Terracotta wonder

Temple tradition

Terracotta wonder

Bishnupur, the ancient capital of the Malla kings, is a rich repository of excellent terracotta temples. Chitra Ramaswamy visits the brick temples that were built between the 17th and 18th centuries.

Whoever said art flourishes in the fertile imagination of mankind, no matter the means, could not have stated something more profound. The brick temples of Bishnupur stand in brilliant testimony to human ingenuity overcoming nature’s parsimony. The absence of suitable building materials in their region did not deter the 17th century Malla kings of Bengal from pursuing aesthetics. The result: they have etched their names for eternity in the annals of history and left behind a rich legacy for posterity. This is evidenced by the several brick temples that dot Bishnupur’s landscape. Despite the lack of stone or other suitable material, the Malla rulers made use of the abundantly available potter’s clay to allow their architectural prowess and sensibilities, full cry.

Our trip to Bishnupur in Bankura District of West Bengal, 200 km from Kolkata, happens by accident. We weave our way through a maze of traffic that includes rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts and some motorised vehicles that must have seen better days. The town appears frozen in time: few net cafes and mobile outlets bear some semblance to the modern and contemporary. But glory is everywhere about the Bishnupur temples, the objects of our visit. They peep out from every nook and corner, often in the midst of vast verdure, and stand majestically red and reasonably tall against an icy blue sky.

Cultural virtuosity reached its pinnacle during the reigns of Bir Hambir, Vir Singh and Raghunath Singh in the 16th and 17th centuries. Of the several temples that were built, 26 survive. The temples, declared ASI protected monuments, are in various states of preserve. Though most of them look desolate, bereft of visitors, it is palpable that they are not uncared for.

It is evident that the Malla kings combined aesthetics, utility and environmental wellbeing in erecting their temple complexes, most of which have sprawling gardens that are well maintained. A striking and distinctive feature of Bishnupur temples is the strong semblance they bear to the native Bengal huts in their structural design. Since stone was not available in the region, the temples were built of local red soil. Sculptures carved out on baked clay tiles were plastered to the brick walls. Special adhesive plaster made from natural ingredients were used to buttress the constructions.

Temples with a theme

The sculptural themes in the cluster of temples give life to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, besides portraying Krishna in various moods — as a prankster stealing butter, as a romantic waltzing with the gopis, and as the charming flautist mesmerising the cows and every other creatures with his mellifluous music.

The temples in Bishnupur are a celebration of Vishnu in the form of Krishna. The name Bishnupur itself derives from the devotion that Bir Hambir displayed towards Lord Vishnu.
According to legend, Bir Hambir was a ruthless ruler who indulged in looting and robbery. He once relieved some devotees of their possessions believing it to contain jewels. Much to his dismay, he found Vaishnavite texts in the bag. The incident proved a turning point in his life. On hearing a heart wrenching rendition of the Bhagwad Gita by one Srinivasa Acharya who was travelling with the group, Vir Hambir had a change of heart, turned over a new leaf, and became a staunch Vaishnavite. He gifted vast amounts of land and money to Acharya and introduced the worship of Madan Mohan in Bishnupur. It was during his period that temple construction assumed feverish pitch and the region’s oldest and most unique landmark monument, the Ras Mancha, came to be built in 1587.

The Ras Mancha, set in the midst of a lush and manicured lawn, is not typically a temple in the conventional sense, dedicated to a particular deity. It served as the congregation centre of all gods on the occasion of the annual Ras festival in Bishnupur. With its unique pyramid-shaped roof, raised on a laterite plinth, this huge rectangular structure is the only one of its kind in Bengal, and perhaps India. Unlike the other temples that we see, the Ras Mancha has few sculptures. Most of the carvings depicting dancers and musicians adorn its thick pillars which support the 108 arched gateways.

Our next halt is the Madan Mohan Temple. The intricately carved temple pillars, embellished with 64 dance poses, leave us spellbound. The exterior walls of the temple are densely ornamented with characters from Hindu mythology. There are elaborately decorated terracotta plaques depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The temple was built in 1694 in the ekaratna style with a single square flat roof with curved cornices.

It was during Bir Hambir’s follower, Raghunath Singh’s reign, that one of Bengal’s most prized monuments, the Shyam Rai Temple, was built. We are awestruck as we stand before this structure filled with figurines and floral motifs that speak volumes for the artistes of the times. While most of the carvings are associated with Ras Lila, Radha and Krishna, several cornices have friezes with sculptures of musicians, dancers, royal hunting scenes, etc.

Architectural marvel

While most Bishnupur temples display a very ornate front contrasting a relatively simple rear and sides, they basically adhere to three architectural styles, prominent among them being the canopied flat-roof ratna style. Depending on the number of canopies or shikharas on the roofs, these temples are classified as ekratna, pancharatna and navaratna. The Jor Bangla Temple is one of the best examples of the Chala style of temple building with triangular roofs that resemble the typical Bengali hut. Yet again, depending on the number of roofs, these are classified as jor or char chala, denoting two and four roofs respectively. The Odisha architectural style or the Deul style with long curvilinear or tapering towers is the third prominent temple pattern that we get to see in Bishnupur. Most of the surviving temples of Bishnupur, it is evident, were built during the period when the region was witnessing a revival of Hinduism and the Krishna cult was gathering momentum. Nevertheless, the influence of Islamic architectural style is also palpable in these monuments.

With time running out on us, we decide to move on at a faster pace and proceed to Dol Madol, a huge cannon that echoes history. It was built in 1742 by Raja Gopal Singh to keep the Maratha troops at bay. There is an interesting story associated with the cannon. The 18th century spelt doom for the Malla kingdom and Bishnupur as they were plagued with invasions, famine and finally getting ceded to the imperial rule of the British. Gopal Singh, one of its last rulers, a pious but misfit king, sought refuge in prayers and issued an edict to his people to count beads and chant God’s name, in the face of invading Maratha marauders. According to the villagers, when the Muslims attacked the city, Lord Vishnu himself descended on earth as Madan Mohan, to fire the cannon because it could not be handled by any human being. Tough story to digest, but interesting, nevertheless.

Besides temples, the Malla kings built several water tanks meant to serve the dual purpose of providing uninterrupted water supply to the people of the kingdom and also to protect them from enemy attack. When under siege, these large tanks would be drained to keep the enemy forces from advancing. While the bunds in their heydays must have looked impressive, they lie today in a state of dilapidation, and needless to say, bereft of any water.

The rich heritage of Bishnupur is not simply confined to its imposing brick temples; the town is home to the Bankura Horse, symbolic of Indian handicrafts, and the beautifully woven Baluchari saris that narrate tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
It is evident that there is a close association between the temple carvings and the weavers who deftly translated mythology to bring it alive on fabric.

The smell of terracotta tickles our nostrils as we leave Bishnupur behind us, our hearts and visual senses thirsting for more. I promise myself a leisurely trip to the place once again to savour in greater measure the enormous wealth that this seemingly nondescript little town of West Bengal has to offer.

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