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Mysterious Terracotta architecture : The Creeper of Death

Updated on January 3, 2017
"Mrityulata" panel in terracotta; Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap, Hooghly, West Bengal
"Mrityulata" panel in terracotta; Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap, Hooghly, West Bengal

Introduction

‘The Creeper of Death’ (‘Mrityulata’ in Bengali) is a special architectural pattern in terracotta seen in the medieval temples of Bengal. The other name of this special terracotta design is ‘Barsha’ (meaning a lance) architecture. In some of the medieval temples in Bengal, along the corners of the temple, a triangular vertical terracotta architecture displaying a series of figures each trying to kill or devour up the one immediately below was placed. This was called ‘Barsha’ or ‘Mrityulata’ architecture in the vernacular.

Origin

The actual origin of this special architectural design is not clearly known, though the majority of the authorities believe that this has its origin from the architectural practice of the carpenters who used to place such angular design in the corners of wooden chariots constructed for religious purpose.

On the otherhand, some authorities believe that this has its origin in the tradition of placing ‘Gaja-Sardul’ (Elephant-Tiger) or ‘Gaja-Singha’ (elephant-Lion) idols on the side of the idol of god/goddess in some ancient or early medieval stone temples.

Where found

‘The Creeper of Death’ design is usually seen in the ‘Ratna’ type of temples (temples with one or multiple pinnacles), though found rarely in other types of temples (like the ‘Aatchala’ type of temple of Lord Radha Govinda at Aantpur, district Hooghly or the 'Aatchala' type temple of Nandadulal Jiu at Gurap, also of Hooghly district).

The 'Ratna' ('Nabaratna' in this case) type of temple at Hadal Narayanpur
The 'Ratna' ('Nabaratna' in this case) type of temple at Hadal Narayanpur
The 'Aatchala' type temple of Nandadulal Jiu at Gurap
The 'Aatchala' type temple of Nandadulal Jiu at Gurap

The design of ‘The Creeper of Death’

It is a vertical triangular projection made of terracotta from the angles of the main body of the temple, where a large number of figures are placed one above the other extending from the roof to the floor. The figures include those of men, demons, animals, hunters, gods and goddesses. The striking posture seen is that every figure in the series is seen to attack, kill or devour up the figure below it, and hence the design is known as ‘Mrityulata’ (‘The Creeper of Death’).

A 'Mrityulata' panel showing its angular position. From Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum
A 'Mrityulata' panel showing its angular position. From Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum

Significance

Interestingly, the religious or social significance of this special design is not clearly known. It may signify the ceaseless procession of death or the insignificance of life, whoever or whatever the person or the animal may be.

Whatever the actual significance, the march of death in the vertical rows generates an eerie feeling in the mind of the observer.

Mrityulata : some prominent examples

1. Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly : In this ‘Pancharatna’ temple (temple with 5 pinnacles) one can see prominent figures of a hunter on horseback fighting a lion, a tiger attacking a hunter on horseback, demons devouring up humans and a hunter attacking a tiger which has attacked an elephant.

Gopinath temple; Dashghara, district Hooghly
Gopinath temple; Dashghara, district Hooghly
Mrityulata panel 1 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara
Mrityulata panel 1 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara
Mrityulata panel 2 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara
Mrityulata panel 2 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara
Mrityulata panel 3 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara
Mrityulata panel 3 : Gopinath temple; Dashghara

'Mrityulata' : Prominent examples 2

A fine example is the Radha Vinod temple of Joydev-Kenduli, Birbhum : In this ‘Nabaratna’ temple (temple with 9 pinnacles) the general designing is soldiers attacking another one placed immediately below it.

 Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum district; a 'Nabaratna' type temple
Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum district; a 'Nabaratna' type temple
'Mrityulata' panel from Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum district
'Mrityulata' panel from Radha Govinda temple, Joydev-Kenduli; Birbhum district

'Mrityulata' : Prominent examples 3

Lalji temple of Kalna, Bardhaman : In this ‘Panchabingshati Ratna’ temple (temple with 25 pinnacles) prominent examples are those of a tiger attacking a hunter on horseback who in turn is attacking a deer and Goddess Kali attacking a demon on horseback who in turn is trampling an elephant.

 Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district; a 'Panchabingshati Ratna' temple (temple with 25 pinnacles).
Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district; a 'Panchabingshati Ratna' temple (temple with 25 pinnacles).
'Mrityulata' panel 1; from Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district
'Mrityulata' panel 1; from Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district
'Mrityulata' panel 2; from Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district
'Mrityulata' panel 2; from Lalji temple; Kalna, Bardhaman district
'Mrityulata' panel 3; from Lalji temple showing Goddess Kali; Kalna, Bardhaman district
'Mrityulata' panel 3; from Lalji temple showing Goddess Kali; Kalna, Bardhaman district

'Mrityulata' : prominent example 4

Nandadulal Jiu temple at Gurap, district Hooghly : In this ‘Aatchala’ (temple with 8 roofs) type of temple a fragment of this 'Mrityulata' panel is intact now. It shows the usual vertical row of violent figures.

Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap, Hooghly district
Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap, Hooghly district
'Mrityulata' panel from Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap
'Mrityulata' panel from Nandadulal Jiu temple; Gurap

'Mrityulata' : prominent example 5

A ‘Nabaratna’ temple (temple with 9 pinnacles) at Hadal Narayanpur, Bankura shows the usual vertical rows of violent figures.

'Mrityulata' panel from a temple in Hadal Narayanpur, district Bankura
'Mrityulata' panel from a temple in Hadal Narayanpur, district Bankura

'Mrityulata' : a misnomer?

In some temples, similar angular architectural design is seen without the usual vertical rows of violent figures. Probably that is why some authorities do not use the term “Mrityulata” (‘The Creeper of Death’) and call it “Barsha” (meaning a lance) design.

In some temples, instead of the usual violent figures , there are floral designs. An example is the angular floral terracotta design of the Ramchandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly.

Interestingly, in the 'Mrityulata' design of the Nandadulal Jiu temple of Gurap, a portion of the design shows few copulating human figures in vertical rows. Definitely this is not related with physical death. Hence, there arises a question, is the name 'Mrityulata' (Creeper of death) correct, or should we call it 'Barsha' design as some of the authorities pointed out?

Ramchandra temple, Guptipara, district Hooghly. It is a 'Ratna' type of temple ('Ek Ratna' meaning temple with a single pinnacle)
Ramchandra temple, Guptipara, district Hooghly. It is a 'Ratna' type of temple ('Ek Ratna' meaning temple with a single pinnacle)
'Barsha' design from Ramchandra temple, Guptipara, district Hooghly.
'Barsha' design from Ramchandra temple, Guptipara, district Hooghly.
Erotic 'Barsha' design from Nandadulal temple, Gurap, district Hooghly
Erotic 'Barsha' design from Nandadulal temple, Gurap, district Hooghly

Conclusion

Whether it is called “Mrityulata” or “Barsha” design, it is highly fascinating. Standing before the majestic structures, one can only try vainly to fathom what was actually going on in the minds of the architects designing and constructing these intriguing designs.

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