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GENERAL CHARACTER OF MONUMENTS


The architectural history of ancient Bengal was splendorous. This has found ample expression in the contemporary foreign accounts. The description of some of the great monuments of the time by Fa-hien in the 5th and Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing and Sheng- Chi in the 7th century truly unfurls a period of architectural glory of which the posterity must feel proud. To take the instance of Pundravardhana (Mahasthan), in an enclosed city of about 7.5 km in circuit, Hiuen Tsang noticed 20 sangharamas (monasteries) and 100 Brahmanical temples, a fact just sufficient to narrate the architectural magnitude of the time. Near it according to him was the magnificent Po­ shi-po monastery (now generally identified with the Bhasu-Vihara) which had ‘spacious halls and tall storeyed chambers’. Hiuen Tsang also visited other Buddhist centers in Bengal including Lo-to-mo-chi-vihara near Karnasuvarna in Murshidabad, and those of Samatata where he counted more than 30 Buddhist monasteries with ‘above 2000 brethren of the Sthavira School’. It is gratifying that these descriptions also find corroborations in local writings such as that of Sandhyakar Nandi in the 11th century, and in contemporary inscriptions which often describe a temple as ‘ornament of the earth’, ‘high as mountain peaks’ or as ‘obstructing the very course of the sun with it’s lofty and imposing towers capped by golden kalasas’. But alas all these have now turned into legends: not a single monastery or a temple now exist in it’s entirety as it was seen or described in those days. The reasons for this state of things are not far to seek. Primarily the nature of the soil and the climate are responsible. Both these conditions encourage the rapid growth of jungle vegetation. Once a building ceases to be cared for, the creeping shrubs and trees speedily take charge, soon to break it to pieces so that before long there remains merely an unrecognizable mound of ruin. Secondly the non-durability of the major building materials– the brick and the wood, the spoliation of buildings when deserted after the Muslim conquest, the change of river courses, and the atrocities of the brick and treasure hunters account no less for this ruination. But in spite of this the archaeological excavations which started in the twenties of the last century and which are now being pursued unveiled a number of architectural remains including monasteries and temples which not only testify to the


existence of monuments of above descriptions at one time, but also inform us of many other details which are of fundamental importance in reconstructing the early history of Bengal. The Buddhist manuscript illustrations of the 11th century such as those of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, and the contemporary miniature sculptural representations of various stupas and temples found in various archaeological sites together with some ruinous extant examples also supplement these sources. In the absence of the existence of architectural monuments in their entirety, it is thus with the help of these materials that we shall have to proceed to delineate the early architectural history of Bengal.

Like all other countries the architecture of ancient Bengal may be divided into two categories: secular and religious. But the remains of secular monuments are so rare that it is almost impossible to form a clear idea about their plans and constructions. Still, however, we are fortunate that a few examples of secular structures are now identified, thanks to archaeological excavations, in the citadel of Mahasthan, in the Salban Vihara at Mainamati, in Savar and in the Chandraketugarh, Nalrajargarh and Bangarh citadels now in West-Bengal. The citadel at Mahasthan is particularly important in the sense that it not only leaves us the earliest known city remains of Bengal, but also represents to some extent the character of a military architecture of which we know very little. Mahasthangarh shows that the ancient cities in Bengal were not only enclosed by massive battering walls, but also were defended by strong bastions which were generally constructed on the sides of the gateways. It is likely that the gateway towers, which must have also been used as watchtowers, were provided with defensive devices such as arrow-slites. In the remains of the citadel of Gaur, erected subsequently by the Muslims, such devices are still noticed in heavy and high walls and in the flanking gateway bastions.

Within the citadel there must have been residences of the kings, supported by other auxiliary structures such as kitchen and dining halls which appear to have been an important adjunct of a palace. The general statement from ancient literature that kings dwelt in sumptuous palaces decorated with lovely wall Paintings and sculptures must also be true about the kingly residences in Bengal from where most probably were taken the multi-faceted pillars used extensively in the mediaeval Sultanate architecture. Similar statements about palaces are also available from the Sultanate building art which will be noticed while delineating the architecture of the time.

The religious monuments of ancient Bengal are generally classified as stupa, monastery and temple although at a later stage of Buddhism in the late 7th and early 8th centuries under the strong influences of mahayana and trantricism temples were constructed over the foundations of stupas to convert them into houses of worship. In the process of conversion it totally changed the basic character of the pivotal architectural form. What was originally a solid hemispherical stupa is now reduced to a cruciform shrine quite unprecedented and revolutionary. The shrine now includes within it halls, sanctums or ante- chambers in the extended long arms of the cross to


contain images, all now surrounded by a beautifully balustrated circumambulatory passage. In the out side the repeated re-entrant angles in rhythm and the sculptural decorations at the basement and upper cornices in terracotta forming a special new featurethe ultimate in external decoration make these buildings fabulous in beauty and splendour. In the final stages of development roughly between late 9th and 11th centuries covering the Chandra rule this cruciform plan was again reduced to an oblong plan probably with a mandapa in front and turned completely into a Hindu temple. This can be best witnessed by the example at Salban Vihara, the best preserved and most extensively excavated monument in Mainamati. The recognition of it’s Buddhistic affiliation is now solely represented by the symbolic stupa-top built above the evolved shrine. None of these ornamental tops has survived, but their existence is amply manifest in the innumerable miniature shrines, replicas and representations in contemporary paintings and carvings of large stone sculptures, and in the late Buddhist architecture of South-East Asia. The scenario although paradoxical must be understood from the historical background of the last phase of Buddhism in Bengal. While the educational functions of the monastic establishments appear to have progressed well, there are clear indications that Buddhism at the time was moving further and further away from it’s original pristine doctrine. Contemporary records, relics and remains leave no doubt about this growing Brahmanical influence and resurgence in almost every sphere of life. The tendency is naturally reflected in the Buddhist art, and certainly in the development of architecture.

Monasteries constitute the most important constituent element in Bengal architecture. But very little was known about this structural form before the excavations of the great monastic sites in the last century. The descriptions of the Buddhist pilgrims mentioned above although might have been looked upon as rhetoric are now after excavations a reality. The monasteries of Salban Vihara, Ananda Vihara, Bhoja Vihara, Rupban Vihara and Itakhola Vihara in Mainamati not to speak of others still remaining unexcavated in the site, the great Somapura Vihara in Paharpur and the Jagjibanpur Vihara in Maldah amply testify the validity of the statement of their time.

In general the plan of the monasteries is square or near square, and consists of an inner

courtyard surrounded by small monk-cells fronted by a verandah all round. In the middle of each wing, the verandah is provided with a shallow projection to serve as the base for a small flight of steps leading down to the paved courtyard, the arrangement from the entrance side being larger and more elaborate. Compared to these steps the arrangement in each corner of the monastery is a grand affair. Here occupying a pair of cells, a solidly built broad and massive staircase leads to the roof or an upper story. Such elaborate arrangements coupled with the evidence of a strong roof naturally suggest the existence of such a plan and feature. The central cell in each wing is generally larger with certain special features such as small pedestals, platforms and decorative wall mouldings and niches indicative of being used as subsidiary chapels or shrines. Each of all other cells were provided with corbelled niches



Salvan Vihara, terracotta plaques (from a ground

floor wall) Photo: MH Rashid (1956)

intended for keeping votive images, oil lamps, and reading and writing materials. Within the courtyard, and occasionally also outside, there were stupas and secular structures identified as kitchens and dining rooms. The crowning achievement of the monastic structure is, however, the cruciform shrine, originally probably built on a stupa, but later converted to temples with all it’s outward components and internal accessories. All the monasteries were entered through a lone gateway approached by a long flight of steps leading to a vestibule flanked by guard rooms. It is likely that the roof of the monasteries were all covered with pyramidal conical domes built on corbels, and the central gateway with a similar but more elaborate design and components. The erection of monasteries at one time seems to have been associated with the digging of large tanks, a feature carried even to modern times with the establishment of a religious building or a populated settlement.

Before we go to count and describe the known examples a few words may perhaps be said here about their ornamentation and the spirit of the time. The ornamentation consisted both of the structural and facial methods, the former comprising breaks in re-entrant angles in the design of the structure with encircling string mouldings, niches and superstructures over. The latter mostly in terracotta plaques, set around the plinth and under the cornices of monastic shrines was the more spectacular one and being of worldly and religious subject matters at once attractive, playful and thought provoking. The secular subjects played the dominant role and their themes were drawn from the everyday life of the people in various stages of activityemotion, movement and rest, as well as from nature’s flora and fauna. There were thus warriors portrayed in action with shield and dagger, acrobat balancing his uplifted body and attempting difficult feats, man playing on flute and riding on elephant etc. Amongst varieties of vegetation, depiction of lotus and lily are common. Of birds peacock, swan, duck, cock and parrots are frequently represented. The animal world is represented by lion, kirtimukha, elephant, antelope, buffalo, boar, dog, monkey and horse. Of the aquatic creatures we find frequent representations of fishes and makaramukhas, tortoise, mongoose and snakes. Among the religious subjects Buddha in various mudras, Buddhist divinities representing Padmapani, Vajrapani, and Trailokyavijoya are


image


common. In a plaque from Salban Vihara in Mainamati Siddhartha cutting off his hair is also portrayed. An interesting plaque from the same site depicts Chakravorti Mandhata (of Mandhata Jataka) as sitting and producing by way of his hand a shower of coins from the cloud. It is to be noted that whereas in the Papahpur plaques many Brahmanical deities are depicted, not a single plaque portraying a Brahmanical divinity has yet been discovered from Mainamati sites.

The spirit of the ancient and mediaeval art in India has often been described as religious and mystical, the artistic remains being interpreted as ‘expression of deep religious experience often as sermons in stone or otherwise on the oneness of all things in the universal spirit’. But in Bengal there appears to be a difference. While admitting that there are remains imbued with an intensity of religious feeling, the full and active profane life as represented in the terracottas decorating the architectural monuments makes the art both divine and human. The terracotta is the work of men with vocations, mostly secular craftsmen who though worked according to priestly instructions loved the world they knew with intensity usually to be seen in the everyday life. In this case the Bengal art is not so much a ceaseless quest for the Absolute but also a delight in the world as the artist found it perhaps ‘a feeling of growth and movement as regular and organic as the growth of living things upon earth’. A comparison with the contemporary European art will perhaps make the thing clearer. Mediaeval European art both architecture and sculpture is ‘vertical’ designed to lead the worshipper’s thought higher up away from the world of flesh to the things of the spirit. The tendency of Bengal art is diametrically opposite to this conception. They are not that tall, rather short and stocky, solidly based on earth. It is this idealism of architecture which is reflected on the character of Bengali people, spiritual and worldly alike, making them liberal and tolerant in the thousands of years of their history.



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