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Tiger Hunting in the 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.

Tiger hunting on hoirse; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Tiger hunting on hoirse; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

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 (one example is the killing of foreign species of predator animals to protect the local ones);
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. Next we see the early humans engaged in hunting - many prehistoric rock paintings show men hunting animals.

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

Now, in general animals are faster than man. So, while pursuing the game animals, man has utilized many vehicles like chariots, carts etc. & many animals as mount, like horses & elephants and also has taken the help of many fast animals 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 hunters to find, chase, and retrieve games, and sometimes to kill.

Pre-historic rock painting showing men with spears; some the men are on horseback. Bhimbethka, Madhya Pradesh, India

Pre-historic rock painting showing men with spears; some the men are on horseback. Bhimbethka, Madhya Pradesh, India

Bison hunting by pre-historic men; Rock painting, Bhimbethka, Madhya pradesh.

Bison hunting by pre-historic men; Rock painting, Bhimbethka, Madhya pradesh.

Two European hunters on horse back accompanied by a dog; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly

Two European hunters on horse back accompanied by a dog; terracotta; Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly

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.

Lord Rama killing the demon Maricha  in the guise of a golden deer. Terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad.

Lord Rama killing the demon Maricha in the guise of a golden deer. Terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad.

A royal hunter on horse back hunting lion; terracotta, Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly

A royal hunter on horse back hunting lion; terracotta, Gopinath temple; Dasghara, district Hooghly

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.
(Reference : “Hunting festivals of West Bengal - an untold story of wildlife massacres”; https://www.conservationindia.org).

Tiger hunting in India

Tiger is a big game animal, and it was (and still is) hunted for prestige and trophy, though rarely man-eater tigers were/are hunted as Therapeutic hunting.

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The Royal Bengal (or simply the Bengal) tiger constitutes about 80% of tiger population and it is found mostly in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar.

Historically, tigers were hunted since ancient times by the royals as well as the common hunters (the Shikari). Lord Shiva is depicted to use tiger skin as his cloth. Tiger skins were used as the seat-cushion of important holy men.
Keeping a stuffed tiger or tiger head in the drawing room was a sign of aristocracy and valor.

The tradition of tiger hunting continued in the colonial period. European hunters were very fond of tiger hunting, and the Indian princes and Maharajahs followed their footsteps more enthusiastically than ever.
Tigers were hunted on foot, on horseback, on elephant-back and from "Machan"-s (a raised platform made of wood and bamboo). This caused a sharp decline in the tiger population of India.

Much later, people understood the perils of this sort of senseless tiger hunting and early thoughts of Tiger Conservation started. Government stepped in and banned tiger hunting except for dire therapeutic need. Now conservation work is trying its best to restore the tiger population in India.

There are many tiger reserves in India now like the Sundarbans, Ranthambhor, Bandhabgarh, Kanha, Bandipur, Jim Corbett National Park, Sariska, Dampa, Melghat, Tadoba, Bor, Mundanthurai, Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam, Nagarhole, Palamau,Panna, Satpura etc.

It should be mentioned here that in the Sundarbans area of Bengal, tigers are considered as the manifestation of the local god "Dakshin Ray" and the goddess "Banabibi" who rides a tiger is considered as the protector of men, especially those who enter the forest to collect wood or honey.
Interestingly, "Banabibi" is respected by both the local Hindu and Muslim communities (Hindus as a goddess and Muslims as a "Pirani" or holy woman).

The Royal Bengal Tiger; Sipahijala, Tripura

The Royal Bengal Tiger; Sipahijala, Tripura

Euroopean hunters with musket; terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Euroopean hunters with musket; terracotta; Gopinath temple, Dasghara, district Hooghly.

Hunting tiger on hordseback; terracotta; Radhakrishna temple; Ula-Birnagar, district Nadia

Hunting tiger on hordseback; terracotta; Radhakrishna temple; Ula-Birnagar, district Nadia

Tiger hunting on elephant back; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Tiger hunting on elephant back; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Hunting tigers from the top of trees; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Hunting tigers from the top of trees; terracotta; Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Decorations of Bengal temples

Before entering into the subject of the presence of tiger hunting in temple decorations in Bengal, a little discussion is necessary regarding temple decorations in Bengal as a whole.

From the very early periods, temples in Bengal are being decorated on the external as well as the inner walls. The medium of these decorations are usually bas-relief works in terracotta, stone and stucco; wood carvings; paintings and in a few cases metal works.
The vast majority of these decorations are in terracotta plaques, and hence to the common people, temple decorations has become synonymous with terracotta works.

These decorations display a multitude of subjects, starting from gods and goddesses, scenes from the two epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, holy texts like Puranas including Dashavatara (the ten Avatars of Lord Vishnu) and Krishna Leela (life stories of Lord Krishna), social events etc. on one hand and vegetative and geometric designs on the other.

11th century Sun Temple of Sonatapal village, district Bankura with its cut-brick terracotta decorations.

11th century Sun Temple of Sonatapal village, district Bankura with its cut-brick terracotta decorations.

Shyamrai temple of Vishnupur with its terracotta plaque bas-relief decoration

Shyamrai temple of Vishnupur with its terracotta plaque bas-relief decoration

Shiva-Durga on Nandi the Bull; terracotta bas-relief; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, district Birbhum

Shiva-Durga on Nandi the Bull; terracotta bas-relief; Raghunath Shiva temple; Ghurisha, district Birbhum

Scenes from the battle of Ramayana; terracotta bas-relief; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; district Birbhum

Scenes from the battle of Ramayana; terracotta bas-relief; Radhavinod temple; Joydev-Kenduli; district Birbhum

Arjuna taking his aim at the suspended fish; scene from Mahabharata; terracotta; Narayana temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura

Arjuna taking his aim at the suspended fish; scene from Mahabharata; terracotta; Narayana temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura

Matsyavatar; Lord Vishnu in his Fish Avatar; stucco work; Bhavanishwar temple; Baronagar; district Murshidabad

Matsyavatar; Lord Vishnu in his Fish Avatar; stucco work; Bhavanishwar temple; Baronagar; district Murshidabad

Hunting scene in stone; Shiva temple; Ganpur; district Birbhum

Hunting scene in stone; Shiva temple; Ganpur; district Birbhum

Baby Krishna in Krishna Leela; painting; Shiva temple; Birbhanpur; district Paschim Bardhaman.

Baby Krishna in Krishna Leela; painting; Shiva temple; Birbhanpur; district Paschim Bardhaman.

decoration in brass engraving; Brass Chariot; Ajodhya village, district Bankura

decoration in brass engraving; Brass Chariot; Ajodhya village, district Bankura

Soicial scenes in temple decoration - two ladies with pitcher; terracotta; Lakshmi Janrdan temple; Ghurisha, district Birbhum

Soicial scenes in temple decoration - two ladies with pitcher; terracotta; Lakshmi Janrdan temple; Ghurisha, district Birbhum

Floral and geometric design; Shiva temple; Sribati village; Purva Bardhaman

Floral and geometric design; Shiva temple; Sribati village; Purva Bardhaman

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.

Lion hunting; terracotta; Ramchandra temple; Guptipara, district Hooghly

Lion hunting; terracotta; Ramchandra temple; Guptipara, district Hooghly

Rhinoceros hunting; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Rhinoceros hunting; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Deer hunting; terracotta; Madanmohan temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Deer hunting; terracotta; Madanmohan temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Tiger hunting scenes in Bengal temple decorations

The present study is made from 31 temples from different districts of West Bengal, the names of which are given in the Appendix.

Many temples have tiger hunting scenes in their wall-decorations. In these scenes, tigers are seen being hunted by hunters on horseback mostly, but hunters on foot (in Krishnachandraji temple of Kalna and Radha Shyam temple of Vishnupur) and on elephant-back (in Gangeshwar temple of Baronagar and Advaita Prabhu temple from Shantipur, district Nadia) are also depicted.
Some of the temples with tiger hunting scenes with hunters on horseback are Rajrajeshwar temple of Dwarhatta, Raghunath Shiva temple of Ghurisha, Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, Radha krishna temple of Ula-Birnagar, Charbangla temple of Baronagar, Ananta basudeva temple of Bansberia, Shiva temple of Baidyapur, Ramchandra temple of Guptipara, Shiva temple of Ganpur and Shiva temple of Bankati-Ajodhya.

Interestingly, among these temples, all but three have terracotta work. The two exceptions are :
i)Shiva temple of Ganpur, district Birbhum which has bas-relief work in stone;
ii)Shiva temple of Bankati-Ajodhya, district Paschim Bardhaman which has two tiger hunting scenes in wood engraving.

iii) Radhashyam temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura which has a bas-relief of stucco on stone.

Tiger hunters

This is an interesting subject. Though in majority of tiger hunting scenes show Indian hunters (Shikari) as evident by their dresses and head-gears, the tiger hunting scene from Krishnachandraji temple of Kalna shows European hunters (as evident by their dresses and hats).

Carrying the dead tiger

This is beautifully depicted in terracotta bas-relief in the Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura.

Tiger hunting in wood carving; Shiva temple; Bankati-Ajodhya; district Paschim Bardhaman

Tiger hunting in wood carving; Shiva temple; Bankati-Ajodhya; district Paschim Bardhaman

Tiger hunting on foot; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Tiger hunting on foot; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, district Murshidabad

Tiger hunting on horseback; tderracotta; Radhakrishna temple; Ula-Birnagar; district Nadia

Tiger hunting on horseback; tderracotta; Radhakrishna temple; Ula-Birnagar; district Nadia

Tiger hunting on elephant; terracotta; Advaita Prabhu temple; Shantipur, district Nadia

Tiger hunting on elephant; terracotta; Advaita Prabhu temple; Shantipur, district Nadia

Tiger hunting by European hunters carrying muskets; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna; district Purva Bardhaman

Tiger hunting by European hunters carrying muskets; Krishnachandraji temple; Kalna; district Purva Bardhaman

Tiger hunting on elephant; terracotta; Ananta Basudeva temple; Bansberia; district Hooghly

Tiger hunting on elephant; terracotta; Ananta Basudeva temple; Bansberia; district Hooghly

Tiger hunting on horseback; terracotta; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, district Hooghly

Tiger hunting on horseback; terracotta; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, district Hooghly

Tigder hunting on foot; stucco on stone; Radha Shyam temple, Vishnupur

Tigder hunting on foot; stucco on stone; Radha Shyam temple, Vishnupur

Dangers of tiger hunting - a hunter being attacked by a tiger; terracotta; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, district Hooghly

Dangers of tiger hunting - a hunter being attacked by a tiger; terracotta; Rajrajeshwar temple; Dwarhatta, district Hooghly

Carrying the dead tiger after hunting; terracotta; Jor Bangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Carrying the dead tiger after hunting; terracotta; Jor Bangla temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura

Conclusion

Tiger hunting scenes in temple decoration in Bengal is an interesting subject. The number of temples in the present series is small (31), 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. Before 1600 AD :

1. Sun Temple, Sonatapal, Bankura district - 11th century AD.

B. 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

C. 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. Radha Shyam temple; Vishnupur, district Bankura - 1758 AD
7. Charbangla; Baronagar, Murshidabad - 1760 AD
8. Dolmancha; Talchinan, Hooghly - 1792
9. Nabaratna Shiva temple; Panchthupi, Murshidabad - mid-18th century.
10. Ramchandra; Guptipara, Hooghly - Late 18th century

Total temples = 10

D. 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

E. Extra :

1. Advaita Prabhu temple, Madhyam Goswami Bari, Shantipur; district Nadia - 250 years old

Grand total = 31 temples.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

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