Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jiaganj Museum: a Reflection on the Pala-Sena Art

The attempt of this paper is to re-read the History of Murshidabad during the Pala-Sena era with the help of contemporary sculptures of that time. These sculptures throw light on the society of that time at large and in turn, the politics, economy and culture of that period as well.

On our trip to Murshidabad, we paid a visit to the Jiaganj Museum. The museum has two galleries, displaying sculptures belonging to the Pala-Sena period. The curator of the Museum, Ms. Mousumi Banerjee, was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule and show us around.

The Jiaganj Museum deserves special mention as the private collection of Rai Bahadur of 11th-13th centuries’ sculptures helped me an immense lot in my study. However, we were disappointed to note that some of these invaluable sculptures had been tarnished by the faulty use of chemicals which was indicated by a curious glossy effect.

In this paper, I have first briefly dealt with the chronology of Pala Dynasty rulers and the Sena Dynasty rulers, the political scenario and then gradually moved towards the economy, the social conditions and the cultural scene. After a brief discussion on Pala-Sena art in general, I have moved to the exhibits of the Jiaganj Museum and what the find signifies.…”

From information gathered at the museum, and from my own insights, enquiries and a little bit of research work, this paper has been formed on the kind of art that was prevalent in Bengal under Pala-Sena rule. The sculptures on display were found in and around Murshidabad. They cover a period of about 4 centuries among themselves. So, it is not surprising that the changes of this period are also reflected in the sculptures. Before we go into the details of sculptural activities during the period, it is important to have a clear idea about who the Pala-Sena’s really were. Only then can we interpret the various styles and influences of Pala Sena art.

The Pal rulers:

  • Gopala I (750- 770 AD)
  • Dharmapala (770- 810 AD)
  • Devapala (810- 850 AD)
  • Vigrahapala I (850- 875 AD)
  • Narayanapala (875- 908 AD)
  • Rajyapala (908-935 AD)
  • Gopala II (935- 952 AD)
  • Vigrahapala II (952- 988 AD)
  • Mahipala I (988- 1038 AD)
  • Nayapala (1038- 1055 AD)
  • Vigrahapala III (1055- 1070 AD)
  • Mahipala II (1070- 1075 AD)
  • Shurapala (1075- 1077 AD)
  • Ramapala (1077- 1120 AD)
  • Kumarapala (1120- 1125 AD)
  • Gopala III (1125- 1144 AD)
  • Madanapala (1144- 1161 AD)

The Pala Empire was a dynasty in control of the northern and eastern Indian subcontinent, mainly the Bengal and Bihar regions, from the 8th to the 12th century. The name Pala means "protector" and was used as an ending to the names of all Pala monarchs. The founder of the empire was Gopala. He was the first independent Buddhist king of Bengal and came to power in 750 in Gaur by democratic election, which was unique at the time. He reigned from 750-770 and consolidated his position by extending his control over all of Bengal. His successors Dharmapala (r. 770-810) and Devapala (r. 810-850) expanded the empire across the northern and eastern Indian subcontinent. The Pala Empire eventually disintegrated in the 12th century under the attack of the Sena dynasty.

Origin of the Palas

The origin of the Palas is not clearly stated in any of the numerous Pala records. It is also very curious to note that whereas the identity of the Kamboja Pala rulers of Bengal has been referred to twice and is indisputably connected to the Kamboja ethnicity that of the Palas has nowhere been specifically stated in any of the Pala traditions in numerous of their Grants, Charters and Inscriptions (Dr D. C. Sircar). According to Manjuśree Mūlakalpa, Gopala I was a Śudra [1]. Balla-Carita says that the "The Palas were low-born Ksatriyas". Tibetan Historian Taranatha Lama, in his "History of Buddhism in India" and Ghanarama, in his “Dharma Mangala”, (both of 16th century CE), also give the same story [2]. Arabic accounts tell us that Palas were not kings of noble origin. According to Abu Fazal (Ain-i-Akbari), Palas were Kayasthas [1]. It has also been proposed that the ancestor of the Palas were born of a Ksatriya mother [2]. But I personally think, unless we have some documented proof all these ‘hear-says’ practically have no value at all for further discussion. But there are few things that I would like to point out: The Kamauli Copper Plate inscription of king Vaidyadeva of Kamarupa (Assam) indisputably connects the Palas to the Kshatriyas of "Mihirasya vamsa" (Surya lineage [3]). Since Mihira means Sun or Sun worshipper, the expression Mihirasya implies connected with or relating to the Sun or Sun Worship. According to Bhavishya Purana, the Mihira lineage originated from the union of Nishkubha, daughter of Rsi Rijihva and the Sun (Mihira) and this wedlock produced a sage called Zarashata, who apparently is Zoroaster of the Iranian traditions. This holds a probable clue that the Palas may have come from the Sun-Worshipping lineage i.e. Iranian or Zoroastrian line of the Kambojas. The reason that I am pointing this out has a certain significance to which I will come to later.


[4] After Harsha Vardhana, Buddhism faced the possibility of extinction. Buddhists were persecuted all over India and Buddhism was gradually being absorbed by Hinduism. The Palas emerged as the champion of Buddhism, and they patronized Mahayana Buddhism. The Pala universities of Vikramashila and Nalanda became seats of learning for East Asia. The Palas were responsible for the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and the Indonesian archipelago, and the fame of Bengal spread in the Buddhist world for the cultivation of Buddhist religion, culture and other knowledge in the various centers that grew under the patronage of the Pala rulers. Buddhist scholars from the Pala Empire travelled from Bengal to the Far-East and propagated Buddhism.

Pala administration

[4] Pala rule was Monarchial or Monarch was the centre of all power. Pala kings would adopt titles like Parameshwar, Paramvattaraka, Maharajadhiraja. Pala kings appointed Prime Ministers. The Line of Garga served as the Prime Ministers of the Palas for 10 years. More laudable were the achievements of the Palas in the field of administration. The Pala copperplates bear ample testimony to their well-organised system of administration. An organised system of administration prevailed from the village level to the central government level. They inherited an administrative structure from the Guptas and it was to their credit that they made the structure more efficient and added many new characteristics. They built up an efficient structure for revenue collection. The long list of state-officials, found in the Pala copperplates, clearly indicate that the administration was taking care of every aspect of public life - from the ferry ghats to the riverways, land routes, trade and commerce, towns and ports, and law and order in the country. Even forest or market management was not left out. The basis of their long rule was the efficient administrative system.

Pala Literature

[4] The proto-Bangla language was born during the reign of the Palas. The Buddhist texts of the Charyapada were the earliest form of Bangla language. This Proto-Bangla language was used as the official language in Tibet, Myanmar, Java and Sumatra. Books on every aspect of knowledge were compiled during the Pala Rule. On philosophy: Agaman Shastra by Gaudapada, Nyay Kundali by Sridhar Vatt, Karmanushthan Paddhati by Vatt Vabadeva; On Medicine: Chikitsa Sangraha, Ayurvedidwipika, Vanumati, Shabdachandrika, Dravya Gunasangraha by Chakrapani Dutt; Shabda-Pradip, Vrikkhayurveda, Lohpaddhati by Sureshwar; Chikitsa Sarsangraha by Vangasen; Sushrata by Gadadha Vaidya; Daybhaga, Byabohar-Matrika, Kalvivek by Jimutvahan etc. Atisha compiled more than 200 books. The great epic Ramacharitam written by Sandhyakar Nandi the court poet of Madanpala was another masterpiece of the Pala literature. The Pala copperplate inscriptions were of excellent literary value. These distinctive inscriptions were called Gaudya Style.

Sen Rulers:

[4] The Sen Dynasty ruled Bengal through the 11th and 12th centuries. They were called Brahma-Kshatriyas and Karnata-Kshatriyas. The dynasty's founder was Hemanta Sen, who was part of the Pala Dynasty until their empire began to weaken. He usurped power and styled himself king in 1095 AD. His successor Vijay Sen (ruled from 1096 AD to 1159 AD) helped lay the foundations of the dynasty, and had an unusually long reign of over 60 years. Ballal Sena conquered Gour from the Pala and expanded his empire. Lakshman Sen succeeded Ballal Sen in 1179 and ruled Bengal from Nabadwip for approximately 20 years. It was during the rule of Lakshman Sen that the caste system was introduced. In 1203-1204 AD, the Turkish general Muhammed Bakhtiyar Khilji attacked Nabadwip. Though he defeated Lakshman Sen, but failed to conquer Bengal. The Sena rulers were “orthodox” Hindus; during this period, there was sharp decline in the Buddhism that had dominated Bengal for centuries (see Islam in Bangladesh). The dynasty is famous for building Hindu temples and monasteries including the famous Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Sena Dynasty was also a great patron of literature. During the rule of Pala Dynasty and Sena Dynasty, major growth of Bengali was witnessed. The famous poet of Bengal, Jaideva, was one of the Pancharatnas (meaning 5 gems) in the court of Lakshman Sen. The Gita Govinda, one of the first literary works in Sanskrit, was composed by Jaideva.

Pala-Sena art and architecture

The most brilliant side of the Pala Empire was the excellence of its art and sculptures. Palas created a distinctive form of Buddhist art known as the "Pala School of Sculptural Art. Pala sculpture derives its origins from the late Gupta style, but later on deviated from it. One of the main reasons of this deviation was the fusion of classical mannerism with the indigenous style of Bengal. The mixed style that was an experiment in the mid-7th century continued through the 8th century and culminated in a specialized idiom of art in the early 9th century. As the sculpture derived its strength and inspiration chiefly from the exigencies of religious need, they exhibited a sincere reflection of the idea of beauty and physical charm laid down in religious texts. The figure in any image, whether male or female, combined spiritual and mundane suggestions. All the figures, whether female or male, are marked by sensuousness. The female figures of the period thus invariably have heavy round breasts and bulging hips. This overemphasis on female sensuousness is balanced in the male figures as their broad shoulders gradually attenuate to a narrow waist accentuating their masculinity and are equally suggestive. [5]

Sculptures during this period were made primarily in stone and metal. However, lesser examples also exist in precious metals and terracotta. Pala stone sculptures are usually rendered in greyish or black stone, the former believed to be from Gaya region, while the darker, denser variety is traced to the relatively eastern regions of Rajmahal and Bengal. Composed in the stela format, these sculptures were set into shrines or niches, mostly in brick structures, unlike other contemporary schools where sculptures actually formed part of the fabric of the architectural construction. The stela format is visible in metal images too, with either the prabhamandala or the throne-like back slab serving to endow the sculpture frontality. The alloy usually has a reddish or copper-coloured appearance, though more yellowish products are also known, notably from the Kurkihar site in Bihar. [4] [5]

As time elapsed, there took place an evolution, where images carved in stone tended to become more ornate and detailed than before. The central figure in later stelae is often carved in greater three-dimensional depth than the rest of the sculpture, almost dissociating itself from the rest. This is a shifting away from the uniform depth of carving in the early stages. A greater accentuation of postures, crispness in the defining of features and more exaggerated proportions are stylistic features of later Pala-Sena sculptural activity.

The Sculptures found at the Jiaganj Museum: (major ones)

1. Sthanaka Vishnu – Sandstone, 9th Century, Murshidabad. ( Dravidian)

2. Buddha (Votive Stupa): Sandstone, 10th Century, Murshidabad.

3. Buddha (Bhumisparsa Mudra): Sandstone, 10th Century, Kiriteswari.

4. Garudasina Vishnu - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

5. Surya – Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

6. Surya – Red Sandstone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

7. Parsvanath - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

8. Tara - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

9. Gouri - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

10. Mahisamardini - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

11. Parvati - Black Stone, 10th-11th Centuries, Murshidabad.

12. Sadyojata - Black Stone, 11th Century, Murshidabad.

13. Narasimha - Black Stone, 11th Century, Murshidabad.

14. Brahma - Black Stone, 11th Century, Murshidabad.

15. Hariti- Black Stone, 11th Century, Murshidabad.

16. Sthanaka Vishnu - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.( Bengali)

17. Sthanaka Vishnu - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.(Vaishnav)

18. Sthanaka Vishnu - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.(Orissan)

19. Ganesa - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.

20. Karttikeya - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.(South-east)

21. Uma Mahesvra- White Sandstone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.

22. Dancing Apsara- Sanstone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.(Orissan)

23. Uma Mahesvra - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.

24. Vaisnavi/Narayani - Black Stone,11th-12th Centuries, Murshidabad.(on Garur)

25. Dancing Ganesa (astabahu) - Black Stone, 11th- 12th Centuries, Murshidabad.

26. Sthanaka Vishnu - Black Stone, 12th -13th Centuries, Murshidabad.

27. Ganesa – Red Sandstone, 12th -13th Centuries, Murshidabad.

Characteristics of Vishnu Sculptures:

Of all the male Hindu deities Vishnu was most popular in Bengal. Haque has listed nearly 815 images of Vishnu and Vaisnavite deities, mostly of stone. The different varieties of Vishnu images in Bengal and their gradual development need a special and careful study. [5] [6] of the earlier images of Vishnu mention may be made of the images from Hankrail (Rajshahi), and from Narhatta (Bogra). The four arms of the deity are not raised above, the back right and the left arms are lowered and the hands hold a mace (gada) and a disk (chakra) respectively, the upper right hand holds a fruit (matulunga or bijapura), and the upper left hand a conch (shankha), the spiral of which is always shown upwards in Bengal. Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, does not appear at this early stage. [5] [6] In the next stage the two attributes, viz. gada and chakra, are personified as Gadadevi as well as Chakrapurusa. One should remember that the early Vishnu images from Bengal do not hold a lotus (padma); therefore it is not proper to arrange the Visnu images from Bengal following the twenty-four (chaturvingshati) forms of the texts, making different arrangements according to the four attributes, sankha (conch), chakra (disc), gada (mace) and padma (lotus). The special garland of Visnu, viz. vanamala (a garland of forest flowers) appears in the Khiarmamudpur image. [5] [6]In the third stage Visnu's back hands are raised upwards holding two attributes and instead of Gadadevi and Chakrapurusa his two consorts, Shri or Laksmi and Sarasvati appear. The deity holds in clockwise his four hands: varada-mudra, gada, chakra and shankha. He wears a kirita-mukuta and a long vanamala. Shri or Laksmi stands to his right and Sarasvati playing a vina to his left. Garuda has appeared now and is shown at the bottom on the pedestal. The two consorts of Visnu, Laksmi and Sarasvati, appear at this early stage.

Description of Jiaganj Sculptures: In total, 5 important Vishnu sculptures in various styles are found here. A description of each is essential for my study to be fruitful. Garudasina Vishnu [No.4]: This figure of Vishnu mounting Garuda, the mythical bird, dates back to the 11th century A.D. The image is highly ornamented, with necklaces, waistbands, earrings, anklets etc. the most striking feature seems to be the fact that the ornamentation style looks to be Orissan. This highlights the fact that either this sculpture was made in Orissa or Orissan sculptors sculpted it. Narasimha [No.13]: This form of Lord Vishnu, the Narsimha, is in half human and half lion form. It also seems to be of 11th century AD. Sthanaka Vishnu: There are 4 sculptures of this type or in the Sthanaka or standing pose. The Lord is standing on a high lotus pedestal. The 11th-12th Century image clearly again shows an Orissan influence while there is another 12th-13th Century image which shows maturity of the art of sculpting, with the 3D effect coming to play a part. There a protruding arch is made which gives a very distinctive look to the image. But the most striking sculpture is one of Sthanaka Vishnu made in the Dravidian Style. It is a 9th Century sculpture, with stubby nose and a solid body mass with a very distinct Jokhha iconography. Special mention should also be made of the Vishnu made in the Vaisnav style. This image is absolutely mutilated but it can still be identified due to its headgear.

Evaluation: the findings clearly show that this was a worthwhile center. Infact the various forms of Vishnu that have come to our knowledge also points towards a major point. The center was so important that artisans from other regions came to this center or they came as gifts from other regions. Either way, it only helps in establishing the fact that the Murshidabad center was a center to be taken note of.

Characteristics of Surya Sculptures:

[5] [6]The third important male deity from Bengal is the Surya or the Sun-god. Surya is shown mostly as an independent figure, but also in the group of nine planetary deities or Navagrahas. Quite similar to the Vishnu images, the Surya images from southeast of Bangladesh have some iconographic features different from those from the north. The deity wears a tunic and high boots and a big sword is tied to his waist with a belt. He wears a crown and holds two full-blown lotuses, one in each hand. The image belongs to the Gupta period. Surya is shown standing in samapada position holding two full-blown lotuses, one in each hand, on a chariot drawn by seven horses. He wears a tall crown, ear-rings, necklaces, bangles, armlets and a sacred thread (upavita). What is quite striking is that he wears a cuirass (varma) on the chest and high boots. Originally Surya wore a Sassanian dress. The Brhatsanghita describes the early form of Surya, but is silent about the boots. None of the Puranas has any reference to them. The next interesting image of the Sun-god is from Deora (Bogra). The deity is shown riding a chariot drawn by seven horses and holding two full-blown lotuses, one in each hand, and attended upon by fat-bellied Pingala at the right and Dandin at the left. Two arrow-shooting female deities, described later as Usa and Pratyusa, are shown beside Rahu/Arun, the charioteer, on the chariot.

Jiaganj Sculptures: Here we find two significant sculptures of Surya. First of those is a black Sandstone one, dated around 10th-11th Centuries, and it shows Surya wearing Uttario, boots and carrying a sword. The second sculpture of Red Sandstone and dated around 11th-12th centuries has more pronounced features of Full blown lotuses attached to the stela, images of Usa, Pratyusa, Pingala, Dandin and Rahu including the seven horses with the chariot.

Evaluation: The images found make it very evident that Murshidabad had artists who regularly practiced their art and went on evolving it. The time-line of the two sculptures show that a major development was called for, if the centre was a well functioning one. And the two Surya Sculptures are testimony to the fact that the art here was developing as it did for the rest of Bengal and Bihar. The Kamauli Copper Plate inscription of king Vaidyadeva of Kamarupa (Assam) indisputably connects the Palas to the Kshatriyas of "Mihirasya vamsa" (Surya lineage). Since Mihira means Sun or Sun worshipper, the expression Mihirasya implies connected with or relating to the Sun or Sun Worship, and the images found here also validates this theory.

Important note: An interesting observation which we made at the Museum was centered on a particular Vishnu sculpture (not in list). This sculpture has been somehow preserved by the museum. Its face is broken in places, almost beyond recognition. The conclusion that it is indeed a Vishnu sculpture could be arrived at once the Shankha and the Lotus, two important identification marks for a Vishnu sculpture, were recognized. However, another slight problem remained. This Vishnu has a posture which bears striking resemblance with Surya. Like the Vaishnav style Sthanaka Vishnu is completely mutilated, but it is said to be Vishnu’s image due to its iconography, but at the same time it can also be mistook for being a Surya image as well, as often the headgear of the two deities looks similar. However, this confusion was attempted to be cleared when we learnt that there is after all, similar features between the two. We found our answer in a book at the Museum library. It states that according to one Sapmani, Vishnu is not a supreme God but represents Fire, Lightning and Solar light on Earth (resemblance to Surya). Though the sculpture on display bears the name ‘Vishnu’, one cannot rule out the possibility of it being another one of those Surya specimens. In fact, this sculpture reminded me of the Surya murti of Konark temple of Orissa. This may also suggest Orissan influence.

Characteristics of Shiva Sculptures:

[5] [6] The second most important male deity from Bengal was Shiva. Besides the usual Shiva -lingas which were mainly worshipped in the temples and under trees or in an open space, hundreds of Shaiva images were made during the Pala rule. Pre-Pala stone figures of Shiva are rare. At least three Pala rulers were adherents to Shaivism. Of the Shaiva images from Bengal the special forms of Shiva are those of Uma-Maheshvara, Sadashiva and Nartteshvara (wrongly called Nataraja). A special feature of Shiva from Bengal is that the deity is accompanied by his two consorts, Ganga and Gauri and by two male attendants, Nandi (or Nandin) and Mahakala. In Bengal (as in Orissa) Shiva is shown mostly urdhvalinga (phallus erectum). The other popular image of Shiva is the Uma-Maheshvara-murti; the nomenclature is attested by an inscription, deserves special mention. Maheshvara is either two-or four-armed, Uma is two-armed. Maheshvara's bull is shown below his right foot, Uma's lion below her left foot.

Jiaganj Sculptures: Here we find only two images of Shiva, and that too not his solo one. We find Uma-Mahesvra images. One is made of white sandstone, and seems to be of 11th-12th Century and the other is made of Black Sandstone. This image shows the Trident of Shiva in a strangely Buddhist iconographical way. The Trident looks more like the Buddhist Baira.

Characteristics of Gouri and Durga Scupltures:

[5] [6]Besides various forms of Durga, Gauri or Parvati a few female deities are quite typical of Bengal.Gauri with child (Sadyojata) Shiva There is a special group of sculptures where a reclining, bejewelled female figure is shown on a cot, her head placed on the left hand and a lily (utpala) held in the right hand, while a child is shown lying close to her. A female attendant shampooes her left foot and two others attend upon her. A Shiva-lingam, Ganesha, Karttikeya and the nine planetary deities are shown on top and various objects for a ritual are shown. For some time it was difficult to identify the image and the scene. Bhattasali identified the female figure as Gauri and the child as Shiva, following the marriage story of Shiva with Parvati. There are several images of Durga with four or more arms, seated or standing, with a lion mount. But as mentioned earlier the Durga Mahisasura-mardini was the most popular goddess from Bengal. Mostly the goddess is eight-armed and belongs to the tenth-eleventh century. The ten-armed form occurs quite late. The Malda Museum (West Bengal) possesses several excellent images of eight-armed Durga Mahisasura-mardini.

Jiaganj Sculptures: The Sadyojata image found here clearly points towards the myth of Neelkantha Shiva and not the Gouri with child one. There are images of Gouri and Parvati also found here from the 11th-12th Century period. The Mahisamardini image found here is an early one where Durga is still shown to be an unmarried woman, and images of Karttikeya,Ganesa and others are not included.

Evaluation: The Sadyojata image and the Mahisamardini image clearly points to the fact that the center is firstly and old one as images of earlier time are found here and then progressive developments in images are also brought about. Again, the Neelkantha Shiva Sadyojata, is a unique image and it also points to the high level of cultural development of the region.

Other Important Male Deities:

[5] [6]Brahma, who was a minor deity in the rest of the Indian subcontinent, enjoyed popularity in Bengal. Several stone images of the deity bear evidence to this fact. The Puranas, frequently describe Brahma with four heads and four arms. A fully developed form of Brahma with four heads (three shown in relief), four arms and with beard and moustache, is seen in the seated 11th-12th century Brahma image from Dinajpur district. Later forms of Brahma are also shown without beard and moustache. After Brahma, a minor but popular Hindu deity of Bengal is the elephant-headed Ganesha, who is shown seated or standing, but a delightful form of the god shows him dancing, and this form of Ganesha from Bengal excels the forms of the deity from other parts of the subcontinent. Ganesha appears as an independent deity, but sometimes he is shown with Lalita (a special form of Parvati), with Gauri and child Shiva, with the Matrkas (Mother goddesses) and with the Navagrahas (nine planetary deities). Karttikeya images are also popular.

Jiaganj Sculptures: Two images of Ganesa are found here. One is older, of around 11th Century of Black Sandstone and the other is of around 13th Century made of Red sandstone. A beautiful Astabahu Dancing Ganesa image is also found where the stela has relief of mangoes. This may validate the fact that this was sculpted in Murshidabad only as the region was famous for its mangoes. Brahma’s images are very rare and difficult to come by generally. But the collection here boasts of one. The image has long ears, and the relief of lions looks like the Persian lions. There is an image of Karttikeya found, which is clearly sculpted in the South-eastern Style.

Evaluation: Again, the Ganesa images re-validate the fact that the centre is a mature one, and the relief of mangoes further proves that the images are sculpted here in Murshidabad only. The Brahma image brings the question of outside influence with its relief of Persian lions, so does the Karttikeya image with its South-Eastern relief features.

Characteristics of Buddha Sculptures:

[5] [6]The Master never visited Bengal, but Buddhism flourished all over Bengal for a considerable period. The earliest and most remarkable Buddhist site was known in the Maurya period (3rd century BC) as Pudanagala probably the older name of pundravardhana, identified with mahasthan in the district of Bogra. The second important Buddhist site is Paharpur, now in the district of Naogaon. The other important Buddhist sites in Bengal were in samatata, modern Comilla and Chittagong districts. The Buddhist pilgrim Seng-chi has recorded vividly the growth and prosperity of Buddhism in Samatata. Of the Buddha images of the Pala period mention should be made of the Buddha sitting in bhumisparsha-mudra (earth-touching gesture) on a lion throne (without any lotus) with three lions between the pilasters against the back-rest of the throne. The face of the Buddha with its sublime expression is a great artistic achievement of Bengal. Besides the Buddha a large number of Buddhist images were produced in Bengal, especially in the Pala-Chandra period.

Jiaganj Sculptures: Two images of the Buddha are found here. One of them is the Votive Stupa image and the other is the famous Bhumisparsa image. The image is perfection personified and an aura of meditation and abundant love is the constant atmosphere around the Lord.

Buddhist Female Deities: [5] [6] Of the Buddhist female deities the most prominent is Tara. She is two-armed, showing varada-mudra with the right hand and holding the stalk of a blue lily (nilotpala) in the left hand. She is generally of green complexion, hence called Shyama or Green Tara, and sometimes she is white and called Shveta or White Tara. Generally she is shown seated in the lalitasana or lalitaksepa position, but she is also shown standing, where the gracefully standing deity is attended upon by Ashokakanta-Marichi to her right and Ekajata to her left, and the five Transcendent Buddhas are shown on top with Amoghasiddhi in the middle. The image of Hariti is seen as well.

Jiaganj Sculptures: Images of Tara and Hariti are found here. The Image of Hariti is unfinished and bears a child in its arms. The image of Tara has her attendants Ashokanta and Hiruka on her two sides, Kirtimukho mangolik is also seen. The side relief has kinnor and kinnori, and a proto Bengali inscription is found on it, which clearly indicates that it has been sculpted in the said region.

Jaina images: [5] [6] Jainism, as is well-known to all, was prevalent in West Bengal (the area generally known as Radha), as the name of the district Bardhaman (following the name of the last Jaina Tirthankara Vardhamana) bears evidence. And not only that a large area of West Bengal, ie, the districts of Purulia, Medinipur, Bardhaman and Bankura are scattered with Jaina antiquities, and a large number of stone sculptures were found there, some in situ or brought to the museums. A beautiful and interesting standing image of Parsvanath is preserved in the Dinajpur Museum. Usually the deity stands in kayotsarga position on a lotus under a seven-hooded snake-canopy. Dikpalas are shown riding animals around him, and the goddess Chakreshvari sits below on the pedestal.

Jiaganj Sculptures: An image of Parsvanath of around 10th-11th Century is found here.

Evaluation: Images of Buddhist and Jain Gods and Goddesses show that sculpturing was though dominated by Hindu Deities, but the other did not completely loose out. They also exhibited importance and must have been worshipped as well. Especially Buddhism in Bengal is not much studied and the findings of the images may inspire historians to further work on it.

Important note: 11th Century ‘talpata’ manuscripts have also been found, which are written in medieval Bengali script and are of two types, Kharatar and Sritar.

Influences in their art: Palas came in contact with distant lands through their conquests and trades. The Sailendra Empire of Java, Sumatra and Malaya was a colony of the Palas. Devapala granted five villages at the request of the Sailendra king Balputradeva of Java for the upkeepment of the matha established at Nalanda for the scholars of that country. Thus the South-eastern influences found in their sculpture are accounted for. This also means that Murshidabad also was in some way attached to the colonies. The Prime minister of the Balputradeva was from Gauda. Dharmapala who extended his empire to the boundary of the Abbasid Empire had diplomatic relations with the caliph Harun Al-Rashid. Coins of Harun-al-Rashid have been found in Mahasthangarh. [7] Palas maintained diplomatic and religious relation with Tibet. During the military expeditions of the Pala kings the Pala generals would establish kingdoms of their own in Punjab and Afghanistan. [7] There is a strong and continuous tradition that the ruling families in certain states are descended from the "Rajas of Gaur in Bengal". These states are Suket, Keonthal, Kashtwar and Mandi. The political campaigns of the Pala-Sena rulers took them to different parts of India, and even abroad (Sumatra and Java) [7]. Colonies were established as far as the north-western frontier of the country and also the southern parts of India. In fact, the Senas were themselves invaders who hailed from Peninsular India. There are also references in history that Gopala, the founder of the Pala dynasty originally belonged to the sea-race – another reference to southern India. But, this fact has not been fully established and is a debatable issue. However, the Palas originally centered around the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh belt, before coming to Bengal. Their coming under the influence of Buddhism probably stemmed from their close association with Magadha and Sarnath. According to Susan L. Huntington, there was a gradual, but quite evident, shift of artistic centers in an eastern and southern direction from Bihar to Bengal. This begins with the 8th-9th century focus around Magadha, mainly in Buddhist establishments like Nalanda, Bodhgaya and Kurkihar, and culminates in the 11th 12th century shift to Eastern Bihar and Bengal, with an increased stress on the brahminical religion, especially Vaishnavism. This fact can be corroborated by a study of the list. Here, as we progress through time, we shall see that most of the 11th-12th century sculptures on display are those of Hindu deities, with a plethora of Vishnu Sculptures. It has to be borne in mind that this period also saw the establishment of the Hindu Sena dynasty.

The influence of different styles of art, styles belonging to places outside Bengal, can be explained when we look into the political history of the period. For example, the Garudasina Vishnu (No. 4) is a sculpture which has Orissan influence. The difference between this style of sculpting and the local style of Bengal, as I understood it, is in the style of ornamentation. The local designs appeared to be more sober than those of the Orissan style. An example of the Bengal style is Vishnu (No.16). As we go further back in time, around the 9th century AD, we come across Dravidian influence (No. 1). Perhaps, Devapala’s struggle with the Dravidians, can be put forward as a logical explanation as to why this style came to influence Bengali art. The outcome of the political struggle is not known for sure. But an interaction did take place and perhaps there was exchange of cultural ideas. What is known for sure, however, is the victory of Devapala in Orissa in the same century. This explains the Orissan influence. Although there are a number of sculptures depicting Hindu gods and goddesses, there is a marked Buddhist influence on the style of art, especially, the Sarnath School of art (see list [nos. 14, 15 & 21]). This is understandable as the origin of Pala-Sena art happens to be from the regions in an around this Buddhist site. Its continuance into local Bengali art was a logical corollary. There was a free intermingling of local forms and outside influences. Their results have been brilliant, as will be evident from the sculptures at the Jiaganj Museum. With the decreased influence on Buddhism and the increased political threats from the west, there occurred a shift of artistic centres from Bihar to Bengal, with Magadha losing its prominence.

Since place of origin, according to Dr. Sanjoy Kumar Mallik (Department of History of Art, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan) and find spot may not necessarily coincide, the defining of specific schools of culture is a difficult proposition in Bengal. Pala sculptural activities in Bengal are thus best considered in terms of two phases – the first terminating around 1025 AD and the later being the period between 1025 AD and 1200 AD. While the first is almost synonymous with Bihar developments, the later phase reveals codification of forms and ideas and proliferation of images in a regional pattern. The latter was often a derivation of a more influential and consistent centre. This resulted in groups of sites constituting distinct sub-styles within the Pala-Sena idiom. [8]


It is actually difficult to pinpoint the beginnings of the art of sculpting in Bengal proper. For, though the lower Ganga valley or south Bengal was a prolific centre of terracotta art at least from the 2nd century BC, there is no clear evidence to show that the art of sculpting was similarly practiced in the area from about the same time. Stone sculptures so far discovered from Bengal proper and assignable to the early three centuries of the Christian era are few. These sculptures in general represent a style, which is, in the development of the art in north India, recognized as of the Kusanas. The centre of the art was Mathura, where evolved during the period the images of the deities worshipped by the followers of the three major religions of the time, namely, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Gupta sculptures of Bengal are mostly icons and their forms were determined by the characteristics of the gods as prescribed by the priests of Madhyadesha or central India. 7th Century Bengal saw an increase in the execution of sculptures in her different areas. Besides, in Bihar too, a proliferation of the art in the period is noted. The art of the century is marked by a style that is known as post-Gupta. The characteristic of the style is a further enlivening of the Gupta classical human forms with a more appreciable movement by shedding their volumes and accentuating the contour lines with rhythmic flexion. The countenances are also found to be lit up with sentiments. These qualities are marked in the images of the period in various degrees, but in them a stylistic change, not as much in form as in psyche, is invariably found. For about one hundred years, from c 650 AD to 750 AD, a period of turmoil in Bengal, there was no patronage for such a cost-oriented medium of art as sculpture. As a result no worth mentioning sculpture, whether in stone or metal, assignable to the late 7th or early 8th centuries could be found in Bengal proper, though in Bihar images of gods and goddesses were carved in isolated centers.

When in the middle of the 8th century the foundation of the Pala kingdom was laid, the situation began to improve. The kings were ardent devotees of the religion of Tathagata, and its Mahayana version received liberal patronage from them. While Dharmapala founded several monasteries and temples in Bengal and Bihar, Devapala's munificence brought new glories to older Buddhist centres like Nalanda. The Buddhist monasteries of the period were great repositories of Indian knowledge and wisdom, and universities for their academic dissemination. Some of the monasteries included techniques of image making in their courses of learning, and maintained atelier and furnace for the purpose. A period’s art and architecture reflects the social, economic, cultural and political conditions prevailing in that particular era. The flurry of cultural activities under the reign of Pala-Sena rulers goes to show the economic prosperity of the region. Unless and until a society is stable, economically, there cannot be so much flourishing of cultural activities. This economic prosperity also speaks volumes about the administrative capabilities of the Pala-Sena rulers. Once this trait went missing from the ruling class, the kingdom declined, along with its art. Now, it should be remembered that though there was a decline, it took place only after Pala-Sena art had carved out a niche for itself in the world of culture. The sculptures on display at the Jiaganj Museum bear testimony to this fact. At the same time, they also have other implications.

The art developed over a period of four hundred years and more in eastern India under the Palas and the Senas. It is natural that the art could not remain the same all through, and the laws of evolution would play its role in finalizing the general features of the school, which is known as the 'Pala-Sena School'. Besides the time factor, the local ideals and preferences of forms also made some impression on the development of the style. The school's basic characteristics include its immense productivity, both in the mediums of stone and metal, preponderance of gods and goddesses, belonging to Buddhist as well as Brahminical pantheon, and increasing stylization of figures and decorative elements. The artist had to adhere to the injunctions laid down in the iconographical texts on image making. But even working under such restrictions the artist did not fail altogether in leaving the stamp of his personal genius on his creations; and this he achieved by the dexterity of execution and attainment of visually perfect forms. The various sculptures of Sthanaka Vishnu are testimonies to this fact. What is important to note is that, in spite of obvious similarity in many Pala-Sena Buddhas or Visnus, no two images of any of the deity are fully identical. Variation, even in a minute form, is always there in the images of the school. As for the figurers of the early Pala phase, they retained the plastic modeling and gliding contour lines of the Gupta style, as also the sensitivity of the flesh and, in cases, meditative yogic eyes and blissful smile. One thing is made evident; it was a time of peace as well as economic stability. The evolvement of art to such an extent needs both.The Pala-Sena sculptures reflect the religious beliefs prevailing during the period. The Palas were followers of Buddhism, while the Senas were orthodox Hindus. So, it can safely be said that the Buddhist sculptures at the Museum were created under Pala patronage, while the sculptures of the Hindu deities received patronage from the Senas. However, there were exceptions. The time-period for some of the sculptures negates this theory. For example, one of the Sthanaka Vishnu murtis (statue) [No.1] is said to belong to the 9th century when the Buddhist Palas were at the helm of Bengal. Again, sculptures of Buddhist deities (Tara, Hariti and even a Buddhist Stupa [Nos. 8, 15 & 2]) have been found to have belonged to the 11th/12th century AD, when the Hindu Sena rulers had already established their supremacy in Bengal. This testifies to the religious tolerance of both the dynasties. Though patronisers and practitioners of particular religions, the people of the kingdom must have been allowed to follow their own religions by these kings. Hence, the creation of such wonderful pieces of art was made possible.

About Sompura Mahavihara, Mr.J.C. French says with grief: "For the research of the Pyramids of Egypt we spend millions of dollars every year. But had we spent only one percent of that money for the excavation of Sompura Mahavihara, who knows what extraordinary discoveries could have been made."---"The Art of the Pala Empire or Bengal," p.4…. This belief is shared by me, but with a different standpoint. The sculptures found in the Jiaganj Museum clearly points to the fact that there is more than what meets the eye. But sadly enough there have not been enough work done on the region. If we delve deeper we might come across more evidence which point towards the maturity and achievements of the Murshidabad centre as being an important region of the “Pala-Sena School of sculpture”.

Prerana Srimaal

UG III, History Deptt. Jadavpur University

[1] The History and Culture of the Pālas of Bengal and Bihar, Cir. 750 A.D.-cir ..., 1939, p 37, Jhunu Bagchi - History.

[2] The Palas were at first known as Sudras. “With the rise of their power they began to claim a Kshatria lineage" (Indian Culture, 1934, p 113, Indian Research Institute – India).

[3] Gaudalekhamala, pp 127-146, A. K. Maitreya.

[4] R.C. Majumdar, The History of Bengal.

[5] Susan L Huntington, The Pala-Sena School of Sculptures, Leiden, 1984.

[6] NK Bhattasali, Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmanical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum, Dacca, 1929, Reprinted, Varanasi, Delhi, 1972

[7] Mr.J.C. French, The Art of the Pala Empire or Bengal

[8] Article by, Dr.Sanjoy Mullick, Deptt of History of Art, Kala Bhavana, Vishwa Bharati, Shantiniketan