Throughout history, Bengal has always been a place of great importance for numerous reasons. Its fertile soils, location, its topography, its cultural heritage, and beliefs of the Bengali people are just some of the reasons that highlight the importance of the region.
Being such a valuable region, it was constantly under threat from external forces and this is reflected throughout historical sources and the large number of architectural masterpieces that have accumulated over time. Today, Bengal definitely comes up as one of the top places to better understand Indian architecture. However, it is usually the buildings and structures in the capital, Kolkata, that get all the attention, especially those from the era of British colonialism or the Mughal era. After all, it is through such documentation that we unravel what life was like in those times.
Today we look at some of the structures and ruins from ancient Bengal, a period in history so old that its architectural legacy has either nearly vanished, is in complete ruins or hasn’t yet been found.
Due to this lack of archaeological and historical evidence, there is very little that is known about Bengal in antiquity, even though the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region dates back to 20,000 years. The analysis of the surviving structures, however, can provide us with information about what life was like in those times.
So, without further ado, let’s look into the ruins and monuments of ancient Bengal to understand how the ancient Bengali people lived and what they valued.
Note: Bengal doesn’t just refer to the Indian state of West Bengal; it also includes the country of Bangladesh. And, in ancient times, the boundaries of this region would alter and sometimes even include the present-day Indian states of Bihar, Odisha, Tripura and Assam.
As mentioned earlier, the earliest evidence of humans in this region dates back to 20,000 years ago. At the time, indigenous tribes of Austric and Austro- Asiatic origin with the knowledge of cultivating rice paddy would inhabit the region, taking shelter in pit dwellings.
The Chalcolithic period that lasted from 1600 BC to 750 BC refers to the Copper Age and the early Bronze Age in Bengal. Chalcolithic sites provide evidence of the settlement of hunters and gatherers and farmers in this region.
Like their ancestors, these communities would engage in agricultural activities such as the cultivation of paddy. They would also occasionally hunt and gather their food, as per requirement.
During this period they would reside in simple dwellings made of beaten soil, mud, cow dung and burnt clay.
In the western areas of Bengal, areas with red soil, the cultivation of crops, especially that of paddy, couldn’t be supported. As such, the inhabitants found their food by hunting and gathering their food or by domesticating livestock.
In alluvial zones and places close to rivers, the soils are far more suitable for the cultivation of crops. As such, they wouldn’t need to go too far from their settlements to find food. This made them lead a sedentary lifestyle, which is confirmed by the type of objects found in these sites, such as, jewellery, vases, combs and figurines. Such a lifestyle also led to a growth in the population, which hints at the existence of large settlements. They’d make space for their larger settlements by clearing out forests using their metal tools.
Today, only remnants of these settlements survive. One such Charcolithic site is the Pandu Rajar Dhibi (King Pandu’s Mound) in the district of East Burdwan, West Bengal. A settlement that once existed on the banks of the now dead, Ajay River.
Little is known about this settlement and presently there is only a mound made of reddish soil. A type of soil found only in this part of Bengal. It is, however, known to be the centre of the settlement in that era. Locals believe that the palace of King Pandu from the Indian epic – The Mahabharata, is buried in the mound.
It is speculated that river floods led to the decline and destruction of the settlement.
Vedic Era Bengal
The late Bronze period or the Vedic period lasted from 1500 to 500 BC. The Aryans came into Bengal as warriors, traders, teachers and priests. Aryan or Vedic culture spread and assimilated with the indigenous cultures in the region over the thousand years that they took to settle. With time, their religion, principles, societal systems and languages were adopted by the local tribes. Today, much of northern India speaks Indo-Aryan languages. Bengali is one of them.
During this period, Bengal wasn’t yet a unified kingdom; it was divided into multiple kingdoms, such as Vanga, Pundra, Suhma, Anga, Harikela and Samata. Though, evidence proving the existence of these kingdoms is limited.
Vedic Aryans lived in villages that comprised a complex with a group of three to four huts. The huts would be made with construction materials found close to the villages. The vernacular houses were made of a woven bamboo frame tied with twine, plastered with mud for the base and the walls, and a 12 inch thick sloped thatched roof. Depending on the location, the mud will be replaced by burnt clay and cow dung. The majority of them would have a circular base, while some had a quadrangle base.
The kitchen roofs were built with three tiers, leaving space between each layer, to allow the passage of smoke and heat.
The villages would usually be located near a pond and a garden full of trees and edible herb plants.
The houses weren’t positioned as their builders pleased. They were built consulting the Vastu Shastra, a traditional Indian architectural system that provided the guidelines to construct and position buildings in the most scientific way possible so that the building, the individual and the universe were at one. According to this system, the buildings would face to the north and west, leaving the east and south sides open for better air circulation. Their positions would leave space for a courtyard in the centre of the complex, for more communal activities.
The idea was to stay cool in the hot and humid climate of Bengal.
Pre-Mauryan and Mauryan Period
The Mauryan Empire, founded by Chandragupta Maurya, was one of the biggest empires in the world at its time. It managed to unite most of the Indian kingdoms between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC. Hence, the Bengali kingdoms were a part of it as well.
Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site located only 35km from Kolkata, in the North 24 Parganas District of West Bengal. Chandraketugarh was founded prior to the establishment of the Mauryan Empire. It declined in the 12th century AD.
It is one of the few architectures confirming Bengal’s association with the Mauryan Empire during the 3rd century BC. Once an urban area that flourished on the banks of the Vidyadhari River is now nothing more than a neglected mound.
The 5m high mound is known as Khana Miherer Dhibi and it is the remains of what was once a large temple and residential complex. The architecture features columns, pavilions and enclosures for sacred plants. The designs on the temple ruins, pottery, coins and tools found were of Mauryan style.
But in my opinion, what connects this structure to the Mauryans are the toranas, or large elaborate gateways to a religious place, usually found in Buddhist and early Hindu architecture.
The most popular Mauryan ruler, Emperor Ashoka, was especially famous for converting to Buddhism after the bloody and gruesome war of Kalinga. Subsequently, he commissioned the construction of many structures across the empire. Toranas being a common feature found in both Hindu and Buddhist architecture could suggest its construction in this period. Do share your opinions on this thought in the comments below.
A few kilometres from the mound, pieces of evidence suggest the existence of a 30 ft rectangular fort but, there are no traces of it in the present day.
Structures found from this time were made from clay, powdered lime and mud. Roofs were either thatched with straw or leaves or, terracotta tiles were used as a roof. Lastly, the structures were protected using bamboo fences. In this period, the living areas and places of worship would be away from each other.
As these materials are so easily perishable, the structures haven’t stood the test of time.
As for society, it is believed that it was a lively urban settlement. The Greek geographer Ptolemy mentioned the place as having a powerful king and to be the capital of the Vanga kingdom, in the Gangarudai region; the name referring to Bengal.
The place was named after a local king, King Chandraketu but, so far, existing literature doesn’t have a record of any such king. Local legends believe that this personage was Chandragupta Maurya himself, the founder of the Mauryan Empire. Earlier, this was proved through accounts of the Greek Explorer Megasthenes, who had recorded the name King Sandrocottus, which scholars also initially believed to be Chandragupta Maurya. However, more recently, ongoing studies debate this fact and suggests that King Sandrocottus could have indeed been a real king named Chandraketu.
The numerous metal coins found in the area, have historians believe that the kingdom was involved in the international maritime trade of metal.
Not long ago, the remains of the site were completely neglected and ignored, so much so that even its excavation halted mid-way. That even resulted in many stealing numerous valuable artefacts. The neglect is also why so little is known about this mysterious ancient settlement.
Only recently, have the local authorities taken action to preserve the area and provide a space for further research on this mysterious ancient settlement we know so little about.
Bengal was a part of the Gupta Empire from the 4th century AD to the mid 6th century AD.
During this period, Brahmanas, or Hindus of the priest caste, came from North India and settled in Bengal. They had extensive knowledge of the Vedas, rituals and sacrifices.
The Brahmanas came because the Guptas who were devout Vaishnavas, a denomination of Sanatan Dharma or ancient Hinduism. Hence, encouraging the practice of Hinduism. As a result, this period saw the construction of several Brahmanical temples. Buddhism was tolerated as such, it was also a prominent religion at the time and Buddhist structures were also built.
Due to the construction of numerous structures around the subcontinent, The Gupta Age is more commonly known as the Golden Age of Architecture in India.
They would famously construct temples in northern India from stone. However, durable materials like stone were rare in Bengal. In its stead, wood and bricks made from clay were used, a construction material not used before this period. As such, monuments from this time perished and are, therefore, limited.
Even though very few architectural remains survive from the Gupta period, there is more concrete evidence thanks to the written material that they left behind. Prior to that, historians had to rely on religious texts, fiction and epics such as the Vedas, Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, etc.
During the Gupta period, Hindu deities were anthropomorphised. The Gods were represented as humans and their expression was artful. To them, giving them a human form also meant giving them a place to stay. So, they began building temples for them.
In the Gupta period, temples and homes had a square base. This quadrangle foundation was the most unique feature of the Gupta period. In addition, spaces, houses and temples were all planned with a basic drainage system. The buildings would face the cardinal points, most likely as a result of consulting the Vastu Shastra. These points are believed to represent portions of the mandala, which is believed to connect living space, man and the universe.
Some scholars, on the other hand, believe it was because they wanted the structures designed in a way that would be admirable from every angle, especially in the case of temples.
Initially, temples were simple shaded areas under trees. Then, they moved into huts made of wood, brick and thatched roofs. Then, they were standardized into several diverse structures, like stupas and temples. Many of which inspired architecture in later periods.
The most basic structure had a rectangular base, a flat roof, a mandap or a shallow porch that had thick pillars. This porch was the only entrance to the inner sanctum or garbagriha. It was meant to provide a protected and divine space for the deity and a shelter for the one worshipping the idol.
With the increase in the size of the idols, the sizes of the temples also increased. This period saw the development of towers and carvings of gods and goddesses. Therefore, in the later Gupta periods, the Cella or the inner sanctum remained but the flat roof was replaced by pyramid-topped spires also described as a curvilinear tower, called shikhara. And, there were entrances with pillared porches at each cardinal point.
A remnant from this epoch is Mahasthangarh, located in Bogra district, Bangladesh. It is the oldest archaeological site in Bangladesh where the ruins of a fortified citadel and other Gupta-period structures lie. Just outside the citadel, are the foundations of the Govinda Bhita, a temple complex constructed next to the river in honour of Lord Krishna in the 6th century. They maintain the square floor plan distinct during the Gupta period, plus it is believed to have had a shikhara as its roof.
The Pala empire in Bengal lasted from 750-1160 AD. The rulers in this period followed Buddhist ideologies. This encouraged the practice of Buddhism and led to the construction of Buddhist architecture in Bengal. At this time, many stupas, temples and viharas were established. Buddhism flourished during this time and co-existed harmoniously with Hinduism. And, Bengal was also prosperous and peaceful. The Pala period was truly the golden age of Bengal.
At the time of Buddha’s death, parts of his remains were placed in locations around the world, relevant to his teachings and his life. These relics were guarded in stupas or a pile of domed shaped earth over the relics.
This was how Buddhists in villages would traditionally preserve the ashes of their leaders. These memorials were places called chaityas, which were recognized by their toranas and barrel-vaulted roofs. It was a rudimental form of Buddhist architecture.
Eventually, monks started taking residence near the stupas and established monasteries or viharas. Stupas then were part of their daily rituals. For example, they’d walk around the stupa a certain number of times. Viharas were also built by wealthy Buddhists as accommodation facilities for monks travelling around the subcontinent and, further, to preach Buddhist philosophy.
Structures from the Pala period too perished due to natural calamities and the degradable characteristics of the construction materials.
One of these monasteries was the Sompur Mahavihara in Paharpur, Bangladesh. This was the largest and most important monastery in the subcontinent in its day and now lies in its ruins. In its heyday, there used to be a shikhara measuring approximately 32 metres. The structure maintained the same quadrangle structure from the Gupta period, only this one had 4 inner sanctums.
The tower is the principal structure of a 300m2 complex that once had everything needed to accommodate the travelling and residing monks, from nearly 180 lodging rooms to necessary training centres. Here the monks would spend their time in front of Buddha’s statue, studying and meditating.
Interestingly, it also shows co-existence with the Hindus. The building was constructed and its carvings made by local Hindu artisans. This is because the Pala rulers, who had commissioned the construction of the monastery, had given them the freedom to showcase their skills. As a result, they carved designs they were familiar with. Even today, symbols of Hindu deities, particularly the Holy Trinity, can be seen on the walls of the former tower.
Sompur Mahavihara, today, is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Evolution of Stupas
Stupas were initially hemispherical in shape but, over time, the perfectly round dome evolved. It maintained a circular base but over it, stood a high circular structure where three umbrella-shaped tiers would be erected. These umbrella-like tiers very closely resemble the typical distinctly Bengali dome-shaped roofs called the Bangla chala.
In fact, this isn’t the first time that this shape was found in Bengali history. A few terracotta toys found in Chandraketugarh also depict structures such as the Bangla chala in them. However, there isn’t enough evidence, however, to prove if these roofs really existed in the Mauryan period.
These roofs will be discussed in future posts.
The Pala rulers encouraged cultural activities in Bengal, meaning, monuments of other religions and cultures were also erected. An example of this is the Siddheshvara temple in Barakar, located in the district of West Burdwan, West Bengal. A temple built between the 8th and 9th centuries in honour of Lord Shiva.
This structure is the oldest of its kind in Bengal. First of all, it is made of stone, a material very rarely used for building due to its scarcity. Second, it is constructed in the Kalinga style, with a rekh-deul tower for the roof, the oldest of this style in the region.
What did we learn?
In conclusion, we can infer that indigenous materials were mostly used to build the best form of accommodation or place of worship that would be both suitable to the hot and humid climate and, spiritually connected with the individual. We saw how Bengalis transitioned from a primitive society to a more advanced one from all angles. It can also be drawn that political leaders had a great influence on the type of religious practice and that religion was a priority in ancient times.
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Ali, Z. F. & Mallick, F. H., 1998. Gurukula at Nadia, India: An environment friendly Vedic village. Lisbon, Routledge, pp. 141-143.
Datta, A., 2004. CHALCOLITHIC CULTURE OF WEST BENGAL: AN OVERVIEW. Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, 64(65), pp. 59-72.
Rahman, D. M. S. N., 2018. Religious and Cultural Syncretism in Medieval Bengal. The NEHU Journal, 16(1), pp. 53-77.
Reza, M. H., Bandyopadhyay, S. & Mowla, A., 2015. Traces of Buddhist architecture in Gupta and post-Gupta Bengal: evidence from inscriptions and literature. JOURNAL OF EURASIAN STUDIES, 7(3), pp. 8-19.
Tabassum, M., 2019. IDENTIFICATION OF ARCHETYPICAL VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURAL FORM OF BENGAL, Dhaka: BANGLADESH UNIVERSITY OF ENGINEERING & TECHNOLOGY.
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