Bishnupur is quaint town in West Bengal, located about 160 kms from Kolkata. When I planned my trip to this small town, which most people I know had not heard about, I was not sure what to expect there. I planned my visit with a spirit of experiment and I could not have asked for more. Bishnupur came out to be bundle of surprise. Let me begin my talking about the better-known part of this small town – its Terracotta temples. Most temples are dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha and I am happy to have visited it on Janamashtami.
Bishnupur is home to many terracotta temples spread across the town, peeping out at every nook and corner and sometimes standing tall in vast plains, some by the numerous small lakes that punctuate the town and some amongst the town, a part of its daily life by way of play ground for children and meeting places for adults.
Bishnupur was the capital of Malla kings of Mallabhum, or the warrior kings, which was an important dynasty that ruled Bengal for a long time with its beginnings in late 7th century that lasted till early 19th century. This is more than 1100 years and 55 generations. Most temples belong to the 17-18th century. It is said that the dynasty was originally a Shaivite i.e. they used to follow the Shiva but king Bir Hambir who ruled in 16th century converted to Vaishnava and that lead to construction of all these temples dedicated to incarnations of Vishnu and most prominently Krishna.
This region does not have any native stone, so the temples had to constructed from the clay that is locally available. Temples were made of bricks and were decorated using terracotta tiles. Terracotta being the baked clay, with a shelf life of about 300 years was the alternative to stone art that we see in most other parts of the country. The red terracotta looks majestic on a background of blue sky. The intricate work on the walls depicting stories from Ramayan, Mahabharata and Puranas along with the depiction of daily life leaves you in total awe. The designs carved in these temples continue to inspire the Baluchari Sari weavers of the town, who even today pick up their designs from the walls of these temples.
There are three primary styles of temple architecture in Bishnupur, all of which use terracotta as the primary material. Most temples have a very ornate front and a relatively plain back and sides. The temple entrance has a covered terracotta entrance, which usually leads to the side of the temple. In the front of the temple is a platform like structure that is well maintained at only few places. Then there is a room on the other side of the temple, which I presume can be either the storeroom or the place for priest to live. Some of the temples are still practicing temples, though I did not see many people visiting them. Most locals were visiting the relatively new temples.
First and most prominent is Ratna style, which has a flat roof with a canopy or shikhara on top. If there is only one shikhara in the centre of the roof it is called ek-ratna, if there are 5 shikharas – one on centre and 4 on the four corners of the roof, it is called Panchratna and if there is an additional set of 4 shikharas on 4 sides of the roof it is called a Navratna temple. In Bishnupur the temples do not have a flat roof, but a slightly curved roof, which is a depiction of the style of roofs in the region. Prominent Ek- ratna temple in Bishnupur is Madan Mohan temple, built in 1694 CE by King Durjan Singh and has noteworthy terracotta work. Other examples are Radha Madhab and Radha Gobind temple, which has a unique mini chariot in form of a temple. Shayam Rai temple is the best example of Panchratna temple style and has the most exquisite carvings on terracotta of all the temples. The carvings of this temple are the finest and whole temple creates an imposing impact. The central shikhara is octagonal while the corner shikharas are rectangular in shape with interesting curvi-conical roofs. You are not allowed to go inside the temple but as you go around, you can almost read the stories the terracotta tiles are telling. The intricacy of the carvings will intrigue you. Unfortunately some of it has started decaying or eroding. Panels include stories of everyday life and its activities, Puranic stories and motifs depicting the flora and fauna both real and imaginary. Other Panchratna temples are Madan Mohan temple. This is the most common temple style in Bishnupur.
Second style of temple is Chala style, which imitates triangular roofs of rural Bengali hut. Jor Bangla temple is a leading example of this style and here the twin triangular roofs are further accentuated by another roof on top called charchala. If instead of one roof on top, there were 4 roofs it would be called athchala referring to the total of eight roofs. Jor Bangla – the name itself tells the style of temple, Jor means 2 or twin and Bangla refers to the common roof style of Bengal. The roofs are shaped like thatched hut roof. There are extensive carvings on the ceiling and the exterior and interior walls of this temple. Carvings here most prominently depict Krishna lila, apart from the animals and human life. I could see a lot of imagined animals in this temple’s carvings. It is also known as the Kesata Rai temple and was built in mid 17th century by then king Raghunath Singh. This is one of the most famous temples of this region, standing apart from the others because of its typical roof design.
Third style is Duel style that is the common Nagara style temple with a long curvilinear or tapering shikhara on it and has its origins in Orrisa. I did not see any of the temples of this style in Bishnupur, though I read about their rare existence. These temples were probably built in the early medieval period.
Besides these temples, there is Rasamancha, a unique structure built by Bir Hambir in 1600 CE. It is a huge square structure in bricks with a pyramid roof, built on a raised laterite plinth, 24.5 meters wide and 10.7 meters high. Inside the structure are circumambulate walls and its labyrinth like lanes take you to the centre of the structure that is locked as of now and you can only make an educated guess that it may have been a shrine. There are 10 arches on all the four sides, which in turn has further arches as you move inside the structure. Arches have the lotus motif carved on top of them. This is primarily a brick structure and the terracotta carvings are minimal. There is a white limestone coating on the outer walls that is more or less on its way out, but gives an impression that this structure might have been white instead of the red that it is now from bare bricks. Thick pillars support the low but huge arches. On top of the outer arched, there is a series of curved roofs, each roof roughly covering the two arches and a smaller version of them covering the corners. In the middle is a massive pyramid roof made of bricks that gives an impression of a staircase from some angles. I could not gather the purpose of this structure, though I was told that this was place meant for fairs and festivals and still hosts an annual fair called Rasa festival. Apparently people used to come here from neighboring areas with their village deity idols for the Rasa festival and displayed them in the galleries of Rasamancha. It is said that it is one of its kind structure and there is no parallel that has been found anywhere in the world, making it the most unique landmark of Bishnupur.
The most important aspect of Bishnupur temples was that all the temples are beautifully maintained, they are clean and hence are very inviting. The lawns around the temples are well maintained, with flowers blooming everywhere and lawns surrounding them perfectly manicured. And unlike most temples in India, there are lawns and gardens surrounding almost all temples, barring a couple that lie within the living areas of the town. This made the visit even more special as it may not sound something great, but it is something that we do not get usually.
Watching so many temples in the vicinity of each other, reminded me of the temple clusters of Kahjuraho. Each successive king, probably for the personal worship, constructed at least one temple. Another motive could have been to take forward and excel the art form created by their ancestors.
I am sharing a few photographs here, but intend to do a photo-essay on the 2-3 important temples of Bishnupur, apart from another write up on the art of Bishnupur.