered carved phulpathar, a soft, local laterite. However, they retained the decorative scheme of terracotta temples with the arch, wall, and corner panels, and double friezes along the base. The temples at Ganpur, Deucha, Mallarpur, Tarapith, and Siuri can be attributed to these sutradhars. The numerous temples at Maluti, several miles north of Ganpur, are also in a similar style. However it likely that they were built by local Maluti artisans, perhaps under the supervision of Ganpur sutradhars.
The village of Daspur in Medinipur and some villages around it had several families of sutradhars in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They built hundreds of temples in eastern Medinipur in villages along the Kangsabati, Shilabati, and Rupnarayan rivers. The Daspur sutradhars developed a local style of small pancha-ratna temples with plain or ridget turrets. Their decorative style was marked by a mix of terracotta and stucco, ornate, fan-shaped arch finials, several narrative registers on the arch panels, and figures sculpted in high relief on arches and walls. Examples are at Saulan, Ajuria, Alangiri, Chamka, Suratpur, and Uttar Gobindapur.
The Daspur sutradhars also made some architectural innovations such as new styles of porch columns such as the cluster of European columnettes that they called kalagachheya. Their temples also had large elegantly modeled terracotta or stucco figures on either side of the entrance. The Daspur sutradhars also invented the Medinipur rasmancha. These are octagonal with large terracotta figures of women at each corner, and inverted-vase turrets that they called rasun-chura (garlic-turrets). Excellent examples of this style of rasmancha are at Ajuria and Saulan.
Villages around Haripal and Atpur in southern Hugli also had several families of sutradhars. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these guilds developed and standardised the at-chala temple, a style that first appeared in Bishnupur in the mid-17th century. Their masterpiece was the ornate at-chala temple, which had a triple-arched entrance porch and a richly decorated façade. Examples can be found across Hugli, Howrah, and Bardhaman such as at Atpur, Bahirgarh, Kotalpur, and Dihiboyra. A different sutradhar school, possibly based in Bali-Dewanganj, built many at-chala temples around Arambagh in the 18th century. Examples are at Parul, Hat-Basantapur, and Bhalia. Sutradhars from the region of Goghat in western Hugli district built pancha-ratna and nava-ratna temples in a style characterised by large wall panels with a standard set of deities and Ramayana-Krishnalila scenes. Examples are at Shyambazar, Mamudpur, Kamarpukur, Badanganj.
In addition to these major sutradhar schools, there seem to also have been several smaller, less prolific sutradhar groups. In the village of Dubrajpur in Birbhum, local sutradhars built several temples in a distinctive style that consists of a thirteen-pinnacled temple, flanked by two smaller rekha-deuls. The sutradhars of Sonamukhi are known to have built the exquisite and richly decorated 25-pinnacled Sridhar temple in that town. The sutradhar schools in Eastern Bengal have yet to be identified but an unusual style developed by sutradhars here (possibly from the Narayanganj area south of Dhaka) is the spired temple or memorial. These structures are octagonal with two or three storeys, and a tall spire above. The most famous examples of this style are the Jagannath temple at Comilla but examples of such temples and memorials can also be seen at Sonargaon near Dhaka.
As in all religious structures, daily rituals and ceremonies had a major influence on temple art and architecture. In fact, we know from inscriptions that the Malla rajas, ranis, and their goswamis conceived of a new style of temple (ratna) specifically to meet the ritual needs of the “new” cult of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism started as a religious movement by the Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 15th century. His radical, egalitarian cult was based on intense personal devotion (bhakti) to Krishna and Radha. Gaudiya practices include congregational worship, singing Vaishnava songs (kirtan), daily rituals for the deities, and annual festivals like Doljatra and Raas. In the decades following Chaitanya’s death, the centre of Gaudiya Vaishnavism shifted to Vrindavan and the cult lost its way in Bengal. In the early 17th century, in an effort to revive the cult in Bengal, several Gaudiya spiritual leaders (goswamis) arrived from Vrindavan. They (and their successors) traveled around Bengal converting local rajas, zamindars, merchants, and their dependents to Vaishnavism. The most significant such event was Srinivas Acharya’s conversion of the ruler of Bishnupur, Bir Hambir, in the 17th century. Over the next century, the Malla kings and queens transformed Bishnupur by re-orienting all art, music, and architecture to the service of Krishna.
Pika Ghosh’s research shows how the Malla patrons and their architects conceived of a new two-storied style of temple around daily Vaishnava rituals. The temple’s large lower storey was for the deities (images of Radha and Krishna) to stay in during the day. Here they would be ceremonially fed, bathed, clothed and would “receive” visitors (devotees) at certain times (darshan). In the evening the priest would take the deities (via a hidden staircase) to the upper story to take the cool evening breeze while worshippers gathered in the courtyard below to dance and sing kirtan. In this upper chamber they would be put to sleep in beds, and would be ceremonially awoken the next day.
For this upper story, the Malla architects built an ornate pavilion (ratna). They experimented with various shapes, sizes and numbers for these rooftop pavilions. In the early temples the main central pavilion is very spacious, and has arrangements for special rituals like the swing festival (jhulan). However, its shape varies. In the Shyamray and Gokulchand temples it is octagonal, in the Kalachand temple it is a rekha deul, while at Dvadasbari it is a circular, open pavilion. In later temples such as Madanmohan, Lalji, and Radhashyam the ratna is a smaller, rekha deul. Most Malla temples have a single ratna but the Shyamray, Gokulnagar, and Madangopal temples have four additional ratnas in the four corners.
Pika Ghosh also points out that these temples have two axes that serve separate ritual purposes. For the act of daily viewing or darshan, the Vaishnava devotee approaches the temple from the south, and views the deity through the main south entrance. As a visual aid to the devotees, the surface of the south wall is covered with large terracotta or laterite panels containing images from the Ramayana, the Krishna lila, and of the Dasavataras. The east-west axis on the other hand is mainly used by priests as a “service” axis for the daily acts of feeding, clothing, and bathing the deities. It has a a smaller entrance and in some temples this leads to a kitchen (bhoga-mandapa).
As temple building spread throughout southern Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Vaishnava rituals and the associated architectural constructs spread with them. Today, however, many Vaishnava rituals such as carrying the deities to the upper stories has largely been abandoned. But when I visited a temple in Medinipur (Chaipat) in 2010, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the deity was still carried to the upper storey in the evenings and during annual festivals. At Ajuria, the deity was housed in the upper storey during the monsoons when the lower storey was in danger of being flooded.
We know much lesser about the influence of Saiva and Sakta ritual on temple architecture. Many daily rituals are similar, but Saiva and Sakta images are not mobile like Radha-Krishna images are. However, the ritual use of complex superstructures such as the 25-pinnacled temples of Kalna, the nava-ratna temples of Dakshineshwar and Talpukur, or the many-pinnacled rasmanchas in Puthia in Bangladesh, or at Narajol, Mangloi, or Purba Gopalpur in Medinipur is unknown. The architecture of some Saiva temples is known to have been influenced by Tantrism. Examples are the thirteen-pinnacled Hanseswari temple at Bansberia and the 108 Siva temple complexes at Kalna and Bardhaman
The façades of terracotta temples are filled with dozens of figural panels. Most of these contain images of Hindu deities, and scenes from the Krishnalila and the Ramayana. But many panels, especially along the base and on either side of the entrance, contain figures and scenes from 17th and 18th century society. The content of these “social” panels was influenced by what the sutradhars saw around them and by their understanding of contemporary elite society.
Elite society was depicted in scenes of zamindar courts and hunting processions, usually in panels along the base. In 17th and early 18th century temples, such as at Bishnupur and Bansberia, these scenes show zamindars and their attendants in Islamic attire. Elaborate hunting processions are likely to have been introduced to Bengal by the Mughals, but we do not know if the scenes in the Bishnupur temples depict the Malla rulers or the Mughal governors of Bengal. The Keshta Raya temple has several fine hunting and courtly scenes including some superb panels of a tiger hunt. In Kantanagar in Bangladesh, and in Baronagar in Murshidabad also we see many hunting processions and even scenes from a rhinoceros hunt.
In the temples of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the elite figures in these courtly and hunting friezes are distinctly European. In Sribati, there are also panels showing European women and their suitors. We also start seeing European ships alongside Indian river boats on panels below porch columns, especially in temples in Hugli and Howrah. From the 19th century onward, European artistic styles also start influencing how sutradhars depict figures. We start seeing the modeling of figures on the lines of neo-classical sculpture, porch columns and pilasters in the Greek style, and figures (both European and Indian) wearing flowing dresses and elaborate hairstyles. The Pratapeshwar temples in Kalna has many examples of such Europe-inspired figures. The sutradhars are likely to have been inspired by European paintings or sculpture acquired by their patrons or European residents.
Another interesting change in the late 18th century is the introduction of scenes from contemporary Indian society. Base panels in many temples show a performance by street acrobats (madaris). At Radhakantapur in Medinipur is a man climbing a palm tree and scenes from a Charak mela. In Ganpur we see women grinding rice and men cutting hay. In Joynagar near Tarakeshwar is a unique panel of a weaver at work. In Ajodhya in Bardhaman we even see a scene from an 19th century scandal: The Tarakeshwar affair.
Another common image on terracotta temples is that of Saivite yogis. They are depicted in various scenes: meditating in many postures, worshipping a Sivalinga, preparing bhang, holding swords and shields, spearing birds in trees, and in erotic scenes. It is possible that yogis stayed and meditated in terracotta temples when they visited a village, or for longer durations during the rainy season. Research by Pika Ghosh has shown that some Bishnupur temples (such as the Keshta Raya) has secret chambers that were used by Vaishnava ascetics to meditate. We know that yogis, especially of the Natha and Dasnami sects were common in Bengal in the 18th century and earlier. Many of them were armed and trained in warfare, and were hired as mercenaries in battles. They were also known to extract “pilgrimage” taxes from villagers. Following several clashes with British forces in the late 18th century, measures were put in place that limited their activities and reduced their numbers significantly. Consequently, the appear less frequently in the late 19th century temples.
The 17th -19th centuries, during which hundreds of terracotta temples were built in Bengal saw momentous political, economic, and social change. These changes brought about the new phase of temple building under the Mallas, and continued to influence Bengali temple architecture and sculpture through the 18th and 19th centuries.
We are just beginning to chart this evolution of pre-modern Bengali architecture, to understand the changing social and political influence and how the village sutradhar guilds adapted to them.