Sacred storeys open to congregational devotion

Temple to Love
November 25, 2005

This book examines the brick temple architecture of the town of Vishnupur in Bankura District, southwest Bengal. During the reign of the Malla kings of the 17th-18th centuries, scores of temples, most dedicated to Krishna, were constructed here and lavishly embellished with panels of terracotta decoration. The last substantial study of this material was in 1983. The intervening years have brought many changes to our understanding of post-medieval India.

Probably the greatest change lies in our increased understanding of the devotional movement dedicated to the adoration of Krishna, which stems from the Bengali saint Chaitanya (1486-1533). The history of this Gaudiya Vaisnava movement - its theology, texts, liturgy and the historical anthropology of its dispersal - have been the subject of much study. Ghosh draws on that study to telling effect.

The book is divided into four chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. The introduction presents topics discussed in the main body of the book, as well as discussing the originality of the Ratna type of temple developed at Vishnupur. This is a double-storeyed structure with a lower square shrine constructed on two axes and an upper, central pavilion, sometimes with additional smaller pavilions.

The first chapter examines the upper storey of the Vishnupur temples. The author suggests they were the location for ritual activity, reenactments of the tender encounters of Radha and Krishna, using portable metal images from the main shrine brought to the upper storey via internal staircases.

This upper-level activity could thus be seen by devotees in the courtyard below and is in line with the congregational character of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, so different from the older, brahminical intercessionary worship.

In the second chapter Ghosh makes a convincing argument for the development of the lower storey from the immediately previous style of mosque architecture, of the sultans of Bengal. She points to the common legacy both have in local domestic architecture in bamboo, clay and thatch, as well as the lure that courtly Indo-Islamic architecture had for the Mallas as the successors of the more powerful Sultanate rulers of Bengal. Further, both mosques and Vaisnava temples share a common congregational, democratic character, unlike earlier temples.

Indo-Muslim culture as it had syncretistically developed in Bengal was much closer to Bengali society of 17th-century Mughal India than were the cultures of earlier Hindu India. Architectural arguments continue in the next section, which examines the development of the upper storey of the Ratna temples. Here, unlike the lower storey with its Islamic ancestry, the inspiration seems to have been the earlier tower-like structure of the medieval Nagara style of temple.

The final chapter focuses on temple function and decoration. Vishnupur temples have two axes: one for priestly use (east/west) and one for congregational use (north/south). The main decoration in terracotta tiles is found on the south walls, facing the devotees as they perform the nightly ritual of ecstatic singing. The way the decorative scheme fits in with devotional requirements is discussed by Ghosh.

This book contributes significantly to our understanding of Bengali architecture. It also discusses the use made by Hindus of Islamic culture to build their own sacred centre, and the lesson this provides for today.

The book lacks discussion of technique of production of the terracotta decoration, and not all of the many photographs are of high standard, but my overall reaction to it is very positive.

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper, department of Asia, British Museum.

Temple to Love: Architecture and Devotion in 17th-Century Bengal

Author - Pika Ghosh
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Pages - 255
Price - £32.95
ISBN - 0 253 34487 5

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