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Animal Moms in Bengal Temple Decorations

Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.

A bird feeding its chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, Hooghly

A bird feeding its chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, Hooghly

Introduction

It is often said that " a mom is a mom always, all ways", and that is true not only for man, but for non-human animals too.

In a short article, we'll look into this topic, but in a special situation - that is animal moms in temple decoration of West Bengal.

Objective

To show the presence of animals with their offspring in the decorations of temples of West Bengal.

Materials and methods

In a field study, the author has visited and extensively photographed a number of temples in different districts of West Bengal. These photos are searched for animals with their babies, segregated and analyzed.

Findings

Though there are a number of animals and birds depicted in the decorations of temples, animals with their babies are rare indeed.

In the present series, we get only 2 animals and 1 bird with babies :

1. Cow and calf : Though the cow (and its male counterpart the bull) is commonly found in the decorations of temples, especially in the Krishna Leela scenes, specifically cows with their calves are a rare finding. We find 4 temples with 5 pictures of cows with calves, all in terracotta bas-relief.

The temples are : Ananta Basudeva of Bansberia, district Hooghly; Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura; Lakshmi Janardan temple of Debipur, district Purva Bardhamn and Sridhar temple of Sonamukhi, district Bankura.

2. Tiger and cub : This can be seen in a terracotta panel in Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura.

3. A bird feeding its chick is depicted in terracotta in Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Cow and calf; terracotta; Ananta Basudeva temple; Bansberia, Hooghly

Cow and calf; terracotta; Ananta Basudeva temple; Bansberia, Hooghly

Cow and calf; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Cow and calf; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Tiger with cub; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Tiger with cub; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Bird and chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, Hooghly

Bird and chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, Hooghly

Discussion : the Cow and the calf

Of the 5 pictures of cows with calves our series, 3 pictures show the calf is having its feed from its mother's udder, while in one the calf is seen to approach for feeding and the 5th picture (from Sridhar temple, Sonamukhi) just depicts the cow and the calf sitting together.

Significance :

1. The cows shown in the Bengal temple decorations are obviously Zebu or Indian cattle, i.e. Bos indicus. Now, Bos indicus species is characterized by 3 unique features which differentiate it from the European counter part, Bos taurus.
These are : i) Presence of a hump on shoulder; ii) presence of Dewlap ("Galakambal" in vernacular) and iii) big ears which are usually drooping.

For example, in a terracotta bas-relief from Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad showing Lord Krishna killing Aristasura the Bull Demon, the bull depicted has clear-cut hump and the dewlap.

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But in the pictures in our series we see that the cows depicted are typically Indian (with prominent hump and the dewlap) in only 2 of the five cases (in Jorbangla and Sridhar temples).

Now the question is why so? Why in other cases the artists failed to draw Indian cattle with characteristic features?
It is difficult to answer, but an educated guess is that the artists have no clear-cut knowledge about it.

2. The Indian cow's gestation period is on the average 285 days, and more importantly, the mother cow weans her calf in about 2 weeks time. Thereafter, the calf starts eating grass etc., though it can, and does feed on its mother's milk for a longer period than this.

The age of the calves depicted in the present series are difficult to guess, though in the picture from Lakshmi Janardan temple of Debipur the calf is quite small.

Krishna killing Aristasura, the Bull Demon; terracotta; Charbangla temple, Baronagar, Murshidabad. Please note the hump and the dewlap of the bull.

Krishna killing Aristasura, the Bull Demon; terracotta; Charbangla temple, Baronagar, Murshidabad. Please note the hump and the dewlap of the bull.

Cow and calf from "Gostha Leela" scene; terracotta ; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Cow and calf from "Gostha Leela" scene; terracotta ; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Cow and calf from "Gostha Leela" scene; terracotta ; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Cow and calf from "Gostha Leela" scene; terracotta ; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

Cow and calf; terracotta; Sridhar temple; Sonamukhi, Bankura

Cow and calf; terracotta; Sridhar temple; Sonamukhi, Bankura

Cow and calf; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, Bankura

Cow and calf; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, Bankura

Tiger with a cub

In the present series, we get a single picture of a tiger with a cub.

Let us discuss a little about the tiger and tiger cubs in general.

Tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest member of the cat family. Its nearest rival in size and strength, viz. the lion, is literally far behind. While the tigers are 12-13 feet in length and about 650 lbs in weight, lions are about 7 feet in length and about 500 lbs in weight.
Tigers are solitary animals, and they live in the jungle in a specified area of its own.
Tiger cubs are born mostly in between March and June. The gestation period of a tigress is typically 93 - 114 days and the litter is of 2 -3 cubs (maximum 6 cubs).
The cubs have closed eyes at birth, and the eyes start to open by 14 days. They drink milk only for about 8 weeks, and then the mother trains them to eat meat. Weaning is complete by 5-6 months, but the cubs stay with the mother for about 2 years. At the age of 2 years, the young tigers leave their mother and start to live in their own area in the jungle, though at first the areas overlap with each other's and their mother's.

Now, let us focus to the picture in our hand.
As already said, it is a bas-relief in terracotta from the Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura. Here we can see a tiger playing with a cub. The tiger is, in all probability, the mother, because the male tigers are notorious for killing the cubs.

During 15th-19th century, tigers were plentiful in Bengal. This was reflected in temple decorations where we can see several picturization of the tiger, mostly in hunting scenes and also in some scenes where we can see tigers attacking men.
But a tiger mom with its cub is a rare finding.

Tiger hunting scene; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Tiger hunting scene; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Two tigers mauling a man; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

Two tigers mauling a man; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

A tiger (presumably the mother) with its cub;  terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

A tiger (presumably the mother) with its cub; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

Bird with chick

Birds are actually feathered Theropod dinosaurs and are the only known dinosaurs living today. They lay eggs, which require incubation for a varying period before hatching. Once hatched, the chick is usually featherless, with closed eyes and basically helpless. They require parental care of varying periods for their survival. Parents care for them, feed them beak-to-beak, and teaches them to fly and forage. The chicks leave their parents when they learn to fly or forage for their own food.

In Bengal temple decorations, birds are plentiful, being depicted as :

a)Vahana or vehicle of gods and goddesses like Kartikeya (Peacock), Brahma (swan), Saraswati (Swan) and Laksmi (Owl).
b) In isolated bird (mostly in angular plaques and in the arch over temple entrance) - peacocks and parrots mostly.
c) In a flock - a flock of swans is called "Hansalata" in temple decorations, and can be seen in many temples.
d) Imaginary birds (like the "Rock" or "Singha Pakshi" from the Ramayana).

But a bird feeding its chick is extremely rare in temple decorations. We are fortunate enough to get such a picture in terracotta bas-relief.

From the picture, it is difficult to identify the bird type, but possibly the birds thus portrayed are common birds like the Common Mynah.

Goddess Saraswati on her swan; wood carving; Saraswati temple; Ambalgram, Purva Bardhaman

Goddess Saraswati on her swan; wood carving; Saraswati temple; Ambalgram, Purva Bardhaman

Goddess Lakshmi on her owl; terracotta; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap, Hooghly

Goddess Lakshmi on her owl; terracotta; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap, Hooghly

A peacock in angle plaque; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

A peacock in angle plaque; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman

"Hansalata" - a flock of swans; terracotta; Raghabeshwar temple; Dignagar, Nadia

"Hansalata" - a flock of swans; terracotta; Raghabeshwar temple; Dignagar, Nadia

"Hansalata" - a flock of swans; terracotta; Radha Krishna temple; Ula-Birnagar, Nadia

"Hansalata" - a flock of swans; terracotta; Radha Krishna temple; Ula-Birnagar, Nadia

An imaginary bird carrying elephants in its talons; terracotta; "Rock bird" or "Singha Pakshi"; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur

An imaginary bird carrying elephants in its talons; terracotta; "Rock bird" or "Singha Pakshi"; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur

A bird feeding its chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, Hooghly

A bird feeding its chick; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, Hooghly

Conclusion

Animals or birds with their offspring is a rare finding in the decorations of temples of Bengal. In this short article, this unique topic has been discussed. This is a small series, and if some researchers work with larger number of temples, we may come to know of more interesting things.

* All photos are by the author.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

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