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Rhinoceros hunting in the decorations of temples of 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.

Rhinoceros from Jaldapara National Park, West Bengal

Rhinoceros from Jaldapara National Park, West Bengal

Introduction

Hunting is the practice of killing any living thing, usually wildlife, for various reasons like :-

i) Obtaining food for self or family;

ii) Trading of fur, horns, bone & meat;

iii) Saving fellow human beings (one example is the hunting of man-eater tigers).

iv) Conservation of the ecosystem;

v) Recreation or sports.

Accordingly, hunting has been categorized into 3 basic types :

  1. Subsistence hunting;
  2. Therapeutic hunting.
  3. Sport hunting.

(Ref : “Types of hunting - Tourism teacher”; https://tourismteacher.com)

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.

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

While pursuing the game animals, man has utilized many vehicles like chariots, carts etc. & many animals as mount, like horses & elephants.

Man has taken the help of many animals too for hunting; the most common & important among them is the dog. Different breeds of dogs, especially hounds, were & still are, used as an aid to the hunter to find, chase, and retrieve game, and sometimes to kill it.

Prehistoric rock painting showing hunters with spear, both on foot and on horseback; Bhimbethka, Madhya Pradesh, India

Prehistoric rock painting showing hunters with spear, both on foot and on horseback; Bhimbethka, Madhya Pradesh, India

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.

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.

Bison hunting in prehistoric rock paintings; Bhimbethka; Madhya Pradesh, India

Bison hunting in prehistoric rock paintings; Bhimbethka; Madhya Pradesh, India

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Lord Rama killing Maricha, the demon in the guise of a deer; Tales from the Ramayana; terracotta bas-relief; Charbagnla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Lord Rama killing Maricha, the demon in the guise of a deer; Tales from the Ramayana; terracotta bas-relief; Charbagnla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hunter on horseback; terracotta bas-relief; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, Hooghly

Hunter on horseback; terracotta bas-relief; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, Hooghly

Hunter on elephant; terracotta bas-relief; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, Birbhum

Hunter on elephant; terracotta bas-relief; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, Birbhum

European hunters with musket; terracotta bas-relief; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna, Purva Bardhaman

European hunters with musket; terracotta bas-relief; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna, Purva Bardhaman

Rhinoceros hunting in Bengal

This is a highly interesting topic, and requires elaboration.

Though at present wild rhinos are found only in the reserve forests of North Bengal (mainly Jaldapara and Gorumara forests) and they are of only one variety, viz. the single horned Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), even in the 19th century rhinos (both single horned Indian rhinoceros and double-horned Sumatran rhinoceros) were found in the southern parts of Bengal, especially in the Sundarbans area.

The "Dhali" community of southern Bengal got their name from their using "Dhal" (shield) made from the tough hide of rhinoceros. Dhalis were part of the soldiers of King Pratapaditya.

There are historical evidence that in 1868, a wild Rhinoceros was captured from Chittagang area (present day Bangladesh) and it was sold to the London Zoo.

In 1876, a wild rhinoceros was killed by firearms in Comilla (present day Bangladesh).

In the end of 1899 or early 1900 AD, a wild rhinoceros was killed by a hunter named Kalachand (ref : www.jagonews24.com).

It is said that the disappearance of rhinoceros from Sundarbans was due to widespread rhinoceros hunting.

A rhinoceros from Jaldapara National Park; West Bengal

A rhinoceros from Jaldapara National Park; West Bengal

A rhinoceros from Pabitora Wild Life Sanctuary, Morigaon, Assam

A rhinoceros from Pabitora Wild Life Sanctuary, Morigaon, Assam

Hunting in temple decoration in Bengal

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 and stone.

The game animals shown in these decorations are tiger (most frequently), deer (second-most common), rhinoceros and birds.

Rhinoceros hunting is depicted in temple decorations only rarely.

In a study of 28 temples from different districts of West Bengal, we get pictures of rhinoceros in 3 temples only - viz. Charbangla temple (1760 AD) and Gangeshwar temple (1753 AD), both from Baronagar, district Murshidabad and Radhashyam temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura (1758 AD).

We’ll discuss about these.

Bear hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Bear hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Tiger hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Tiger hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Derr hunting; terracotta; Nabaratna Shiva temple; Panchthupi, Murshidabad

Derr hunting; terracotta; Nabaratna Shiva temple; Panchthupi, 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 hunting scenes were segregated and analyzed.

Rhinoceros hunting in Bengal temple decorations

In the present series, we can see scenes of rhinoceros hunting and rhinoceros attacking men from three temples, two from Baronagar, district Murshidabad - Charbangla temple (1760 AD) and Gangeshwar temple (1753 AD)., and one (Radhashyam temple 1758 AD) of Vishnupuir, district Bankura.

The construction dates of these three temples are significant.

All these temples were constructed in mid-18th century, when rhinoceros were present not only in northern parts of Bengal, but also in the Sundarbans area of southern Bengal. So, it will not be wrong to presume that rhinoceros-hunting was practiced in Bengal in that era.

Weapons used in these scenes are muskets (in Charbangla and Gangeshwar temples) and bow & arrow (in Radhashyam temple).

 Charbangla temple (1760 AD); Baronagar, Murshidabad

Charbangla temple (1760 AD); Baronagar, Murshidabad

Gangeshwar temple (1753 AD); Baronagar, Murshidabad

Gangeshwar temple (1753 AD); Baronagar, Murshidabad

Radhashyam temple (1758 AD); Vishnupur, district Bankura

Radhashyam temple (1758 AD); Vishnupur, district Bankura

The pictures of rhinoceros hunting

  1. The picture from the Charbangla temple shows 5 hunters with muskets in crouching position behind a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros with its thick skin is depicted beautifully.
  2. In a terracotta panel from Gangeshwar temple the picture interestingly shows a rhinoceros, attacking a man. The man may or may not be a hunter, as the panel is partly broken and it is not clear what was in the hand of the man thus attacked by the beast.
  3. The picture from Radhashyam temple is of stucco on low relief of laterite stone, and it shows two hunters on horse back and a rhinoceros attacking a man, presumably another hunter who is fallen on the ground.
Rhinoceros hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Rhinoceros hunting; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

A rhinoceros attacking a man; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

A rhinoceros attacking a man; terracotta bas-relief; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Scdene of rhinoceros hunting; stucco on stone; Radhashyam temple, Vishnupur

Scdene of rhinoceros hunting; stucco on stone; Radhashyam temple, Vishnupur

Conclusion

Hunters and hunting scenes in temple decoration in Bengal is an interesting subject. Pictures of rhinoceros hunting in temple decorations is further interesting as it clearly proves the presence of rhinos and that the custom of rhinoceros hunting was in vogue in Bengal during that period.

The number of temples in the present series is small (29), so this study can be said a Pilot Study at the best. Hopefully, some researches will pursue this sort of studies with larger series.

References : Several internet sites (some are quoted in the text) including Wikipedia.

* All photographs are by the author.

Appendix

List of temples used in this study :

The temples with decorations of hunting and hunters are from the following era :

A. 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. 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

10. Radhashyam temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura - 1758 AD.

Total temples = 10

C. 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

Total temples = 12

Grand total = 29 temples.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

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