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.
Bird motifs in Bengal temples
Birds in temple decoration : Introduction
Decorations in temples are done for a variety of reasons; there is no doubt the foremost is the beautification of the temple, but other subtle reasons are there too. The most important of these are propagation of information.regarding religious matters like stories from the epics (The Ramayana and the Mahabharata); religious texts like KRISHNALEELA, DASHAVATAR, MANGAL KAVYAS etc.; folklore as well as recent social events.
In the present article, one particular aspect of the temple decoration in the temples of west Bengal is discussed, viz. BIRDS IN BENGAL TEMPLE DECORATION.
The medium of Bengal temple decoration
* The decorations of temples of West Bengal basically fall into 3 groups : Picture (Mural/fresco), idols and Bas-relief, of which the third one is the most prevalent.
* Bas-relief again can be of 4 types : Terracotta, Stucco, Stone-works and Wood carvings. Of these , the lion’s share goes to Terracotta.
* Terracotta can again be of 2 types : Plaque and Cut-brick, of which the former, i.e. plaques are the most prevalent one.
* So, to make the matter simple, it can be said that temple decorations in Bengal temples belong mostly to one particular type - the terracotta plaque.
* This is fully applicable for the decorations of birds too.
Different media used in temple decorations in West Bengal
Birds in Bengal temple decorations : Types
These can be divided into the following 6 groups :
- Birds as the mounts (Vahana) of different gods and goddesses.
- As part of the epics or religious texts.
- As part of folklore.
- As common birds drawn for beautification.
- As pets.
- As imaginary animals.
Birds in Bengal temples
Birds as the mount (Vahana) of different gods and goddesses
These include :
- The Swan of Goddess Saraswati.
- The Swan of Lord Bramha.
- The peacock of Lord Kartikeya.
- The owl of Goddess Lakshmi.
- The crow of Lord Shanideva etc.
Incidentally, Garuda, the Vahana of Lord Narayana can also be included in this group, though Garuda is not depicted as a bird, but rather as half-man half-bird.
Birds as mounts (Vahana) of gods and goddesses
Birds in temple decoration : Stories of the Ramayana
Two stories from the Ramayana are depicted in a large number of temples :
i) Ravana-Suparsha episode;
ii) Ravana’s flying chariot (Puspak Vimana) being drawn by a fleet of swans/geese.
Birds in the stories of the Ramayana
Birds in the stories from Krishnaleela
Krishnaleela (the events of the life of Lord Krishna) is a very popular subject in Bengal temple decorations. Almost all temples bear the stories of Krishnaleela in their wall decorations. Of the various stories about Lord Krishna, the story of Bakasura-Badh (Slaying of Bakasura the demon) has a bird in it.
Bakasura was a bird-demon, and Lord Krishna killed him.
Birds in Krishnaleela : slaying of Bakasura by Lord Krishna
Birds in temple decorations : as part of folklore :
Birds are common characters in many stories of the folklore. The temple decorations include many of these. Some examples are given below ;
- A peacock with a snake in its beak :
Here the peacock represents the Paragyan (The Ultimate Knowledge, i.e. the Knowledge about Param Brahma) and the snake Moha (life’s lower attractions).
The significance of this motif is probably when Paragyan destroys the Moha, only then one can attain Moksha or Liberation.
2. A snake devouring a bird (Peacock/swan?) :
This motif can be seen in the wall decoration of Nandadulaljiu temple of Gurap, district Hooghly.
But what does this picture signify?
It is difficult to guess. It may be a simple picture without any deep philosophical significance, or on the other hand it may signify Moha devouring up the Paragyan or Atma.
3. Byangama- Byangami :
These are a pair of birds mentioned in many stories of folklore of Bengal. In a large number of temples we can see depictions of a pair of birds which are most probably these two characters.
Birds as part of folklore
Birds in temple decoration : as imaginary figures
- Rok bird :
This is mentioned in the Arabian Tales. This powerful bird can fly with a/more elephant/s caught in its talones and devour elephants.
In Shyamrai amd Jorbangla temples of Bishnupur, district Bankura, a huge bird is depicted which is flying with elephants caught in its powerful talons.
Is it a Rock/Rok bird of the Arabian atales, or is it a “Singha Pakshi” mentioned in the Ramayanas?
2. Kinnar :
This mythological figures are often depicted as half-man half-bird (upper part human, lower part bird).
This can be seen in some temples like Radha Vinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum district.
3. Garuda : This half-bird half-human figure is the mount of Lord Vishnu.
Birds in temple decorations : Miscellaneous
Some miscellaneous examples of birds in temple decorations are :
1. Hansalata : It is depicted as a chain of swans; seen in many temples.
2. Birds as pets : usually depicted as a lady carrying a bird.
3. Griffon : It is an imaginary animal (with an eagle's head on a lion's body) from Greek mythology. A variant of this can be seen in many temples of South India which is called Yali or Viala.
In Shyamray temple of Bishnupur we can see a peculiar animal whose head is of an elephant, ears of a horse, wings of a bird and the rest of the body of a lion. In one picture it is flying with 6 and in another 7 elephants. Some people consider these two as a variant of Viala or Griffon.
Definitely it is highly intriguing and requires mention.
Birds in the decoration of temples in West Bengal is no doubt an interesting subject. The present article is written on the study of about 100 temples visited by the author.
All photos are by the author.
© 2021 Dr A K Chatterjee