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Origins and Evolution of Terracotta Temples

Shyamaraya Temple, Bishnupur, 1643


The region of Bengal (modern Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) saw a remarkable surge in patronage and experimentation in art and architecture from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century. Hundreds of brick temples were built in this period in innumerable villages across the land, all built in a new architectural style. There were several reasons behind this burst of creativity and patronage. Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a reformist religious movement was started by the mystic Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 15th century. Many landlords and merchants throughout the land converted to Vaishnavism, and announced their conversion by sponsoring temples and temple complexes that allowed the congregational worship favoured in this new religion. Religious revival coincided with economic prosperity in Bengal, initially through changes brought about by the Mughal administration, and later through trade with Europe and south-east Asia. Some temples were sponsored by merchants enriched by trade, others by zamindars or landlords who became wealthy through changes in the political order. The merchants and small landholders mostly built individual "household" temples, while the large zamindars embellished their capitals at Bishnupur, Kalna, Puthia, Nadia, Kantanagar, and Baronagar with dozens of monumental temples.

Siva Temple, Joynagar, 1740

Artists and Patronage

Bengal's artisans created large-scale Hindu architecture and sculpture in the 9th-11th centuries under the Pala and Sena rulers. Most of these temples are now lost, although stone sculpture in the distinctive Pala/Sena style can be found in makeshift shrines throughout Bengal and in museums the world over. Five centuries of Islamic rule followed the Pala/Sena period, during which Bengali artisans were employed by Muslim patrons to build mosques and tombs. They created a unique Bengali Islamic architectural style that used imported elements like the dome and arch alongside local elements such as the curved cornice, octagonal minarets, and low-relief terracotta ornamentation on the facade. The initial austere and Persia or Delhi-influenced style (as at Adina and Bagerhat) was slowly replaced by more natural, elegant, and confident structures with more wall decoration as seen at the mosques in Gaur. When Hindu patronage reappeared in the 17th century, a period of architectural experimentation followed, a process that can be seen in the exceptional group of temples at Bishnupur. The result was a Hindu temple style based on Islamic domes, vaults, and arches alongside Hindu elements like octagonal columns, figural sculpture, and Orissan-style turrets.

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Photos and Text © Amit Guha