Bishnupur is a quaint town in West Bengal, located about 160 km 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. The historical place came out to be a bundle of surprises. Let me begin by talking about the better-known part of this small town – Bishnupur Terracotta Temples.
Most temples are dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha. I am happy to have visited it on Janmashtami.
Bishnupur Terracotta temples – Bengal Tourist Attractions
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 the playground for children and meeting places for adults.
Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla kings of Mallabhum or the warrior kings. Which was an important dynasty that ruled Bengal for a long time with its beginnings in the late 7th century that lasted until the 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 the 16th century converted to Vaishnava. And that leads to the 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 be 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.
Bishnupur Terracotta Temples Architecture Styles
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 front of the temple is a platform-like structure that is well maintained in only a 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 the priest to live. Some of the temples are still practicing temples.
Though I did not see many people visiting them. Most locals were visiting relatively new temples.
The first and most prominent is the Ratna style, which has a flat roof with a canopy or shikhara on top. If there is only one shikhara in the center of the roof it is called Ek–Ratna. If there are 5 shikhara’s – one in the center and 4 on the four corners of the roof, it is called Panchratna. And if there is an additional set of 4 shikhara’s on 4 sides of the roof it is called a Navratna temple. Here 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. The prominent Ek-Ratna temple here 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 the form of a temple.
Shyam Rai Temple
Shyam Rai temple is the best example of the Panchratna temple style. It has the most exquisite carvings on the terracotta of all the temples. The carvings of this temple are the finest and the whole temple creates an imposing impact. The central shikhara is octagonal while the corner shikhara is 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. The other Panchratna temple is the Madan Mohan temple. This is the most common temple style in this town.
The second style of the temple is the Chala style, which imitates triangular roofs of rural Bengali huts. Jor Bangla temple is a leading example of this style. 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 the temple. Jor means 2 or twin and Bangla refers to the common roof style of Bengal. The roofs are shaped like a 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 the mid-17th century by then king Raghunath Singh. This is one of the most famous temples in this region, standing apart from the others because of its typical roof design.
The third style is the Duel style which is the common Nagara style temple with a long curvilinear or tapering shikhara on it and has its origins in Orissa. I did not see any temples of this style in the town. 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. Its labyrinth-like lanes take you to the center of the structure which is locked as of now. You can only make an educated guess that it may have been a shrine. There are 10 arches on all four sides, which in turn have 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 are 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 covers the two arches and a smaller version of them covers the corners. In the middle is a massive pyramid roof made of bricks that give an impression of a staircase from some angles. I could not gather the purpose of this structure. Though I was told that this was a place meant for fairs and festivals. And still, hosts an annual fair called the Rasa festival. Apparently, people used to come here from neighboring areas with their village deity idols for the Rasa festival. And displaying them in the galleries of Rasamancha.
It is said that it is one of its kind structure. There is no parallel that has been found anywhere in the world. Making it a unique landmark of the historical place.
The most important aspect of these 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 is there 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 Khajuraho. Each successive King, probably for personal worship, constructed at least one temple. Another motive could have been to take forward and excel in the art form created by their ancestors.
I am sharing a few photographs of the Bishnupur Terracotta Temples here but intend to do a photo-essay on the 2-3 important Terracotta Temples, apart from another write-up on the art of the historical town.
Read more about Bishnupur Tourism
Art Mart of the town