The Gangetic plains of Bengal have influenced every aspect of life in the region, and religion is no exception. Due to the rich, alluvial soil washed downstream by the mighty rivers here, temples made of terracotta or – or fired clay – are scattered all over Bengal.
While the terracotta temples of Bishnupur have cornered the spotlight, terracotta mosques are less talked-about.
Yet the use of clay to make and decorate mosques predates the temple-building spree in Bishnupur, which only began in the 16th century.
Found in many districts of West Bengal, such as Mursidabad, Birbhum and Burdwan and even in neighbouring Bangladesh, these mosques display splendid craftsmanship and are beautifully ornamented.
The tradition of building terracotta mosques began with the arrival in Bengal of Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, an Afghan general, at the end of the 12th century. Infamous as the man who destroyed the Buddhist universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila, he went on to capture the Sena kingdom in 1203 CE, thereby ushering the period of Islamic rule over Bengal.
At the time, clay was the construction material of choice in the region as neither stone nor hardwood were available here.
The clay was fired to make bricks while terracotta was also used to make ornamental elements in places of worship.
In her book Sultanate Mosques in Bengal Architecture (1989), Prof Perween Hasan of the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, discusses pre-Muslim era temples in Bengal. She writes that they “are in stone or brick in the Orissan Nagara or Rekha style that has little place for plaque ornamentation, though it does use ornamental brickwork”.
Since stone was scarce in Bengal, the material was imported and used mainly to sculpt temple deities. This gave rise to an irony, which prompted Prof Hasan to write that “…the sculptor enjoyed a status higher than that of the terracotta maker whose work belonged to the folk tradition.”
With the Islamic conquest of Bengal at the end of the 12th century CE, this equation changed as the sculptors of Hindu stone idols lost patronage. Instead, the new rulers used local artisans to apply their terracotta art in creating geometric and vegetal designs on the walls of their mosques. When stone was required, it was obtained from disassembled components of non-Islamic structures and was combined with brick to form architectural elements like the bases of pillars, for instance. Later, entire mosques were built from brick built components designed exclusively for them.
With the collapse of the Delhi Sultanate in the mid-14th century, a number of independent kingdoms emerged, including the Sultanate of Bengal (1338 CE). The rulers of the Bengal Sultanate built a number of mosques across Bengal between 1350 CE and 1550 CE, during which the art of terracotta decoration reached its zenith in Bengal during this time.
Author and historian Nihar Ghosh, considered tobe an authority on medieval Bengal, in his book Islamic Art of Mediaeval Bengal Architectural Embellishments (2003) mentions that ‘panels on the walls, doorways and spandrels including niches are sometimes profusely ornamented by terracotta panels and curved brick work’.
Due to the Islamic taboo on the depiction of the human beings and animals in art, the terracotta motifs and art in the mosques reflected architectural influences from Central Asia and the Delhi Sultanate. Blended with local influences, glazed terracotta and pierced mosaic were introduced. Also, Bengali artisans added their own ornamental designs and compositions derived from folk art. Emphasis was laid on decoration of the mihrab (prayer niche) and quiba (Western wall).
Let us revisit the historical timeline from the 14th to the 16th century CE, and look at mosques with terracotta decorations in West Bengal. Besides these shrines, there is a smattering of Islamic structures like gates and towers which too boast beautiful terracotta work.
The ruins of capitals in the erstwhile Bengal Suba – Gaur alias Lakhnauti and Pandua – have some of the best examples of terracotta work on mosques in ancient Bengal. Most of the mosques here are under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Location: Gaur and Pandua near Malda Town
1. Adina Mosque
Adina Mosque was once the largest mosque on the Indian subcontinent. This colossal structure was built by Sultan Sikandar Shah between 1364 CE and 1375 CE. Apart from its size, the sheer number of 28 terracotta-studded tympanums in unparalleled. They are decorated mainly in floral motifs with a typical hanging lamp (inspired by the Hindu chain-and-bell motif) on the outer surface. There are several ornamental terracotta panels on the outer walls of the mosque. The floral motifs are inspired by Hindu and Buddhist patterns.
Adina is the only hypostyle (roofed colonnade) mosque in Bengal. Another remarkable feature of this mosque is the total absence of any entrance gateway. There are small doors and arched openings. Above the arched openings, some terracotta artwork still exists on the walls. The mosque was probably built on the base of a Hindu temple as several stone-built, defaced figurines including a Ganesha can be seen near the base of the mosque.
2. Lotton Mosque
Lotton Mosque (1475 CE) is the best surviving example of glazed terracotta work and pierced mosaic in West Bengal. Borrowed from the Delhi Sultanate and Central Asia architecture, the manufacturing process is painstaking.
Similar work can be seen in the Chika Mosque and Chamkati Mosque, although in smaller numbers.
There is a structure like a gate close to the Chika Mosque, known as Gumti Gate. This is famous for its fluted columns of glazed brickwork and decorated cornice.
3. Tantipara Mosque
‘Tantipara’ means the ‘quarter for the weaver class’. This mosque is believed to have been built by Mirshad Khan in 1480 CE. At Malda, Tantipara has terracotta decorations of a wide variety.
Motifs like the date tree and long-stalked cones, lamp-hanging with suspended chain, ornamental portal with Purnaghat motif (influenced by Hindu design) can be seen on its walls.
Various patterns incorporating the lotus flower can also be seen here. The lotus signifies the universal life force and the opening up of the consciousness of the divine.
4. Qudam Rasool Mosque
This structure houses a footprint believed to be of Prophet Mohammad. Unlike other mosques, there is a no mihrab inside but a black platform with the ‘footprint’ of the Prophet. Built in 1531 CE by Sultan Nusrat Shah, the structure has a triple entrance with an arched roof.
The architecture seems to be heavily influenced by Hindu temples. The outer wall panels depict several intricate floral decorations, some inspired by the chain-and-bell motif. The lotus motif appears in the terracotta work here too.
This complex includes several graves, a roofless hall and a Bengali thatched hut-shaped brick-building, (built between 1658 CE and 1707 CE), which houses the grave of Fateh Khan, a general of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Other Islamic Structures
Other than mosques, many Islamic structures in Gaur and Pandua have intricate terracotta work on their walls.
The huge gateway of Dakhil Darwaja, the 84-foot-high Firoze Minar of Gaur, and the massive single-domed brick Eklakhi mausoleum are examples worth mentioning.
While Dakhil Darwaza and Firoze Minar have more decorated bricks than terracotta plaques on their walls, Eklkahi is considered one of the best conserved brick monuments from the Muslim era in West Bengal.
How to get there:
These are close to Malda Town. A journey by a rented car can take you around Gaur and Pandua in a day. For serious heritage enthusiasts, it may take two days. Malda is well connected with Kolkata by Rail, An Overnight journey by Gaur Express is a good option. Malda town has good lodging options.
Location: Pundooah and Saptagram
Situated close to each other, it takes just half a day to visit the two prominent brick mosques in these two small settlements accessible by local train or by road from Kolkata.
Badi Masjid, Pundooah
Built around 1300 CE, the mosque originally had 21 doors in front and three on the sides. The roof collapsed in an earthquake and there were originally 63 domes on the roof resting on brick arches supported by stone pillars with Hindu designs.
A few exquisite terracotta works on its mihrabs still exist. Nearby, is a 38.1-foot-high tower, which was probably built as a victory symbol.
Mosque at AdiSaptagram
Built in 1529 CE by Sayyid Jamalauddin, son of Sayyid Fakhruddin of Amul city, this small mosque has much more terracotta work left on it than Bari Masjid has.
Other than significant floral decorations on its walls, the interiors of the three miharbs have a significant amount of terracotta floral design left on them. The lotus motif has been used in two of its mihrabs.
How to get there:
AdiSaptagram and Pundooah, Hooghly - Located at 61 km and 77 km respectively from Kolkata, these two can be visited as a day tour by local train from Howrah or a drive from Kolkata.
Location: Kherur in Sagardighi town
Murshidabad and Berhampore are popular heritage tourist destinations in West Bengal. However, there are few takers for the Kherur Mosque, located just 40 km from Berhampore.
Built by one Rafat Khan during the reign of Alauddin Hussain Shah in AD 1494 CE, the Kherur Mosque is a crumbling structure with intricate terracotta works adorning its exterior walls and arches.
The designs are mainly floral. The mihrabs are damaged but retain much of their interior and exterior decoration. The mosque is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
How to get there:
Located around 50 km from Berhampore, Kherur can be visited as an extension of a tour to Berhampore and Murshidabad which are both connected very well with Kolkata.
Location: Rajnagar near Suri
Believed to have been built in the 16th century, Motichur Mosque has terracotta designs with prominent motifs inspired by both Hindu and Muslim styles of design.
The mosque has three entrances and two false decorative doors like many terracotta temples. In the interiors, its tympanums are terracotta-studded like that of Adina, but the design consists of a collection of rectangular-shaped artwork.
How to get there:
Nearest Railhead is Siuri, which is well connected with Howrah. Siuri has enough accommodation facilities, Rajnagar has other attractions. Nearby Hetampur has a huge palace.
Rajnagar and Hetampur are close to popular destination Tagore's abode Shantiniketan too. One can visit these by car as an extension of Shantiniketan tour.
Location: Natunhat and Kulutia (Kulut) close to Burdwan town
Hussain Shahi Mosque at Natunhat, Manglakot PS
Located 33 km from Burdwan station, this mosque lies on the banks of a pond and on the top of a mound in front of a local, unmarked mass graveyard. This mosque, built in 1510 CE at the time of Sultan Hussain Shah, has only its front and back walls left.
Floral motifs still exist on the front walls and on top of the mihrab. The walls at the back sport the hanging-flower motif. In recent times, the mosque was ‘renovated’ with random plastering, which has significantly damaged the remaining artwork on its walls.
Hussain Shahi Mosque at Kulut / Kulutia
Twenty-three km down the Badshahi road, after a railway crossing, is another Hussain Shahi Mosque next to a madrasa. The front portion is completely damaged but the side and back walls still have a lot of terracotta work visible.
As in the mosque at Natunhat, this one too sports the hanging-flower motif. The roots of a banyan tree have seriously damaged the structure.
None of these mosques is functioning today but their burnished facades and delicately ornamented architecture are rich with tales of a forgotten era.
How to get there:
Location is quite odd. Only option is to take a hired car from Burdwan station and drive here. Nearby Ketugram area is politically sensitive, so one needs to be careful while visiting these places.
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.
All photos credited to the author.