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"Mrityulata" (Death-vine) - a mysterious decorative terracotta panel in Bengal temples

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.

"Mrityulata" or "Barsha" panel in terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly, West Bengal

"Mrityulata" or "Barsha" panel in terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly, West Bengal

Key words


Mrityulata; Kalpalata; Barsha; “Ratna”; “Chala”; "Deul", Chariot; terracotta; temple.

Introduction

In the Bengali vernacular, there are three terms associated with decorations of temples in West Bengal --“Mrityulata” meaning “Death-vine”, “Kalpalata” (difficult to explain, roughly “the vine which fulfills wishes) and “Barsha” meaning “lancet” or “javelin” .

These three terms point to the same thing -- a vertical terracotta panel containing a vertical series of human and animal figures, each poised to attack the figure below.

The present article is an analytic study of these types of terracotta panels found in temples of West Bengal.

Typical "Mrityulata" panel

A typical "Mrityulata" panel in terracotta; Shiva temple, Sribati village, Bardhaman (East) district

A typical "Mrityulata" panel in terracotta; Shiva temple, Sribati village, Bardhaman (East) district

Materials & methods

The Mrityulata panels from 17 temples from different districts are included in this study.

District-wise distribution

In the present series, the district-wise distribution of the 15 temples are like this ;

  1. Birbhum - 6 (35.3%)
  2. Purva Bardhaman - 5 (29.4%).
  3. Hooghly - 5 (29.4%).
  4. Bankura - 1 (5.9%).

Placement of "Mrityulata" panels in temples

The placement of these panels are mostly at the outer corners of the temples, where two walls meet, but occasionally similar panels are seen on the front walls of some temples.


Placement of "Mrityulata" panels

"Mrityulata" panel at outer corner of a temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura district

"Mrityulata" panel at outer corner of a temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura district

"Mrityulata" panel at outer corner of a temple; Radhavinod temple, Joydev-Kenduli; district Birbhum

"Mrityulata" panel at outer corner of a temple; Radhavinod temple, Joydev-Kenduli; district Birbhum

"Mrityulata" panel on the front wall of   Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap; district Hooghly

"Mrityulata" panel on the front wall of Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap; district Hooghly

"Mrityulata" panel on the front wall of   a Shiva temple; Sribati; district Bardhaman (East)

"Mrityulata" panel on the front wall of a Shiva temple; Sribati; district Bardhaman (East)

Description

As already stated, Mrityulata is mostly a vertical terracotta panel containing a vertical series of humanoid and animal figures, each poised to attack the figure below. But in some instances the serial figures are not attacking the figure just below, but displayed vertically one above the other in a peaceful way. Even very rarely there are copulating human figures too. This justifies the use of the term “Kalpalata” or “Barsha” panel instead of “Mrityulata” for these panels.

General description

Regular or common "Mrityulata" panel; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

Regular or common "Mrityulata" panel; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

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http://Non-violent Mrityulata panel; Shiva temple, Surul

http://Non-violent Mrityulata panel; Shiva temple, Surul

Erotic figures in terracotta vertical panel; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

Erotic figures in terracotta vertical panel; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

Mrityulata : Origin


Majority authorities opine that this corner panel with vertical rows of figures has its origin in the architecture of wooden or metallic chariots constructed in Bengal as vehicles of gods. Chariots were constructed with vertical panels at the outer corner of the main body of chariots consisting of vertical rows of human and animal figures, and the panel thus created was called “Barsha” panel.

As the builders of chariots and the temples were from the same “Sutradhar” or Carpenter community, the pattern in the chariots was later assimilated in temple architecture.

“Barsha” architecture in chariots

Chariots constructed for gods in several places of West Bengal have this angular design (“Barsha” panel).

Some examples are brass chariot of Hadal-Narayanpur village in the Bankura district and brass chariot of Bonkati village of Paschim Bardhaman district.

Angular vertical panels in chariots

A brass chariot; Bankati village; Bardhaman (West) district

A brass chariot; Bankati village; Bardhaman (West) district

Vertical angular panel of the brass chariot of Bankati village; Bardhaman (West) district

Vertical angular panel of the brass chariot of Bankati village; Bardhaman (West) district

Vertical angular panel of the brass chariot of Hadal-Narayanpur village; Bankura district

Vertical angular panel of the brass chariot of Hadal-Narayanpur village; Bankura district

Which came earlier, the chariots or the temples?


In other words, this angular vertical panel came from chariots to temples, ot the other way round?

One authority (Tarapada Santra, see below) states clearly that it is clear that chariots came first, so it is logical to assume that this panel or design originated in chariots, and then came to temples, specifically “Ratna” (meaning temples with sharp pinnacles) type of temples which resemble chariots in structure.

The meaning of this sort of design


Mrityu” in Bengali means death, so “Mrityulata” can be translated as “Death-vine”. So, is this design related to Death?

The answer to this question is not easy. As most of the panels depict scenes of violence, it may be true that this peculiar panel points to the inevitable death.

But in those cases where the figures are not attacking the figure immediate beneath it, and more so in the rare instances of copulating figures, what is the actual meaning? Does it signifies the eternal birth-death cycle?

The answer is, to say the least, very difficult to guess. There is no authoritative view on this subject.

Types of temples where we can see this type of angular panel


In the present series of 17 temples where we can see this type of panel, the types of temples are :

  1. Ratna” type of temple (temples with one or more sharp pinnacles) : 7 (41.2%)
  2. Chala” type of temple (temples with flat or curved one or more roofs) : 4 (23.5%).
  3. Deul” type of temple (Temples with a sharp tall pinnacle) : 5 (29.4%).
  4. Miscellaneous : 1 (5.9%) - temples which do not fall into above 3 categories : in the present series the example is the “Mahaprabhu Chaitanya” temple of Illambazar, Birbhum district.

Types of temples associated with "Mrityulata"

RATNA type of temple; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli

RATNA type of temple; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli

CHALA type; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

CHALA type; Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

DEUL type of temple; Dewanji temple, Hetampur

DEUL type of temple; Dewanji temple, Hetampur

"RATNA" types of temples

Ratna” types of temples with "Mrityulata" panels in the present series ;-

  1. Pancharatna” temples (temples with 5 pinnacles ) : 2 such; Gopinath temple of Dashghara village, Hooghly district and Bholanath Shiva temple of Sribati village, Purva Bardhaman district.
  2. Nabaratna” temple (temples with 9 pinnacles) : 2 such; Radhavinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli village, Birbhum district and Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur village, Bankura district.
  3. Panchabingshati Ratna” temple (tyemples with 25 pinnacles) : 3 - Lalji temple, Krishnachandraji temple and Gopalji temple - all 3 in the town of Kalna, Purva Bardhaman district.

Different types of "Ratna" temples associated with Mrityulata in the present series

"Pancha Ratna" Gopinath temple, Dasghara

"Pancha Ratna" Gopinath temple, Dasghara

"Naba Ratna" Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli

"Naba Ratna" Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli

25-Ratna Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna

25-Ratna Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna

"CHALA" types of temples with "Mrityulata" panels in the present series ;-

Chala” type of temples associated with "Mrityulata" panel in the present series :

  1. Aatchala” temples (temples with 8 roofs) : 2 such - Nandadulaljiu temple of the town of Gurap, and Radha Govinda temple of Aantpur, both of Hooghly district.
  2. Jorbangla” temples (temples with two temples with 2 roofs fused together; “jor” means twin in Bengali) ; 2 such - Durga temple of Bally-Dewangunj village, Hooghly district and Jorbangla Kali temple of Itanda village, Birbhum district.

"CHALA" types of temples associated with "Mrityulata" in the present series

"Aat Chala" Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

"Aat Chala" Nandadulaljiu temple; Gurap

"JOR BANGLA" type Kali temple; Itanda village, Birbhum

"JOR BANGLA" type Kali temple; Itanda village, Birbhum

"DEUL" types of temples in the present series

  1. “Deul” type of temples :

In the present series, we’ve 5 “Deul” type of temples with such angular panel. These are :

  1. Dewanji temple of Hetampur village, Birbhum district;
  2. Rameshwar Shiva temple of Illambazar town, again of Birbhum district;
  3. Shiva temple of Surul village, Birbhum district.
  4. Shiva temple of Sribati village, Purva Bardhaman district.
  5. Pratapeshwar temple, Kalna, Purva Bardhaman district.

"DEUL" types of temples with "Mrityulata" panel (in the opresent series)

"DEUL" type Dewanji temple; Hetampur, Birbhum district

"DEUL" type Dewanji temple; Hetampur, Birbhum district

Two "Deul" type Shiva temple; Surul, Birbhum district

Two "Deul" type Shiva temple; Surul, Birbhum district

"Deul" type Ahiva temple, Sribati

"Deul" type Ahiva temple, Sribati

"Deul" type Rameswar temple; Illambazar, Birbhum district

"Deul" type Rameswar temple; Illambazar, Birbhum district

Analysis of the figures in the “Mrityulata” panel:


Basically, we can divide the panels into two types :

  1. Panels with violent figures : in 13 temples (76.5%).
  2. Panels with non-violent figures : in 04 temples (23.5%)

* In the Mahaprabhu Chaitanyadeva temple of Illambazar (19th century), there both violent and non-violent vertical panels.

  1. Temples with panels with violent figures arranged in vertical rows :

These are Radhavinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum (1683 AD); Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly (1729 AD); Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura (19th Century); Laji (1739 AD), Krishnachandraji (1752 AD) and Gopalji (1766 AD) temples of Kalna, Purva Bardhaman; Bholanath Shiva temple of Sribati , Purva Bardhaman (19th century); Dewanji temple of Hetampur, Birbhum (19th century); Shiva temple of Surul, Birbhum (19th century); Durga temple of Bally-Dewangunj (19th century), Hooghly; Jorbangla Kali temple of Itanda, Birbhum (19th century); Radha Govinda temple of Aantpur, Hooghly; Nandadulaljiu temple of Gurap, Hooghly (1759 AD); Mahaprabhu Chaitanyadeva temple of Illambazar, Birbhum (19th century).

  1. Temples with panels with Non-violent figures :

These temples are Rameshwar Shiva temple (early 19th century) and Mahaprabhu Chaitanyadeva temples of Illambazar, Birbhum (19th century).

Panels with Erotic figures

This is an inetresting subject. In the present series of 17 temples, in 02 (11.8%) (Nandadulaljiu temple of Gurap, Hooghly district and Gopalji temple of Kalna, Purva Barddhaman district) we can see a portion of the standard “Mrityulata” panel has few vertical human figures in copulating posture.

Its significance has already been discussed.

Mahaprabhu Chaitanya Deva temple

Mahaprabhu Chaitanya Deva temple; Illamabazar; district Birbhum

Mahaprabhu Chaitanya Deva temple; Illamabazar; district Birbhum

Subjects of these panels

At the first glance, all these types of vertical panels seems same - rows of figures arranged one above another, and mostly these are violent figures attacking the figure positioned immediately below.

But on closure look, it is evident that the figures are not same. There are several types of figures depicting various stories.

The subjects of these panels can be as follows :

  1. Soldiers riding horses - both with or without weapons.
  2. Soldiers with weapons - in almost all cases, soldiers are seen carrying traditional weapons like sword, lance etc. But in Krishna Chandraji temple of Kalna, Purva Barddhaman, we see soldiers with muskets.
  3. Human faces.
  4. Human figures dressed in European attire.
  5. Animals like tigers, lions, elephants, horses, deer etc.
  6. Riders on elephants.
  7. Hunting scene.
  8. Tales from Epics like Mahabharata - in Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly a scene from the Mahabharata is depicted showing Bhima killing Duhshasana.
  9. Tales from religious texts - in Lalji temple of Kalna we can see Goddess kali in fighting mood.
  10. Demons.
  11. Erotic figures.

Subjects of "Mrityulata" panels

Hunters; Gopinath temple, Dasghara; district Hooghly

Hunters; Gopinath temple, Dasghara; district Hooghly

Soldiers with musket; Krishna Chandraji temple, Kalna; Purva Barddhaman.

Soldiers with musket; Krishna Chandraji temple, Kalna; Purva Barddhaman.

Goddess Kali in a violent mood; Lalji temple; Kalna; district Bardhaman (East)

Goddess Kali in a violent mood; Lalji temple; Kalna; district Bardhaman (East)

Hunter; Lalji temple; Kalna; district Bardhaman (East)

Hunter; Lalji temple; Kalna; district Bardhaman (East)

Demons; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

Demons; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

A story from the epic Mahabharata - Bhima killing Duhsashana; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

A story from the epic Mahabharata - Bhima killing Duhsashana; Gopinath temple, Dasghara

Non-violent figures; Shiva temple, Sribati

Non-violent figures; Shiva temple, Sribati

Erotic figures; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap

Erotic figures; Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap

Erotic figures in Mrityulata panel; Gopalji temple, Kalna, Purva Barddhaman

Erotic figures in Mrityulata panel; Gopalji temple, Kalna, Purva Barddhaman

Unique Vertical panels

In some temples (Shiva temple of Sribati village in this series) we can see a unique type of vertical panel/s where the figures are arranged in such a way that two figures placed side by side have a common head or face.

The significance of this type of decoration is difficult to guess. Do these mean two personalities in a single body? Or, do these represent the concept of two worlds - gross and subtle?

Surprisingly, I’ve not found any reference on this.

A unique vertical panel

Unique vertical panel; Shiva temple, Sribati

Unique vertical panel; Shiva temple, Sribati

Conclusion

“Death-vine” or “Mrityulata” is a highly interesting subject in the decorations of temples of West Bengal. The present study embraces only 15 temples. So, this can be said a "Pilot Study" at the most.

If someone does a study with a larger series, some hitherto unknown facts can be unveiled.

© 2021 Dr A K Chatterjee

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