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An enchanted Uday K Chakraborty experiences the wonderful terracotta temples of Bishnupur.

Our decision to Bishnupur, a small town with significant architectural heritage, was catalyzed when we came to know that it was presently being considered for UNESCO heritage site status. About an hour and half from Kolkata, a short bypass on the way brought us to Antpur, where exquisite terracotta work on the walls of the Radha Govinda temple provided us an apt preview to what was to expect in Bishnupur.

We reached Bishnupur by lunch time, so in that afternoon we only focused on the most impressive building of Bishnupur, known as Ras Mancha or Nat Mandir. Built in the seventeenth century, this multi-arched squat building sits on a high platform and surmounted by pyramid shaped roof. The Ras Mancha’s has laterite walls wherein stucco designs were etched on the wet plasters. In its heydays, during the annual Ras (a) festival, the images of all the deities from nearby temples were assembled for everyone to appreciate and worship them in one single place. These images mainly project various identities and incarnations of Lord Krishna. Later on, and in other time devotional dance dramas were held here. It was a wonderful reminder of a once-thriving city.

Traditional Architecture 

Jor-Bangla Temple

Enthused by such introduction, next morning we embarked on our day long exploration of the realm of the terracotta temples. It indeed is amazing sight, when we are faced with so many temples in various states of preservation and disrepair, in one sprawling isolated site.

Most of the temples sit on their traditional low plinth, and the temple rise like a beautifully proportioned rural hut, their roof curved in the elegant slopping thatched roofs style so common of villages on the western side of Ganga in Bengal. When the chalas are topped with shikharas (or tower-like spires) they are of ratna variety; a temple with one tower is called ekratna; one with five is pancharatna and so on.

The local guide (a young lad who latched on to us on his own), took us near Jor-Bangla temple. One of the finest examples of monuments of Malla times, this temple, built in 1655, is formed of two hut-like structures and joined by a single shikhara. Though the palaces and other structures of the Malla kings have all but vanished with time, two beautiful stone gates the two stone gates – Pattha Darwaja and Baro Darwaja remain as well as the historical Dolmadal canon.

Next in line, the Shyam-Rai (Krishna – Radha in Bangla) temples is a much bigger structure carrying char-chala roof juxtaposed by five shikharas and, reputedly, the finest terracotta work, representing the lively scenes from Krishna Lila, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. There are small shrines, some laid like chariots, with simple ek-ratna type tower.

Most of the temples are in clusters enhancing the overall perspective. However, some stand proudly aloof, like the Madan Mohan temple, where the family deity is still worshipped. The temple sits on a larger plinth and has a well proportioned Chandi Mandap with excellent decorative carvings.

 Terrific Terracotta 

Radha Krishna on terracotta panel

The architectural charm of Bishnupur temples is remarkable and unique. Basically, built with burnt brick and laterite stone, their façade, walls and pillars are adorned of intricately designed terracotta panels of mythological details. The clay of virtually every tile had been painstakingly sculpted before being fired to an almost indestructible permanence. It was an incredible sign of innovation and ingenuity of local artisans and architect, who had to make do with whatever meager local raw materials they could use.

Our amazement only increased as we began to closely examine them slowly, panel by sculpted panel. Apparently, complexities and quality of art work developed with time. While the relatively older temples had tiles of abstract and floral designs, subsequent ones depicted independent scenes from everyday life or mythological episodes. It appears, when finally, the artisans acquired adequate skills, they tried out sequential panels depicting scenes from whole epics.

Wall friezes show multi-oared ships set out for other shores, seeking trade, conquest. Other panels show deer, monkeys, horses, tigers and boars. Elephant trumpeted, lions roared hunters, courtesans, courtiers, kings, queens and crones were frozen in the zest of everyday life. There is so much exhurberance here, such a feeling of joyousness, so much vigorous attention to detail.

Living art 

Terracotta horses

Unlike many other places, terracotta making is still a living art in this area, particularly in Panchmura, about 20 km away. Incidentally, iconic terracotta “Bishnupur horse”, tall with elongated neck, not only adorns many discerning households in Bengal, but also exported in numbers. One can actually visit houses of present day artisans and buy terracotta tiles, horses, figurines and other artifacts. Bishnupur’s cultural heritage is also expressed by the famous Baluchari sarees and Classical music of Bishnupur Gharana.

The Malla kingdom has long gone, but the character of Bishnupur archeological park, with its array of enchanting temples, still retains the earthen flavour of an old Bengal urban complex. The remains of its impressive monuments continue to vest the city with a medieval flavour. Their present day enchanting charm is particularly due to their uniqueness that represents softer human aesthetics.

Photos:  Sougata Gangopaddhya