Temple Terracottas of Bengal

— Mukul Dey

Reprinted from Illustrated Weekly of India, November 25, 1951.

Pancharatna or five-pinnacled terracotta temple at Surul, Birbhum
Photo: Mukul Dey
Folk arts and handicrafts occupied a conspicuous position in our national life in bygone days, and were centered mainly in rural areas, where they flourished for many centuries. The advent of the machine age changed the picture. The decay of rural life and culture set in with alarming rapidity. Indigenous arts and crafts fell into neglect and artisans had to migrate to cities in search of employment. By the end of the 19th century, folk arts and handicrafts almost vanished from Bengal.

Terracotta craft formed an important part of these folk arts. Its history could be traced from the Indus Valley culture at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, some three thousand years before Christ. From the Indus Valley, the art gradually spread eastwards and flourished mainly in areas like Bengal where stone was scarce. Beautiful terracottas of the Gupta period have been discovered in North Bengal, particularly in Birbhum district.

Terracotta craft attained its perfection in Bengal by the middle of the 18th century. A great impetus was given to it by Rani Bhawani, the noble temple-builder and philanthropist, and by Terracotta panel of four-armed Goddess Jagaddhatri, Illambazar, Birbhum
Photo: Mukul Dey
many wealthy people who followed her example. In the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of temples were built all over Birbhum. Terracottas were profusely manufactured by local craftsmen for decorating these temples, which were not only seats of worship, but also great centres of art culture.

Handicrafts were family preserves, handed down from generation to generation, and they were the means of sustenance for a large community of artisans. With the break-up of rural economy, the families of artisans became almost extinct, although a few are still known to survive in remote villages. Petty terracotta toys are still manufactured by potters, but the old way of decorating temples and residential buildings has completely vanished. With the near-extinction of the artisans, the traditional technique of the art has now disappeared.



A Living Art

Even seventy years ago, there were Guilds of artists and artisans in Bengal. They worked in co-operation. Thirty to forty men trained in a particular craft lived and worked under a Master artist or craftsman. The Master took all responsibility for the erection of a temple, and for terracotta decorations. These Lord Krishna depicted as Goddess Kali, terracotta decorative panel at village Moukhira.
Photo: Mukul Dey
temple-builders formed a travelling group of artists, who spread art culture from village to village. It was a living art in those days.

Thousands of Siva, Vaishnava and Kali temples are scattered all over Birbhum. They are built of brick, sand and lime plaster, their sizes varying from thirty to fifty feet in height and twelve to thirty feet at the base. Most of these temples lie in ruins. But in many of them still remain beautiful specimens of baked clay terracottas depicting figure compositions in decorative panels.

Generally speaking, the temples have only one door and no window at all. The doors are made of wood, with carved designs, fixed on hinges. There are no terracottas in the interior of most of these temples which were built by men of all classes – Zamindars, Brahmins, Kayasthas, betel-leaf growers, lac traders, coal merchants, wine distillers.

Holy reservoir and temple at Vakreshwar, Birbhum.
Photo: Mukul Dey
In those days, temple-building was considered a meritorious deed. Whenever a tank was dug in the village, it was also a custom to build a temple nearby, so that after a clean bath, villagers might cleanse their hearts by praying in the temples. Religion and art rested in the temples and moulded the character and thoughts of the people.

The thousands of terracotta panels found in the neglected temples of Birbhum depicted mythological as well as contemporary scenes. Some of these panels give an insight into the customs and manners, costumes and jewellery, even court dresses worn by men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some houses and temples, there are lime plaster figures of animals and birds, damsels, angels and male figures of different types. Besides these, the masons have touched upon different aspects of human and animal life; decorative designs of trees, creepers and flowers. In some temples, European life is also depicted in terracottas.

Evolution of New Style

Lady at the window with venetian blinds. Decorative detail, Suri, Birbhum
Photo: Mukul Dey
Among the terracottas I found a few figures of Europeans, both men and women, with their pet dogs. In some cases, the artists have borrowed ideas from European architecture: Venetian windows and Corinthian and Doric columns. At times, they have broken the  traditional Indian style of temple architecture and created something new in style under European influence – there were many indigo factories in Birbhum owned by Europeans during the 18th and 19th centuries.

 A few love scenes in terracotta are hidden in the panels of temple walls. In the brass chariots (rathas) kept at Bankati and Jayadeva-Kenduli, such depiction occurs in brass engravings. Beautiful paintings on walls can be seen in the Ilambazar village temples. Traces of fresco paintings are also found at many places. There are floral paintings in Suri, Karidhya, Supur, Moukhira, Dubrajpur, Labpur and in various other temples and houses.

Apart from terracottas, another important craft tradition that existed in Birbhum was wood-carving. In many temples and houses there are to be seen floral and figure designs on religious as well as secular themes carved in wood. Animal life is also depicted.

When Sri Rathindranath Tagore, now Vice-Chancellor of the Raja Ram and his queen Sita at Ayodhya. Terracotta detail, Birbhum
Photo: Mukul Dey
Visva-Bharati University, drew my attention to the subject, I decided to visit the villages in search of these neglected terracottas and other works of art, and to collect all available data. I made an extensive tour of the rural areas, and it took nearly five years for me to visit the far-off villages, inspect about 3,000 temples, and photograph the terracottas found therein. In Birbhum alone, there are thousands of temples lying in a neglected condition. Even to reach many of them one has to pass through a great many hardships.



Worthy of Collection

Lord Ravana’s court at Lanka, an intricate terracotta panel from a temple at Surul, Birbhum
Photo: Mukul Dey
It is my earnest desire to collect the neglected and fallen terracottas, wood-carvings, engravings and stone sculpture and preserve them in a Museum at Santiniketan. They will be immensely helpful to art students for studying the indigenous crafts of Bengal. Years back, in 1936, Rabindranath Tagore warmly approved of this idea. He wrote:

“It is an object very dear to my heart and I cannot help welcoming any endeavours towards its realisation”

From Mohenjo-Daro to Birbhum is a far cry. It took centuries for the terracotta craft to reach Birbhum, attain perfection and beautify our temples and homes. This vanishing art deserves to be revived before it is too late.

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