In the Bankura district of West Bengal lies a town so steeped in history that once you step on to the red soil, you are transported to a different world, where time stands still and stories of an age gone by blows in the wind. Bishnupur, situated about 160 km away from Kolkata, is a quaint little town famous for its teracotta work and baluchari sarees. It used to be the capital of the Malla dynasty of the seventeenth century. Amidst the oblivion of forgotten glory, the town stands tall with its teracotta temples some of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. Bishnupur is a joyous bundle of surprise- with historical anecdotes strewn in every nook and cranny, small eateries offering delicious Bengali cuisine, serene natural beauty and a paradise to offer the shoppers. (Teracotta figurines, jewellery of dokra work, exquisite Baluchari sarees, earthen conch shells, astonishingly carved shell figurines to name but a few).
Bishnupur can be reached easily by trains from Kolkata. Buses are also available from nearby towns of Durgapur, Bankura and Bardhaman. The town has budget lodges and hotels. A tourist lodge operated by the West Bengal Department of Tourism is also present and it is well maintained with all modern amenities.
The flood plains of Bengal never had any stone quarries. And hence the Bengali artisans decided to build jaw dropping temples from burnt clay bricks and decorate them with stunning teracotta panels depicting scenes from the epics- Ramayana and Mahabharata and also scenes from contemporary lives. The word ‘teracotta’ literally means burnt clay in Italian, but some specimens of the first ever teracotta art have been found in Bengal itself. The art form reached its glorious pinnacle under the patronage of the Malla rulers. It is said that the Malla kings considered it a prime duty to get at least one temple constructed in their capital in their lifetime.
The Temple Architecture
The Bishnupur temples boast of an unique style of architecture. A number of temples are located in close proximity to each other. The architecture combines Bengali, Rajasthani,Islamic and even Egyptian elements. Apart from temples other important historical and religious structures are also present including the ruins of rajbari (Royal Palace), Laalbandh (a lake that also has the tragic story of a courtesan and her infant son being drowned by a jealous queen), the stone chariot, the Dalmadal cannon etc. The most important teracotta structures include the raasmancha, the Shyam Rai (Krishna Radha) temple and the Jorbangla temple.
The oldest standing structure of Bishnupur is the Raasmancha which was built in the 1600s. The unique architecture is characterised by distinct elements like arched entrances separated by pillars the Rashmanch standing on a raised laterite stone platform and crowned with a stepped pyramidal structure surrounded by smaller typical Bengal styled sloped roofed structures (Chaala style of architecture). Raasmancha was not a temple in the strict sense of the term and hence does not house any deity. It consists of 108 arches and it is believed that at the time of the Raash festival, the idols from all temples of Bishnupur used to be brought to Raasmancha and worshiped here in the period of the festival.
A left turn from the Ghumghar (a window less mound that was perhaps a prison used by the Malla kings) leads to the Shyamrai Temple. Dedicated to the duo of Krishna and Radha, the temple has five pinnacles and hence is also popularly known as the Pachchura mandir. Built by Mallaraja Raghunath Singha in 1643 this is terracotta at its best. Approached by triple arched entrance on all the four sides the Shyamrai Temple contains terracotta on all its four sides including the inner walls and the pinnacles. The panels depict scenes from the Puranas, religious texts, and even common folklores, and scenes like tiger hunting and other contemporary social affairs. The Ras Chakra and love making scenes of Radha – Krishna are the most famous panels because of their aesthetic appeal.
The Keshtorai temple is also known as teh Jor Bangla temple because of the pure Bengali style of architecture.The architecture sports two Bengal styled thatched roof like structure joined together, and crowned with an ornamental turret. This building was built in 1655 and is considered to be the finest example of Bengali teracotta art.
The scenes depicted by the panels get more dieverse, we can see Bhisma on his Bed of arrows (Sarasajya), The Mughal Emperor being showered with gifts and even gun slinging Portugese soldiers arriving in Bengal on their boats by the Bay of Bengal.
Bishnupur also houses a number of other temples like seven Ekratna temples (one pinnacled structures), the Mrinmoyee Mandir, The Chinnamasta Mandir, the Nandagopal Mandir, the Madanmohan Mandir etc, some of which are also in different states of decay. The Chinnamasta Mandir and Mrinmoyee Mandir are still in use. The Mrinmoyee Mandir houses a particular cannon which is sounded every Durga puja. Only after this cannon is fired does Puja start in the other temples of Bishnupur.
One can also see the Dalmadal cannon on the other side of the town. This cannon was instrumental in protecting Mallabhum from Maratha invasions. Legend has it that the deity Madan Mohan himself had fired the cannon against the Maratha army.
Bishnupur sells exquisite handicraft items. Do not leave without a pair of teracotta horses that are also supposed to be good luck charms, dokra (tribal metal ) jewellery, exquisitely carved shells, a pair of teracotta bangles and an authentic Baluchari saree (brightly colored silk saree embroidered in golden zari to depict scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabaharata).
Bishnupur is a land where history is vibrantly alive.