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Pakhmara, the tribal bird hunters of Bengal and their presence in decorations of temples in West Bengal

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.

Key words

Pakhmara, bird, bird hunters, tribal, West Bengal, hunting, bird hunting, Satnoli, terracotta, temple decoration.

Introduction

Hunting has a long history and may well pre-date the appearance of man on earth .There is evidence that ancestors of modern man practiced hunting, chiefly for food - many prehistoric rock paintings show men in hunting.

Bird hunting is also being practiced since time immemorial.

Hunting has been categorized into 3 basic types :

1.Subsistence hunting : hunting for food and business;
2.Therapeutic hunting : to get rid of harmful animals to protect man and ecosystem;
3. Sport hunting : hunting for fun and trophy.
(Ref : “Types of hunting - Tourism teacher”; https://tourismteacher.com)

Birds were and still are hunted for subsistence and sport purposes.

Dogs used as tracker and retriever in bird hunting includes German Wirehaired Pointer, German Shorthaired Pointer, Labrador Retriever, Brittany Dog, Jack Russel Terrier etc.

In this article, we'll have a short discussion on bird hunting in general and then shall go into our main topic - "Pakhmara", the tribal bird hunters of Bengal and their presence in decorations of temples in West Bengal

Hunting in India

Hunting was an honorable activity in India from the very early period, as evident by the fact that gods & mythological figures are described to be engaged in hunting. Lord Shiva, one of the Trinities of Hinduism, has a name "Mrigavyadha" meaning “the deer hunter”, thus glorifying the act of hunting. The Kings & princes of the two great Hindu epic Ramayana & Mahabharata were also described as expert hunters.

In the Mahabharata, there is the famous incidence of the Archery test of the Pandava and the Kaurava brothers by their teacher Dronacharya where he asked his students to shoot a bird. Arjuna, the middle of the Pandava brothers and possibly the greatest archer in the Mahabharata, focused only on the eye of the bird and succeeded.

Later, during the feudal and colonial times hunting was regarded as a regal sport in India, & the kings & princes were involved in hunting in a big way. Mughal emperors were avid hunters. It is said that firearms were introduced in hunting scenario in India during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (1556 - 1605 CE).

There were professional hunters in their pay roll called Shikaris. The tradition was continued in the British period as the British loved & encouraged hunting.

Weapons used for hunting includes a variety of articles, starting from the stone-made weapons of the Palaeolithic man to guns & other firearms of the present day, with bows & arrows, spears, swords & daggers in between.

Ritualistic hunting in West Bengal

A great ritualistic hunting festival takes place in the western districts of southern West Bengal (mainly Purulia, Jhargram, West Medinipur and Bankura) annually on 13th April. Tribal communities armed with bows and arrows, spears, axes, swords, knives, nets and traps ritually hunt animals like fishing cats, jackals, foxes, wolves, wild boars and several bird species.

Though hunting in any form is completely banned in India, this ritualistic hunting is still going on despite all efforts to stop it by the Government.

Bird hunting

Bird hunting is continued from time immemorial to the present day and is done mainly for 2 purposes :

1. Subsistence : i.e. for food (meat and eggs) and business by selling meat and eggs as well as the birds alive and also their body parts like feather (eg. peacocks), beak (hornbills) etc.
2. Sport : Sport hunting of birds is still a popular activity in several countries including the USA.

Ritualistic bird hunting is a combination of the above two types, done for subsistence and sport.
One special ritual is still followed during the traditional Durga Puja by wealthy families in Bengal where one or more Indian Roller bird/birds (Nilkantha in Bengali) is/are released by the head of the family. These birds are captured by the Pakhmaras, the Bird hunting people of Bengal.

Traditional bird hunting in India is practiced by the tribal people in almost all the states.

Game birds

Game birds are birds which are commonly hunted.

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These can be divided into following groups :

A. Birds captured alive and sold as pets or rituals :
These include a large variety of birds with the common factors of their beauty and legends associated with them.
The examples of the former group include several types of parakeets, song birds like Hill Mynah, falcons and other birds of prey and many types of smaller birds.

B. Birds hunted for meat :
These include several varieties of ducks, storks, wild Turkeys, Partridge, pheasants, Quail, Jungle foul, snipes etc. However, members of the tribal community often hunt any available bird for meat.

C. Birds hunted for body parts :
Examples of these include the peacock for their beautiful plumage which has some religious usage too and hornbills for their big and spectacular beaks used by many tribes as ornaments and head-gears.

D. Birds hunted for ritualistic use :
The example of Indian Roller is already given.

Bird hunted for sale as pets 1 :Alexandrine parakeet

Bird hunted for sale as pets 1 :Alexandrine parakeet

Bird hunted for sale as pets 2 : Hill Mynah

Bird hunted for sale as pets 2 : Hill Mynah

Bird hunted for sale as pets 3 : Black Shaheen falcon

Bird hunted for sale as pets 3 : Black Shaheen falcon

Bird hunted for meat 1 : Spotted Dove

Bird hunted for meat 1 : Spotted Dove

Bird hunted for meat 2 : Indian Ringed Dove

Bird hunted for meat 2 : Indian Ringed Dove

Bird hunted for meat 3 : Rock pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 3 : Rock pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 4 : Green Imperial Pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 4 : Green Imperial Pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 5 : Yellow footed Green pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 5 : Yellow footed Green pigeon

Bird hunted for meat 6 : Pheasant tailed Jacana

Bird hunted for meat 6 : Pheasant tailed Jacana

Bird hunted for meat 7 : Bronze winged Jacana

Bird hunted for meat 7 : Bronze winged Jacana

Bird hunted for meat 8 : Common Snipe

Bird hunted for meat 8 : Common Snipe

Bird hunted for meat 9 : Cotton teal

Bird hunted for meat 9 : Cotton teal

Bird hunted for meat 10 : Bird hunted for meat

Bird hunted for meat 10 : Bird hunted for meat

Bird hunted for meat 11 : Purple Moorhen

Bird hunted for meat 11 : Purple Moorhen

Bird hunted for feather and meat : Peacock

Bird hunted for feather and meat : Peacock

Bird hunted for beak and meat : Pied Hornbill

Bird hunted for beak and meat : Pied Hornbill

Bird hunted for ritualistic use : Indian Roller

Bird hunted for ritualistic use : Indian Roller

Weapons used in bird hunting

Starting from the humble catapult and bows & arrows to guns in present time, several throwing weapons are being used throughout the history to hunt birds. In addition to this, several types of nets and traps are used to capture birds.

Now-a-days, birds are hunted mainly by air-guns and Pellet or Shot guns by city people. Bows & arrows and catapult are still used by rural and tribal people.

In the western part of present day West Bengal we see a special indigenous bird-hunting weapon called "Satnoli" being used by "Pakhmara"-s, a special group of bird hunters who hail from several tribes of the region.

Satnoli : The term translates into “seven tubes”. It consists of seven tube-like segments made from bamboo. The bird hunters make a long weapon by joining the separate segments before hunting a bird. The tip of "Satnoli" usually has a sharp iron spike, though some kind of strong adhesive is also used in some cases to capture birds alive.

Pakhmara, the Bird Hunting tribe of West Bengal

Pakhmara is the common name given to a number of tribes who are the traditional bird hunters. The term "Pakhmara" translates into "Pakh" meaning bird and "Mara" means who kills. So the term "Pakhmara" means people who kills birds.

They are subdivided into 4 groups - "Jarasand",These s "Kalketu-Fullara", "Jangipuri" and "Daihati". This classification is based on the type of birds they hunt. Of them, the "Kalketu-Fullara" subgroup occupies the highest position among them in social strata.

They mostly live in the districts of Purva and Paschim Bardhaman, Birbhum, Murshidabad in West Bengal and in some areas of the state of Jharkhand like Jamtara, Dumka, Godda and Hazaribagh.
In West Bengal, they are mostly concentrated in areas like Aushgram, Guskara, Laudoha, Faridpur, Haripur, Ukhra and villages around Durgapur.

Though they are Hindu by religion and are mainly followers of Lord Shiva and his avatars like Dharma Thakur, they are Nature Worshiper. In Murshidabad district, Pakhmaras worship the Banyan or Ficus benghalensis ("Bawt" in Bengali) and the Sacred fig or Ficus religiosa ("Ashathwa" in Bengali) trees.

Though the Pakhmaras uses Bengali as their main language, they have a code language of their own, which resembles the language of the Malpahari tribe of South India.

The Pakhmaras hunt bird by nets, traps and Satnoli, which is described alraedy.

Hunting in temple decoration in West Bengal

Now we'll go into the second part of our discussion, viz. Hunting in temple decoration in West Bengal.

Temple decorations : What and Why

Traditionally, temples in India are decorated both externally and internally. This include bas-relief works, 3-dimensional structures and paintings (murals and frescos).
The subjects of these decorations are myriad, and range from gods and goddesses to the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), stories from religious texts (eg. Krishna Leela, Dashavatar etc.), social stories and legends and animate & inanimate objects (animals, hunting scenes, kings and queens, common men and women of different professions, floral and geometric designs etc.)

These decorations are done mainly for beautification, but their role as a social media cannot be ignored. At the time when there was no media like news papers, radio, TV or the internet, the temple decorations played a vital role of disseminating knowledge about many things, both religious and secular, among the masses.

Goddess Durga in terracotta; Radha Damodar temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Goddess Durga in terracotta; Radha Damodar temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Lord Shiva with his consort Durga on Nandi the Bull; terracotta; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, Birbhum

Lord Shiva with his consort Durga on Nandi the Bull; terracotta; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, Birbhum

Lord Vishnu on his mount Garuda; terracotta' Kali temple; Itanda, Birbhum

Lord Vishnu on his mount Garuda; terracotta' Kali temple; Itanda, Birbhum

Tales from the Ramayana : lord rama on throne;  terracotta' Vishnu temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Tales from the Ramayana : lord rama on throne; terracotta' Vishnu temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Scdene from the Mahabharata : Arjuna shooting a fish through the central hole of a wheel/disc; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Scdene from the Mahabharata : Arjuna shooting a fish through the central hole of a wheel/disc; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Lord Ganesha; terracotta; Nalateshwari temple; Nalhati, Birbhum

Lord Ganesha; terracotta; Nalateshwari temple; Nalhati, Birbhum

Hunters; terracotta; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna; Purva Bardhaman

Hunters; terracotta; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna; Purva Bardhaman

Kurma Avatar in stone; Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Kurma Avatar in stone; Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Matsya Avatar in stucco; Bhavanishwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Matsya Avatar in stucco; Bhavanishwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Metal engraving; Brass Ratha/chariot; Ajodhya village; Bankura

Metal engraving; Brass Ratha/chariot; Ajodhya village; Bankura

Wood carving in temple decoration : Goddess Saraswati in Saraswati temple; Ambalgram; Purva Bardhaman

Wood carving in temple decoration : Goddess Saraswati in Saraswati temple; Ambalgram; Purva Bardhaman

Mural in temple decoration : Kurma avatar; Kalleshwar temple; Kalleshwar, Birbhum

Mural in temple decoration : Kurma avatar; Kalleshwar temple; Kalleshwar, Birbhum

The medium of temple decorations

In general, stones are used in different parts of India both for construction of temples and to decorate them.

However, due to the lack of sufficient amount of good quality stones in Bengal, here majority of temples are brick-built, and their decorations are mostly of things other than stone. These include terracotta mostly, but other types of media like stucco, stone work, wood work and in few instances metal works were also used.

Temple decoration in terracotta; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur, Bankura

Temple decoration in terracotta; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur, Bankura

Temple decoration in stone carving : Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Temple decoration in stone carving : Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Temple decoration in stucco : Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Temple decoration in stucco : Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Wood carving in temple decoration : Kalki Avatar; Narayan temple; Jaipur, bankura

Wood carving in temple decoration : Kalki Avatar; Narayan temple; Jaipur, bankura

Metal engravings in temple decoration : Goddess Kali in brass; Brass Chariot; Ajodhya village, Bankura

Metal engravings in temple decoration : Goddess Kali in brass; Brass Chariot; Ajodhya village, Bankura

Mural in temple decoration : Shri Chaitanya deva with Nityananda; Nrisinghadeva temple; Gokarna, district Murshidabad

Mural in temple decoration : Shri Chaitanya deva with Nityananda; Nrisinghadeva temple; Gokarna, district Murshidabad

Hunting scenes in temple decorations

As the temples were constructed by the local landlords & rich merchants, & as it was fashionable to be involved in hunting, it was inevitable that the artists would be encouraged to put hunting scenes in the temple art, either directly by the patrons paying for it, or by the fact that it was an attractive subject for their work. For this reason, the medieval temples in Bengal have a rich collection of hunting scenes, mostly in terracotta, but also in other medium like stucco.

We’ll now discuss about this interesting subject.

Hunting scene in terracotta; Ramchandra temple; Guptipara, Hooghly

Hunting scene in terracotta; Ramchandra temple; Guptipara, Hooghly

Hunting scene in wood engraving; Shiva temple; Bankati-Ajodhya; Paschim Bardhaman

Hunting scene in wood engraving; Shiva temple; Bankati-Ajodhya; Paschim Bardhaman

Hunting scene in stone : Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Hunting scene in stone : Shiva temple; Ganpur, Birbhum

Hunting scene in tderracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hunting scene in tderracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Materials and method

Pictures of hunting were collected from 29 temples of different districts of West Bengal by the author who travelled personally to and photographed extensively the temples mentioned.

(A list of the temples in the present series is given in the Appendix).

These photographs were then searched and the bird hunting scenes were segregated and analyzed.

In the present series, picture of bird hunting is depicted in 3 temples only, viz. Radhavinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli, district Birbhum , Shiva temple of Bankati-Ajodhya village, Paschim Bardhaman and Lakshmi Janardan temple of Ghurisha, district Birbhum.

Description

1. Radhavinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli was constructed in 1683 AD. It is a brick-built temple with nine turrets, called Nabaratna type temple. It has extensive terracotta decorations.

The bird hunting scene is also a terracotta plaque bas-relief. It shows a a turbaned man hunting a flying bird with a "Satnoli" type weapon.

2. Lakshmi Janardan temple was constructed in 1739 AD. It is also a brick-built Nabaratna type temple with nine turrets. It also has extensive terracotta decorations.
The bird hunting scene in this temple is also a terracotta plaque bas-relief. It shows a person hunting a bird sitting on a tree with a Satnoli type weapon.

3. There are several 19th century temples in the twin village of Bankati-Ajodhya, Paschim Bardhaman. In one of the temples, there is a small terracotta plaque containing the bas-relief of a "Pakhmara" hunting a bird on a tree with a "Satnoli".

Nabaratna (9-pinnacled) Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum

Nabaratna (9-pinnacled) Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum

Nabaratna (9-pinnacled) Lakshmi Janardan temple; Ghurisha; Birbhum

Nabaratna (9-pinnacled) Lakshmi Janardan temple; Ghurisha; Birbhum

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Ghurisha; Birbhum

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Lakshmi Janardan temple; Ghurisha; Birbhum

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Shiva temple; Ajodhya, Paschim Bardhaman

Pakhmara or Bird Hunter; terracotta; Shiva temple; Ajodhya, Paschim Bardhaman

Discussion

The temple decoration of West Bengal is simply amazing. It contains so many things that any keen observer is bound to admire the artists who created such wonderful art with a wide reaching inner message. Even a seemingly unimportant event involving marginal people was beautifully depicted in important temples so that people coming to the temples can see these Pakhmaras engraved on the temple, thereby understanding their importance in the society.

Conclusion

This study is done on 28 temples only, so it is nothing but a Pilot Study at the best. Hopefully, other researchers will come forward and do extensive research on larger series.

Reference

1."Bird hunting tribe of Bengal - The Pakhmaras":; https://www.getbengal.com.
2. Different internet sites including Wikipedia.

* All photos are by the author.

Appendix

List of temples used in this study :

A. Date of construction : 1600 - 1699 AD :

1. Raghunath; Ghurisha, Birbhum - 1633 AD
2. Jorbangla Kestorai; Vishnupur, Bankura - 1655 AD
3. Raghabeshwar; Dignagar, Nadia - 1669 AD
4. Ananta Basudeva; Bansberia, Hooghly - 1679 AD
5. Radhavinod; Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum - 1683 AD
6. Radhakrishna; Ula-Birnagar, Nadia - 1694 AD
7. Madanmohan; Vishnupur, Bankura - 1695 AD

Total temples = 7

B. Date of construction : 1700 - 1799 AD :

1. Rajrajeshwar; Dwarhatta, Hooghly - 1728 AD
2. Gopinath; Dasghara, Hooghly - 1728 AD
3. Lakshi Janardan; Ghurisha, Birbhum - 1739 AD
4. Krishnachandraji; Kalna, Purva Bardhaman - 1752 AD
5. Gangeshwar; Baronagar, Murshidabad - 1753 AD
6. Charbangla; Baronagar, Murshidabad - 1760 AD
7. Dolmancha; Talchinan, Hooghly - 1792
8. Nabaratna Shiva temple; Panchthupi, Murshidabad - mid-18th century.
9. Ramchandra; Guptipara, Hooghly - Late 18th century

Total temples = 9

C. Date of construction : 1800 - 1899 AD :

1. Sridhar; Kotulpur, Bankura - 1833 AD
3. Lakshi Janardan; Debipur, Purva Bardhaman - 1836
3. Sridhar; Sonamukhi, Bankura - 1845 AD.
4. Shiva temple; Ajodhya, Paschim Bardhaman - 19th century
5. Banabishalkshi; Purushottampur, Hooghly - 19th century
6. Shiva temple; Baidyapur, Purva Bardhaman - 19th century
7. Shiva temples; Ganpur, Birbhum - 19th century
8. Jorbangla Kali; Itanda, Birbhum - 19th century
9. Shiva temples; Supur, Birbhum - 19th century
10. Shiva temples; Surul, Birbhum - 19th century
11. Shiva temples; Sribati, Purva Bardhaman - 19th century
12. Lakshmi Janardan; Surul, Birbhum - 19th century

13. Shiva temple, Bankati-Ajodhya, Paschim Bardhaman - 19th century

Total temples = 13

Grand total = 29 temples.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

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