In the first Provocative Places and Objects blog of 2024, Souhardya De discusses Pathra Temple Complex and the Rural Bengali European Connect. Souhardya is a Think Big Scholar in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol. He has previously been a Prime Minister's YUVA Fellow with the Ministry of Education, Government of India, and Legislative Researcher to MP (Lok Sabha).
Bengali temples have historically been integrationist - the principle of vernacular features subsumed into normative architectural standards has been widely observed. Sanyal’s study on the architectural standards in medieval Sultanate Bengal, for instance, demonstrates two central findings - first, that medieval Bengali religious architecture - both Hindu and Islamic, had been substantially influenced by the prevalent vernacular visual language, and second, that there had ensued a discourse between traditional and the newly introduced architectural patterns, culminating in established “similarities between the religious architecture of the Muslims and the temples of the Hindus” (1).
By the end of the seventeenth-century, the locally derived chala structure, alongside ratna and shikhara, had come to be popularly practised with distinctive floral motifs taking up a majority of the friezes commissioned. Introduction of the European customs, particularly the Portuguese and the English, around the mid-eighteenth century, resulted in a novel intercultural interaction from which germinated a blend of this already hybrid ‘Bengali’ and European elements - neoclassical and otherwise, that brought in new features, additives and thematic components to this existing style, and was furthered most by a class of newly recognised social elites - the Bengali zamindars.
Of prime focus for the zamindars, in addition to their estate mansions, were temples - individual structures and those part of big clusters such as the commonly observed Shaivite complexes. Whilst it was more customary for the landlords and merchants with direct exposure to English customs to incorporate neoclassical elements, by then symbolic of imperial power (2), that traditional rural lords, particularly local officials appointed by the erstwhile Nawabs, had also gradually begun adopting this contemporary hybrid format of temple architecture in commissions is fairly underrepresented.
Located on the outskirts of West Midnapore in Bengal, along the banks of the river Cossoye, the Pathra temple complex, attributed to a certain Ghosal-Majumdar family, is a case in point. In total, it comprises three distinct clusters - the Kalachand, Nabaratna, and Rasamancha. Quite notably, in the Kalachand complex, attached to what was apparently the residence, employment of the traditional courtyard dwelling space (which Kerr observes in the Zamindari mansions (3) is very evident. Although the Nabaratna complex, right next to Kalachand, follows a similar layout with structures surrounding a three-sided courtyard-like space, the absence of any residential work hints at the idea that this traditionally residential feature had been deliberately altered to suit the temple cluster, so as to ensure some resemblance to a worldly abode for the divine, perhaps.
Whilst most temples in these clusters follow the pre-colonial standards of the chala and the ratna (the Nabaratna complex being named after an imposing structure with nine pinnacles), distinctive additives on panels, friezes and sculptures highlight a marked European influence, thereby suggesting that European customs and standards had permeated through the most rural Bengali societies and that traditional gentries such as the Ghosal-Majumdars had a welcoming attitude to and openly patronised integrationist religious architecture brought about by the fusion that this permeation resulted in.
One of the pre-eminent examples of European visual language found in the Kalachand cluster is the employment of palladian triangular window-pediment surmounting a free-standing false door with wooden venetian blinds sculpted onto the upper half. Whilst part of the false door accommodates a lifelike representation of a woman emerging from within, that its design resembles the normative outline of any colonial Calcutta-centric mansion door is evident.
Also part of the Kalachand cluster is the Durga Dalan - a distinctive flat-roofed structure (4), with passageways around a central sanctum-sanctorum and a roof supported by what closely resemble European pilasters, essentially presenting what could be seen as an amalgamation of Indo-Islamic and colonial standards, notable for having emerged in areas of Burdwan, Midnapore and what is now Bangladesh, around the late-19th century. Whilst many thakurdalans were given a very ornate facade, the one in Pathra, with its visible lack of decoratives, has arguably had a more modernist influence. In addition, the flat-roofed feature has found employment in a Shaivite chandni in the Rasamancha cluster, and the pilaster support is seen replicated in the adjacent Rasamancha.
Notably, a minor temple grouping near to the Rasamancha cluster, also features human-like well uniformed dwarpals (temple protectors) with contemporary muskets. This could either be viewed as the adoption of the colonial notion of sepoys as protectors, or, as in the Jor Bangla temple, a mere depiction of the contemporary developments. Absence of a panel and the specific employment of the musket-sepoys as traditional dwarpals, however, stands to evidence the first line of thought, thereby also suggesting that the introduction of the rural Bengali traditional landed community to colonial standards resulted in a gradual yet fairly systematic stylistic incorporation.
(1) Sanyal, Hitesranjan. “Religious Architecture in Bengal (15th-17th century): A Study of the Major Trends.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 32 (1970): 413–22
(2) Sen, Siddhartha. “Between Dominance, Dependence, Negotiation, and Compromise: European Architecture and Urban Planning Practices in Colonial India.” Journal of Planning History 9 (2010): 203-31.
(3) Kerr, James. The Land of Ind; or Glimpses of India (London: Longman, Green, and Company, 1873), 91
Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.
Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.
We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Post can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.
Post should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp email@example.com