A Medley of Faiths: Towards a Composite Religious Culture in Early Medieval Rāḍh

in Article
Published on: 03 July 2018

Debdutta Sanyal

Debdutta Sanyal completed her graduation from St. Stephen's College, Delhi and MA in History from Delhi University. She is currently an MPhil research scholar in early Indian history at Delhi University. She has also served as a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University. Her research interests include historical archaeology and study of representations in literature and visual arts.


The broad aim of the article is to look into the history and culture of the Rāḍh region (south-western parts of Bengal, geographically marked owing to its rugged terrain and ferruginous soil) in the early medieval period through an investigation of the material culture. 


While the town of Bishnupur is well known for its medieval terracotta temples, the architectural heritage of the place has much deeper roots. Particularly fascinating examples are the Siddheśvara temple at Bahulara, originally most probably a Jaina temple, now dedicated to Siddheśvara Mahādeva, and one of the oldest of its types with śikhara of the nāgara, or the Northern style of temple architecture. The Archaeological Survey of India assigns its probable date to c. 11th/12th century CE. The nearby site of Dihar, on the other hand, houses the twin temples of Śaileśvara and Ṣāṅḍeśvara dedicated to Śiva. It has been dated to about 10th/11th century CE by Rakhaldas Banerjee, while D.B Spooner dates it to the 14th century CE. At the site of Sonatopol stands a sun temple. Interestingly, the temples do not follow the Bengali style of architecture, but rather belong to the Odisha style of rekha-deul type (a vertically linear style) of temple construction. Comparable to these temples are the ones particularly at the sites of Telkupi, Deulbhira, and Pakbira in the Purulia district.


The regions surrounding Bishnupur yielded a number of relics—the sculptures  encompass Vaiṣnava, Śaiva, Śākta and Jaina, and Buddhist folds and mostly belong to the early medieval period (10th‒12th century), mirroring the eclectic religious practices prevalent in this region. Notable among them are images of Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras as well as Jaina votive deuls, Śiva images, both in form of liṅgas and as Naṭarāja or Bhairava as well as several Vishnu figures. We also see sculptures of Mahiṣāsuramardinī and Camunḍā among the divinities. Jaina images and votive deuls have been found from Sonatopol, Bahulara, Dharapat and Pareshnath. The mound of Pareshnath, now submerged in water, also yielded sculptures of Sūrya as well as of the Jain tīrthaṅkara Pārśvanātha. Thus, most of the sites do not adhere to any one particular religious affiliation. In this article we will conduct a brief survey of the relics that have been found in this region and then try to understand the socio-political context they belonged to. Thus, this article will cover the story of the making of a space, where influences have converged, giving the region an identity of its own.


Walking among ruins: A survey of sculptural relics


The Susunia rock inscription, according to scholars, is the earliest known epigraphic record of worshipping Viṣṇu in Bengal. Cakrasvāmī, or the lord of the wheel, Viṣṇu was symbolically represented on the Susunia rock accompanying the inscription. The Viṣṇu images from this region date back to the 10th‒12th century, although some date further back, and they come from Brahmandiha, Dharapat, Sarengarh, Joypur, and Ambikanagar, among others. Most of them are in a standing posture, adorned with kirīṭamukuṭa (a crown) and yajnopavīta (the sacred thread), holding śaṅkha (the conch), cakra (the disc), gadā (the mace) and padma (the lotus). A beautiful image of Viṣṇu in the reclining posture, anantaśayana, with Lakṣmī at his feet has been dated to the 10th century CE by J.C French. Interestingly, a 12th‒13th century Viṣṇupaṭṭa (a kind of plaque) showing the 10 incarnations of Viṣṇu on both sides has been discovered from Chhandar. It shows resemblance to paṭṭas found in various other sites, especially from eastern Bengal. Other than that, Viṣṇu appears as the Varāha or boar incarnation from Gokulnagar, with the figure appearing with the body of a man and face of a boar, as Narasiṃha from Mukutmanipur and as Vāmana from Radhanagar. A tortoise (kūrma) from Baital is now worshipped as an image of the popular Dharma cult.


The Viṣṇu Lokeśvara is typical of the syncretic culture of this region. Vaiṣnava and Mahāyāna Buddhist elements merged seamlessly. An early example of such an image was found in Surohar in Dinajpur. Rakhaldas Banerji claims that these elements came about as the older Bhāgavata cult of Vaiṣnava images blended in with that of the Lokeśvara cult of later Mahāyāna. D.C. Bhattacharya has referred to Lokeśvara as Buddhist Viṣṇu. Two varieties of this image can be seen—four-handed and twelve-handed. And in both cases, snake hoods over their heads and figures of Amitābha on their crests have been found. All the images of Lokeśvara Viṣṇu from this area (Ekteshwar, Deulbherya, Thumkara, and Biharinath, among others) are twelve-armed, but they do not have the figure of Amitābha on their crests (except one from Jorda). Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay observes that it may be because most of these images are highly abraded. Interestingly, a 12th-century Lokeśvara image from Biharinath has a miniature of a six-armed dancing figure of Śiva or Naṭarāja carved on a medallion on the middle face of the pañca-ratha (five tiered vertical offset projection) pedestal.  A beautiful Garuḍa from 12th‒13th-century Jaykrishnapur, possibly a part of a pillar capital, is now preserved in the Bishnupur museum. Apart from these, there are Āyudhapurūṣas and Śaṅkhapurūṣas, associated with icons of Viṣṇu (Chattopadhyay 2010).


Śiva, on the other hand, is widely worshipped in his symbolic liṅga form, and the liṅgas found from the Bankura region belong to three categories—plain, ekamukha (with a single human face carved on the surface) and caturmukha (with four human faces carved). The plain liṅgas come from Pakhanna, Paresnath, Hadal Narayanpur, Sarengarh and Dihar. One of the ekamukhaliṅgas is accompanied with a carving of Gauri. The only specimen of caturmukhaliṅga comes from Jiorda. There are also multiple figures of Umā-Maheśvara found from sites such as Salda and Hadal Narayanpur and belong to the 12th‒14th century. This is another instance that reflects processes of assimilation, which can be seen in the marriage of Śaiva and Śākta traditions. Śiva in Naṭarāja has also been recorded in this region, one in independent form and two on medallions. Regarding the image of Naṭarāja on medallions, R.D. Banerji says that such medallions were used in Odisha up to the 13th century CE. The earliest form of such medallions was to be found in the caitya windows (i.e., resembling that of Buddhist prayer halls) in architectural decoration of the Kuṣāṇa and the Gupta school, and extensively used in the 6th century CE at Badami. Śiva is also seen here as Bhairava, found from Salda and Bishnupur, among others.


Apart from these, a few images of Sūrya, Gaṇeśa, Kuvera and Skanda-Kārtikeya have been found.Among the female deities, we find Durgā in the form of Mahiṣāsuramardinī, that is, in her ferocious form. As many as eight such portrayals have been found from different regions in Bankura, such as Salda, Bahulara, Naricha, Pakhanna, etc. There are also figures of Camuṇḍā found in the region. One such sculpture, from Atbaichandi, is striking in the way the goddess is represented with bones and veins showing through the skin, bare canine teeth, a ghastly expression on her face. She wears a garland of skulls but one of her hands is in varadāmudrā (the gesture of boon). We also encounter three images of Manasā, a folk deity associated with snakes, from Naricha, Rautkhanda and Baital, roughly assignable to the 12th‒13th century. Interestingly, according to the Mahābhārata, Manasā is the consort of the hermit Jaratkaru and the sister of Vāsukī. The deity is also sometimes identified with the Buddhist goddess Jaṅgulī. It is generally believed that Manasā is primarily a folk deity, who was gradually absorbed into the Brahmanical system, a process that is reflected the Manasāmaṅgala kāvyas, a part of a genre of Bengali religious literature in verse composed in the Medieval period.


The diversity in the religious culture of the region is exemplified by the presence of Buddhist images belonging mostly to the 10th‒13th century. Mahāyāna Buddhism and its Tāntric forms seem to have spread in the villages. These images, albeit only six in number, come from the sites of Brahmandiha, Deulbhira and Ambikanagar. Out of these, four are of Bodhisattva Lokanātha, one of which has been found plaqued on the front wall of a Śiva temple from Brahmandiha. Among the female divinities, one has tentatively been identified as Mārīcī, and another 10-armed goddess as Mahāpratisarā, an emanation of Ratnasambhava. At Brahmandiha and Deulbhira, however, there is a concentration of Buddhist remains. The spread of Buddhism could have been with the people who migrated from Orissa, as well as transportation of images from adjoining regions of Orissa, which had quite a few Buddhist centres. 


Interestingly, the region of Rāḍh, including both the present-day districts of Bankura and Purulia, abounds in Jaina sculptures. The Jaina sculptures consist of many of the tīrthaṅkaras, a few images of yakṣiṇīs (guardian deities) and śāsanadevīs (local personal goddesses) and numerous caumukhas, or votive deuls, representing tīrthaṅkaras. It is important to note here that the śrivatsa symbol (one of the eight auspicious symbols in Jainism) that marks the chest of images of the tīrthaṅkaras is mostly absent from the ones from this region. The tīrthaṅkaras include Ādinātha, Ajitanātha, Supārśvanātha, Candraprabha, Śāntinātha, Neminātha, Parśvanātha and Mahāvīra. They have come from places such as Dharapat, Ambikanagar, Satpatta, Harmasra, among others, all belonging to the 10th‒11th century. The only image of Neminātha from Salda (11th century) comes with an image of a female deity, probably Ambikā, on the pedestal. Pārśvanātha seems to have been a popular deity, as many as fifteen such figures have been found from all over Bankura, while the images of Mahāvīra stand at five, and they have been dated up to the 13th century. There are also images of Śāsanadevī Ambikā and Siddhayikā found from places such as Ambikanagar, Sulgi, Barkola and Satpatta. Numerous caumukhas have been found scattered all across the region. The caumukhas are, in fact, votive deuls, made as a replica of the rekh-deul type of temples, with four tīrthaṅkaras adorning the four sides. Chittaranjan Dasgupta suggests that such votive deuls were a way of expressing devotion for those who did not have the resources to construct temples. Apart from these, fragments of sculptures have been found in huge numbers from sites such as Deulbhira, Biharinath, Jiorda, Sonatopol, etc.


Understanding the early medieval: Forces of influences


Bankura had its own socio-cultural identity as reflected in the archaeological records of the early medieval period. Early Bengal consisted of different geo-political units such as Vardhamānabhukti, Daṇḍabhukti, and Rāḍha or Rāḍhamaṇḍala, among others. The cultural matrix of the Rāḍha region was defined by the way it was connected to both the plains and plateau regions. It was, therefore, influenced by cross currents of culture, ranging from that of the Chhotanagpur plateau to the Gangetic plain, along with that of coastal Bengal and Odisha. To go further back in time, during the time of Śaśāṅka (7th century CE), the region around Bankura formed a part of Gauḍa, with several local chieftains involved in structuring its society and culture.


Subsequently, especially owing to its position as a frontier region, it also witnessed a number of invasions—of the Rāṣtrakūṭas, the Canḍellas and the Kalacuris during the rule of Palas in Bengal. According to the Khajuraho inscription, the Canḍella king Dhanga conquered Rāḍha and Aṅgadeśa (Chattopadhyay 2010). The Tirumalai inscription of Madras records the defeat of Raṇaśūr, the chief of Garmandaran of southern Rāḍh, at the hands of Rājendra Cola (1024 CE). The Rāmacarita by Sandhyakara Nandi mentions that the last great Pala king Ramapala sought help from Viraguna, king of Kotatavi, and Lakshmisura, the lord of Aparamandara, among others, to subdue the Kaivarta rebellion and re-establish his authority. Kotatovi can be identified with Koteswara, which now lies to the east of Bishnupur in Bankura. Rāḍha was also attacked by Anantavarman Coḍagaṅgā of the Gaṅgā dynasty in the 11th century CE (Chattopahyay 2010; Singha 1978).


The region’s chequered political history in some ways shaped its cultural matrix, which was marked by syncretism. Such political background was also probably a catalyst to construction of religious architecture in this region. Bankura is dotted with a number of rekha-deul temples, primarily of the Orissan variety, dedicated to both Brahminical and Jaina deities. Not many of the Jaina temples are extant, but the region is marked by a profusion of votive shrines, known as caturmukhas or caumukhas of rekh-deul type, dedicated to the Jaina tīrthaṅkaras. In terms of literary evidence, the Jaina connection is reflected in the Basantabilās, which refers to Vastupal’s pilgrimage to Gauḍa and Vaṅga, among other regions. He was accompanied by members of the Jainasaṅgha.


Chittaranjan Dasgupta suggests that the Jainas frequented this region as they were involved in trade of metal—primarily iron and copper. Telkupi, Barakar, Dulmi, and Ambikanagar were nodal points. Maniklal Singha also mentions Ranibandh as a nodal point. This whole region served as a hinterland to the port of Tamralipta. Jainism in Rāḍh centered around the rivers Kangsabati and Kumari. An important site, Ambikanagar, lay at the confluence of these two rivers. At Kechanda, there is an eight-feet-tall sculpture of Ambikā, accompanied by an image of a dhyānī tīrthaṅkara (in meditation). The iconotext (inscription that accompanies an image) on the stele comes from Jaina Puranas, according to R.D. Banerji (Dasgupta 2016).


Occasional instances of conversion of architectural and sculptural specimens of Jaina affiliation into Brahminical deities indicate the prevalence of Jaina mode was older or in certain cases contemporary to the ascendance of Brahminism in this region. The majority of the sculptures found in the region belong to the Brahminical and Jaina folds, and are similar in style to the Orissan style of Lohitagiri, Lalitagiri and Ratnagiri. Almost every sculpture was made of black phyllite, a fine grained metamorphic rock. The nearby Chhotanagpur plateau must have served as a quarry for this. Also, in terms of their general characteristics, Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay states that the dimensions of sculptural finds suggest that they were primarily meant for decoration of temple facades and niches or they served as major deities to be worshipped in the sanctum, or they served as deities to be installed within temple premises. The latter can also be seen in Deogarh (central India) and Ratnagiri (Odisha) traditions (Chattopadyay 2010).


How do we then see the early medieval in the Bankura region in terms of changes and continuities? Here Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay notes, the roots of the continuities and the significant changes were exclusive to its geo-physical bearings, which were instrumental in its change‒continuity relationship. However, it needs to be remembered that paucity of historical records makes it difficult to reconstruct the early medieval in this region. The general frameworks posited in historiography cannot be fully visualized when it comes to the region under study. Thus, it becomes difficult to argue for or against the set parameters such as feudalism, integration, segmentation, fragmentation, etc. The local state formation was based on the interdependence between the temporal power and the sacred authority and must have been associated with the practice of land grants to Brahmanas. We cannot, however, say this with complete assertion because we are yet to come across land grant records.


It seems that the local lineages with varied backgrounds had acquired legitimacy by giving patronage to Brahmanas. Lakṣmīśura, mentioned earlier, is mentioned in the Rāmacarita as the ‘head of the group of chiefs of the forest’. Vīraguṇa was the lord of Kotatavi—the suffix ‘aṭavī’ indicating the forested nature of the area. The intervention of Orissan rulers and subsequent penetration of Orissan Brahmanas in this region also had an effect on the socio-cultural matrix. M. Singha has opined that the Mahapatra community of the region had distinct roots in Orissa, and some of the chieftains who gained ascendancy here may have been scions of families of ministers or courtiers of the Gaṇgā rulers of Orissa (Singha, 1978). Chattopadhyay argues that the changing contour of socio-religious background and its appreciation by the local ruling lineages gradually expanded their dominance over the landscape, whereas the tribal mode of economy persisted over a longer period of time. We thus see a kind of interdependence between local temporal power and sacred authority.


On the question of political sovereignty and ritual sovereignty, Upinder Singh and B.P. Sahu have discussed the involvement of temples in generating revenue and consolidation of local ruling authorities in the context of early medieval Orissa temples catered to socio-religious needs of a large section of people, and functioned as a link between the patron and the rest of the population. The organizational structure of temples helped in consolidation of royalty and, at the same time, they could mobilize resources of land and manpower, including the involvement of rural artisans and trading communities (Singh 1994). We can assume with a fair degree of certainty that such a complex relationship between the farmer, the Brahmin, and the land owner was established in this region as well. Also, pilgrimage and trade routes, both Jaina and Brahminical introduced common people to broader pan-Indian perspectives. Sites such as Susunia, Chhatna, Ekteswar, Bahulara, Dihar, Garbeta, Chandrokona and Tamluk could be linked to probable pilgrimage routes (Chattopadhyay 2010).


The legitimization process also must have facilitated the assimilation of the indigenous people into mainstream social structure. The sites or settlements mostly having association with religious developments, particularly in the areas with a concentration of tribal population such as Sarengarh, Ambikanagar, Sonatopol, etc., witnessed such phenomenon. Also, with the emergence of various specialized professions, the various authochthonous groups were also incorporated into the caste system. The annual census reports from the British period record that the tribals and ‘Hinduized tribals’, designated as Antyajas, were more in number than the upper castes, or uccajātis. Although they initially must have remained outside the pale of Hindu society, given their exposure and interaction to the Hindu social structure, they gradually assimilated themselves into it. Several social groups such as the Caṇḍālas and the Mucis, among others, are said to have participated in the patronization of temples and other socio-religious activities. C. Gupta cites a 15th-century inscription that recorded such traditions.


At the same time, worship of local deities remained as important as the canonical Puranic gods and goddesses. Also, a significant part of Bankura consists of tribals whose religion is compounded of elements borrowed from orthodox Brahmanical traits along with animism and nature worship. The above-mentioned Kūrma worshipped as Dharma Thākur attests to such hybridization of culture. Myriad local cults and oral traditions thus get incorporated into institutionalized Hinduism, which, in turn, lent Hinduism its regional or local character. Thus, we see Brahminization on the one hand, and, on the other, a kind of continuum representing a wide range of ideas, rituals and beliefs. Politically too, as epigraphic records from the 14th‒15th century show, a number of tribal principalities, known as Bhūma territories, came into prominence along the fringes of the Chhotanagpur plateau. The regional chiefs acted as patrons of temples and continued and accelerated the process of formation of large settlements (Chattopadhyay 2010).


This region, on the one hand, reflects regional culture and, on the other, it has pan-Indian bearings as it encountered movements of a large number of people of diverse religious and cultural beliefs. This article was thus an attempt to bring to light a much less studied chapter in the history of eastern India. The early medieval played a formative role in the creation of the regional identity of south-western Rāḍh. It also served as a base for the socio-cultural developments that followed.




Chattopadhyay, Rupendra Kumar. 2010. Bankura: A Study of Its Archaeological Sources. Kolkata: Platinum Publishers.


Dasgupta, Chittaranjan. 2016. Paschimbanger murtishilpa o sanskriti. Bishnupur: Arati Printers.


Singh, Upinder. 1994. Kings, Brahmanas and Temples in Orissa: An Epigraphic Study, AD 300‒1147. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.


Singha, Maniklal. 1978. Paschim Rahr Tatha Bankura Sanskriti. Bishnupur.