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Looking beyond vandalism

- Temples, mosques and architectural continuity

It is a generally held belief that many early temples of Bengal were destroyed and turned into mosques. Indrajit Chaudhuri in his lecture on “The architecture of Bengal and its culture” organised by Academy Theatre on its 30th anniversary at Bangla Akademi on Friday challenged that notion.

He stressed that one cannot always be sure that temples were vandalised. Mosques could have been constructed from existing ruins of temples. Moreover, these elements from temples were not merely imposed on mosques for they became an integral part of their design and structure.

Chaudhuri began at the beginning in 1205 when the Sena ruler of Gaur was dethroned and Islamic rule began in Bengal.

He referred to some mosques in places like Bangarh, Gorachander Majar near Chandraketugarh and Sian near Santiniketan, saying that if we map these monuments — many on mounds —we can establish that culture centres used to exist in all these places.

The majar in Sian of 1221 CE has a stone inscription in Arabic, on the obverse of which is a Pala inscription. There are many more examples of architectural elements from temples being used in mosques. Some of these are in Gaur, Pandua, Hemtabad, Tribeni, and if these sites are excavated we could learn more about the history of these places.

If we study these temples, mosques and mausoleums or even ruins of some structures we find that many of these were demolished by different sects of the same religion. In 1192 CE, Qutubuddin Aibaq demolished 27 temples to build Jami Masjid in Delhi. He made aesthetic use of the debris of these temples. James Todd, too, had commented on a similar mosque he had come upon in Rajasthan. David McCutchion had had expatiated on this phenomenon in his book Hindu Muslim Aesthetic Continuity in Bengal.

Chaudhuri said there are three phases in the development of temple architecture in Bengal. The pre-Islamic period, Islamic period and the new phase from 16th to 19th century. The common elements that can be found in the architecture of both temples and mosques were not simply because the same masons and artisans made them.

Some architectural elements were transferred and there were basic changes in architectural styles owing to “aesthetic understanding” as in Gaur and Pandua. There was a continuation of tradition in the ornamentation. This was not imposed.

Moving on to traditions of Bengal, Chaudhuri said there are no pre-Islamic examples of the use of “chala” or the thatched roof of huts in this part of the world. The “dochala” or double-thatched roof can be seen in Bishnupur and Bangladesh. Perhaps the sultans fell for the thatched roof and turned it into an architectural idiom. Before that corbelling was the prevailing technique in building temples.

The Mughals were so much in favour of the “chala” that the “chhatri” ornamentation became a pan-Indian style and could be seen in far flung regions like Rajasthan and Lahore. The English fabricated “bungalows” from these, and thus we see that there is a continuity of styles and traditions and not just destruction.

A profusion of stucco ornamentation can be found in Adina mosque and Eklakhi tomb and these sections originally belonged to temples. In Gaur stucco and tiles coexist. No living being is represented. There are geometric designs and vegetation and these belong to the Pala and Sena periods.

Jagamohans are typical components of Odisha temple architecture, but recent excavations have revealed the traces of a similar structure at Jatar Deul in the Sunderbans. Many door frames and pillars have been found but we can only guess how the latter were used as there is no evidence.

Squat pillars can often be found in mosques but they occur in the Bishnupur temples as well. The façade of Kadam Rasul in Pandua can easily be mistaken for a temple. So it was not a simple case of vandalism. One culture grew out of another.