Bengal Temples I – The Early Hindu period

The history of Bengal’s Hindu temple architecture can be divided into three basic categories:

  1. Early Hindu period – from ancient times to end of 12th century. This architectural type was transferred and carried on in northern and western parts of India, even as Bengal changed its architectural style after it faced massive destruction in the hands of Islamic invaders post 12th century.
  2. Islamic invasion and rule era – from 14th to early 16th centuries.
  3. Hindu revival – 16th to 19th centuries.

Here in this article I will discuss the Early Hindu period.

Early Hindu temple architecture in Bengal

The temples in the early Hindu period in Bengal were in large numbers but have mostly disappeared mainly due to the widespread iconoclastic temple destruction by the Islamic invaders and rulers. From the few that remain standing (mainly from the 10th-12th centuries, with very few from the earlier era) or have been excavated from the tumbled ruins, and from evidences of miniature replicas, images, stone reliefs, inscriptions, and manuscripts , it is found that these temples show 3-4 types of designs.

The first type (the earliest type possibly) shows a horizontally tiered roof that gradually diminishes in size as it goes up, with a recess between each stage. Earliest images of this type are found on some sculptures from Sarnath, and are found spread across northern India. In its later developed form with the horizontal tiered stages compressed to form a pyramidal shape it is seen in the temples of Odisha as the roof of the jagmohana (mandapa), and is known as the bhadra or pida deul. In Bengal this tiered form is seen in the Asrafpur bronze chaitya (7th c. CE); and the early form of this type, reminiscent of earlier wooden or bamboo pillars, with its typical finial (seen in modern wooden and corrugated structures) make the experts believe that this style had its origin from the thatched hut construction.

Despite the many renovations over centuries, the Rareshwara temple in Durgapur is a good example of the tiered roof type (bhadra/pidha style) of temples once prevalent in Bengal.

The second type, which seems to have been the more predominant type, is the rekha deul form with its tall lofty shikhara over the square sanctum. The rekha deul is what is better known as the nagara architecture in later silpasastras, and of which the Kalinga style is a regional variation. This style which developed its intial standard form in the 7th-8th century in eastern and central India, later spread to places as far as Aihole (Deccan), Osian (Rajasthan), Roda (Gujarat), and Kullu and Mandi valleys in Himachal Pradesh. Among the best surviving examples of this temple form in Bengal is the Siddeshwara temple in Barakar and it belongs to the early period. Later this style went on developing for over 4 centuries, increasing in height and complexities, but retaining its basic features: a square shrine with vertical ratha projections. The distinctive features of this type are : cruciform ground plan (square sanctum with offset projections on each face), and a curvilinear tower (sukhanasa sikhara), and this style is seen across entire northern India.

Besides these two which appear more frequently in the early Hindu temple architecture category of Bengal , there are one or two more types that existed in Bengal and are unique. However these appear to be mostly elaborations or amplifications of the first type, ie. the tiered type. The most popular amplification was the building of a superstructure or sikhara (or alternatively, sometimes it would be a stupa instead of a sikhara) over the tiered roof, which was a combination of the bhadra and rekha elements. Further elaborations of this type were seen in miniature replicas of the crowning superstructure at the corners of the tiered stages and in the front. Such types are seen in the detailed illustrations in the Buddhist manuscript (Prajnaparamita) of Nepal that were copied first in 1015 CE (now in the Cambridge University Library) and then again in 1071 CE (Asiatic Society Library, Calcutta) respectively.

The earliest excavated temples in Bengal, such as the one from Khana Mihirer Dhibi (Berachampa, 24-parganas), had attached mandapas with pillars in front (found to have been used in many later period mosques).

Thus, the temple architecture of ancient Bengal can be divided into four basic types:

  1. The Bhadra, pida, or tiered type, in which the roof over the sanctum consists of a series of gradually receding tiered stages crowned by the usual finials including the amalaka;
  2. Rekha or sikhara type with a curvilinear tower and usual crowning elements;
  3. tiered type surmounted by a stupa; and
  4. tiered type surmounted by a sikhara.

Discussion on the ancient temple types in Bengal

Note: structural examples of the 1st type are few in Bengal, while the 3rd and 4th types are almost non-existent now structurally, owing to the massive destruction it faced during the Islamic invasion period. These styles have been majorly derived by experts from various illustrations seen in earlier manucsripts, reliefs, miniature replicas, etc. There are examples of such temples in SE Asian nations like Burma, Indonesia, etc., that not only highlight the influence of Eastern Indian architecture in these regions, but also show how the Bengal temples looked like before they were destroyed. The 1st type (tiered type) is easy to trace especially in the Burmese elaborate pyatthats with their many tiered roofs. The earlier plain specimens of pyatthats, as seen in the tierered palaces of Prince Siddharta in the sculptures at the Ananda temple in Pagan are similar to the early tiered type temples found across India, and since the India temples were earlier in date, it can be said they were the antecedents to the tiered form architecture. Similar shrines (monolithic in nature) are also seen in the Chandi Panataran in Java, and is also present within the modern architecture of Bali.

In the type 1 or tiered type of temples, as we have already seen, the shape is that of a highly stepped pyramid rising from the straight, perpendicular walls of the sanctum. They are made up of horizontal slabs of stones (pidas as they called in Odisha), gradually decreasing in size as they rise with a recess between each course. Over the last course is placed a huge amalaka sila on a narrow cylindrical neck, ultimately capped by the usual finials. This type of temple was once popular in ancient Bengal, and dotted the landscape is evident from the large number of representations of the images of such temples in sculptures across Bengal. The Ashrafpur bronze stupa dated 7th-8th c. CE gives us an idea in relief of this tiered temple. Here we find a simple roof consisting of two receding courses of sloping tiers with a recessed space in between and crowned by a peculiar finial ( in the drawing)

The The Ashrafpur bronze stupa dated 7th-8th c. CE (A). A digram showing the temple in relief where Buddha is sitting (B).

As this type gradually evolved it added more tiers with more decorative elements, and often there would be temples with trefoil arches suppported by richly decorated pillars, roofs showing odd numbers of sloping tiers or pidas (in 3 or 5), and the whole surmounted by amalaka and finials. The last tier (the tier just below the neck) would often show rampant lions at the corners. To have an idea of this, one needs to look at the sculptures from Bengal that depict such temples. As for example, if we look at the Uma Maheswara murti we find them seated inside a temple having pillared doorway with a trefoil arch, with three tiered roof, surmounted by an amalaka and finials.

Uma Maheswara from Birol, Rajshahi (Bangladesh). Note the deities sit inside a temple framed beautifully within a carved doorway with a trefoil arch. On top is a 3 tiered roof (shown by 3 slabs/lines on each side of the trefoil arch), with an amalaka and the usual finials on top. Thus the scultpure shows the tiered temple type that was once prevlent in ancient to medieval Bengal.

The ground plan of this temple type shows the ratha style (the cruciform style), where the rathas are produced by adding one or two projections on each side of the sanctum wall. This temple architecture type is still surviving in West Bengal in the simple brick temples, the roofs of which rise in two receding tiers, and also in many reliefs in the terracotta decorative plaques in the 16th -17th century temples (both standing and ruins), which are spread across the state.

Ekteswara temple in Bankura is an example of a tiered temple. The roof rises in two tiers with the amalaka and finials on top. It is a simple square shrine with projections, and has a pyramidal roof in two tiers. While the date of construction of this temple is not known, and with later renovations, it may have lost the original touch, yet it gives us a fair idea of how ancient Bengal temples (first type) would have looked like, beyond the examples seen in manuscripts, reliefs, and sculptures.

The earliest form of the second type or the rekha deul form of temple in Bengal is the most likely to be the Siddhesvara temple at Barakar, which is placed at 8 th c. CE (early Pala era) and shows a modest tri-ratha (actually depicting a transition from tri-rath to pancha-ratha) structure rising to a height of 36.5 feet. It has a high sanctum on a low basement and short stunted shikhara, gradully curving inwards from the very beginning and capped by a huge amalaka-sila. Both the sanctum and shikhara are square in cross section, with the sharp edges of the corners and ratha projections manintained rigidly throughout. The shikhara is divided into seven planes (or bhumi) as clearly evidenced by the six bhumi-amlakas that mark the planes. The shikara shows ornamentations carved in shallow relief. The temple shows a garbagriha (sanctum) holding a shivlinga, and antarala (vestibule), while the ruined mandapa was later rebuilt. At the edge of the neck of the shikhara there are four lion figures placed as four corner projections. Though the walls of the temple lack ornamentation, there are pretty votive chaityas near the bottom; while the shikhara shows some carved panels, depicting various figures, generally from the epics and puranas (dasavataras, stories associated with Shiva), and other non-celestial figures such as apsaras, gandharvas, etc. The temple sukhanasa has a relief of Lakulisa with his disciples, thus showing the Saivite nature of the temple.

Siddeswara temple at Barakar in Bankura, is of the early Pala era (8th century CE) and shows the curvilinear shikhara style also known as the rekha deul. Images from Google.

In the Sat deulia brick temple at Deule in Bardhaman, which is placed at 10th c. CE, there is seen a pancha ratha ground plan with a perpendicular straight garbagriha, topped by a curvilinear sikhara, the crowning elements of which are now missing, and were likely to consist of an amalaka and the usual finials. A feature worth noticing here is that at the top the external walls (cella) of the sanctum there are several inverted offsets that form a cornice, on the top of which the sikhara is placed. The facades of the sanctum and sikhara both have sharp ridges resulting from the walls being divided into rathas and pagas. While the sanctum body is plain, the shikhara shows profuse decorations of scrollwork and chaitya windows.

Sat deulia brick temple at Deule in Bardhaman, 10th c. CE.

Following the architectural patterns of the Sat deule is the Siddeswara temple at Bahulara, which shows a more developed type. In this brick temple, besides the rathas on walls, the plainness of the sanctum is broken by niches capped by miniature sikharas in the central rathas, and by three horizontal bands passing all around (bandhana) in the centre. Here the corners of the sikhara and the pagas were rounded off , while the ornamentations are also more elaborate and cover the whole exterior face of the temple from the basement to the sikhara top. Unfortunately the amalaka and the finials are missing giving the temple a rather bald look. Despite that, owing to the graceful proportions and elegant styling of the temple, it is considered among the best extant specimens of Indian temple architecture. From the basic decorative style and architecture the temple is placed at around 10th- 11th c. CE.

Siddeswara temple at Bahulara, around 11th c. CE. more developed in style than the Sat deulia that was built little earlier

Among the stone temples, the Saresvara and Sallesvara temples at Dehar (Bankura) have only their sanctums preserved, and they closely resemble the Siddeshwara temple at Bahulara, and all three are considered to be of the same period (10th-11th c. CE). To this same period or somewhat slightly later, belong the Jatar deul temple in Sunderbans, south 24 parganas. The Jatar deul, traditonally is associated with an inscription (not traced) by a Raja Jayantachandra, who had supposedly issued it in 975 CE. While terrible modern conservation work has destroyed much of the original characteristics of the temple, from an old photograph it is clear that the temple once closley resembled the Siddeshwara temple of Bahulara in plan, elevation, and decoration; except that the Jatar deul had a more curvilinear outline of the sikhara.

Saresvara and Sallesvara stone temples at Dehar (Bankura), around 11th c. CE

Jatar deul, likely around 11th century built

A study of the rekha deul temples of Bengal shows that they were related to the earlier group of Odishan temples, such as the Parasurameswara, Mukteswara, etc. Interestingly these early group of Odishan temples were closer to the old archetypes of the Gupta and post Gupta periods, and different from the Kalingan architectural style ( a regional variation of the nagara form) that developed later, as seen in the famous Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneswara temple. Another unique feature is that majority of the Bengal temples have a single element , the deul proper, with ony few showing a mandapa in front in jagamohan style. Instead the Bengal temples had accomadated an approach vestibule in the thickness of the front wall (common in the Himalayan temples, an architectural feature carried across from Bengal), which formed the entryway into the temple.

Besides the one mentioned here, there are few other rekha deul styled temples in Bengal, as listed by RD Banerji, but all are from a later period (later than 12th century), as for example, the I, II, III, and IV temples at Barakar are of 15th century CE, while the Icchai Ghosh temple at Gaurangapur (Bardhaman) is of 18th century CE. These later examples of rekha deul styled temples are of great significance in the history of Bengal temple architecture, as they are survivals of an architectural style in a period when that style was completely forgotten and replaced by a completely different architectural style.

Barakar temples- I,II and III are from 15th century CE

Icchai Ghosh temple at Gaurangapur (Bardhaman) , 18th century

The third group of temples, the tiered type surmounted by a stupa, is known from a Lokanatha temple at Nalendra from a painting in a manuscript, and this style likely was from the tradition which led to the Abeyadana and Patothyama temples at Pagan (Myanmar). Here the roof rises in gradually receding tiers and is surmounted by a fairly large stupa. The corners at each stage are further decorated with miniature replicas of the stupa. No such structural temples now remain in Bengal.

The fourth group of temples, the tiered type surmounted by a sikhara, are best seen in an illustrated shrine of Lokanatha, from the 1015 CE copied version of the Prajnaparamita manuscript (MS. Add. 1643 at Cambridge). Here the roof rising in gradually receding tiers is surmounted by a sikhara, complete with all its component elements. In all the found illustrations it is seen the roof is a sloping one with gradually diminishing stages and curvilinear sikhara placed over the last stage. In the top section there is the amalaka and the usual finials (a stupa at top if it was a Buddhist temple).

Shrine of Lokanatha in Bengal, from the 1015 CE copied version of the Prajnaparamita manuscript. Gives a good view of the fourth group of temple architecture (tiered temple with a sikhara on top) prevalent in Bengal then.

Manuscript sketch or illustration of a Buddhist temple at Pundravardana, which shows the fourth group of temples prevalent in ancient Bengal

A Vishnu murti of the Pala era (11th c. CE) showing the doorway with a trifoil arch of a shrine in which the deity is shown standing. The trifoil arch, seen in Kashmir temple architecture, was popular in ancient Bengal temple architecture, in the tiered temple types. In the previous given sketch of the Buddhist temple at Pundravardana, this trefoil arch is also seen in the temple doorway.

Sarvatobhadra temples- a unique feature of the ancient and early medieval Bengal temple architecture

Excavations in Paharpur by the ASI (1922-34) had brought to light the presence of a terraced chaturmukha shrine within Indian temple architecture that is unique to Bengal with likely origins in this part and later spreading to other parts of the country (there are however very few such specimens in other parts of India; some in Kashmir and one in Himachal Pradesh- Baseswara temple in Bajoura , Kullu district). The Paharpur colossal structure had a gigantic square cross with angles of projections between the arms which, S.K. Saraswati had identified with the sarvatobhadra of the Silpashastras. This cruciform plan with re-entrant angles is found in Shalban vihara at Mainamati, & Gokul Merh and Govinda Bhita at Mahasthan. These terraced temples have opening on four sides (quasi sarvatovadras have false doors on 3 sides with opening on only one side, example the Baseswara temple in Bajoura, Kullu). Their counterparts are however seen in the Pagan temples of Mynamar. The Paharpur temple plan shows a remarkable similarity wth the Ananda temple (1105 CE) and other chaturmukha temples at Pagan. The sikhara would have also been similar, with a grand tiered pirha styled roof ending with a rekha spire.

Image from ALEXANDER LUBOTSKY “Sarvatobhadra” temple of Vishnudharmottara Purana &Vishnu temple of Deogarh

The sarvatobhadra temples are built on a square, broad jagati or platform, and are surrounded by a wall or prakaras containing smaller shrines. It can be approached from all four sides by stairs that have two smaller shrines on two sides. There is one such smaller shrine at each corner of the square terrace. The main temple lies at the centre of the courtyard, and its square garbhagriha has four mandapas in the four directions with four doors. In the corners of the sanctum are placed four other smaller sanctums and correspondingly four smaller shrines are placed in corners between the mandapas. The central shikhara is the tallest, and dwarfs the others, each with its own sukhanasas, and the shikharas are richly carved with amalasarakas, gavaksas, jalas, and various other motifs. There are tanks spread across the courtyard of the sarvatovadra temples. Sarvatobhadra temples are also described in other books such as the Visvakarmaprakasha, Matysa Purana (speaks of 16 sides), Samaranganasutradhara, and Brhat Samhita, each with variations in measurements, proportions, and parts.

Iconographic scheme of the Sarvatobhadra temple. Panels around platform indicated in italics. image from ALEXANDER LUBOTSKY “Sarvatobhadra” temple of Vishnudharmottara Purana & vishnu temple of Deogarh

Baseswara temple dated around 10th-11th c. CE was built during the Pala dynasty rule in the valley. It shows quasi sarvatobhadra plan; quasi because while it has a chaturmukha plan with four openings, three openings are false doors (sealed doors), with the only opening on the eastern face.

(All images from Google for representation purposes only).

Cover image is of a Pala era temple now submerged under Panchet dam- a standing example of how apathy ruined Bengal heritage post independence.

References

David McCutchion, Brick temples of Bengal

Stella Kramrisch , The Hindu temple

Cunningham, A. Report of a Tour in Bihar and Bengal in 1879-80.

R.C. Mazumdar, A history of Bengal, Vol I. 1976.

Saraswati, S.K. Temples of Bengal. Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art. 1934.

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