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.
From the very early periods, temples in Bengal are being decorated on the external as well as the inner walls.
These decorations include 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.
In the present article, we'll discuss about a particular subject - presence of the pictures of workers of different professions in the decorations of temples of West Bengal.
Materials and methods
The present study is from 40 temples situated in different districts of West Bengal (a list of these temples are given in the Appendix) visited and photographed by the author.
The photographs are analyzed and grouped into several relevant groups, and the salient points discussed.
Medium of temple decorations
The medium of these decorations are usually bas-relief works in terracotta, stone and stucco; wood carvings; paintings and a 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.
Workers and their different professions
These constitute a long list as follows (This is just an alphabetical list, and in no way represent the volume of the pictures of a particular group or other) :
5. Cart drivers - horse drawn carts and chariots, bullock carts,
7. Door-keeper (Dwarpala)
10. Flag bearer
11. Guards - including two highly interesting picture of Brahmin guards wearing the sacred thread.
13. Hunters - tiger hunters, deer hunters, bear hunters, lion hunters and bird hunters (both Indian as well as European).
14. Keepers of different domestic animals like the cattle (cowherds), horse, elephant and even camels.
15. Musicians - including Vocalists, Violin players, Drum players (Dhak, Dhol, Khol etc), Veena player, Tabla player, bugle players etc.
16. Navy or naval soldiers (or pirates, as opined by some).
17. Palanquin bearers
19. Soldiers - both Indian as well as European.
Of these 19 groups, the most volume of pictures goes to dancers and musicians, hunters and soldiers in that order.
Besides these, there are some not so common findings which are grouped under "Miscellaneous" :
This group presents some unique professionals like a female "Hookah-Bardar" (carrier of Hookah), "Shiuli" (persons who climb date palm trees to cut the tree-trunk to collect the tree-sap), milkman, snake charmer, lady vendors or merchandise sellers who carry their goods in a basket on their heads, persons who use a wooden instrument called "Dhenki" in Bengali to de-husk paddy, weavers who spun an instrument called "Charka", wrestlers, attendants to rich persons etc.
Now, we'll discuss these groups one by one.
That acrobats constituted a number of loosely threaded professions in 18-19th century Bengal is clearly evident from their presence in the decorations of many temples of West Bengal.
Some of the examples are can be seen in temples from Bankati, district Paschim Bardhaman; Raghabeshwar temple of Dignagar, district Nadia and Ganpur, district Birbhum.
Interestingly, this type of acrobats can still be seen today, especially in fairs and in rural areas of Bengal.
Blacksmiths ("Kamar" in Bengali) were, and still are, an inseparable part of our society. They can be seen in every village, town and even big cities.
In Pratapeshwar temple of Kalna, Purva Bardhaman district a blacksmith is depicted in a terracotta plaque.
We have several types of boats in this part of the country, starting from small single-man canoe to big boats which transport heavy goods as well as passengers. In yesteryears, boats were the major mode of travelling, business and military use, either for attack or defend. Consequently, boatmen of several classes appeared in the seen.
In temple decorations, boatmen are shown basically in two situations - 1) part of epics and religious texts like Krishna Leela; and 2) social events.
The examples of the former are a) Guhak Chandal taking Lord Rama, Mother Sita and Lakshmana across a river in his boat (Gangeshwar temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad) and b) Noukabilas (Joyride in a boat) scenes from Krishna Leela (examples galore, some of them are Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura; Narayan temple of Jaipur, district Bankura; Ananta basudev temple of Bansberia, district Hooghly; Shiva temple of Ganpur, district Birbhum etc.).
Boats and boatmen in social events are depicted in many temples like Shiva temple of Sribati, district Purva Bardhaman; Gopaleshwar temple of Bankati village, district Paschim Bardhaman; Rajrajeshwar temple of Dwarhatta, district Hooghly etc.
Like the blacksmith, carpenters are also a vital part of our social system. However, their depiction in temple decorations are rare. One such example can be seemn in a Shiva temple of Ganpur, district Birbhum.
Interestingly, this picture is a low-relief work done in a type of stone known as "Giripathar" or "Fulpathar".
There are two types of wheeled vehicles - a) Chariots and b) Carts. They are differentiated by the type of wheels, more specifically, whether wheels are spoked or not. If the wheels are spoked, the vehicle is called a Chariot, if not, a Cart.
Both these types of vehicles with their drivers are depicted in the temple decorations, but it seems that the temple artists did not know or avoided this classification based on spokes of wheels. For this reason we see on the one hand chariots of the heroes of the epics with solid spoke-less wheels (example is the chariots of Rama and Ravana , and those of Arjuna and Karna in various temples), and the vehicles of common men with spoked wheels.
Carts/chariots of common men can be horse-driven or bullock-driven, and we can see both types in temple decorations.
Examples of horse-driven vehicles can be seen in Gopaleshwar temple of Bankati village, district Paschim Bardhaman and bullock-carts are present in Madanmohan temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura and Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly.
Dance is a part of life, not only of humans, but to birds and animals too. In the human history, the pre-historic men danced as rituals, specially before hunting, and presumably also to express joy.
The history of dance is a very long and interesting one which is beyond the scope of this article. It only suffices to say that the two main streams of dance flowed along the religious and entertainment channels.
In the temple decorations of West Bengal, we thus see religious dances as well as dances for entertainment, which we shall call Social dances for convenience.
Examples of religious dances include "Nagar Sankirtan" introduced by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu; "Ras-leela" dances of Krishna Leela; "Tandava" dance performed by Lord Krishna on the hood of Kaliya Naga the Serpent etc.
Examples of Social dances include dances performed before kings, landlords and the Rich; classical and folk dances and dances by the "Badia", a nomadic tribe who travels from places to places and earn their livelihood by dancing among other petty jobs.
Though "Dwarpala"-s are basically guards, they are mentioned here separately as because in temple decorations they are specifically placed on either side of the main entrances of the shrine.
In our present series we get two beautiful examples of "Dwarpala"-s, one from a Shiva temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly where we can see two big high-relief terracotta statues of two guards on either side of the main entrance, and the other, a stucco figure, from a dilapidated temple of Bali-Dewangunj village, district Hooghly.
It was a custom in the past in the pre-electric supply era to post one or sometimes two person/s on one or both sides of the throne or chair on which the king or landlord sat. Their duty was to fan the dignitary.
In the present series we get some pictures of these fan-bearers. Examples include in the Ramraja panel (which shows Lord Rama on throne) from Pratapeshwar temple of Kalna, district Purva Bardhaman, a man with a fan (from Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly); and a woman fan bearer in front of a rich lady (from Lakshmi Janardan temple of Ghurisha, district Birbhum).
Our country is basically an agricultural land, so farmers are an inseparable part our lives, so logically we'd like to see a large number of pictures depicting the farmers. But in the reality, farmers are very poorly represented in temple decorations. May be the rich and aristocrat patrons who financed the temple construction did not consider it is important and "fashionable" to picturize farmers on the temple-walls.
In the present series, we find only one picture of a farmer with a plough on his shoulder from a Shiva temple of Ganpur, district Birbhum. He is looking towards the sky, as if to see whether there is any sign of rain-bearing clouds.
Flag bearers were, and still are, a common sight in front of processions. In temple decorations there are many scenes with flag bearers.
Two examples from the present series are from Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad and Rajrajeshwar temple of Dwarhatta, district Hooghly
Armed guards are sometimes difficult to differentiate from soldiers in temple decorations. So empirically isolated armed persons are labelled here as guards.
There are many pictures of such armed persons in our temples , two of these stand out from the others. One of these is a picture of two armed female-guards (from Shiva temple of Bankati-Ajodhya, district Paschim Bardhaman) and the other (actually two pictures from Shiva temple of Sribati village, district Purva Bardhaman) is highly interesting, to say the least. In it an armed guard is depicted as usual, but the man is wearing the "Janeu" or the sacred thread, the unmistakable sign of the Brahmins.
Now, in Bengal in the past the guards were almost always from the so called lower communities like "Bagdi", "Dom", "Bauri" etc. who were famous for their marshal skills. But the Brahmin community, at the top of the social ladder, were usually scholarly and did not join the armed professions, though there were many exceptions. So, the depiction of an armed guard with the sacred thread is no doubt highly significant.
House maids are no doubt inseparable from our daily lives, and it is not unusual to find them in temple decorations. However, there is a point of caution. The ladied thus depicted to perform household chores may not be maids at all, but the ladies of the house themselves.
But for the sake of description, we've taken the liberty to brand them as house maids.
Examples are from Ananta Basudeva temple of Bansberia, district Hooghly and Radha Vinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli, district Birbhum. In both these pictures, the lady is seen to carry a broom, used to sweep the household.
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 or wood.