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 is an article on the influence of The 15th-century Indian saint Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu on the construction of temples in Bengal and his presence in the decorations of Bengal temples.
Yet, it will be unfair if we do not touch the life story of this great personality. So, we are first going to know a little about the life of this great saint, though very superficially, and then shall proceed to our topic.
Key words (vernaculars are in italics)
Shri Chaitanya, Mahaprabhu, saint, Hinduism, Bhakti Yoga, Devotion, reformer, Krishna, Sannyasin, ISKCON, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Hare Krishna Mahamantra, Sankirtan, Shadabhuja Gauranga.
Life of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
The 15th-century Indian saint Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (often spelt as "Caitanya Mahāprabhu") was one of the all-time great saints of Hinduism. It will be unfair to describe him just as a great saint, he was in true sense a great social and religious reformer who single handedly brought a lot of changes in contemporary social and religious structure and re-introduced the "Bhakti Yoga" or the devotion cult which swept the contemporary Bengal and large parts of India like a Tsunami.
He popularized "Krishna worship" but in a different way from the traditional Hinduism. His Krishna was not just an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, one of the three great Gods of Hinduism viz. Brahma The Creator, Vishnu The Sustainer and Maheshwar (or Shiva) the Destroyer, but the Supreme God-head, the Ultimate from which everything emanates and to which everything goes at the end. Shri Krishna of Shri Chaitanya is The Alpha as well as The Omega.
Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's mode of worshiping Krishna with ecstatic song and dance had a profound effect on Vaishnavism in Bengal and large parts of contemporary India. He was also the chief proponent of the Vedantic philosophy of "Achintya Bheda-Abheda Tattva". He founded "Gaudiya Vaishnavism", which is gaining strength day by day and spreading all over the world (especially by the ISKCON or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) till today.
He popularized the chanting of the "Hare Krishna" Maha-mantra ("Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama/ Rama Rama, Hare Hare"), the most effective mode of salvation in the present "Kali Yuga".
To his followers, Shri Chaitanya is considered as an avatar of the Supreme Lord Krishna, a theory which has support of various scriptures including the Bhagavata Purana (Canto 11, Chapter 5, Verse 32). He is also considered as the combined avatar of Radha and Krishna.
Born in Nabadwip or Mayapur (as per some authorities) in present-day West Bengal on the full-moon night of 18 February 1486, (as Vishvambhar Mishra) to Jagannath Mishra and Sachi Devi, Shri Chaitanya is sometimes called "Gauranga" or "Gaura" due to his molten gold–like complexion, and "Nimai" as he was born underneath a Neem tree (Azadirachta indica).
Nimai was a very naughty yet extremely gifted child, who excelled in his studies to become a scholar at a very tender age and came to be known as "Nimai Pandit". He was married at the age of 14/15 years as per the contemporary tradition to Lakshmi Devi, who unfortunately died due to snake bite. On ardent request of his mother, Nimai remarried Vishnupriya/Bishnupriya Devi.
Nimai started spreading Krishna devotion by ecstatic singing and dancing (called "Sankirtan" or "Kirtan") after a visit to Gaya, a famous pilgrimage site in Bihar. He started to break the social and religious barriers. To him everyone is a "Bhakta" (devotee) irrespective of religious belief, creed or cast. People , particularly belonging to the oppressed lower casts, flocked to him and joined his Sankirtans. This ired the upper cast Pundits and they tried their best to stop Shri Chaitanya, even by complaining against Nimai to the Muslim Rulers. But even the Muslim Rulers were impressed by Shri Chaitanya's teaching and he was allowed to preach his Bhakti Yoga.
His closest disciples were Shri Nityananda (often called "Nitai"), Adwaita Acharya, Shribasa Thakur and Gadadhar Pandit. These four along with Shri Chaitanya are known as "Pancha Tattva" in Gaudya Vaishnavism.
Nimai was initiated in the life of a Sannyasin (ascetic) at the age of 24 years by Guru Keshab Bharati who renamed him as "Shri Krishna Chaitanya Bharati", "Shri Chaitanya" in short. The suffix "Mahaprabhu" ("The Great Master") was added later by his followers.
Shri Chaitanya travelled all over India and ultimately settled in Puri, Odisha, the great pilgrimage place where the main temple of Lord Jagannath (a form of Lord Vishnu) is situated. His teachings attracted everyone including the King of Puri Maharaja Pratap Rudra who along with his ministers (specially Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya) became disciples of Shri Chaitanya.
What occurred next is shrouded in mystery. Shri Chaitanya simply disappeared one day. There are several theories regarding his disappearance, even a version with hints of conspiracy which tells that he was murdered inside the Jagannath temple.
Whatever might be the mode of the end of his mortal life, Shri Chaitanya is one who is really Immortal.
Shri Chaitanya's influence on the construction of Hindu temples in Bengal
If we look at the history of temple construction in Bengal, it will be very clear that temple construction in Bengal took place in two phases. The first of these phases stretched from the ancient Hindu periods to 12th-13th century CE.
Thereafter, a lull started because of the Muslim invasion and subsequent Muslim rule in Bengal region. Obviously, the Muslim rulers were not in favour of construction of Hindu temples. This lull phase went for about 300 years.
In the mean time, two events occurred. One, the all-powerful Time diluted the anti-Hindu feelings and attitude of the Muslim rulers who gradually were adopting the local life style and began considering themselves as a part of this land and its time-honoured culture. They gradually became less intolerant to Hinduism. This change in attitude of the Muslim rulers played a role in the revival of the tradition of temple construction in Bengal.
The other more powerful and influential factor was the emergence of Bhakti Movement of Shri Chaitanya Deva. Shri Chaitanya Deva, with his preaching of the Devotion Cult, broke the class and caste barriers prevailing in the contemporary Bengal society. His Bhakti movement attracted all sorts of people even crossing the religious barriers. Even the Muslim Rulers were impressed by Shri Chaitanya's teachings. This played a very definitive role in the revival of temple construction in Bengal and thus the second phase started from the middle of the 15th century CE and continued with great vigour up to the third quarter of the 20th century (Ref : "PASCHIMBANGLAR DHARMIYA STHAPATYA - MANDIR O MASJID" by Shri Tarapada Santra).
This discussion may straight forwardly lead to a conclusion that the decorations of temples in Bengal will show Shri Chaitanya and his life stories with elaborate details. But alas, this is not what we find in the decorations of temples in Bengal. Though there are plenty of pictures of Lord Krishna and His Leela (life stories) in the temple decorations, the presence of Shri Chaitanya, who is considered as the avatar of Lord Krishna/ Radha-Krishna or even the Supreme God Krishna Himself, is rare, except with the only possible exception of "SHADABHUJA GAURANGA" (6-armed Gauranga).
This indifference to Shri Chaitanya is largely inexplicable.
Objective of this study
The objective of this study is to find out the presence of Shri Chaitanya Deva in the decorations of Bengal temples.
Materials and methods
This is the result of an analysis of a field study of about 100 temples from different districts of present-day West Bengal. The author travelled to these temples and photographed those extensively. The photos are then analyzed to find out the presence of Shri Chaitanya Deva.
A list of the temples with the year of their construction is given in the appendix.
Bengal temple decorations
Decorations on the external and internal walls of temples is a great art. In Bengal, this has been extensively used. The purpose of this decorations is not only beautification, but a lot more. Temple decorations act like a social media or encyclopedia. At old times, there were no media, no newspaper and majority of the common men had no access to the books, especially the holy books or scriptures. Even the two great epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were out of the reach of the common men. Here the temple decorations stepped in and played a great role in teaching and preaching the masses.
For this reason we find not only the religious pictures , but depictions of stories from the epics, folk tales and above all, various social practices and events in the temple decorations.
Medium of temple decorations
The vast majority of the decorations in Bengal temples is in bas-relief work in terracotta tiles, but other media like stucco, stone, wood, and metal (especially in metal chariots associated with some temples) are also variously used.
The second medium other than the bas-relief work is pictures drawn on walls of temples - murals and frescos.
Presence of Shri Chaitanya in Bengal temple decorations
This is our main topic of discussion.
Our finding is given below :
In the present series of temples, we can see that the available pictures of Shri Chaitanya can be grouped into 4 groups as follows :
1. Pictures of Sankirtan.
2. Pictures of "Gaur-Nitai" (i.e. pictures of Shri Chaitanya with Nityananda, his chief associate).
3. Shadabhuja Gauranga (6-armed Gauranga).
However, not a single picture of the end of Shri Chaitanya is found in any of the temples of the present series.
One important point (specially for the un-initiated) is that in paintings and in colored stucco works in temple decoration, it is customary to show Shri Chaitanya Deva in yellow/orange dress and Shri Nityananda in blue dress.
Pictures of Sankirtan
This is depicted in several temples. The main feature of this scene is Shri Chaitanya al dancing with uplifted arms along with his followers.
In some of these scenes, we can see that Shri Chaitanya is lying on the ground unconscious by the tremendous mental surge of devotional ecstasy.
1. Pictures of Sankirtan where Shri Chaitanya is seen dancing with his followers can be seen in Ratneshwar temple, Bhattabati, Murshidabad district; Shiva temple of Dubrajpur, district Birbhum; Shiva temple of Supur, district Birbhum; Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura; Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly district; Sridhar temple of Kotulpur, district Bankura; Lakshmi Narayana temple of Ghurisha, district Birbhum and Lakshmi Narayana temple of Ilambazar, district Birbhum.
2. Pictures of Sankirtan where Shri Chaitanya is seen lying unconscious in ecstasy can be seen in Narayana temple of Jaipur, district Bankura and Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur, also of district Bankura.
Pictures of "Gaur-Nitai"
In the stricter sense, this is actually an extension of the Sankirtan scene, but as devotees believe till today that Shri Chaitanya and Nityananda were the avatars of Lord Krishna and Lord Balarama respectively, so their presence together has some special importance.
This can be seen in Ratneshwar temple, Bhattabati, Murshidabad district, Vrindavan Chandra temple, Gobrahati, Murshidabad district (terracotta); Ekteshwar temple, Bankura (stucco); Radhagovinda temple of Jagadanandapur, Purva Bardhaman district and Nrisinghadeva temple, Gokarna, district Murshidabad (fresco/mural).
This is a special subject and require detailed discussion, which I'll do it in a separate article. Here I'm writing on this fascinating subject in brief.
The concept of 6-armed Garuanga came from the belief that Gauranga (other name of Shri Chaitanya) was a combination of 3 Avatars - Shri Rama, Shri Krishna and Shri Chaitanya himself.
In iconography and temple decorations this is depicted as Shri Chaitanya having 6 arms - the two upper arms holding bow and arrow are of Lord Rama; the middle two hands holding the Banshi (flute) are of Lord Krishna and the two lower arms holding the Danda (stick) and the Kamandalu (water pot) are of Shri Chaitanya himself. Incidentally, the Danda and Kamandalu two the signs of a Sannyasin (ascetic).
There are profound significances of this form of Shri Chaitanya, which will be discussed in another article.
It is believed that Shri Chaitanya showed his 6-armed form to 3 persons : Nityananda, Sarbabhauma Bhattacharya and the King of Puri Maharaja Prataprudra.
In temple decorations of Bengal this Shadabhuja Gauranga motif is depicted profusely - mostly in terracotta, but also in stucco, stone work and in fresco/murals.
1. Shadabhuja Gauranga in terracotta : This can be seen in Shiva temple of Ukhra, Paschim Bardhaman district; Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly district; Shiva temple of Dubrajpur, district Birbhum; Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura; Dakshina Kali temple of Malancha Sahachak, Paschim Medinipur district; Pancharatna Shiva temple, Itanda, district Birbhum; Madanmohan temple, Vishnupur, district Bankura; Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum; Narayan temple of Jaipur, district Bankura; Shiva temple, Sribati, district Purva bardhaman and Ratneshwar temple , Bhattabati, district Murshidabad.
2. Stucco : Shadabhuja Gauranga in stucco can be seen in Ekteshwar temple, district Bankura.
3. Stone : Shadabhuja Gauranga in stone work can be seen in a Shiva temple, Ganpur, district Birbhum.
4. Fresco/mural : Shadabhuja Gauranga in fresco/mural can be seen in Kaleshwar Shiva temple, Kaleshwar, district Birbhum.
In mural/fresco, the upper two arms are shown in Green color (complexion of Lord Rama was Green), the middle two arms in Blue (complexion of Lord Krishna was Dark Blue or Black) and the two lower arms in yellow color (the complexion of Shri Chaitanya was like molten gold).
1. In Radha Govinda temple of Jagadanandapur, Purva Bardhaman district we can see a scene of a procession in which Shri Chaitanya is dancing with his followers, and in the background we can see Lord Jagannath. Is it a scene of Puri?
2. In Adwaita Paat temple in Babla, Shantipur, district Nadia, we can see a picture of "Pancha Tattva" (Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with Nityananda, Adwaita Acharya, Shribasa Thakur and Gadadhar Pandit).
3. In Radha Shyamsundar temple of Khardaha, North 24-Parganas, there are high relief figures of Shri Chaitanya in stucco.
The presence of Shri Chaitanya in Bengal temple decorations is a fascinating subject to say the least. The small number of temples (around 100) in the present series makes this article a pilot study at the most. Hopefully, some researchers will come forward with larger series in future, so that we may know some more facts about this subject.
1."PASCHIMBANGLAR DHARMIYA STHAPATYA - MANDIR O MASJID" by Shri Tarapada Santra.
2. many internet sites including Wikipedia, "Back to Godhead" etc.
Photos : All photos are by the author.
Appendix : List of temples
Temple -- Town/Village -- District -- Year of construction
1. Ananta Vasudev - Bansberia - Hooghly - 1679 AD
2. Bankati-Ajodhya temples - Bankati-Ajodhya - Paschim Bardhaman - 18th-19th Century CE.
3. Bhavaniswar - Baronagar - Murshidabad - 1755 AD
4. Bhairabnath deul - Ilambazar - Birbhum - 1846 AD
5. Brindavanchandra - Guptipara - Hooghly - 1810 AD
6. Charbangla - Baronagar - Murshidabad - 1760 AD
7. Chaitanyadev - Guptipara - Hooghly - 16th century
8. Dewanji temple - Hetampur - Birbhum - 19th century
9. Dubrajpur temples - Dubrajpur - Birbhum - 19th century
10. Durga temple - Bali-Dewangunj - Hooghly - 19th century
11. Ganpur Shiva - Ganpur Birbhum - 18-19th century
12. Girigovardhan - Ajodhya - Bankura - 18th Century
13. Girigovardhan - Sonamukhi - Bankura - 19th Century
14. Girigovardhan - Rajgram - Bankura - 19th Century
15. Girigovardhan - Kalna - Bardhaman (E) - 19th century (?)
16. Gopalji - Kalna - Bardhaman (E) - 1766 AD
17. Gopaleshwar - Bankati - Bardhaman (E) - 1832 AD
18. Gangeswar - Baronagar - Murshidabad - 1753 AD
19. Gokulchand - Gokulnagar - Bankura - 17th century
20. Gopinath - Dasghara - Hooghly - 1729 AD
21. Hanseswari - Bansberia - Hooghly - 1799-1814 AD
22. Hadal-Narayanpur different - Hadal-Narayanpur - Bankura - 19th century
23. Jorbangla Kestorai - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1655 AD
24. Joypur temples - Joypur - Bankura - 19th century
25. Jora Deul - Baidyapur - Barddhaman (E) - 1560 AD
26. Kali (Harkata) Jorbangla - Itanda - Birbhum - 19th century
27. Kali (Dakshina) - Malancha Sahachak - Paschim Medinipur - 1712 AD
28. Krishnachandraji - Kalna - Barddhaman (E) - 1752 AD
29. Krishnachandra - Guptipara - Hooghly - 1745 AD
30. Lakshmi-Janardan - Ghurisa - Birbhum - 1739 AD
31. Lakshmi-Janardan - Surul - Birbhum - 19th century
32. Lakshmi-Janardan - Ilambazar - Birbhum - 1846 AD
33. Lakshmi-Janardan - Debipur - Barddhaman (E) - 1836 AD
34. Lalji - Kalna - Barddhaman (E) 1739 AD
35. Lalji - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1658 AD
36. Madanmohan - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1695 AD
37. Mahaprabhu - Ilambazar - Birbhum - 19th century
38. Malleswar Temple complex - Mallarpur - Birbhum - 1192 AD (renovated later on)
39. Moukhira temples - Moukhira-Kalikapur - Purva Bardhaman - 19th century
40. Nanur temples - Nanur - Birbhum - 17-18th century
41. Nandadulaljiu - Gurap - Hooghly - 1759 AD
42. Pratapeswar - Kalna - Barddhaman (E) - 1849 AD
43. Radha Vinod - Joydev-Kenduli - Birbhum - 1683 AD
44. Raghunath Shiva - Ghurisa - Birbhum - 1633 AD
45. Rajrajeswar - Dwarhatta - Hooghly - 1728 AD
46. Rajbalhat Shiva - Rajbalhat - Hooghly - 18th century
47. Ramchandra - Guptipara - Hooghly - Late 18th century
48. Rameswar - Ilambazar - Birbhum - Early 19th century
49. Rasmancha - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1600 AD
50. Rasmancha 18-chura - Hadal Narayanpur - Bankura - 1854 AD
51. Radha-Damodar (Baro) - Hadal Narayanpur - Bankura - 1806 AD
52. Radhagovinda - Jagadanandapur - Barddhaman (E) - 1839 AD
53. Radhashyam - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1758 AD
54. Raghabeswar - Dignagar - Nadia - 1669 AD
55. Rameshwar - Ilambazar - Birbhum - 19th Century
56. Ratneswar - Bhattabati - Murshidabad - Early 18th century
57. Shyamrai - Vishnupur - Bankura - 1643 AD
58. Shiva Pancharatna - Itanda - Birbhum - 1828 AD
59. Shiva Rekhdeul - Itanda - Birbhum - 1815 AD.
60. Shiva (Jora Deul) - Supur - Birbhum - 19th century
61. Shiva Sribati - Sribati - Barddhaman (E) - 19th century
62. Shiva Surul - Surul - Birbhum - 19th century
63. Chandranath - Sribati - Barddhaman (E) - 1802 AD
64. Sridhar - Sonamukhi - Bankura - 1845 AD
65. Sridhar - Kotulpur - Bankura - 1833 AD
66. Uchkaran Shiva - Uchkaran - Birbhum - 1769 AD
67. Ula-Birnagar Radhakrishna temple - Nadia - 1694 AD
68. Adwaita paat - Babla, Shantipur - Nadia - ?500 years old
69. Radha Shyamsundar temple - Khardah - North 24-Parganas - ?500 years old
70. Vrindavan Chandra temple - Gobrahati - Murshidabad - 1694 AD
71. Kalleshwar temple - Kalleshwar - Birbhum - ?500 years old
(renovated in 17th century)
72. Nrisinghdeva temple - Gokarna - Murshidabad - 1580 AD
73. Shiva temple; Birbhanpur, Paschim Bardhaman.
* In this list there are some temple-complexes with more than one temples, but counted as 1.
© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee