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Architecture of Terracotta Temples

Keshtaraya Temple, Bishnupur, 1655


The main characteristics of terracotta temples are internal domes and vaults, arched entrances, curved cornices, and walls covered with sculpted burnt-brick plates. Inside the temples, the sanctum is usually covered by a dome and the porches, if they exist, are usually covered by a vault. The entrances are usually triple-arched with heavy octagonal columns, but single arches are also common. The arches lead either to the sanctum itself, or more commonly to a porch from which another arched entrance leads to the sanctum. The steeply curved cornice and parapet is derived from the curved roofs (chalas) of traditional Bengali village huts. In late-19th century temples, the artisans experimented with some of these basic structural elements, possibly influenced by European architecture. Thus we see examples of straight cornice and neo-classical pillars replacing the octagonal type.

Char Bangla Temple, Baronagar, 18th c


The most striking feature of many terracotta temple is the intricate decoration that covers its walls. In some temples the entire facade is decorated. This ornamentation is composed of rows of burnt-brick panels, each with figures or geometric patterns, arranged in particular ways in specific parts of the temple walls, and often forming large sculptural compositions. After decades of experimentation, the organisation of these wall panels became standardized in the 18th century and temples were built with very similar decorative schemes. Large panels above the arches usually have elaborate battle scenes from the Ramayana. Panels on the corners, arch frames and columns have rows of images of dieties and dancers or musicians. Two friezes running along the base show events from the life of Krishna (above) and social scenes such as royal processions, hunting, and European ships (below).

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Photos and Text © Amit Guha