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The main structural characteristics of terracotta temples are internal domes and vaults, arched entrances, curved cornices, and walls covered with sculpted burnt-brick plates. Inside the temples, the sanctum is usually covered by a dome (except in bangla temples where it is a vault) and the porches, if they exist, are mostly covered by a vault. The entrances are usually triple-arched with heavy octagonal columns, but single arches are also common. The arches lead either to the sanctum itself, or more commonly to a porch from which another arched entrance leads to the sanctum. The steeply curved cornice and parapet is derived from the curved roofs (chalas) of traditional Bengali village huts. In late-19th century temples, the artisans experimented with some of these basic structural elements, possibly influenced by European architecture. Thus we see examples of straight cornice and neo-classical pillars replacing the octagonal type.
The most striking feature of a terracotta temple is the intricate decoration that covers its walls. In some temples every inch of the temple's surface (even the inside walls) is decorated. This ornamentation is composed of rows of burnt-brick panels, each with a figure or geometric pattern, arranged in particular ways in specific parts of the temple walls, and often forming large sculptural compositions. After decades of experimentation, the organization of these wall panels became standardized in the 18th century and temples were built with very similar decorative schemes. Large panels above the arches usually have elaborate battle scenes from the Ramayana. Panels on the corners, arch frames and columns have rows of images of dieties and dancers or musicians. Two friezes running along the base show events from the life of Krishna (above) and social scenes such as royal processions, hunting, and European ships (below).
Terracotta temples are usually classified by their superstructures, the two major groups being the sloping roofed or chala styles and the towered or ratna styles. Although this classification has recently been debated, it is still widely used to group the temples. The classification was widely used and refined by David McCutchion, who dedicated much of his life to studying and surveying these temples. The study of terracotta architecture owes much to scholars such as David McCutchion, Tarapada Santra, Amiyakumar Bandyapadhyay and Hitesranjan Sanyal. Much of the research for this website, and particularly for the following essays, is based on books and papers written by them, particularly David McCutchion.
Keshtaraya Temple, Bishnupur, mid-17th c
Gokulchand Temple, Gokulnagar, 17th c
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