A splendour in Terracotta from the Gupta Age
“Gupta art is beautiful in both its outer form and in its inner inspiration. Beauty and virtue served as the ideals of the Age. The golden harmony between domestic life on the one hand and the religious on the other imparted to this art a deep and perpetual attraction. The outer form and the inner meaning were knit together like speech and thought as the poet Kalidasa has put it.” – V. S. Agarwal
The languid fields fresh from the recent harvest were dressed in cheerful sunshine, with emerald groves of sweet fruition bordering their helms, as a playful breeze gently lifted the loose soil in sweeps and swirls in an evolving landscape of early summer as we descended upon a nook in rural Kanpur dotted with precious heritage from our ancient and medieval past.
Our destination for the day, was the archaeological site in the village of Bhitargaon, well known for its brick temple and famed terracotta art, which had once embellished the region’s history and defined its rich artistic traditions.
Bhitargaon had once formed the heart of an ancient city called Pushp-pur or Phul-pur whose suburbs half a mile to the east were called Baharigaon and the area encompassing these villages was commonly referred to as Bahri Bhitari. During the monsoons this region would transform into an islander’s retreat necklaced by the glistening waters of the river Rind.
The significance of rivers in the region’s civilizational history cannot be emphasized enough. The ancient riverine trade along the Ganga and the Yamuna, and their tributaries, as well as ample royal patronage received during those times, immensely benefited the local populace who used the wealth and status so earned to establish religious and educational institutions in the region, as well as spur artistic and cultural endeavors.
Kanpur, and the nearby Fatehpur, it appears, greatly profited from such generous cultural contributions as seen in the historical treasures of these regions.
Epigraphic records from the Gupta era from the adjoining geography throw light on the grants of land made by the ruling dynasties of the time to the Brahmins and other sections of the society for the construction of temples. Such grants were not just for the physical maintenance of the shrine but were also intended to meet the ritual and other needs by ensuring provisions for the Bali, Charu, Agnihotra, and Sattra in the temples. These activities formed part of the Panchamahayajnas.
Sometimes either the whole of the village or a part was so granted towards the fulfillment of such endeavors and ensuing religious merit. Charu was the oblation of rice, barley, and pulse boiled with butter and milk and offered to the ancestors. Sattra was the giving of food and refuge to the visitors to the temple.
The temple at Bhitargaon is rightly called a ‘splendour in bricks’, and compared to its bustling surroundings, this ancient temple, which was once dedicated to the worship of Bhagwan Vishnu, is an oasis of delight and meditative calm.
The temple compound is a fairly small, square plot of land with the shrine situated in the middle of the complex. Compared to its open environs, as seen in the pictures from the late 19th century, the place is now a teeming centre of rural economic activities. Deval (short for Devalaya) as this terracotta marvel was historically known was built in the 5th century CE, during the reign of the Gupta dynasty, a period known as the Golden Age in India’s history.
Rising eloquently from amidst a thick habitation this shrine is an important site for the study of the art and architectural traditions prevalent during the Gupta age.
Although the worship of Vishnu had been prevalent in Madhyadesha since centuries it got fresh impetus during this period due to the royal patronage of the Gupta rulers who held aloft the glory of the Garuda-dhvaja.
Vaishnavism attracted a huge following of devotees during this time and many shrines came into existence through the efforts of the devotees and the royalty.
Gupta Emperor Samudragupta adopted the Garuda-dhvaja. for his emblem and claimed to be the incarnation of the ‘Inscrutable Being’ which has been understood as Bhagwan Vishnu or Bhagavata by the historians.
Another Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II was an ardent follower of the Bhagavata belief and took for himself the title of ‘Parama-Bhagavata’. Inspired by the dharmik orientation of the Gupta rulers several royal houses patronised Vaishnavism and took for themselves the titles of Parama-Bhagavata and Parama-Vaishnava.
The terracotta art for which this ancient brick temple is famous was one of the ancient crafts of India. Trade in kaulalaka (things made by the kulala or potter) and prakriti (images) on the Uttarapatha route is referred to by Panini in his work.
There are also references to terracotta art-ware being transported in bullock carts and then shipped to distant islands in other texts such as the Jain text Nayadhammakahao. Well organised and prosperous srenis (guilds) of kumbhakaras (potters) commanded the manufacturing and trade in terracotta.
“..the kumbhakaras who catered to urban needs settled in families of about 500 in separate localities in the nigamas (market townships) or dvaragamas outside the gate of the mula-nagara or main town. They thus lived in the suburban localities or industrial villages which can be distinguished from the agricultural villages. In the agricultural villages the kumbhakaras were one of the five craftsmen who satisfied the local needs of the village and rarely produced for the market” – Devangana Desai
Demand for ritualistic terracotta art was driven by the myriad folk festivals and cult worships that were prevalent across the villages and towns of the time. Apart from religious art, the refined nagaraka class dwelling in the towns patronized the decorative and customized terracotta wares. Some kumbhakaras were retained by the wealthy nagarakas, while others who were known as rajakumbhakaras exclusively catered to the needs of the royal houses and the nobility.
“Knowledge of kalas (arts) and silpas (crafts) was the requisite qualification for nagarakas.”
Terracotta work on temples and buildings involved a more elaborate and large scale contribution of the various craftsmen and artists. Such work continued over a long period of time under the patronage of the Brahmins, the landed aristocrats and royals and involved the Navakarmikas or overseers along with the architects who supervised the group of workers skilled in different tasks concerning the construction of both temples and nonreligious buildings.
These craftsmen who were retained by the aristocracy and given commissioned projects were handsomely paid for their art which stood out for its finer depictions and a richer quality of terracotta.
The riverine plains which provided an inexhaustible supply of clay made terracotta the preferred vehicle of artistic expression. Steady supply of the raw material immensely boosted the production and market of terracotta products.
“A specialised craftsman pustakaraka (modeller in clay and plastic material) is mentioned in the Mahavastu of the 3rd and 4th century A.D. This text gives a list of 46 different silpayatanas (artisans and craftsmen) of which kumbhakara is separately mentioned from the pustakaraka. There is also a mention of lepaka (plasterer), sthapati-sutradharaka (architect and carpenter), mrittikavahaka (earth carrying labourers).”
As per Vogel the decorations on the temple at Bhitargaon are similar to those found on the Nirvana temple at Kasia which could be dated to no later than the Gupta era and could perhaps even be from the time of the Kushans.
This temple is possibly older to both the Devgadh and Bhumara temples and can be assigned a date of construction sometime in the mid fifth century CE of the Gupta era. Much like the other temples of northern India its destruction was caused by the invading hordes which ravaged the region during the early years of medieval India.
The temple at Bhitargaon is known for possessing one of the earliest known voussoirs or true arches in India. Voussoirs are wedge shaped blocks which are placed side by side, as shown in the images, to construct arches. The central block is known as the keystone and the two blocks on either end known as springers.
“During construction of an arch, the voussoirs require support from below until the keystone has been set in place; this support usually takes the form of temporary wooden centring”.
Another example of the voussoir or true arch from ancient India was brought to light during an excavation undertaken by the ASI in the Kaushambi district of UP between 1961–62. The arches discovered at Kaushambi were constructed several centuries prior to the one at Bhitargaon and had once formed part of a palace which now lies in ruins.
The foundational phase of the palace at Kaushambi has been dated to the pre NBP period or around the 8th century BCE. Although the plan of the palace had remained the same, alignment of structures underwent changes over time.
From the Indian Archaeology Review 1961 – 62
“A vast network of underground chambers and the superstructure in the three blocks and the galleries were found to be built on the principle of true arch. The arches allowed different varieties, the four centres pointed arch for spanning narrow passages and segmental arch for wider areas”
“Art & religion became closely wedded in the Gupta period to command an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and to map out movements of universal dimension which not only filled the entire country from one end to the other but also inundated the surrounding regions in a peripheral overflow” – V.S. Agarwal
The Bhitargaon temple is tri ratha on plan with the central projection called as the ‘bhadra’; the projections on the two sides of the ‘bhadra’ called as the prati-bhadra or prati-ratha. This style of temple architecture was defined by the number of vertical offset projections on the outer surface of the temple which were called pagas or rathakas. The tri ratha temple has one paga or rathaka and two kanika pagas or rathakas. These projections were used to give the temple a distinctively aesthetic look which was further enhanced by the use of moulded bricks and terracotta panels of varied carvings and composition.
The plan of the temple as published in the British records shows that there was a wide Jagati with supporting Adhishthana or platform on which this edifice was constructed, but these features now lie buried underneath and are no longer visible in the temple’s current form. Texts such as the Brihat Samhita, Vishnudharmottara, Agni Purana, Matsya Purana, and others which deal with types of temples give us an idea of the kind of Jagatis that were raised for building temples in earlier times. As per Brihat Samhita “the height of a temple should be double its width and the flight of steps (over which the edifice is built) equal to a third of this height”.
यो विस्तारो भवेद् यस्य द्विगुणा तत्समुन्नतिः |
उच्छ्रायाद् यः तृतीयांशः तेन तुल्या कटिः स्मृता ||
As per Agni Purana the Jagati on which the temple stands “should be made equal to the length of the shikhara, even twice the length of the shikhara if that adheres to standards of beauty”.
शिखरेण समं कार्यमग्रे जगति विस्तरम् ।
द्विगुणेनापि कर्तव्यं यथाशोभानुरूपतः ॥
The Jagati at Bhitargaon and even at the Vishnu temple at Devgarh (U.P) which was built around the same period as the former had a wide Jagati similar to the measurements given in the Agni Purana. This is another reason for suggesting that the shikhara of the temple at Bhitargaon was much higher than what its present form indicates.
The expansive Vedibandha of the temple, although devoid of embellishments, showcases some of its elemental features in a tall kumbha, kalasha, antarapatta and a kapotapali. (Refer picture)
Above the Vedibandha is the Jangha composed of bhadras and karnas, both with rectangular niches displaying terracotta panels depicting themes from the Ramayana and the Puranas. Each of the bhadras on the western, northern and southern walls of the temple has a set of three niches on the front and two on side corners.
The niches on the two karmas vary in alignment with that of the bhadras. The temple’s Jangha is “decorated with sunken rectangular niches containing terracotta figures separated by ornate pilasters..The kapotapali is surmounted by a rupakantha embellished with rectangular terracotta friezes framed by bands showing chequer pattern. The friezes show patralata and īhāmrgas.”
“Each pilaster shows an exquisitely ornate ghata base, a shaft with square, octagonal, circular sections surmounted by a stylised inverted lotus, and spirally twisted garland, ghata, and a pair of phalakas carved with palmettes. There are four pilasters on each bhadra and two on each karna face. The pilasters interrupt a frieze of stepped triangles and support a heavy kapotapali with two karna mouldings beneath; the upper carved with reversed kapisirsaka, the lower with lotus petals”
“The south bhadra’s niches harbour images of Gajāsurasamhāramūrti, standing Ganēśa, and seated Umā – Mahēśvara; the north bhadra shows Visnu killing Madhu Kaitabha, Durga killing Śumbha and Niśumbha, and a four armed god seated with a nāgarāja (perhaps representing Krsna and Balarama); the west bhadra, Bhū-Varāha and standing Astabhuja Visnu (the third niche is empty)”
During the Gupta Age the appeal of Vaishnavism among the people greatly popularised the worship of the various Avatars of Bhagwan Vishnu. Besides other sources, we find mention of the Avatars in sections of the Mahabharata which lists the Varaha, Vamana, Narasimha, Vāsudeva Krishna, Rāma Bhargava, Rāma Dasarathi, Hamsa, Kurma, Matsya and Kalki as the ten or Dashavatars.
Among all the Avatars, the worship of the Varaha avatar was especially popular during the Gupta era whose legend even finds mention in the later Vedic literature. In the Taittiriya Aranyaka, there’s the account of a black boar (Varaha) lifting the earth from the waters on the strength of his hundred arms.
Agni Purana on the Varaha avatar of Bhagwan Vishnu
अवतारं वराहस्य वक्ष्येऽहं पापनाशनम् ।
हिरण्याक्षोऽसुरेशोऽभूद् देवान् जित्वा दिवि स्थितः ।। १ ।।
देवैर्गत्वा स्तुतो विष्णुर्यज्ञरूपो वराहकः ।
अभूत्, तं दानवं हत्वा दैत्यैः साकञ्च कण्टकम् ।। २ ।।
धर्मदेवादिरक्षाकृतं ततः सोऽन्तर्द्दधे हरिः।
हिरण्याक्षस्य वै भ्राता हिरण्यकशिपुस्तथा ।। ३ ।।
“Having vanquished the celestials, Hiranyaksha became their lord and settled in their region. The celestials then repaired to Vishnu and chanted his glories, who assembling the form of a sacrificial boar and killing their thorn the Danava together with all (other Daityas) protected virtues and their gods. Afterwards Hari disappeared”
“The tallest and largest of the Gupta temples shows many exceptional features of plan, design and elevation. Its garbhagriha is wider than that of any Gupta temple in stone. Spanning a brick chamber of this size and raising upper chambers using corbelling presented no technological problem in brick. Developed features of this temple are its prominent tri-ratha plan, its well-articulated zones of elevation (vēdībandha, janghā, rūpakantha between kapōta cornices anticipating varandikā, and śikhara), lancet window for ventilating the hollow chamber above the garbhagrha, its vaulted roofs, advanced architectonic embellishment, penchant for complicated iconographic forms, and its narrative panels with dramatic content. Early features are its simple, bold vēdībandha, the employment of Kusāna motifs on the pilasters (ghata and palmette of early form)..The treatment of the broad shoulders and the muscular chest of its figures is reminiscent of Dēvnīmōrī Buddhas or Munkuwār Buddha and the muscular anatomy and movement of some of its figures..echoes Gandharan atlantes” – M. A. Dhaky
The Bhitargaon temple very likely had a curvilinear shikhara towering over the garbhagriha.
“The Dasāvatār temple at Deogarh and the brick temple at Bhitargaon with their recessed courses appear to have yielded a curvilinear rather than a straight outline” – Stella Kramrisch
“The Daśavatāra at Deogarh, whose superstructure is largely conjectural, and the Bhitargaon temple near Kanpur, the sole survivor of the innumerable brick shrines which must have been raised in the Madhyadeśa during Gupta times, had higher, almost certainly curvilinear śikharas” – J. C. Harle
“The crowning portion of the temple i.e. the sikhara was conceived of first in pyramidal form with three storeys or tiers, as we see it in the Gupta temple at Devagadh or in curvilinear contour as in the Gupta temple at Bhītargāon” – V. S. Agarwal
The shikhara of the temple is decorated with niches of varying sizes. These niches were used to house bas relief panels, some of which can still be seen in situ. A variety of themes from the Ramayana (Ravana begging alms of Maa Sita), the Krishnalila (Kuvalayapidavadha, Aristasuravadha), and other religious accounts (Nara – Narayana, Ganesha with sweets pursued by a gana) were represented on terracotta panels which were housed in these niches.
“The preponderance of Vaishnava images on the Jangha may indicate that the temple was once dedicated” to the worship of Bhagwan Vishnu.
On one of the terracotta panels, taken from the temple site, and now housed in the Indian Museum, Kolkata, is depicted Bhagwan Vishnu reclining on Sheshanaga. This depiction is known as the Seshashayi or the Sayanamurti of Vishnu, and was a recurrent iconographic theme during the Gupta era.
In this portrayal besides Vishnu, Brahma is shown seated on a lotus stalk originating from the navel of Vishnu. The scene is completed with devas and asuras hovering around the Lord. In this plaque Madhu and Kaitabh are depicted armed with maces facing Bhagwan Vishnu.
“The ideology underlying this image type can be traced back to the tenth mandala of the Rigveda, and is the same which is found in the developed concept of the cosmic god Nārāyana in the epic and Puranic texts; the type visualises the state of pralaya (dissolution) in which the nucleus of creation lies latent in the One alone, from whom again creation takes place” – D.C. Sircar
On both the sides of the porch are terracotta panels depicting Devis Ganga and Yamuna. The panel on the right represents Devi Ganga on a makara flanked by two smaller female figures.
One of the female figures is shown holding a parasol over the goddess, who (it is assumed from the lotus on the upper portion of the panel) was originally depicted by the artist as holding a lotus stalk in her right hand.
The panel representing Yamuna is completely defaced except for the parasol which can still be seen on the upper part.
The temple at Bhitargaon was built on a raised platform with a cell foundation like the temples found in the erstwhile Central Provinces. Its brick arches both inside and outside the sanctum were supported by stone beams and lintels. The temple in its original form had a projecting portico (entrance hall) or Ardha-Mandapa with a series of steps leading to a small anteroom called the Antarala from which a passage opened into the sanctum or the garbha griha.
“Like the garbhagrha, the gudhamandapa was roofed internally by a corbelled brick dome; the passage and steps were roofed by Vallabhi wagon vaults. These roofs were built using the indigenous technique of kadalikākarana.”
When Cunningham first visited the site he observed that although a portion of the original structure had remained, the outer arch which would have once graced the entrance steps, had faced damage and fallen down.
A possible reason suggested for the collapse of the ardhamandapa or the porch was the removal of the stone doorframe which had supported the mass of brickwork thus rendering the structure vulnerable to damage. The east facing temple today has a flight of six steps which opens onto a platform that leads to the garbhagriha. Sans its once enshrined deity the inner sanctum is now simply an empty room.
In the mid 19th century or few years before the mutiny of 1857 the shikhara of the temple was struck down by lightning which not only damaged the topmost part of the superstructure, but also exposed a vault like room which had formed the first storey of the temple.
At the time of the Islamic invasions many buildings and temples of northern India, like the Sun temple at Multan, the famous shrine of Jagasoma at Thanesar, temples at Sankisa, Kosambi, Shravasti, Bilsar and Garhwa and more were made of bricks and decorated with terracotta panels in alto relicos.
Paucity of stones as well as their higher cost made the builders and patrons of art choose bricks over stones as can be seen in the temples of Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and even in the temples of Bengal. Discovery of moulded and carved bricks in and around Mathura and Varanasi, with stone quarries of Rupbas and Chunar within reach, is indicative of how bricks had become a preferred vehicle of artistic expression in those days despite the availability of stones within easy distance.
“it seems logical to find that the Gupta coroplasts took full advantage of the terracotta medium on a monumental scale. Their love for moulded bricks had opened a new architectural front in which all the details of building techniques were incorporated according to the best aesthetic standards of the age.”
“The whole temple was conceived in terms of brick work with moulded pillars, pilasters, friezes, and reliefs. Large sized plaques and moulded bricks decorated with a great number of designs and figures and religious themes were freely used on the exterior walls of the shrines of which the temple at Bhitargaon stands as the earliest extant example remarkable both for its high quality of clay sculpture and several of the architectural devices. The walls of the temple at Bhitargaon rise in bold mouldings and are conceived from top to bottom in terms of terracotta friezes and beautified bricks. The upper portion of the walls are decorated with a row of rectangular panels alternating with ornamental pilasters. The decorations on the bricks are exceedingly varied and beautiful. Some of the typical ones being inverted lotus petals, rosettes, fret work, interlocked chains, meanders and scrolls. The designs of the mouldings in the basement and the shikhara and the vertical bands forming the facade, the sides and the door frames are worthy specimens of the planning and skills of the builders.” – V. S. Agarwal
500 feet from the Deval temple, Cunningham had discovered an old mound of ruins covered with bricks and broken figures which he identified as remains of another ancient temple which had once stood at the spot and to which the locals now referred as the temple of Jhijhi Naga. As per Cunningham, this name was perhaps derived from the snake which canopied one of the several broken figures that had been dug out of the ruins.
This figure was a two armed standing male (deva) sculpture with a snake’s undulated body at its back forming a canopy. Excavations at the place brought to light numerous carved bricks which had belonged to the cornices and pilasters of the temple. Having dimensions identical to those of the still standing nearby Vishnu temple these bricks were used towards its repair.
It is quite possible these two temples, and perhaps more, had once formed part of a large temple complex of which only the Vishnu temple now survives. Several of the terracotta panels of the Bhitargaon temple were taken away from the site during the initial surveys for display in the various museums of the country. Of those that can still be seen on the temple I have shared here a few pictures taken on my visit.
Although considerably restored, the topmost portion of the temple has been left significantly untouched thereby according us a glimpse of the damaged yet original pieces of bricks of the temple which had once stood here.
As we moved towards the exit, I was reminded of Kenneth Clark, the art historian, on what he had once said constituted ‘Civilisation’. He had remarked how it is difficult to define civilisation in abstract terms but one knows it when one sees it. Looking at this ancient site one realises as to what he had meant by those words.
This was indeed civilisation before us, expressing itself through its art, its beauty, its excellence, its harmony between the material and the spiritual but most importantly, through its reverence for the sacred to which it had owed its all. If we call ourselves the children of this civilisation we need to make such places come alive by enshrining the vitality which had once resided in them.
These sites have a purpose greater than to be just gazed at adoringly and written about. They are where our Gods had once dwelt. In their haunting stillness you can almost hear these now silent abodes yearn for their deities. Shrines, of a still surviving culture and people, are calling for their possessions to be retrieved from the soulless museums, and accorded their rightful status.
These places tug at your heart with a wish to come alive with the chants of the mantras and the chiming of the bells. When the sweet fragrance of the incenses once again starts to permeate the air, and the reassuring warmth of the many diyas light up these quiet corners, when a civilisation finally begins to reaffirm itself by bringing its Gods home, the wounds of the past would indeed have healed.
bhadra – central offset
ghata – vase, pot
ilhamrga – decorative motif
jagati – plinth, platform
jangha – elevation between the vedibandha and the shikhara
kapisirsaka – parapet
karna – corner wall moulding
phalaka – abacus
rupakantha – recess with carved figures
vedibandha – basal wall mouldings
- Annual Reports Archaeological Survey of India 1908–1909
- Inscriptions Of The Early Gupta Kings And Their Successors by John Fleet
- Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture – North India
- Agni Purana Chaukhamba Surbharati
- Agni Purana Vol 1 Manmatha Nath Dutt
- The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by J. C. Harle
- The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by J. C. Harle
- Gupta Art by V. S. Agarwal
- Brihat Samhita by Varahamihira
- Matsya Purana
- Report Of Tours In The Gangetic Provinces Vol-XI by Alexander Cunningham
- History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume 03, The Classical Age
- Terracotta And The Urban Culture Of Ancient India by Devangana Desai
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