Architecture is a reflection of the people, their beliefs and customs, the land and the culture, their stories and much more. The context is the generator of memories and the formalization of these creates history. Architecture is one of the most potent sites of evidence for the making of history. This study traces the development of architecture in the geographical region of Bengal with the help of some important structures to be able to construct a ‘brush stroke’ narrative of the region. The study starts from some of the oldest architectural references in Bengal, the university of Mahasthangarh and Sompura Mahavihar in today’s Bangladesh and Vikramshila in Bihar, India to name a few. Next, it explores the town of Bishnupur in the district of Bankura in the Indian state of West Bengal, which is not only a container of these aspects but also is a glimpse into the former capital of the Malla rulers. Another town of interest is Murshidabad, the erstwhile capital of Bengal, where the Nawabs exerted their power after the decline of the Mughals. The town is an integral component associated with the history of Bengal. Lastly, the question of colonial developments has been examined. These offer a wide range of trajectories for further exploration.
Centres of Knowledge, the overlap
Several universities or Vidyalayas were functional under the patronage of the Guptas and later under the Imperial Palas in Bengal. The monasteries built in the delta region show an extensive use of bricks, as stone was unavailable and probably wood may have perished over the years. Clay was available in abundance and so the preferred material for constructing these universities became brick. Over the years brick and the landscape around seem to be struggling in an effort, wherein nature tries to reclaim itself and the structure tries to retain itself, slowly but surely giving up to nature. This creates a very interesting dialogue, wherein the overlap between the two creates or defines a language of restricted camouflage. The change in the seasons also marks the change in this language, the monsoons spread a green cover over the structures and the summers leave them unexposed.
Bishnupur, an expression in brick
The seat of the erstwhile Malla rulers, they built a number of temples in their capital city of Bishnupur in the 17th and 18th centuries. The temples are said to have adapted from the local houses in terms of form. These temples made of terracotta not only depict stories on their walls but also are containers of the practices and traditions of the people then. The roofs are categorised as Charchla, Jor-Bangla etc. depending on the form of the temple. The temples of Bishnupur are an example of using modularity as a means of or basis for form development.
The town is dotted with a number of these temples. The relation of the Baluchari textile of Bishnupur and the iconography go hand in hand, the Baluchari is a unique textile made in the town and the cloth serves as a canvas for the story to be told. This shows that there was an inherent link between the architecture and its ornamentation to that of the designs in the Baluchari. The town, a centre of culture is also home to the Bishnupur Gharana that emerged as a result of Royal Patronage. It has contributed extensively to Hindustani Classical music and is also a symbol of the cultural diversity of the town and its people.
The Rasmanch is one of the unique temples in the town, the uniqueness in terms of function as well as in terms of architecture. The placement of columns in the Rasmanch is different as the inner row does not follow the order of the outer grid. The ornamentation is not extensive but is very repetitively found at the eye-level, making it logical in terms of letting the facades being devoid of ornamentation where the normal human eve level cannot perceive.
Murshidabad, spatial stories
The city of Murshidabad was founded by the first Nawab of Bengal, Nawab Murshi Quli Khan in 1704. The city rests on the banks of the river Hooghly; it soon gained importance in the administrative and political aspects which was concentrated in the city of Dhaka before. The city of Murshidabad also became a hub for trade, exchange of commodities, propagation of culture and arts under the patronage of the wealthy. The architecture of the town speaks volumes about the legacy it carries.
The Katra Mosque is one of the earliest buildings built in the city; the mosque was a great centre of Islamic learning. The mosque made of bricks is imposing and symmetric. The Katra Mosque also houses two Minarets. The axis is not direct. The axis to the raised plinth also captures the vignettes which visually connect one to the outside, the expanse of the vegetation. The mass that obscures the vision leads one to the central court, only then is one exposed to the entrance to the mosque and eventually the Qibla wall. The visual journey is also composed of the flooring patterns, these flooring patterns are such that they accommodate one namaz reader per pattern and the mosque is said to have housed about two thousand readers at a time. These geometrical patterns vary in combinations and also act as a visual relief against the imposing terracotta coloured bricks. The patterns are very similar to the patterns seen in the weaves.
Colonial Houses, indigenous modernities
The houses that evolved during the colonial period are notable not only for their exquisite ornamentation and colonial influences but also are associated with the idea of houses in a garden i.e. bagan bari. To study the houses, the lifestyle of the people is to be understood. The humidity levels being high, the markets remain comparatively active in the day. The houses usually have a small water body in the house, mostly in the backyard, the water body provides for the water needs of the family, fishes once introduced to the water body would also suffice the basic needs of food for the family. Such availability of resources left the people with enough time to engage themselves in various activities such as arts, literature and other activities. The houses also had a courtyard which not only helps with the light and ventilation of the house but also are bearers of activities and house festivals such as the Durga Pooja.
These structures exemplify a series of developments which further add up to larger narratives of their time and their relevance today. This enables us to ask wide ranging questions from geography to economics. The attempt here has only been to instigate it, and not to provide a comprehensive understanding of the region. Architecture and its making is a massive repository to delve into and offer new readings in terms of time, context, and essence.
YAKIN AJAY KINGER
Yakin is a graduate of architecture from Nashik and is currently pursuing his M.Arch in Architectural History and Theory from CEPT University, Ahmedabad. He has written articles, essays and has also composed a few poems, which have been published on various platforms. He is interested in the study of built forms and processes, anthropology, and Urbanisation. He is also a student of Indian Classical Music.
● Sengupta, N., (2011) Land of two rivers. Penguin Books. ● Scriver, P. & Prakash, V. (2007) Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon. Taylor & Francis Routledge.
● Hosagrahar, J. (2005) Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture, Urbanism, and Colonialism in Delhi. Taylor & Francis Routledge.