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Varendra Research Museum, © TMAC

Varendra Research Museum, Rajshahi

About the Museum

The building and grounds of the Varendra Research Museum, once a Rajbari, were donated by the Dighapatia Raja, an eighteenth century zamindar of the area. At the centre of the building is an open courtyard. The courtyard, and the verandah-aisle around it has several pieces of Pala-Sena sculpture, mostly of Vishnu, Surya and Uma-Mahesvara. Remarkable among these are a Chamunda, a Vishnu on Garuda, and a Vishnu in brown stone possibly from Central India. The display galleries around this courtyard house ancient and medieval Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic artefacts mainly from the Rajshahi area. An official explained to me that only a small fraction of the museum's collection is on display. Permission to see the rest, stored in the warehouse, may be obtained by writing to the Director. The arrangement of objects described here is based on a visit to the museum in May 2004.

Most of the images were donated by Sarat Kumar Ray, son of the Dighapatia Raja and co-founder of the Varendra Research Society, set up in 1910 to explore archaeological remains of the Varendra region (modern Bogra, Dinajpur, Rajshahi and Pabna districts). The collection of the Research Society soon grew very large and the museum was built to preserve and display the sculptures and other artefacts. Sarat Kumar Ray also initiated the excavation of the Pala-era Buddhist monastery at Paharpur, and the Bangladesh Archaeology Department took up the work with his financial support.


Stone sculpture from the Pala-Sena period dominates the museum's collection. The iconographic formula in much of Pala-Sena sculpture is very consistent. The first gallery consisting mostly of Vishnu and Surya sculptures reflects this consistency. The standard composition of the Vishnu image shows the diety standing on a lotus pedestal. He holds a Gada in the upper right hand, Chakra in the upper left, Sankha in the lower left, while his lower right hand is in the Varada mudra. On his right is a smaller image of Sarasvati holding a veena, while Lakshmi, on his left, holds a lotus. A wide panel at the base has an image of Garuda in anjalimudra. This image is placed either at the centre facing the viewer, or slightly to the right, looking up at Vishnu. In some images Vishnu is seated on a larger, kneeling Garuda. Vertical panels along the sides have an elephant and a rearing Yali at the top. Above them, an arched torana rises from the mouths of makaras. The arches on either side converge in the image of a kirtimukha at the top. Above the makara heads are images of kinnaras and on either side of the prabhavali are rows of flying apsaras with garlands.

Outdoor Gallery, © photographersdirect

There are also sculptures of the various avatars of Vishnu. Among these is a Rama-Sita-Lakshmana sculpture panel where Rama and Lakshmana hold bows, while Sita is shown holding flowers. Next to this is a rare image of Balarama, who holds in his left hand the lotus and sankha, symbols of Vishnu, while in his right hand, he holds a plough, a symbol of his human form. Balarama taught humans the art of cultivation. Individual figures of Balarama, like this one, are extremely rare, though he sometimes appears with Krishna in works depicting events from the Bhagavad-Purana.

Unlike the serene Vishnu images, those of Narasimha and Varaha are vibrant with movement. An image at the centre shows this avatar in his act of deliverance i.e. disembowelling the demon Hiranya, while panels below depict the story that leads to this: Hiranya contemptuously kicking a pillar from which Narasimha begins to emerge. The base panel of Varaha sculptures similarly show a boar digging the earth to recover the trapped Bhudevi, while the main image is of the diety gently holding up Bhudevi, the vanquished Nagas look up at him in reverence.

Several individual images of Garuda are also displayed. Remarkable among these is a Twin-Garuda, which has two addorsed images of Garuda, carved in the round and kneeling in opposite directions. This orientation suggests that this image was placed on top of a manastambha outside a temple. Next to this is a beautiful but broken image of seated Garuda.

Vishnu Vaikuntha © ignca

Another beautiful piece is a broken Vaikuntha image in grey stone and therefore possibly from Central India. This is a depiction of Pancharatra Vishnu produced by a 5th century Vaisnava Tantric tradition. It has four faces, based on the four vyuhas or emanations. The human face, Vasudeva, is in front, on the right is the boar Pradyumna, on the left is the lion Samkarsana, and the last face is Aniruddha, the demon.


To the immediate right of the entrance to this gallery is a magnificent Surya statue, clearly the principal object of worship in a Sun temple. Several figures crowd the elaborately carved base of the panel. This includes Surya's chariot drawn by seven horses and driven by his charioteer, Aruna. On either side of Aruna are the images of Usha and Pratuysha, holding bows and arrows with which they repel darkness. Standing near Surya's feet are the goddesses Rajni and Niksubha. Next to them are the slightly larger figures of Surya's attendants Danda and Pingala. Surya's waist garment, whose folds are reminiscent of Buddhist images, has a sheathed dagger on one side and a sword on the other.

Among the other images related to Surya is a damaged sculpture of Revantha, a surya-putra and the second Manu. In this image, the upper part of which is missing, Revantha is shown riding a horse. The most unusual piece in the collection is a composite image of Surya, and Bhairava, the terrifying aspect of Siva. This image, labeled Marthanda-Bhairava, has 3 heads and 12 hands. Most of the hands hold Siva symbols such as the damaru, sarpa, and the trishul.


The next gallery has Saivite sculpture. The most exquisite piece in this collection is an elaborately carved twelve-handed Siva Nataraja. Almost perfectly preserved, this image shows some of Siva's rarer attributes like the veena in one of his hands. There are several beautifully modeled Uma-Mahesvara images. Unlike Vishnu's consorts, in these images Parvati is shown seated on the same pedestal as Siva and being embraced by him. On either of the image are Ganesa and Karthikeya.

A platform in the centre of the gallery has many smaller Saivite statues. These include an Ardhanarisvara, a Mukhalingam, and a Sadasiva. A rare piece is the Chaturshakti lingam, in which each of the four faces of the lingam show a different aspect of Shakti. On either side of this collection are placed two large Dikpala images. If they adorned the outer walls of a temple, it must have been immense. The images are Varuna on a Makara, and Yama on a Bull.


The next gallery has images of the various forms of the Devi. The most common images are of Durga, Parvati and Manasa. A large standing Parvati holds a trident in one hand, and a rosary with a Sivalingam in another. Carvings on the prabhavali include a Navagraha panel, while banana trees are carved on either side of the figure. Among the Durga images, the most remarkable is an image of standing Durga with a lion standing behind her. This form called Simhavahini is rare compared to the usual Mahishamardini form.

In Manasa images the diety is seated in padmasana, with a large pot below the lotus-pedestal. She holds a lingam, pot, book, and snake. On the sides are vertical rows of Nagas in anjalimudra. A large serpent hood shades the image. Several images marked Gauri, show the Devi standing in simple attire with images of Ganesa on the left and Kartikeya on the right. A Mother and Child panel, with Navagrahas above and symbols including lingam below. An unusual panel is marked Navamatrikas. Though very similar to South Indian Saptamatrika panels, the dieties have different features and attributes.

Jain and Buddhist

The gallery after this has Jain and Buddhist sculpture. The first image is a sculpture of Rishabhanatha surrounded by the 24 tirthankaras. The collection of Buddhist images in the early Pala style, especially of Buddhist Tantric Goddesses is beautiful. There are several images of seated and standing Khadiravani Tara. Tara, the shakti of Avalotikesvara, and also an important goddess in her own right, holds a closed lotus flower with a long stem. Most Tara images have small icons of the five Dhyani Buddhas on the prabhavali. An impressive image in this collection is of Chunda, an eighteen-armed Tantric Goddess. The youthful goddess seated in padmasana and her eighteen weapon-holding arms are beautifully modeled.

Pala Sculpture, © banglapedia

There are two images of Marichi, a Buddhist Tantric diety, popular in Bengal during the 11th century Pala rule. Marichi is the Buddhist goddess of dawn and hence is parallel to Surya, but while Surya's chariot is drawn by seven horses, the chariot of Marichi is drawn by seven pigs (shukara). Several depictions of the Goddess have been discovered of which two are represented here. In one the goddess has a single human head while in the other she has three heads, one of which is of a Boar. The image of Manjushri sitting on a lion and designated as Manjuvara was also quite popular in Bengal. One such image is preserved in this gallery. There are also several Padmapani images, including one Avalotikesvara with twelve heads. There is also an image of Jambhala, pot-bellied Buddhist God of wealth. Among the images of Siddhartha, is a large standing Buddha from Dinajpur, in polished black stone. Also in this collection is an unusual yellow sandstone Buddha from Rajshahi.


The next gallery has black stone tablets with inscriptions from several Islamic rulers of Bengal such as the early fourteenth century sultan Ghiyath al-Din Bahadur Shah, Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah of the late fifteenth century, and Alauddin Hussain Shah of the early sixteenth century. The stone calligraphy on these blocks is exquisite. A intricately carved Mihrab is also preserved here, the backs of its three walls have defaced Hindu sculptures. The last gallery has Islamic coins, weapons, miniature paintings from Mughal and Bengal ateliers, and exquisitely carved terracotta bricks from Bengali mosques.

Kolkata, 2004

Photos and Text © Amit Guha