Krishnalila in Terracotta Temples

Krishnalila panels from the Kantanagar Temple (early 18th century)


Hundreds of brick temples faced with sculpted terracotta panels were built in Bengal between the 17th and 19th centuries. After an initial period of experimentation, Bengali patrons and architects seem to have hit upon a successful formula for the layout of narrative, figural, and decorative panels on the temple facades. In this arrangement (one that would be replicated across hundreds of temples) stories from the Ramayana and Devi Mahatmaya (especially battle scenes) featured on large panels above the entrance arches. Framing the entrance were rectangular wall panels with images of ascetics, deities, warriors, and maidens. And along the base were two distinctive friezes: secular scenes of elite courts, boats, processions, and hunts ran along the bottom, and above this was a frieze with stories from Krishna's life or Krishnalila.

Studying and deciphering the myths and stories depicted on terracotta temples, and particularly on these base friezes can be a fascinating pursuit. Although more than a hundred temples had Krishnalila base friezes, only a few fully preserved friezes survive today. Brick temples are prone to damage in Bengal's weather, and these base friezes are usually the first to be impacted by rain, flooding, pollution, and renovation. Luckily for us, some temples have escaped this destruction, such as the Raghunatha temple (1768) at Parul near Arambagh in Hugli, which has a nearly-complete series of Krishnalila panels.

The mythology of Krishna became very popular in rural Bengal in the 17th and 18th centuries through the retelling of Krishna's exploits in various kinds of village performances. Krishnalila plays (pala) were enacted by itinerant theatre groups (jatra), especially on annual Krishna festivals like Dol, Rath, and Raas. Singer-painters (patua) also travelled from village to village singing Krishna stories as they unrolled each scene on their scroll paintings. The sources for these plays and pats were Bengali translations of the Sanskrit Bhagavad Purana stories by poets like Maladhar Basu, who were patronised in the 15th century by the Husain Shahi sultan. By the 18th century the stories were so well-known that the terracotta artisans only needed to depict the basic elements of a story on a panel to convey the entire Krishnalila episode.

What makes the study of Krishnalila friezes fascinating is the endless variation in selection, sequencing, and depiction of Krishna stories on terracotta temples. No two friezes are same, and almost every Krishnalila panel is unique. The patrons and architects (sutradhars) seem to have placed a great deal of emphasis on building a unique temple that reflected the specific tastes, rituals, and interests of the patron family. We know that the sutradhars carried with them painted scrolls with mythological scenes, and the patron and their family selected the stories they liked, perhaps even requesting certain details to be added. Krishnalila depictions also evolved over time as new Krishna stories were written and performed. Thus, some Krishna stories such as Kali Krishna and Rai Raja only appear in 19th century temples.

Birth and escape past the sleeping prison guards, Kalna

Crossing the Yamuna, exchanging babies, Kotalpur

Birth and Escape to Gokul

The sequence of Krishnalila base panels usually begins at the bottom left. The first panel shows the Janma Lila or Krishna's miraculous birth as a crowned four-armed diety. His parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, who were imprisoned by Mathura's evil king Kamsa, are shown standing or more commonly, seated, on either side of this deity. The group is placed within a shrine. The parents always have their hands folded in supplication and they either face the deity or, more commonly, the viewer. Being the leftmost panel, this scene is prone to damage and in many temples it is broken, but some good examples remain as at Kalna and Gurap. In some rare instances (as at Bhalia, damaged), the supplication scene is replaced by Devaki hunched over a basket, actually giving birth to the baby, surrounded by midwives.

The birth scene is usually followed by a narrow panel showing Vasudeva escaping from the prison with Krishna, now transformed back to an infant. His escape is possible because the prison guards have miraculously fallen asleep, and they are shown asleep within separate cusped, pillared niches representing Kamsa's palace. They hold swords and shields, and their heads are tilted to one side and resting on raised palms. Often, a fourth guard is shown sprawled on the ground in front of the seated group as at Kalna. Sometimes, the separate niches are omitted, as at Parul, and sometimes they are multiplied and arranged as a two-by-two grid of four niches as at Bhalia or Rautara or even a two by three grid of six niches as at Rajbalhat.

Next, Vasudeva is shown standing with the infant before he crosses the Yamuna. He is then shown standing in the rising, stormy waters of the Yamuna, with his garments fluttering in the wind, and bending down to touch the infant Krishna's feet on the river, which causes the waters to recede. The Yamuna is shown as a series of wavy lines at the bottom, curling up in a tree-like flourish at the right of the panel. Also in the scene is a jackal (a form taken by Mahamaya, the personification of illusion), leading Vasudeva across the Yamuna. The final panel in the sequence shows Krishna being exchanged with Yashoda's child in Gokul. Yashoda is shown seated in a miniature arched pavilion with an infant, presumably Krishna, in her arms. To her right are seated and standing women, some with their children. To her left is Vasudeva again, facing the other direction, departing with the infant who he has exchanged with the baby Krishna, and heading back to Kamsa's prison.

Slaying Putana and Sakatasura, Parul

Trinavarta and Dadhi Manthan, Parul

Childhood Miracles at Gokul

Following the Janmalila panels are scenes from Krishna's childhood miracles and his mischievous pranks at Gokul. The sutradharas and patrons had a choice of several popular stories of the infant Krishna. Very common, however, is the story of the demoness Putana, who was sent by Kamsa to kill all one-year old infants in Gokul. This she decides to do by applying poison to her breasts and then suckling the babies. In this panel, Putana is shown as a large reclining figure, hands flailing in distress and eyes popping out, with the baby Krishna at her breast, sucking her life out. Other women are often shown standing by or even holding or perhaps restraining the baby, as at Parul.

Another demon-vanquishing act, less common, is Krishna with the whirlwind demon Trinavarta. Krishna is shown standing, sometimes enlarged as described in the story, and subduing the fallen figure of the demon by his weight. Both figures are placed within a circle representing the whirlwind, sometimes with flourishes, as at Parul. In another miracle, Krishna kills the cart-demon Sakatasura who tried to crush the infant Krishna under a cart loaded with pitchers of milk and butter. Krishna is shown lying on his back on a decorated cradle and kicking the cart, depicted as a series of wheels on the top-right or top-left corner of the panel. At Parul, the series of wheels has a makara head and is placed on the right edge of the panel. Two or more women are shown standing over the cradle, holding Krishna's hand as at Parul, or more commonly just watching in amazement.

Another favourite scene is of Dadhi Manthan or the churning of butter. Yashoda is pulling the ropes on a ladle to churn a pot of butter, with other women standing behind her. The infant Krishna is shown crawling with his hand in the pot of butter. This is sometimes followed by the Ukhalbandhan Lila scene where Krishna is tied to a mortar as punishment for stealing butter. He manages to pull the heavy mortar through an Arjuna tree, which breaks apart and frees the sons of Yama, who were trapped in the tree. At Puthia, Yama's sons are shown emerging from the tree like spirits. In another charming scene the gopis bathe Krishna with pots of water from the Yamuna. He sits (or sometimes stands, as at Kalna) on a raised platform, and two women on either side hold upturned pots over his head. Other women are shown watching or holding more pots in readiness. At Parul, two women are also shown transferring water into a pot.

Joyous scenes of celebration with dancing and music at Gokul are also common and variously depicted. At Chandannagar and Atpur several women are shown playing drums or clapping surround a dancing infant Krishna. At Kalna and Parul, the celebration shows mainly men surrounding smaller figures, perhaps Krishna and Balarama. Another scene that is lovingly depicted at Atpur shows Krishna and Balarama being dressed by Yashoda and other women. Some women are shown kneeling and putting anklets on his feet while others tie his hair, others still watch in admiration. Another pastoral scene is of Krishna milking a cow. He is shown seated milking a cow, while women watch him. At Atpur, a calf stands nearby and the women are shown feeding the cow.

Brahma Vimohan Lila, Parul

Daan Lila and Nauka Bilaas, Kotalpur

The divine cowherd at Vrindavan

Tormented by the demons sent by Kamsa, the elders of Gokul decided to move from Gokul to the nearby forests of Vrindavan. Here Krishna spends his teenage years as a cowherd (Gopala). Unfortunately, this does not stop the arrival or demons, and along with the demons arrive envious gods who set out to test Krishna's miraculous powers. The other major theme of panels from this period is Krishna's escapades in the forests with gopis who are completely enamoured of this divine cowherd. These Vrindavan episodes is even more varied and interesting.

A common and easily recognizable story is Krishna's encounter with Bakasura, a giant stork, whom he kills by tearing its beak apart. The images show Krishna holding with both hands the beak of an outsize winged bird. Balarama is sometimes shown watching or following Krishna while blowing a horn, as at Malancha. Also common is the story of Aghasura, another of Kamsa's demons who appears to the cowherds in the form of a python and proceeds to devour them. The depiction shows Krishna and sometimes Balarama entering the open mouth of the python. Once inside, Krishna would enlarge himself, and thereby choke Aghasura to death.

In some temples like Atpur, we also see the story of Dhenukasura, a demon who disguises himself as a calf and hides amongst Krishna's cattle. Krishna realises this and in depictions of this episode, Krishna is shown holding up the calf by his tail just before he twirls and throws it. More common is the episode of Keshi, the horse demon. Depictions of this show Keshi as a rearing horse and Krishna holding it by the mane in one hand, and his other hand raised. The story of Kaliya, the many-headed snake-demon to poisoned the waters of the Yamuna, is also common. Krishna confronts Kaliya by jumping into the waters of the Yamuna, and after an underwater struggle he emerges dancing victoriously on the head of the beaten serpent. In panels depicting this scene the Yamuna is a series of wavy lines at the bottom, from which emerges a hooded serpent upon which Krishna is dancing. Surrounding them are the many serpent wives of Kaliya (ten at Rajbalhat) emerging from the water with hands folded, pleading for Kaliya's life. At Parul we also have a depiction of the Dabanal or forest fire miracle, where Krishna devours the forest fire to save trapped cowherds and animals. At Puthia is a rare depiction of Balarama slaying the demon Pralambasura who is shown as an enlarged figure carrying Balarama on his shoulders.

A complex and interesting story is of Krishna's encounter with Brahma, known as the Brahma Vimohan lila or the bewilderment of Brahma. In this story, Brahma, wishing to test Krishna's divinity, captures and hides Krishna's cattle and fellow cowherds in the mountains. But when he returns to the pastures by the Yamuna, he finds that the cattle and cowherds have magically returned. However, all the cowherds look exactly like Krishna, for the divine cowherd has replicated himself. Amazed by this, he acknowledges Krishna's superiority and bows to him. In terracotta panels this episode is reduced to two scenes. First Brahma is shown standing beside the hidden cattle and cowherds (in a matrix of miniature square windows). Next Brahma submits to Krishna, he is shown first standing with hands folded in supplication, and then bending to touch his head to the ground in front of Krishna's feet while Krishna bends down to bless Brahma. At Bansberia, the replicated figures of Krishna with cattle are shown on either side of Krishna and Brahma.

Govardhan Lila at the Chhoto Gobinda Temple at Puthia, Bangladesh

Krishna's next blockbuster encounter is with Indra, the king of the gods. In the Govardhan lila episode Krishna defies Indra by instructing his people to stop worshipping him. An indignant Indra unleashes seven days of rain, but Krishna simply lifts the Govardhan mountain so that all the people and animals of Vrindavan gather under it and are protected from the rain. In terracotta panels, the mountain is usually shown as a series of wavy lines at the top (although at Bhalia, the sculptor has used a series of spiral squares to depict the mountain). Below this, a central, relaxed figure of Krishna holds up the mountain with his finger and under it, surrounding Krishna, are men, women, and cattle. At Bansberia, this scene spans several panels and has delightfully sculpted seated cattle along with many men and women. Some of these surrounding figures, who (again) resemble Krishna, are also holding up the mountain, but with poles held at an angle. This depiction is derived from jatra plays where a large canopy representing the mountain was held up on stage by several Krishnas holding poles.

Scenes of Krishna's dalliances with the Gopis in the forests of Vrindavan include the popular scene of Raas lila, a miracle where Krishna replicated himself to dance with every gopi on a moonlit autumn night. In other scenes he is shown dancing and playing the flute, or sitting either under trees as at Rajbalhat or Atpur, or within arched frames. At Chandannagar, a panel shown Krishna with Radha standing next to a tree and a peacock, perhaps a depiction of the Natvin Lila where Krishna disguised as a female acrobat amuses Radha by dancing like a peacock. This is followed by the scene where Radha wishes to be carried on Krishna's shoulders because she is tired. Finally, Radha and Krishna are shown playing a single flute. A common scene of Krishna with Gopis is of the Chirharan Lila or stealing the gopis clothes. In these panels, Krishna is shown seated on a tree playing the flute while several gopis standing in water plead with Krishna to return their clothes. They are shown in various postures, some with hands folded above their heads, others with open palms asking for their clothes, sometimes kneeling to touch their heads to the ground, and some attempting to climb the tree, or shaking its branches.

In the episode of Nauka Lila, Krishna appears as a boatman, and agrees to ferry the gopis across the Yamuna. Krishna is shown sitting at the helm of a river-boat, while the gopis sit or stand in it with baskets on their heads. He holds an oar dipped in wavy lines depicting the Yamuna. In more complex depictions as at Dvarhatta, the scene takes place in a long, elaborately carved river-boat with peacock-prows, while crocodiles peer from the water. Krishna is sometimes shown multiple times, flirting with the gopis or stealing food from their baskets. In some depictions, Radha is shown seated in the boat with Krishna, or separately in a pavilion. At some temples like Hatbasantapur, the figure of the widow Barai-buri is shown as a hunched figure leaning on a stick, standing next to Krishna and berating him with upraised hand. This character was recognizable to viewers from Krishna plays, where she provided a comic foil to Krishna's divinity.

A similar episode is the Dan Lila, usually depicted on a panel near the Nauka Lila scene. Gopis bringing curds into Nanda's village are intercepted by Krishna and his friends who set up a toll post and demand tax. Krishna is shown seated, sometimes on a platform, but always under a large kadamba tree. His demands are challenged again by Barai-buri, shown as a bent figure leaning on a stick, and arguing hand-raised with Krishna while Gopis carrying baskets with pots of curd wait behind her, some impatiently or angrily with hands on their hips.

Mathura Gaman, Krishna departs for Mathura, Kantanagar

Krishna slays Kamsa, Gurap

Departure to Mathura and the slaying of Kamsa

Krishna's adventures and dalliances as a cowherd are brought to an abrupt close when Kamsa sends his minister Akrura in a royal chariot to bring Krishna and Balarama to Mathura to witness a wrestling tournament. This is a ploy by Kamsa and his intention is to kill the brothers when they arrive. The brothers, however, accept the invitation and, despite the pleas of the women of Vrindavan, they depart in the chariot for Mathura. This emotional departure scene is shown in almost every temple. Krishna and Balarama are seated in an elaborate chariot that is being driven by Akrura. The chariot is shown with four to six wheels and a makara head over which a horse is sometimes shown jumping. The brothers are either shown facing each other in discussion, or gesturing to the women around the chariot. They are distressed at Krishna's departure and are shown wailing with outstretched arms, some are swooning and being held by others, some sit despondently. In some depictions as at Dasghara, Amadpur and Parul, the gopis try to prevent the chariot from leaving by grabbing its wheels, or lying before it, or pleading with the charioteer. The annual Ratha Yatra or Chariot festival that was once an important Vaishnava event many Bengali villages was a re-enactment of this journey (it still happens in some towns such as Guptipara). In larger Ratha Yatra festivals as at Puri, the chariot's progress is accompanied by tremendous crowds and religious fervour, resembling the depictions on these panels.

Krishna and Balarama receive a mixed welcome at Mathura. They encounter and fight Kamsa's demons and henchmen, but are also joyously greeted and welcomed by the citizens of Mathura. Scenes of welcome include the Kubja Kritartha Lila, where Krishna meets the hump-back Kubja who supplies sandalwood-paste to Kamsa. She acknowledges Krishna's divinity and transfers her allegiance to him, and is blessed by him and thereby cured of her deformity. The episode is relayed in a single scene showing Krishna and Balarama facing a bent woman, and Krishna touching her forehead. At Parul are two separate scenes of welcome by the women of Mathura. One shows Krishna and Balarama standing before a woman who is putting a tilak on Krishna's forehead. In another similar scene, a woman offers a garland to Krishna.

Krishna's adversaries at Mathura include the elephant-demon Kuvalayapida, a scene that is easy to identify. Krishna is shown holding and grappling with the trunk of the elephant, which is shown either alone as at Parul or with a rider as at Halisahar. At Chandannagar, Krishna pulls down the rider with one hand while he entwines his leg around the elephant's trunk. In some examples as at Gurap or Amadpur, the elephant is shown prostrate with feet in the air, while Krishna continues to grapple with its trunk. In a few temples, the episode of Krishna slaying the washer man, a servant of Kamsa is also shown. The other commonly depicted encounter is of Krishna and Balarama with Kamsa's bodyguards Chanura and Mushtika. In this wrestling scene the combatants are shown with their arms and legs intertwined. This is sometimes followed by a panel where the bodyguard is subdued by Krishna or flung in the air as at Parul.

The final climactic episode is the slaying of Kamsa or the Kamsa Badh Lila. This important scene is depicted on nearly every decorated temple. Having vanquished every demon and adversary on the way to Kamsa's court, Krishna and Balarama march up to Kamsa, blowing their curved battle-horns. Krishna grabs hold of Kamsa, who is seated on a pavilion, by the hair and drags him down from his throne. In some panels, Krishna is shown fighting or even kicking the tyrant. Kamsa is usually shown trying to draw his sword and shield as he is pulled down.

Rasamandala, Shyam Raya Temple, Bishnupur

Krishna weighed against gold, Akui, Bankura

Variations on a Theme

On many temples Krishnalila stories appear not on base panels but above the entrance arches or on the rectangular wall panels around the entrance. At the Radha Kanta temple at Akui is eastern Bankura district, all the 27 wall panels to the right of the entrance have Krishnalila scenes, and the panels above the centre and right entrances also have depictions of Mathura Gaman, Kaliya Daman, and Kamsa Badh. Several temples at Medinipur (such as the Sitala temple at Suratpur) also have Krishnalila episodes above the entrance arches. The Madana Mohana temple at Bishnupur has very intricate Krishnalila scenes depicted on large wall panels around the entrance.

Scenes of Krishna's dalliances with the gopis are common on temple wall panels and above arches. The Raas Lila episode holds special meaning in Vaishnava philosophy and is often shown above arches or on temple walls in a circular panel called a Rasamandala. One or more concentric circles of dancing gopis holding Krishna's hand surround an image of Krishna or Krishna with Radha at the centre. At the Shyamaraya temple at Bishnupur, this is shown in a very large, iconic panel with three concentric circles of figures. The temple at Siuri also has a superb Rasamandala above the central arched entrance. Similar scenes of Krishna holding hands and dancing with gopis can be seen on long friezes below the cornice as at the Pratapesvara temple at Kalna. In several temples, scenes of Krishna dancing with gopis is on narrow panels placed around the capitals of the multi-faceted porch columns.

In the 19th century, several new Krishna stories (unrelated to the Bhagavata Purana) were written by Bengali poets. As these novel stories became popular, perhaps through jatra performances, patrons and sutradhars started depicting them on temple walls. Several temples in Medinipur and Bankura, for example, have depictions of the strange episode of Kali Krishna. In this story Radha meets Krishna secretly under the pretext of going into the forests to worship Kali. When Radha's husband, Ayan Ghosh, appears, Krishna magically transforms into Kali. In these panels Krishna is shown holding a flute as well as Kali's attributes, a kharga (cleaver) and a severed head, next to a seated Radha and a mesmerised Ayan Ghosh. Well preserved examples of this scene can be seen at the Janaki Ballabh temple at Tilantapara in Medinipur and the Sridhara temple at Sonamukhi. Another 19th century tale is of Rai Raja, where Radha is shown enthroned, surrounded by attendants with fly-whisks and parasols, and Krishna as her bodyguard (Shyam-Kotwal). Examples of this scene are on the Raj-Rajeswari temple at Chaipat.

In a few temples we can also find stories from Krishna's later life. At the great Kantaji temple in Bangladesh, the entire base frieze on the south facade is dedicated to the story of Krishna and Rukmini's courtship and marriage, including Balarama and Krishna's battles with Rukmini's brother Rukma, and with Jarasandha and Sisupala. At Debipur, an arched panel below the cornice shows the story of Krishna's battle with Indra to retrieve the Parijat flower from the abode of the gods. At Akui, a panel between the entrance arches shows the episode of Tula Bhara in which Krishna is weighed against gold in a complex story involving his wives Rukmini and Satyabhama.

Temples to visit for their Krishnalila panels

The finest Krishnalila base friezes and wall panels can be seen in the following temples:

  • Ananta Vasudeva Temple at Bansberia, Hugli

  • Radha Gobinda Temple at Atpur, Hugli

  • Burosiva Temple at Chandannagar, Hugli (Needs conservation)

  • Radhakanta Temple at Rajbalhat, Hugli (Needs conservation)

  • Rajrajeswari Temple at Kotalpur, Hugli (Needs urgent conservation)

  • Atchala Temple at Krishnapur, Hugli

  • Gopinath Temple at Dasghara, Hugli

  • Raghunatha Temple at Parul, Hugli

  • Keshtaraya or Jor Bangla Temple at Bishnupur

  • Madanmohan Temple at Bishnupur (Wall Panels)

  • Radha Kanta Temple at Akui, Bankura (Wall Panels)

  • Char-Bangla Temples at Baronagar, Murshidabad

  • Dakshina Kali Temple at Malancha, Medinipur

  • Janaki Ballabh Temple at Tilantapara, Medinipur

  • Gobinda Temple at Puthia, Rajshahi Division, Bangladesh

  • Kantaji Temple at Kantanagar, Rangpur Division, Bangladesh

While some of these are government protected, several aren't and need urgent conservation efforts to preserve and protect their Krishnalila base friezes, as well as other figural and decorative sculptural panels.