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.
This article is basically in two parts.
Part I is on the lion in general, and Part II is on Lions in Bengal temple decorations.
Part I : Lion the animal
The lion (Panthera leo) is the second largest member of the cat family. Only the tiger (Panthera tigris) is larger and heavier than the lion.
Lions are of two types (Cat Classification Task Force of Cat Specialist Group, 2017) :
1. Panthera leo leo (Linn.1758) which includes the Asiatic (Indian) lion, and the lions found in the western and northern parts of Central Asia.
2. Panthera leo melanochaita (Smith, 1842), which includes lions of eastern and southern Africa and now extinct Cape Lions.
Besides these, there were some extinct species of the lion, which include :
1. Panthera leo sinhaleys - they lived in parts of Sri Lanka more than 39,000 years back.
2. Panthera leo fossilis - fossils of this type of lions who lived in the middle Pleistocene age are obtained from different parts of the world.
3. Panthera leo spelaea or the Cave Lion - they lived more than 11,000 thousands years ago.
4. Panthera atrox or the American lion - they lived in the Americas more than 37,000 years ago.
Lion symbol in different cultures
Lions, most probably due to the majestic looks with the beautiful mane of the male members of the animal, are one of the most widely recognized animal symbol in human culture across the continents from time immemorial. In almost all cultures the lion is the symbol of royalty, strength and magnificent beauty, and is associated with gods and monarchs.
Lions in India
The lions found in India belong to the Asiatic type (Panthera leo leo). It once roamed in the vast stretches of forested land from the Sind and Punjab to western parts of Bengal to the east and the Narmada river in the south. But due to indiscriminate hunting, now it is restricted only to the Gir National Park in Gujarat.
(Reference : "The past and present distribution of the lions in South East Asia" - The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 1920; 27 : 34-39; by Kinnear, N.B.).
Lions in Bengal
Once upon a time (more than 40-50 thousand years ago) African lions were found in the forests of Bankura and West Medinipur districts of present day West Bengal. This has been scientifically proved (Ref : Animal remains from south-western parts of West Bengal and their relevance to ancient civilization of the area - Zoological Survey of India publication, 2014).
African lion vs Indian Lion
This is an interesting subject, especially for the Indians.
Let us summarize :
1. They are two sub-species of the same species.
2. In size, Asiatic/Indian lions are a little smaller than their African counterpart.
3. Indian lions have thicker coat and longer tail tussle.
4. Indian lions have an abdominal skin fold which is not seen in the African subspecies.
5. But the most striking difference which can easily be understood by laymen is the mane. African male lions have luxurious mane covering the whole head, so that their ears are not always visible. But the male Indian lions have only a small tuft of blackish mane and their ears are always visible.
Lion vs tiger
This is another interesting topic. To tell very briefly, the tiger is larger (12-13 feet in length as against 7-8 feet for the lion), heavier (tigers 650 pounds vs. lions 500 pounds), have more muscle strength and is a solitary animal by nature (lions are the only cats who live in groups called "pride").
Lion in culture
Many ancient cultures had the lion in a prominent place.
Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Roman empire and other ancient civilizations had many references of the lion. This is true for India too. In Indian culture the lion is considered as the "Pashuraja" - the king of the animals. This is a little strange, because tigers are living in large parts of India from time immemorial, and Indians had good exposure to the might and beauty of the tiger.
But we have "Singhasana" (the Lion throne) and not "Baghrasana" (the Tiger throne), the Nrisingha Avatar of Lord Vishnu is half-lion half-man and not half-tiger half-man and Goddess Durga, the most important Goddess of the "Shakti" cult, rides a lion (especially in the eastern parts of India where Durga has a very important and special place). Even the "Ashoka-stambha" (pillar erected by the famous emperor Ashoka who lived in the 3rd century CE) has lions on top, and not the tiger.
It is difficult to guess why the lion, though being a lesser animal in size and strength, got the preferential treatment. Did the mane control the game? But still there is a catch here - the manes of the Indian lions are not so majestic like their African brethren.
Lion in Indian mythology
Lions are variously described in Indian mythology :
1. As "Vahana" (vehicle) of gods and goddesses.
2. As part of Nrisimha Avatar of Lord Vishnu (the head and forelimbs are of a lion, the rest of the body human-like).
3. As part of "Yali" (a mythical composite animal)
4. As part of "Narasingha" or man-lion (Not the Avatar).
Now, let us expand these a little.
Lion as "Vahana" (vehicle) of gods and goddesses
Lions are described as the "Vahana" of some gods and goddesses :
Durga : Goddess Durga is the chief Goddess and is considered as the principal form of Shakti, the Primal Female energy. Goddess Durga has been described in many forms, of which "Nabadurga" (Durga of 9 forms) is most widely known. Of the 9 forms of Durga in "Nabadurga", 5 have lions as Vahanas - Chandraghanta (this form of Durga is 10 armed), Kushmanda (8 armed), Skandamata (4 armed), Katyayani (10 armed) and Siddhidatri (4/8/18 armed).
In the eastern parts of India including Bengal, the form of Durga generally worshiped is Katyayani.
Jagatdhatri on lion
Goddess Jagatdhatri, who was initially derived from Durga, rides a lion. However, in later period Jagatdhatri is typically depicted in iconography as riding a lion which is on top of an elephant.
Chamunda on lion
Goddess Chamunda is associated with Goddess Kali, and is decribed as the goddess who killed the demons Chanda and Munda. Goddess Chamunda is depicted to ride a lion.
This is a rare form of Lord Ganesha with 5 heads. Heramba Ganesha rides a lion.
Saraswati on lion
Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Learning, knowledge and Fine Arts, is usually described to ride a white swan or sometimes a peacock. But a rare form of Goddess Saraswati in the Buddhism called the "Bageswari Saraswati" (who is actually the consort of the Buddhist god of Knowledge Manjushri or Manjunath) is depicted as riding a lion.
Nrisimha (Nrisingha) or Narasingha is the 4th Avatar of Lord Vishnu. As his name implies, he is half-lion (upper oart of the body including the head and forelimbs) half-man (lower part of the body).
Narasingha (Man-Lion) or Manticore (Mantichore)
Manticore is an imaginary creature often seen in Greek and Roman Arts, with the body of a lion, the head of a man with big protruding fangs and the tail of a snake. The word "Manticore" or "Mantichore" means "Man-eater".
The idea of Manticore has come from the story of "Mardykhor" (meaning "Man-eater") of the Persian mythology.
However, a number of ancient Greek authors like Aelian, Ctesius etc. believed that the idea of Manticore originated in India. Aelian even wrote that Manticores lived in India.
Part II : Lions in the decoration of temples in West Bengal.
Now, let us go to the Part II of this article - viz. Lions in the decoration of temples in West Bengal.
Materials and methods
The author has visited and photographed about 80 temples in 31 places in different districts of West Bengal.
These photographs were carefully checked, and photos of lions in different forms selected. These are classified into several groups and analyzed.
Lions in Bengal temple decorations
We get lions in various forms in the decorations of temples in West Bengal.
These are :
1. Vahana (vehicle) of Durga (different forms), Jagatdhatri and Chamunda.
2. Nrisimha Avatar
4. Narasingha or man-lion (Not the Avatar)
5. Over gates of, or on top of, temples
6. Lion hunting : Three examples in the present series.
7. Lions in temple walls and in angular plaques.
8. Lions in "Mrityulata" panels.
9. Lions in "Amita-vikram Purusha Murti" - a symbolic representation of the Masculine power.
10. "Singhamukhi Nouka" or boats decorated with the replica of the head of a lion.
11. Lion-faced bow.
Goddess Durga and the lion as Her Vahana
Goddess Durga is very widely depicted in innumerable temples of West Bengal, mostly in the "Mahishasuramardini" (Killer of the demon Mahishasura) form riding a lion, but also as the divine consort of Lord Shiva.
Except in very few cases where Durga is portrayed sitting on a lion along with Lord Shiva (one such example is from Kotulpur, district Bankura; another one is from Shiva temple of Supur, district Birbhum), this Shiva-consort form of Durga is without the lion and is usually depicted riding Nandi the Bull, the vehicle of Lord Shiva.
On the other hand "Ardhanarishwara", which is a composite form of Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva fused sagittally in the same body, is often depicted with a lion and a bull.
However, the "Mahishasuramardini" (Killer of the demon Mahishasura) is always depicted as riding the lion, which is shown to attack the demon.
The lions on which Durga rides are depicted in various forms, initially as a composite creature of a horse and a Monitor Lizard and later as a lion which seems to be an African one.
The lion and the 9 forms of Goddess Durga (Nabadurga) in Bengal temple decorations
As already said, of the 9 forms of Durga ("Nabadurga"), 5 have lions as the Vahana - Chandraghanta (this form of Durga is 10 armed), Kushmanda (8 armed), Skandamata (4 armed), Katyayani (10 armed) and Siddhidatri (4/8/18 armed).
In some temples like Ekteshwar Shiva temple of Bankura and Nandikeshwari temple of Sainthia, Birbhum, these 9 forms of Durga are picturized in stucco. In addition, Skandamata in isolation is depicted in terracotta bas-relief in the Rameshwar temple of Ilambazar, district Birbhum.
Lion as Vahana of Goddess Jagatdhatri in Bengal temple decorations
Jagatdhatri is a special form of Goddess Durga. She is 4-armed, and is usually shown as riding a lion which is on top of an elephant. This can be seen in temples like Chandranath Shiva temple of Hetampur, district Birbhum and Ananda Bahiravi temple of Sukharia, district Hooghly.
It is said that originally Goddess Jagatdhatri was devoid of the elephant. Such a picture of a 4-armed goddess on a lion can be seen in terracotta bas-relief in Charbangla temple and Gangeshwar temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad.
Lion as Vahana (vehicle) of Goddess Chamunda
Goddess Chamunda is said to emanate from the body of Goddess Kali to kill the demons Chanda and Munda.
In some temples like Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum; Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad Shiva temple of Baghtikra village of Purva Bardhaman district; Jorbangla Kali temple of Itanda village of Birbhum district; Shiva temple of Sribati village of Purva Bardhaman district etc. lion-riding Chamunda can be seen. In Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly, Chamunda is depicted as riding on two lions.
All the these are in terracotta bas-relief.
Lions as Vahana (vehicle) of Heramba Ganesha and Bageshwari Saraswati in Bengal temple decorations
Though two pictures in terracotta bas-relief of 5-headed Ganesha is seen in Ananda Bharavi temple of Sukharia, district Hooghly, the lion is missing here. And Lion-riding Saraswati is not found in any of the temples under study.
These are negative findings, but in an analytic study, both the positive and the negative findings are important.
A large number of temples in Bengal has the "Dashavatar Panel" depicting the 10 Avatars of Lord Vishnu in terracotta, stucco, stone, wood carving, metal engravings and in paintings (murals/frescos). In these, Nrisingha Avatar, the half-lion half-man form of Lord Vishnu, is depicted faithfully as the 4th Avatar. Nrisingha Deva is depicted almost invariably in sitting posture killing the demon Hiranyakashipu by His bare hands (which are actually the paws of the lion) placing the demon on His knees. Prahlada, the son of Hiranykashipu, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu may or may not be present by the side of Lord Nrisingha Deva in these pictures.
Yali in Bengal temple decoration
In Shyamrai temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura, we can see an imaginary animal with an elephant-like head, lion like body and tail with wings of a bird carrying several elephants in its four legs. In the same picture we can see a smaller animal with the similar body type but without the trunk of the elephant. Some temple experts think that these two are the Bengal versions of the Yali or Viyala (specifically "Gaja-Viyala" or Elephant-headed Viyala).
Narasingha or Man-lion (Not the Avatar) in Bengal temple decoration
A composite animal with the face and upper part of the torso of a man (though with big fangs) and the lower body of a lion (like the mythical Manticore) can be seen in many temples, either on the arch above the entrance or in the angle panels of the front facade of the temple. Some examples are Charbangla temple (terracotta), Gangeshwar temple (terracotta) and Bhavanishwar temple (stucco) of Baronagar, district Murshidabad.
This, however, may be an example of "Nara-Viyala" or Human-headed Viyala.
The main differences between Nrisingha Avatar and the Manticore (Man-lion) are two, apart from the fact that Nrisingha Deva is the 4th Avatar of Lord Vishnu and the Man-lion is a mythical creature.
These are :
1. The head and forelimbs of Nrisingha Deva are of a lion and the lower body that of a man. In the Man-lion this is just the opposite.
2. Nrisingha Deva is almost always seen to kill Hiranyakashipu by placing him on His knees, but the Man-lion is a solitary figure.
Lions over gates of, or on top of, temples
In some temples, statues of lions are placed over the gate (often called the "Singha Darwaja" or the Lion Gate) or even on the top of the temple proper.
Examples of the former are Shiva temple of Rajbalhat, district Hooghly and Annapurna temple of Barrackpore, district North 24-Parganas; one example of the latter is the 2-storey "Dalan"-type Radhakrishna temple of Itanda village, district Birbhum.
Lion hunting in Bengal temple decorations
Lion hunting scenes can be seen in temples like Gopinath temple of Dashghara, district Hooghly (this terracotta bas-relief picture is a part of the "Mrityulata" or "Death-Creeper" panel), Jorbangla Kali temple of Itanda, district Birbhum, Ramchandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly etc.