Smoking in Bengal temple decorations

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A rich man smoking Gargara (look at the coils of the pipe)_ Charbangla complex, Baronagar

Asis Kumar Chatterjee


Today, we are going to talk about a small but significant and extremely attractive part of Motifs and Designs in Temple Architecture; and that is Smoking in Temple Designs.


Smoking is an innate member of the human civilization. Smoke and smoking have been used abundantly across cultures and geographies since the beginning of civilization, for religious purposes, as addiction catalysts and regarding medicinal uses. Like other places, smoking was prevalent in India and Bengal itself. Since temple designs and motifs mirrored the current social portrait, artistes and sculptors have used this theme to portray their expressions about the amazing and distinct days. And that is our topic of discussion today.

But before we begin, we would rather turn back the pages of history and elucidate about the history of smoking for a while.

A person smoking Hookah_ durga temple_ bali-Dewangunj

The History of Smoking

Smoking existed in the two American continents, especially in South America since 5000 years or even more. Perhaps the use of tobacco leaves began during that time. It was a ritual to burn tobacco and inhale the smoke for black magic and even religious reasons in Peru and Equador from a long time ago.When the Spanish colonised South America, they learned the art of smoking and brought its culture to Spain. Jean Nicot, a French traveller, carried tobacco from Spain to France in 1560, which further travelled to England subsequently. In that context, one should know that it is from the name of Jean Nicot the term Nicotine was derived.


Smoking in India: A Historical Perspective

The first time that smoking was heard of in India, was perhaps in 2000 B.C. Evidences have been mentioned in the Atharva Veda. However, there is an important point to be noted here; tobacco was made common in India by the European entrepreneurs only in the onset of 17th century. Prior to this, smoking was restricted to the inhalation of smoke from yagna or religious fire, burning of cannabis and other medicinal substances. The huff and puff was also done through chhilim (Chillum) or native pipes made of clay or wood. With the European influence, consumption of cannabis became cornered and regional, but the practice was not completely over and done. However, tobacco became the mainstream catalyst of smoking practices.In comparison to this, it should be mentioned that smoking of opium became more prevalent only in the 19th century.


Smoking Devices

Every era has seen its own kind of smoking mechanisms since time immemorial. We can broadly divide them into two categories:

    Dry devices (which work without water);
    Water-pipe devices (in which the smoke is filtered by passing through water).

Chillums and Pipes (pipes are commonly considered of European origin, but technically have been in use amongst the Natives of South America long before) come under the first category. Cigars, cigaretters and biri (local cigarettes) may also be included in this class.
The second type of devices comprise mostly of Hookah in its various types and builds. Let us delve into its details now.

A Vaishnavite smoking a small Gargara_ Bankati (1)


There is an ongoing debate regarding the origin of this device across the globe.One school of thinkers believe that Hookah was created in India. Hakim Abul Fahat Gilani, a court physician of Akbar (1542-1605 A.D.) is considered to be the inventor of Hookah. According to this thought, Hookah travelled from India to Persia, and further to Europe and Africa.
An opposing team of historians are of the opinion that Hookah was invented in Persia. Karim Khan Zend, a ruler of Southern Persia, is supposed to be the creator. Hakim Abul Fahat Gilani was an inhabitant of Persia, and when he permanently relocated to India after being appointed as the royal physician for Akbar’s court, he brought forth the culture of Hookah and made it a common practice in the subcontinent.

A man smoking a small Gargara_ Gopinath temple, Dashghara

Hookah and Coconuts

There is a close, almost innate relationship between hookah and coconuts. The most familiar hookahs are made from coconut shells. They are called ‘Aargil’ in the Middle-east, which is a descendant of the Persian word ‘Narghil’, which is synonymous to the Sanskrit word ‘Naarikel’, meaning coconut. Hookahs are called ‘Nargils’ in Spain. The subsequent idea that arises from this is that perhaps hookah was built from coconut shells across the world.
As time passed by, hookahs became sophisticated. To attract the elite class, they began to have long pipes, along with decorative vessels made out of metal or wood, to contain the water. And just as expected, hookah became a common favourite, perhaps a status symbol among emperors, kings, land barons, and even the affluent society. The foreigners also started being part of this rat-race with equal enthusiasm.

It was a beloved custom amidst the erudite society to breathe in the flavoured smoke from the tobacco in the sophisticated-looking hookahs, especially during a boat or palanquin ride; watching an entertainment program of singsongs and dancing at the ballroom; or even when meeting guests and visitors. Consequently, a niche profession was born under the name of ‘Hookahbardaar’, who would be the exclusive caretakers of the apparatuses and serve their masters.

Landlord smoking Gargara_ Laksmi Janardan temple, Debipur

The culture trickled down to the middle-class, who started flaunting smaller hookahs with shorter pipes, while the ordinary lower class of citizens indulged in the familiar hubble-bubble hookahs made from coconut shells.

With the wheel of time, cigars and bidis took over the world of smoking, and the sun set on the golden era of hookahs. By the middle of 19th century, one could hardly see the use of hookahs around, till it only lingered in the rural social landscape. Nevertheless, hookahs returned in the modern age, when a spurt of the ‘hookah bars’ or ‘sheesha bars’ continue to carry forth the legacy of the fashion once so coveted.

And then came the revolutionary device in the arena of smoking – the cigarettes. After much evolution and transformation, cigarettes and its Nuevo-avatar ‘e-cigarettes’ are still most loved by the patrons.

Hookah, Lakshmi-Janardan, Ghurisha

Smoking in Bengal Temple Motifs and Designs

To begin our journey, we should first recall certain significant dates:
1.Since time immemorial, smoking was a prevalent practice in India, primarily through the consumption of cannabis. Chillum was the most common device used to smoke this herb.
2.Tobacco was first introduced in India early in the 17th century, and endorsed the fashion of hookahs during that era.
3.As cigars and cigarettes came into practice in the 19th century, hookahs quite quickly moved out of the limelight.
4.Motifs and designs in Bengal temples became most prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The moment we focus on these chronologies, it illuminates quite clearly that designer temples were constructed in Bengal during the golden age of hookahs. Therefore, whenever smoking has been presented on these works of art, it solely offered the assorted collection of diverse hookahs.
One of the most sought-after subject for temple carvings in Bengal is Lord Shiva. Although Shiva and his Yogi followers are widely seen across Bengal temples, in various poses and acts, including the creation of shiddhi (marijuana porridge), I have not yet ever noticed a panel with them smoking ganja or marijuana through chhilim. Logically, I believe it should have been present. And that brings me to the assumption that absence of proof is not the proof of absence. Perhaps something of the sort is present somewhere, in some other temple, still to be discovered by me.

Assortments of Hookah in Bengal Temple Motifs

We can broadly categorise them under three subjects:
a)Hookahs made of coconut shells, or ‘hubble-bubble’, used by the lower class of society.
b)Smaller hookahs with shorter pipes also known as ‘gorgoras’, common amidst the middle class.
c)Extravagant hookahs with carved, embellished or bejewelled bases, possessed by the affluent class and Europeans.

Smoking a Gargara while watching dance_ Charbangla temple, Baronagar

The first category depicted a simple structure, with the base made of coconut shell, which would hold water, with a chhilim attached to a pipe. The base also has a tiny pipe to inhale the smoke. To make it work, one needs to hold the whole device in one’s hand and suck through.
Moving on to the second category, the coconut shelled base got replaced by a metallic or wooden arrangement. The pipe was not very long, and just like its poor cousin, this one also needed to be held by hand.
Finally, the luxurious hookahs were beautiful to look at. With their signature long pipe and big base, they were much different to the other two types of devices. Being splendidly decorated, they were not mobile, and represented the sophisticated class. The bases were made out of gold or silver, or decorated with the precious metals; and the mouthpiece also was built with such noble metals, or even ivory. As already mentioned, the patrons enjoyed indulging in the activity during palanquin and boat rides, watching entertainment programs, or when meeting visitors and guests.The artistes and sculptors of Bengal temples have marvellously brought this cultural portrait to life with much love and dedication.

My humble tribute to these masterminds.


Man with a Hookah_ Ajodhya
A man smoking a small Gargara_ Pratapeswar, Kalna
Hookah, Bankati
hookha bakanti
Hookah, Nandadulaljiu temple, Gurap
Landlord smoking Gargara_ Gopinath temple, Dashghara 1


Photo Courtesy : Asis Kumar Chatterjee

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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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