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The Living Past in Present-day Radh Bengal

 

History writing, as historians themselves assert, is premised on the present. The past becomes meaningful and usable when it is channelised by the contemporary desires of individuals and communities. How should we try to bridge the seemingly disparate spheres of professional and public knowledge? Alongside the Archaeological Survey of India, the various museums in India stood as the surest symbol of official custody over the country’s art and archaeological treasures, a main marker of new regional political identities, and a chief locus of historical scholarship on Indian art. They played a major role in the constitution of a composite Indian art history and the packaging of history as the embodiment of the nation. What we encounter over the years is a complex framework of historical periods, stylistic sequences, schools, iconographies, and denominations that are continuously elaborated and refined from within. Here, the orthodoxies of the discipline have stemmed not only from the strictures of methods and canons but also from the demands of a national history (Guha Thakurta 2004). Then, how do individuals and communities understand and associate themselves with their past, away from institutional history writing?

 

Beyond the institutionalised frame of dealing and writing about the past, one practice is that of antiquarianism. As Upinder Singh notes, it can be used to refer to ‘the discovery, collection and description of antiquities, or to the amateur study of artefacts or monuments’ (2004). In many parts of India there are many kinds of antiquarian practices. There are community practices rooted in religion, which preserve objects of antiquarian interest. These material traces are not seen as the dead past, instead they are frequently viewed as integral elements to the living present.

 

The practice of antiquarianism also seems to have an older genealogy and it is likely to have premodern roots. In the early centuries CE at Bhita, an ancient town near Allahabad, there were people who collected such curios. Excavations have revealed two neoliths from the remnants of a house in Bhita. The historian Nayanjot Lahiri opines that either they were implements used by the neighbouring jungle tribes when they occupied Bhita or they were being used for religious purposes. Alternatively, the residents of Bhita may well have collected curious objects that resembled their own paraphernalia of worship and thought they were worthy of worship (Lahiri 2013).

 

Such antiquarianism was widely observed and recorded by European antiquarians and archaeologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Alexander Cunningham’s reports reveal extensive documentation of broken sculptural relics and the manner in which they were worshipped. Cunningham recorded such collections in places ranging from Kukrihar and Nalanda in Bihar to Gwalior and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh and even as far as Sahiwal in Pakistan. Apart from temples, Cunningham also described fragments and images placed around sacred groves and trees. To give one such story, in 1917, a person named Maulavi Qazi Sayyid Muhammad Azimul found a large block of stone, partially submerged in the Ganges, at the town of Didarganj Kadam Basul, near Patna. It did not take him long to discover that the stone was originally a pedestal for a large polished stone statue. When unearthed and set upright, it stood as 6 feet 9 inches tall. With a chipped-off nose and graceful smile, this statue would go on to be the famous Didarganj Yakshi, a national treasure marking the sophistication of Mauryan art. After the Maulavi had found the statue, some ‘unauthorized persons’ carried it a few yards upstream and made a makeshift shrine for it. As D. B. Spooner, the then curator of the Patna Museum, said,

‘Here it was again set up, this time under a canopy improvised on four bamboos, which was so speedily invested with the character of an incipient shrine, that tentative worship had been instituted (under the mistaken  belief that this was a Hindu deity) before the fact of the discovery was brought to the notice of any but the Police…’ (Davis 1997)

 

The sculpture was, however, eventually taken away by the police. Experts on Indian art, on the other hand, assessed it in terms of the modeling skill of the sculptor. They sought to locate it within a larger historical sequence of Indian sculpture and through comparison with similar objects. These two conceptions of the Yakshi exemplify the polar ways of understanding works of art. Following Walter Benjamin’s distinction, the historian Richard Davis argues that the Indian villagers accent the cult value of the icon while the experts and British officials esteemed the statue for its exhibition value (Davis 1997).

 

There are, thus, different modes of seeing, exemplifying the different ways that people look at the material past of the landscape that they inhabit, preserve various elements of their material culture, and then incorporate those remains into their lives in order to make sense of the past. Antiquities get seamlessly integrated into local sociological associations.

 

This is manifest in the festival of Gajan. The past lives on in the present in the hamlet of Dihar, as devotees gather around the deeply venerated temples of Sareshwar and Saileshwar in the months of Chaitra and Baishakh. At the temple complex at Dihar, Sareshwar and Saileshwar form a pair, standing on elevated land a short distance from the Dwarakeswar river. The Shiva temples house representations of the deity in the form of linga and yoni (the phallic aniconic representation of Shiva) that symbolise the complementarity of the male and female forces of life. Daily pujas are performed throughout the year by a line of brahmins. Guarding the divinity are representations of Bhairava in the shape of earthenware horses and elephants, and these have accumulated over the years. Having been granted a boon by the deity, grateful devotees sometimes donate such images to the temple.

 

Here it may be useful for us to deviate a little and go into the meaning of the festival. The word ‘Gajan’ probably comes from the Sanskrit word garjana, meaning cry or shout. During the festival the bhaktas (devotees) call Shiva, hoping to draw attention to the acts of devotion they perform. In the Gajan they perform a special kind of devotion. The devotees (bhaktas) serve and follow Shiva. For the days of the ritual, they are separated from everyday life but return to their household chores once the festival is over. Among the most striking features of the Gajan are the processions of the bhaktas from one shrine to another with loud recitations of Shiva’s name in unison. Everyone has the right to take part in the Gajan and to worship at the temples. The central feature of the Gajan is to obliterate caste distinctions (Ostor 2004).Though the Gajan is entirely a voluntary performance, preparations are made for large crowds, as every year hundreds of bhaktas throng the temple premises. The ancient temple comes alive with devotees seeking blessings, as well as tourists who come to witness the spectacle.

 

Interestingly, another temple that is a part of the procession of Gajan lies in the town of Bishnupur. The Buro-Shib (The Elderly Shiva) temple, as it is known, is a revered place of worship for the townsmen. This temple houses some old images in addition to the linga. The carved stone images of the sun (Surya) and the goddess (Chandi) are worshipped side by side with the titular deity.

 

While the community comes together at a site of historical importance every year for a festival, there are numerous instances where fragments of the past are preserved by communities as objects of worship. The whole region of Radh Bengal is dotted with such occurrences. We will restrict ourselves to the sites in the present-day district of Bankura and, borrowing the term coined by Nayanjot Lahiri, record a few of such cases of what can be called ‘living antiquarianism’. Sculptures belonging to the early medieval period, notwithstanding which religion or culture they originally represented, have found their way into both old and modern temple complexes. Sometimes local shrines have come up to revere the deities.

 

At the temple of Ekteswar on the bank of the Dwarakeshwar river, along with the eponymous image of the deity Shiva, there stands an image of Ganesha, two images of Vishnu Lokeswara and a figure of a bull.The sculptures are generally assigned to c. 11th‒12th century CE. Similarly, at the site of Deulbherya near Chhatna, on the base of laterite foundations of an early medieval temple, lies the modern temple dedicated to Vishnu, but, at the same time, contains three sculptures, all of which belong to the 11th‒12th century CE. They are Vishnu Lokeswara, Kubera and Nataraja in medallion.

 

At the site of Dharapat, on the banks of Dwarakesvara near Bishnupur, images of tirthankaras (as the thirteen spiritual teachers of Jainism are called) are plaqued on the temple walls of Nengta Thakurer Mandir (the temple of the naked god). The name of the temple may have been derived from the Jain images. Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay notes that the images on the temple walls seem to have been shifted to this place from somewhere else. The intact image in stone of Vishnu (c. 11th century) is embedded on the east wall of the shrine. The life size image of Vishnu is crowned and stands in erect posture, replete with the attributes, namely shankha (lotus), chakra (disc), gada (mace) and padma (lotus). The image is accompanied by attendant deities, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. A modern temple nearby houses a figure of Parsvanatha, though later it was transformed into that of Lokeswara Vishnu.

 

The site of Bhagalpur on the Dwarakeswar has an assemblage of sculptural specimens, now installed under a tree. They include the sculpture of a Jain tirthankara, a hero stone, two fragmented images of Vishnu, a broken piece constituting the head of a deity and a damaged patta (a kind of plaque). At another village near Hadal Narayanpur, near the dried up bed of Damodar, habitation remains have been identified. The find spot of an image of tirthankara is surrounded by bamboo groves and is now recognised as a place of worship of the gram devata, or the village deity. The image must have been transported from some other place in its vicinity in a somewhat later period.

 

Similarly, at Lakshmisagar, a number of sculptural specimens have been found from a place of local worship, known as Rankinitala. Besides the scattered fragments, an image of Adinatha is seen installed under a tree. The presence of historical relics in this area could be visualised in terms of a growth of settlements, both secular and religious, in localities such as this, which is striking because this lies in a region that is surrounded by woodlands. At Salda, the image of Vishnu with the depiction of a canopy of snake over its head has been identified by the local people as that of the Goddess Manasa (Manasa is associated with snakes). The place of worship has come to be known as Manasatala. At some distance within a dilapidated late medieval temple, a stone sculpture of Uma‒Maheshwara is still worshipped by the locals as Manasa.

 

Apart from these, there is a cluster of temple ruins near a large tank. According to local tradition, the temple was destroyed by Kalapahar, the mythical iconoclast, or alternatively due to Bargi (Maratha) invasions. At Hadal Narayanpur, the images of Jaina Yaksha‒Yakshini,a Shiva linga, an image of Parvati and a number of other unidentified images are housed in a modern temple in an area known as Brahmanipara. The Brahmani who is worshipped, interestingly, is an image of Parvati. R. D. Banerjee suggested that the image could be dated as late as 16th century CE (Chattopadhyay 2010).

 

The temple of Bahulara houses three images—that of Mahisasuramardini, Ganesha and Tirthankara—are worshipped even to this day along with the titular deity of Shiva Siddheswara. The present priest, who hails from the adjoining village of Bahulara, related that the Jain figurine is worshipped as Ananta. The awareness that it is actually a representation of a Jain tirthankara never stopped the villagers or the priests to worship it the same way as the other images. The awareness among the villagers about the antiquity of the place is another important aspect to be noted. It is a matter of pride for the community to be associated with something so old and the past is treated with utmost reverence.

 

Do we then have what can be called 'interpretive communities'? This can be understood as communities who share cultural assumptions may also share interpretive strategies. The literary critic Stanley Fish asserts that there is no single way of reading anything that is universal or correct. Different interpretive communities reading the same physical text but working with different interpretive strategies may result in different readings. Also, the interpretive strategies themselves are learned and acquired within particular social settings. It thus has a social as well as a historical dimension. This idea of interpretive communities is valuable for understanding the plurality of ways in which viewers encounter and approach a visual object, be it a text or a sculpture. Also worth considering is the relative importance of setting and presentation. The location and setting of an object plays a constitutive role in the act of viewing. Also, the viewers bring their own kinds of assumptions, understanding and expectations and hopes to what they see (Davis 1997).

 

From the perspective of antiquarianism, what is important is that, by integrating these fragments in their shrines and mythologies, villagers have aided the survival of ancient artefacts and antiquities in the vicinity of their settlements. This is an excellent and non-Western conservation practice that has ensured the preservation of artefacts and sculptures in their original contexts. However, this does not mean that destruction of sites does not take place in rural areas but suggests that those images and antiquities that are perceived and incorporated through a filter of local beliefs and practices are more likely to be revered and preserved (Lahiri 2013). It is thus important for us to understand the culture and beliefs that go into such practices and we need to give these practices their due in terms of research instead of dismissing them as ignorance of the villagers about the ‘historical’ importance of the artefacts and sculptures.

 

Most of the sculptures have not withstood the ravages of time, a part of which can also be attributed to human intervention. Some sites (for instance, Telkupi) have been completely submerged during the construction of a dam on the Dwarakeshwar river. However, what has survived is of massive importance to us as they lead us to a lesser known chapter of history.

 

 

Shiva linga worshipped along with local deities and other terracotta artefacts as votive offerings, Dihar

 

 

References

 

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

 

Davis, Richard H. 1997. Lives of Indian Images. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.

 

Guha Thakurta, Tapati. 2004. Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post Colonial India. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

Lahiri, Nayanjot. 2013. ‘Living Antiquarianism in India’, In World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Alain Schnapp. Getty.

 

Ostor, Akos. 2004. The Play of the Gods:Locality, Ideology, Structure and Time in the Festivals of a Bengali Town. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.

 

‘Sons of Shiva’. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPgW7bElORk (viewed on February 20, 2018)