Bishnupur, Temple Town
Stone has always been in short supply in the vast flood plains of Bengal. Hence the architects had to restore to other substitute. As clay was easily available the burnt clay bricks soon became a good substitute of stone. This gave rise to a new form of temple architecture and lead to the construction of elaborately decorated terracotta temples.
Terracotta literally means baked earth in Italian but West Bengal has the distinction of housing some of the finest terracotta art in the world. The terracotta art reached its pinnacle under the patronage of the Malla Kings of Bishnupur during the seventeenth century.
The temples are still there turning Bishnupur, in Bankura District, into one of the most favored tourist spot in not only in West Bengal but in the whole of India.
History of Bishnupur and Malla Dynasty
Legend has it that during the 7th century AD a disposed king of a small kingdom in North India was making a pilgrimage to South India. During their journey through the present day Bishnupur area the Queen, who was pregnant experienced labor pain. She delivered a male baby in the house of a village brahamin, but did not survive to see her own baby. Abandoning the child the disposed king went on with his pilgrimage.
The child started growing up in the poor brahamin’s house. One day the boy had fallen asleep tending the cows in the field and a huge snake with his hood have guarded the sunlight, which was falling on the boys face. Seeing this miracle the poor brahamin provided the boy with best education along with physical and warfare training.
The boy not only excelled in education but also turned out to be an outstanding wrestler. Soon on the request of the local elders he ascended the throne of the local kingdom, which was renamed as the Malla Kingdom (Malla meaning wrestling) and he known as Adi Malla.
The Malla Kingdom flourished and after about 300 years the 10th Malla King Jagat Malla decided to shift his kingdom to Bishnupur. Over the next 800 years Jagat Malla and his descendants built several temples and structures (both of brick and stone) turning Bishnupur into a temple town.
Temples of Bishnupur
Although known for its terracotta temples Bishnupur contains an interesting mix of terracotta and stone temples. Apart from temples it also contains several other interesting religious and social structures. The temples of Bishnupur are located in a small compact area and it is best to explore them by a combination of walking and cycle rickshaw rides.
Rasmancha: Built in 1600 by the Malla King Hambir, the Rashmancha is the oldest standing structure of Bishnupur.
Consisting of arched entrances separated by pillars the Rashmanch stands on a raised laterite stone platform and is crowned with a stepped pyramidal structure surrounded by smaller typical Bengal styled sloped roofed structures.
It is architecturally unique and one of its kind in the whole of Bengal, probably in the whole of India. Sadly apart from a few floral lotus motif the Rasmancha does not contain any terracotta art work.
It is not a temple and hence does not house any idol but during the festival of Ras all the idols from different temples of Bishnupur are brought at the Rashmancha for public display.
Gumgarh: A window door less square structure located atop a small mound. Nothing much is known about the construction date and the purpose for which it was built. Some opine it was a prison while other believe it was a granary. Sadly it is nothing spectacular.
Shyamrai Temple: A left turn from the Ghumghar leads to the Shyamrai Temple, popularly known as the Pachchura temple, because of its five pinnacles. 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 Ras Chakra and love making scenes of Radha – Krishna are the most sort after terracotta panels of the Shyamrai Temple.
Kestorai Temple: A short distance away from the Shyamrai Temple is the Kestorai temple.It follows the jora bangle style of architecture and hence is popularly known as the Jore Bangle Temple. Jora Bangla type of temple consisted of two Bengal styled thatched roof like structure joined together, in the case of Kestorai Temple the joined structures are crowned with a turret.
The 1655 built temple is considered as one of the finest example of Bengal terracotta art. There are numerous panels covering a wide range of topics. Panels of ships and boats are quiet in the temple. There are also several panels from the two great epics but a panel depicting Bishma is sarasajya (bed of arrows) stands out among all.
Radhashyam Temple: Just next to the Kestorai Temple is the Radhashyam Temple. This Ek – ratna (Single Pinnacled) temple is built of laterite stone and contains lime stone stucco decoration. The temple is enclosed with high walls and is entrance consists of a triple domed Islamic style gateway. The temple dating back to 1758 was constructed by the Malla King Chaitanya Singha.
Radha Laljiu Temple: A little away is the Radha Laljiu Temple, built 100 years earlier than the Radhashyam Temple the temple follows a similar single pinnacled structure. Built by the Malla King Bir Singha in 1658 it is considered as the finest laterite stone temple in Bishnupur.
Mrinmoyee Temple: Just opposite the Radhashyam Temple is the Mrinmoyee Temple, the oldest temple of Bishnupur. Sadly the old structure no longer exists and the idol of Mrinmoyee is housed in a newly constructed structure.
Stone Gateways: Short distances away from the Mrinmoyee Temple are the two stone gateways. The larger of the two gateways is known as the Pathar Darwaja (Stone Door) as it is built of laterite stone. This gate once served as the northern entrance of the Royal residence and was built in the second half of the 17th century by Maharaja Bir Singha.
The double storied gate accommodated troops and narrow slits allowed the archers and the gunmen to fire their shots.
A few yards away is a small stone gateway, which was built in the same period. Although much smaller in magnitude the small but elegant structure still reminds one of the glorious days of Bishnupur.
Stone Chariot: A short distance from the two stone gateways is a small but intricately carved stone chariot. Built in the 17th century the laterite chariot is built in the lines of the ek – ratne (single pinnacled) temples of Bishnupur.
Madan Mohan Temple: Located quiet a distance away from the stone chariot is the Madan Mohan Temple.
This single pinnacled temple has some of the finest terracotta in the whole of Bishnupur and shouldn’t be missed. Built in1694 by Malla King Durjan Singh the star attraction of Madan Mohan is its intricate terracotta. The temple is dedicated to Lord Madan Mohan (an incarnation of Bishnu) and is still an active temple. The temple complex also contains a do – chala (double sloped roofed) structure
Dalmadal Canon: The tourist attraction of Bishnupur are not restricted to temples or religious structures only. The massive Dalmadal Canon is one such attraction. The 1742 built cannon weighs 112 quintal and measures 3.8 meter with a diameter of 30 cm.
Legend has it that when the Marathas attacked Bishnupur in 1742 Lord Madan Mohan himself fired the gun to drive them away.
Chinamasta Temple: Next to the cannon is the Chinnamasta Temple, an ancient temple modified into a modern structure and in the process losing its beauty and grace. Just ahead of the Chinamasta Temple are seven scattered laterite stone ek – ratna (single pinnacled) temples decorated with beautiful lime stone stucco art. Sadly the lime stone art have not survived the test of time and only traces of it can be seen to this day.
Seven Ek – Ratna Temples: First to the left is the Nandalal Temple. Just across the road is a complex of three temples known as the Jor Mandir. These temples were built by Malla King Krishna Singh in 1726. Some beautiful stucco work still remains.
Next is the Radhagovinda Temple built by Krishna Singh in 1729. A short distance away is the 1737 built Radhamadhav Temple. The ek – ratna temple is accompanied by a do – chala (double sloped roofed) structure. The temple is built by Churamony Devi, wife of Krishna Singh. The temple still contains some interesting stucco work featuring animals.
Further down the road is the Kalachand Temple with its towering pinnacle. Built in 1656 by the Malla King Raghunath Singh temple once covered with stucco decoration, only traces of it remains to this day.
Bishnupur Museum: Located a short distance from the West Bengal Tourist Lodge the Bishnupur Museum is Acharya Yogesh ChandraPurakirti Bhawan and houses an interesting collection on folk art and music.
Shopping at Bishnupur
No travel is complete without shopping and Bishnupur is no exception. No wonder the terracotta artifacts are the most sort after items while shopping in Bishnupur. Long necked giraffe like horses are the most popular of the terracotta artifacts. Terracotta musicians are also quiet popular. A visit to the nearby village of Panchmura can give an insight into the terracotta artifacts industry of Bishnupur.
Handloom industry is another thriving cottage industry of Bishnupur. Bishnupur is also home to the famous Baluchari saree, famous all over the world for its intricate designs inspired by the terracotta panels of the temples.
Dasabatar cards: Once a traditional indoor game of the Malla King, these special cards are now a colletors item.
Brass Utensils: Brass and German silver utensils and artifacts also featurea among the most shop items of Bishnupur.
Bishnupur Tourist Information
Getting there: Bishnupur is well connected from Howrah by train. Rupashi Bangla and Purilia Express are the most preferred trains.
Places to stay and eat: Bishnupur has hotels of all budgets. West Bengal Tourist Lodge is a good option. All the hotel serve good food. There are hardly any eateries apart from the hotels.
Getting around: Apart from the Madanmohan Temple all the others can be covered on foot (please refer to the map). It is best to take a rickshaw for the Madanmohan Temple. Ras Mancha, Shyamrai and Kestorai are ticketed monuments and the ticket needs to be collected at Ras Mancha.