Furniture in Bengal temple designs

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Asis Kumar Chatterjee

Introduction

We have majorly noted previously that the true picture of the Bengali society was justly mirrored in the panels of the temples of this culturally enriched region. Furniture posed itself as a rather interesting perspective of these many reflections. This niche subject is short but extremely fascinating, and this is what we will be discussing today.

History

27 Typical low backed chair, Surul

Let us first rewind to origin of furniture in the world.

The very first traces of furniture was seen in the form of a bed, while boulders or the very floor were used for seating purposes. The earliest forms of the ‘bed’ were vastly different from what we visualize today. Mere leaves, grass or hay were spread on the floor, on which our foremost ancestors received their share of shut-eye. Later, these beds started having animal skins as sheets. With time, these ‘mattresses’ were raised from the ground, and that’s exactly when ‘beds’ were born. Perhaps security was the primary motive behind raising the bed; from dirt, bugs and even snakes and other reptiles. The Sibudu Caves of South Africa contained such beds from 3500 B.C.

In the Greek epic by Homer, Odyssey, we have read descriptions of certain ‘four-legged’ beds.

On the other hand, the first glimpse of a chair was discovered in ancient Egypt during the First Dynastic Period, in 3100-2685 B.C. This specimen was however much lower than the chairs we see around us in the present times – with only 10 inches in height. Nonetheless, many believe that chairs existed in Egypt even in the Pre-Dynastic Period.

The use of chairs was predominant also in China, in the 12th century.

Chairs became an object of daily use among the public

46 A lady sitting on a MORA, a stool made of Bamboo; Surul

during Renaissance in Europe, and by the 16th century, chairs became quite popular among furniture objects and saw diverse styles for itself.

However, many believe that before chairs came in vogue, stools without any handles or backrests were more common.

Elegant and regally decorated larger chairs, known as thrones, were designed for Gods and Goddesses, and the royalty, from time immemorial. In fact, the word ‘throne’ is considered to have emerged from the Greek word ‘Thronos’, although, the initial thrones were much simpler in design and intricacies. Original Greek thrones would be much like the modern simple chairs, only with an added foot-stool to cushion the sitter’s feet.

There were two varieties of thrones that were common in ancient Rome – one for the Emperors and the other for Gods.

Even the Old and New Testaments of the Bible had thrones mentioned in them.

As time moved ahead, thrones transformed into works of art, with rich decoration and carvings, elaborate uses of gold, silver and gems, or even fine ivory. Many artistes started working on marble and jade thrones as well.

Furniture in India

Bed

Although the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata mentioned a plethora of gold and silver thrones and beds, historically speaking, ‘Charpoy’ (four-legged) beds and other furniture made of wood were first discovered in the Vijaynagar empire in 1336 A.D.

‘Charpoy’, also known as ‘khatiya’, has been present in India from ancient times. It is

47 A musician sitting on a MORA; engravings on brass rath, Bankati

a general idea that perhaps this ‘charpoy’ came to India when Alexander invaded the country in 4 B.C. This style of a bed was prevalent in the Middle Ages in both affluent and meagre homes, which has been documented by the famous Muslim traveler, Ibn Batuta, when he visited India in the 14th century, during the reign of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq.

On the contrary, the Southern empire of Vijaynagar also possessed wooden beds and ‘charpoys’ in the same time.

Thrones

Thrones claim a significant share in the history of India. This piece of furniture was called ‘Shahi Taqht’ during the Mughal empire, while it moved on to being called as ‘Rajgaddi’ or ‘Gaddi’ and ‘masnad’ especially during the Muslim supremacy. The peacock throne is perhaps the most eminent of the Mughal thrones.

Stools and Chairs

Ancient India only had stools as the seating arrangement. They neither had handles, nor backrests. Chairs came into the picture much later.

European Influence

Vasco da Gama was the first ever European sailor and pioneer who came to India in the fag-end of the 15th century (1497-99 A.D.). When more traders like him started landing on to the subcontinent, they realized the dearth of chairs and guided the carpenters to create the seats of their cultures. With the influx of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Danish and French in India, the styles of furnishing blended and transformed in leaps and bounds, to ultimately create a new sort of furniture. The varied kinds of stools, chairs, and beds that we browse today, are mostly all born from the beautiful amalgamation of differing styles and cultures.

Contribution of Bengal

The Britishers in India were so mesmerised by the fine craftsmanship of wood carvings in the various architecture of Bengal, namely in temples, chariots and items of use in the forts; that they enthusiastically took up the challenge to partner with the local artisans and bring about a new style – which represented a marriage between the Bengali and the Victorian and Edwardian styles of furniture. This unique ‘Bengal style British Furniture’ became popular among the Bengali Zamindars and elite society in the 18th and 19th centuries, and began selling like hot cakes in the rest of British India.

Furniture in Bengal Temple Carvings

Bengal temples bear several designs in their

22 Chair looking like a modern sofa; Ganpur Giripathar
panels which speak of the furniture of the times, and we can normally put them into two groups:

  1. Visualisation of furniture from Epic and Puranik Tales;
  2. Picturisation of furniture in social context and setting.

We should always keep in mind that the artistes would normally create their masterpieces by the designs and styles of furniture that they heard and saw, and consequently even in the legends and mythical presentation one would notice undertones of the furniture that were used only in the contemporary times.

If we delve deeper into this subject, we can proceed in two ways:

  1. Discussing the afore-mentioned Puranik and Social Setting; or
  2. Focussing on the varied designs of furniture.

For the benefit of our descriptive account, let us take the second road to enlightenment.

Furniture in the Panels of Bengal Temples

The most common furniture presented in Bengal temples are:

  1. Beds (king-size, queen-size)
  2. Multitude of thrones
  3. Stools of varied designs
  4. Chairs
  5. Miscellaneous

Let us discuss each aspect in detail.

  1. Beds (king-size, queen-size)

Beds don’t take the dominant picture in temple panels. In my personal opinion, this might be due to two major factors:

48 Gangeswar 1

  1. Mythical characters were not generally shown to be using beds; and
  2. The artistes were modest and realistic when depicting the social framework. They didn’t want to intrude and publicise the bedroom.

The reason could be something other than this as well, butbeds were not a common subject in the temples.

I still do have three examples of beds, but all of them were picturised based on Puranik legends:

  1. A panel is present in the Gopinath temple of Dashghara in the Hooghly district of Bengal. It recounts the renowned episode of Mahabharata, where Shri Krishna sleeps on a beautifully carved and decorated bed when Arjun and Duryodhan visit him to plead his loyalty to either armies, prior to the Kurukshetra war.
  2. In the same temple, baby Krishna is seen to be playing on a little bed.
  3. In Birbhum’s Ganpur, a temple holds a panel where Devaki, the birth mother of Krishna is seen resting on a bed. Interestingly, this bed is simple and without any decorations, probably because, it might be a scene from the palace prisons where she was held in custody by her brother Kangsa. Additionally, it is important to mention that this panel is not made of terracotta, but mountain rocks.

53 Shiva on a stool; charbangla temple, baronagar

  1. Thrones

Thrones were used to seat Gods, kings and emperors, and this custom has been followed even in the Bengal temples. Of the various temple designs, thrones have been most used to depict the coronation ceremony of Lord Ram. Apart from this, thrones have been used by Puranik legends like Shiva-Parvati, Duryodhan and so on.

The Framework of Thrones

There is a vital fact to be noted when we talk about the framework of thrones. Although the very word ‘throne’ immediately illustrates a rather gaudy chair in our minds, the temple panels bear a significant contrast to this ostentatious idea of a ‘throne’. The carved panels mostly have thrones which are without backrest or even not flamboyant in any way. Duryodhan’s throne does have a backrest, but there is no armrest or handle. One would hardly consider them anything more than a glorified stool. A common subsequent query arises from this; if so ordinary to look at, why are they called ‘thrones’ at all?

One response would be due to the unfolding of the tale that brought forth the scenes.

As the stories go… After the coronation of Lord Ramchandra, Ram and Sita sat in a throne, not on a bed or a stool.

49 Gangeswar

When Duryodhan went to Sri Krishna for support during the Kurukshetra war, he sat on a throne, not a chair, placed near the Lord’s head (it is arguable whether the concept of chairs existed at all in the Puranik era).

Another response will be more aligned to the ergonomic approach – Indians generally sat with folded knees, and the royals followed that way even while sitting on thrones (while Europeans used to sit with their legs hanging at a right angle). Perhaps this was the reason why backrests and armrests were not needed for Indian thrones. In the temple designs that portray characters sitting on thrones, we usually see them sitting with folded knees, and hardly like their Foreign counterparts, hanging their legs.

It might also be probable for the rural artisans to have never witnessed a real throne, and their depiction largely got based on their creative eye.

  1. Stools

We already know stools characteristically are seating objects without any backrests and handles or armrests. Primarily, these furniture items came with four legs, but one, three and even five-legged stools have also been created. Stools are mostly known as ‘tools’ from the colloquial perspective.

If there is one piece of furniture that one notices widely among Bengal temple

50 Mora; Ganpur

designs, it undoubtedly is the stool, in all its sizes and shapes. They have been portrayed both in the mythical and social context quite generously, mostly perhaps because:

  1. Stools were common seating objects in ancient India from time immemorial.
  2. Almost all the artisans had seen stools with their very eyes.

Stools in Bengal Temple Designs

If we analyse the different types of stools that are shown in Bengal temple panels, we would notice certain significant points:

  1. Size:

Even though stools were designed for a single person to sit on it, the panels contained pictures of stools big enough to let two people to sit.

  1. The Build of the Leg:

This is a rather interesting subject. One discovers an ample variety of styles in the stool-legs – narrow, wide, straight, slanted, floral, with or without intricate designs, and so on. The most fascinating of these were the stools that stood on only a single leg. They were very broad, and spreadout at the base (resembling an inverted bell), obviously to maintain the balance.

  1. Chair

The concept of chairs was not really very old in Bengal or even India, and was much associated with the European influence. Perhaps that

50 Mora; Ganpur

is why chairs are not commonly seen among the temple panels in Bengal, and the one that have been portrayed heavily depended on the social landscape that was being depicted. One might even go on to assert that chairs have been shown in these panels mostly when Europeans have been using them. However, Zamindars and the erudite society have been shown sitting on chairs once in a blue moon.

Another significant fact about chairs constitute the portrayal of chairs with both high and low backs.

  1. Miscellaneous

We notice another kind of seating arrangement in certain temple panels. One of the most appealing is the well-known ‘mora’ or a stool shaped like the pellet-drum, and it appears in both Puranik and social contexts.

Examples:

  1. A temple in the Surool village of Birbhum depicts a lady sitting on a ‘mora’.
  2. A Mountain-rock temple in Birbhum’s Ganpur contains a panel where a lady has been seated and a very unique Gouranga with six hands standing on furniture resembling the ‘moras’.
  3. Lord Shiva has been found seated on something of the sort of a ‘mora’ in the Charbangla temple of Boronogor in Murshidabad.
  4. In the same Charbangla temple, Sita is seen seated on a ‘mora’ in a scene where (most probably) she is shown meeting Lakshman at Ashokvan in Lanka.
  5. Furthermore, one notices 2+2+1, or five ‘moras’ in total,in three separate panels in the Gangeshwar temple of Boronogor.
  6. Two men are also depicted sitting beside each other on ‘moras’, in the Gangeshwar temple of Boronogor.
  7. In Burdwan’s Bonkati village stands a brass chariot, on whose many carved panels, one notices a musician sitting on a ‘mora’ with a Beena.

52 Shadabhuja Gauranga standing on a mora; Ganpur

Conclusion

Furniture and its distinctive features has been a rather alluring subject in the world of temple designs. If this brief discussion of the same catches the eye of a carpentry enthusiast or expert, and succeeds to interest them, we would definitely receivemore profound insights of this theme.


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Post Author: Dr. Asis Kumar Chatterjee

Dr. Asis Kumar Chatterjee
Asis Kumar Chatterjee (born 1956) is a renowned Gynaecologist in Durgapur, West Bengal. After serving with a good reputation for almost 32 years in Durgapur Steel Plant Hospital, after his retirement from service he is now attached to NGOs serving the poor & downtrodden free of cost. Among his several hobbies are traveling, photography & writing on various subjects in both English & Bengali. He has penned in Bengali two offbeat novels (one of which was a best seller as per the highest selling Bengali newspaper ANANDABAZAR PATRIKA), a collection of short stories, a collection of poems, a collection of rhymes & two travelogues, one on four Kumbh Melas & one on a trekking to Tapovan via Gaumukh. He has written more than one hundred blogs in English (mostly on places of interest & temples of India) which were viewed almost one hundred & fifty thousand times. He has published an e-book on Bengal temples containing about two thousand colour photographs, written for common people who are generally apprehensive of the scholarly books available on the subject.

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