Bengal temples II- Hindu revival period (16th-19th c. CE)

A brief look at the political and socio-religious scenario that led up to the 16th century Hindu revivalism under Sri Chaityna

With the start of the Muslim invasions from the end of the 12th century and the subsequent settling down of these invaders in Bengal marked a sharp breakaway from the past within the socio-cultural fabric of the region. For almost a century (13th-14th century CE), as the Muslim invaders tried consolidating their power over the local Hindus kings and lords, anarchy prevailed, and this period was especially marked by widespread iconoclastic destruction of temples and violent conversions of masses into Islam by the Sufi practitioners. As we have already seen (in my previous blog article – to read it, click here) the iconoclastic destruction of temples had a singular effect of wiping out almost all ancient to early medieval temples in Bengal , leaving very little as structural evidences for current studies on ancient Bengal temples, which are mostly based on examining the temples seen in old manuscripts illustrations, miniature models, sculptures, etc. During such chaotic times, after almost a century, the Hindu chiefs and Muslim warlords came to an uneasy compromise of uniting against the Delhi based Mughal rule (16th century).

As the Muslim foreign invaders constantly faced stiff opposition from the time of their entry into Bengal, they soon realised that in order to subjugate the local forces and broaden their power base they needed to secure the support and sympathy of local people in the areas that they ruled. It was at this time that they devised the idea of regionalism, as a separate entity from rest of India (of those times), and appealed to the regional spirit of the common people in the areas they ruled. Thus, historically it can be said that placing parts of Bengal as separate and independent regional political entities (a concept also known as separatism) was first conceptualized under Ilyas Shah (1342-1357), and during the time of the Husayn Shahi dynasty Bengal slowly came under more localised administration under its various local level rulers/zamindars/chieftains/rajas. To keep up with this game of regionalism, the Muslim rulers acted as sympathetic patrons of the Bengali literature, art, and architecture, thereby using the oppertunity to slowly force in the use of foreign elements, especially in Bengali language, in order to attempt and cut off the language from its root Indic sources. During this time many Hindu Bengali cultural aspects were also adopted by the Muslim rulers in an attempt to pacify the local people in the areas they ruled. However, as Muslims tried their best to cut off Bengal from rest of India, this period remains remarkable in starting what is seen as the strongest resistance movement of Hindu revivalism, largely under the teachings of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya (1486-1533).

In 16th century Bengal saw the advent of the Delhi based Mughal rule, but even then Bengal local kings/chiefs enjoyed almost full independence from central (Delhi) interference by just sending revenues to the Delhi court. By 18th century, Mughal rule became weak, and complete power was back in the hands of the local level chieftains, rajas, governors, and nawabs, bringing back the separate regional identity of Bengal within the then Indian political scenario. This separate independent political position of Bengal, seeds sowed by the Muslim foreign invaders, continued well into the 19th century, until the British took over entire India.

In order to resist the Muslim invasions and thereafter attempts to cut off Bengal from mainland Hinduism, started the Hindu revival, or the ‘Pauranic Renaissance’ as Dineshchandra Sen calls it. This resistance movement had been gradually building up from late 14th century through the spread of Sanskrit scriptures in Bengali translations. However, the revival gained steam from 16th century and popularized the Hindu sect worship of devi Durga and Kali, and Radha-Krishna under impetus from Sri Chaitanya the exponent of Gauriya Vaishnavism. While Radha-Krishna worship was present in Bengal from at least the time of Raja Lakshmana Sena (1178-1206) under his court poet Jayadeva, it gained mass popularity in the early 16th century and was the primary force behind the revival of Hindu art and architecture, as evident from the remaining highly ornamented temples of the 16th-17th centuries that are mostly dedicated to Radha-Krishna.

Of the various religious movements that Bengal witnessed in the 16th century, Gauriya Vaishnavism under Sri Chaityna (1486-1533) had the most profound effect. This was because he focused on the equality of all among the Hindus, thus attracting people from all castes and creeds, turning it into a hugely unifying Hindu religious and cultural movement.  Sri Chaityna was a follower of Sri Krishna and his path to moksha was through bhakti or devotion, expressed through deep love for his god. This movement also had an effect on the literary traditions of Bengal, where the vernacular literature was particularly focused on to help spread the teachings of Chaityna among the common people, including the tribal communities. Many Epics and Puranas were translated into Bengali at this time, including the Bengali version of Ramayana that was written Krittivasa, besides the biographies of Chaityna, innumerable Vaishnava songs, narratives and verses on Sri Krishna, and poems on devi Chandi and Manasa.  

Interestingly, temple building had not entirely stopped even during the Islamic invasions and its subsequent rule in some parts of Bengal (early 14th to 16th century). Nothing could deter the powerful Hindu rajas and chiefs (Dinajpur rajas or Bhaturiya) from building temples. In the ASI- Bengal Circle report (1910-11, I, p.31) there are the chronicles of the rajas of Bishnupur, in which it is mentioned that Shanreshvara temple (Dihar) was built by Prithvi Malla in 1335-36, as found written in an inscription obscured under a buttress. Besides this, there are other temples built by the Malla kings during this period, such as the Shantinatha temple at Sihar by Jagatnatha Malla (1309), Jagannatha temple in Bishnupur by Patit Malla in 1449, Dasabhuja temple in Bishnupur by Chandra Malla in 1529, Gopala temple at Banki and Ekteshvara temple by Bir Malla in 1545. In fact the entire Malla kingdom is scattered with innumerable temple ruins and murtis (such as the ruins at AtbaiChandi village) of this period that speak of their extensive temple building activities. The Jains too kept on building temples until the 13th century or even later (in the remote western parts of Manbhum district), and some are still found standing in Bahulara, Ambikanagar, Chharra, Pakbira, Deoli, etc. The famous trade centre at Telkupi on the Damodar was a stronghold of both the Vaishnavites and Shaivites and held temples that ranged from 10th to the 15th centuries, which were unfortunately submerged under the Panchet dam post-independence. From an inscription it is clear that two temples were built at Barakar in 1461, a Shiva temple at Phulbari (1444-1445), one temple at Kiriteswari(1465-1466), a panchaupasana shrine at Wari (1545), an inscriptional plate found affixed to a mosque in Patna district that tells the building of a temple in Rajdhara on the bank of Ganga on 7th January 1496, Bashuli temple at Chhatna (1553), etc. Thus, temple building never really stopped in Bengal and was carried on despite the severe persecution and temple destruction.

However, between the earlier Hindu period and later Hindu revival period, Bengal temple architecture saw a major transformation and underwent sea changes. The earlier tiered form (pidha style) and the tall nagara sikharas (mostly rekha deul styled) almost went out of fashion, and was replaced by the chala and ratna architectural styles.

Chala style temples

This style is a replica of the simple village hut on an elongated base with the two sides to the roof and gable ends. In Bengal villages this hut is a common occurrence where it has either a bamboo frame with reed /jute lattice work or a mud walled body with thatched roof curved at the ridge and lower edges. This design is known as the ek bangla or the do chala, while two such huts attached to each other are known as jor bangla, the most famous in Bengal temple architecture of these times.

Since in West Bengal the walls of huts are mostly made of mud, do-chala houses though used (mostly in Birbhum), is not a preferred style both in house and temple construction. Instead the char-chala structures are more common (both for houses and temples), built on a square base with curved cornices, and curved side edges, which would help to throw off the heavy rains so common in Bengal monsoons. 

The Bengal chala or hut style, which became so popular in the Hindu revival period for temple construction, however architecturally goes back to the ancient times. Such structures have been seen on an artifact from Chandraketugarh, and are widespread in Mauryan times as granaries or as leaf thatched structures seen on Gandharan bas-reliefs that are similar to the Bengal at-chala temples. Adris Banerji in his book “Temples of Tripura” had produced a representative sketch of a jor-bangla design from a Shunga era pillar that was found at Sarnath. In Bengal the chala style makes a comeback in the Hindu revival period, and the earliest dated hut styled temple is the Simhavahini temple at Ghatal (1490 CE). This is a char-chala temple with a char-chala porch attached in front, giving the semblance of a jor-bangla.

The  char-chala and the at-chala temples, which appear post Islam invasions, with their superstructures supported on arches and vaults, as per some historians, appear to be Muslim influenced; however, that is not so. Village mud huts in Bengali chala style have been a part of Indian landscape from times immemorial, and imitation of village huts in bricks and stones for building religious structures is an ancient feature in Indian architecture, as clearly evident from the rock cut Sudama cave in Barabar hill (3rd c. BCE), or the famous free-standing Draupadi ratha in Mahabalipuram that is of 7th c. CE. An image standing inside an at-chala hut is seen in the Cambridge manuscript (Add. no. 1643) of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, which was copied in 1015 CE. These examples show the ancient structural origin of this type of temple, a tall standing char chala with mud walls from which project veranda roofs at a lower level supported on bamboo poles (exactly what a village hut still looks like)

Sudama cave, Barabara hills, 3rd c. BCE

Draupadi ratha, Mahabalipuram, 7th c. BCE

“Traditional Bengali’s hut roof or the Chala roof is gable type with two-, four- or eight – sloping roofs with curved edges or cornices meeting at a curved ridge. The slope of the roof performs the drainage function against rainfalls. The curved structure is due to flexibility of roofing material i.e, bamboo and thatch used in Bengali hut. The interior curvature of traditional hut roof supported by the bamboo or wooden posts forms a dome. To increase the longevity in high rainfall areas, temples were made of regionally available bricks and terracotta. Keshta Raya temple (Bishnupur), Raghavesvara temple (Diknagar), Siva temple (Amadpur) are some of the preserved Bangla temples. Even today, the rural huts are built of concrete and bricks with do- or cahu- chala roof made of corrugated iron sheeting or clay tiles, sustaining a legacy of Bengal’s traditional vernacular architecture.” ~ ENVIS Center on Human Settlements.

The Ratna or Pinnacled styled

The ratna or pinnacle style shows the same basic lower structure as the chala style, with a rectangular box and curved cornices, but in the ratna style the roof is more or less flat and it has a towering pinnacle known as the ratna (jewel). A single central tower is eka-ratna and is the simplest of the design, while increasing numbers of pinnacles adds to the complexity of the structure. From eka-ratna, four more can be added in the corners, which is called as pancha-ratna; and by increasing the number of stories and corner turrets, the number of ratnas can be multiplied by 9, 13. 17, and 21, upto 25 (panchavimshati-ranta).

While there are few claims that turrets and their multiplications are a Muslim feature , such claims are absolutely not true. Pancha-ratna can be compared with the panchayatana group of temples (five shrines on a single plinth); but a closer parallel would be the placing of miniature towers of  stupas at corners of tiered roofs at Pagan, culminating in a topmost central tower (Thatbinnyu temple, 1144 CE). This temple design and architectural type was in fact taken from Bengal to Burma, as per the scholars. Apart from the architectural style, the practice or principle of decorating the tower with miniature temples is an ancient style in Hindu art, seen both in south and north Indian temples, wherein in the south they are clearly outlined while in the north they merge into the curvilinear sikhara.  The ratna style is also said to have been derived from the old Hindu ratha (chariot), though no rathas have survived from earlier than the ratna temples.

The ratna style, which emerged sometime in the 16th century, became popular in the 17th century, and was a great favourite of the Malla kings of Bishnupur, with the earliest ones being the ruined temple of Vrindavana Chandra at Birsingha (1638, possibly a pancha-ratna temple), and the pancha ratna temple Gokula-Chand temple at Gokulnagar (1639).

A closer look at the eka-ratna temples with a porch or corridor on all sides suggest that eka-ratna is likely to have originated from a rekha deul with an additional covered circumambulatory veranda all around. Examples of such extant eka-ratnas are, Kalanjaya Shiva temple at Patrasayer, and Kanakeshvara Shiva at Kanpur. This is also seen in panchayatana temples of central and north India (late period), where the four corner shrines are connected by a veranda or gallery on all four sides, the roof of which abuts the central chamber, above which rises the sikhara (a rekha tower); while smaller towers are raised above each corner shrine to give the pancha ratna appearance.

Ek-ratna Ramchandraji temple at Guptipara, Hooghly district

Ek-ratna temple at Radhakantapur, Paschim Medinipur district

Pancha-ratna Shyam Rai temple at Bishnupur, Bankura district

Nava-ratna Radha Binode temple at Jaydev Kenduli, Birbhum district

With 13 ratnas  Hangseshwari temple, at Bansberia, Hooghly district

Saptadasa-ratna (17 pinnacles or 17 ratnas) Parvatinatha Temple at Chandrakona, Paschim Medinipur district

Panchavimsati-ratna ( 25 pinnacles) Gopalbari temple at Kalna City, Purba Bardhaman district,

Flat roofed dalan temple style– Besides the early Hindu period traditional style, and the later Hindu revival period chala styled and the ratna styled temples, another category was seen known as the flat roofed dalan style. With heavy cornices on S curved brackets, they show European influences, and became popular in the 19th century for a brief period. These were internally domed, more usually spanned by a shallow vault, and latterly flat ceilinged. Almost always they had a porch with one or more pillars, initially showing the traditional faceted type, but in the 19th century these became the clustered pilaster type. Arches in such style are cusped, and facades were patterned with terracotta designs and later by plasterwork. Gradually this design lost its traditional features and turned into a mere paka ghar or brick built room, similar to any modern domestic architecture of the late 19th-20th century.

Flat-roofed dalan temple at Bhalki, Purba Bardhaman

Flat roofed Dalan temple, Sharabhuja Gauranga temple at Panchrol, Purba Medinipur district

Flat roofed Dalan temple with rekha deul superstructure, Radha Binoda temple at Panchrol, Purba Medinipur district

Flat roofed dalan with dome, Madan Mohan Bari, Cooch Behar

(Disclaimer: images are from Wikipedia and for representational puproses only)


David McCutchion, Brick temples of Bengal

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