Bishnupur in West Bengal, India, is home to exquisite clay temples erected by the ancient Malla kings, descendants of a legendary warrior.
Words & Photography: Anupam Chanda
Stone has always been in short supply in the vast flood plains of Bengal. And so, when commissioned to construct temples in the 17th century, architects had to resort to alternative materials, giving rise to a new form of temple architecture. As clay was easily available, and could last up to 300 years, burnt clay bricks soon became a good substitute, leading to the construction of elaborate terracotta temples whose walls depicted tales from the Hindu epics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata – as well as literary texts like the Puranas, and scenes of everyday life.A King is Born
Legend has it that in the 7th century AD, a ruler of a small kingdom in north India was making a pilgrimage to south India, when his wife went into labour. They were passing through a village called Lau near Katulpur in the present day Bankura district of West Bengal at the time. In the house of a villager, the queen gave birth to a baby boy, but sadly, did not survive to see her child.
The little baby was left behind to be raised by the kind villager who’d opened his house to the royal couple, while the king continued on his journey. One day, when the boy had fallen asleep while tending cows in the field, a huge cobra slithered nearby and unfurled its hood, shading the boy’s face from the harsh sunlight. Seeing this and believing the boy to be special, the poor villager was determined to provide him with the best education 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, the boy ascended the throne of the local kingdom, which was renamed Malla (Malla meaning wrestling), and was called Adi Malla.
The Malla Kingdom flourished, and after about 300 years, the 10th Malla King, Jagat Malla, shifted his kingdom to present day Bishnupur. The kingdom extended north to the modern Damin-i-koh in the Santhal Parganas, and to the southern part of Midnapore, through Burdwan up to present day Chotanagpur, and was known as Mallabhum. 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.
The Malla Kings or the warrior kings of Mallabhum, as they were popularly known, ruled for almost 1,100 years – 55 generations – till the early 19th century. Though most of the terracotta temples of this quaint little town of Bishnupur, located around 150km from Kolkata, belong to the 17th and 18th centuries, it is said that the Malla dynasty of the Malla Kings was originally a Shaivite, which means they used to follow and worship the Hindu God Shiva. However, King Bir Hambir of the Malla dynasty who ruled in the 16th century converted to a Vaishnava way of life, and started worshipping the Lord Vishnu. And so, under his rule, the temples constructed were dedicated to incarnations of Vishnu and Krishna, two powerful Hindu gods.
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 rear and sides. The temple entryway has a covered terracotta entrance that usually leads to the sides of the temple. The front of the temple has a platform-like structure, while the rear has a room that can either function as a store room or a space where the priest stays, as some of these temples are still practising ones, where the gods are worshipped and puja (form of prayer and worship) are performed regularly by priests.
Amongst the three terracotta temple architectural styles of Bishnupur, the first and most prominent is the Ratna style, which has a flat surface above covered with a shikara (canopy) on top, acting as a roof. Shikara is a Sanskrit word translating literally to ‘mountain peak’ and referring to the rising tower in Hindu temple architecture where the presiding deity of the temple is enshrined. This is the most prominent and visible part of the temple. If there’s only one shikara on the roof, it’s called ek-ratna. If there are five shikaras, with one in the centre and four on each corner of the roof, it’s called panch-ratna. And if there’s an additional set of four shikaras on four sides of the roof, it’s called a nav-ratna temple. In Bishnupur, the temples have a slightly curved shikara roof that depicts the style of the region.
The most prominent ek-ratna temple in Bishnupur is the Madan Mohan Temple, which was built in 1694 by King Durjan Singh and has noteworthy terracotta work. Other examples are Radha Madhab and Radha Gobinda temples. Beside the main temple of Radha Gobinda is a small temple built in the form of a mini chariot, which is located in the garden.
The carvings on the Radha Gobinda and Radha Madhab temples are exquisite. The Radha Madhab temple was built in 1737AD by Shiramonidevi, one of the wives of King Bir Singha. The square structure stands on a raised plinth and the entrance to the temple has three arched gateways. Areas along the arch and the pillars are decorated with scenes from Krishna-leela. These are tales from chapters of Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavata Purana, Mahabharata and the Geeta Govinda that tell of the multifaceted and majestic life of the Hindu god Krishna. Krishna-leela was later put together into a book by a disciple in the 19th century, but this was much later, after these visual depictions were sculpted in terracotta on the walls of the Bishnupur temples. These tales, called the leela, describe Lord Krishna’s playfulness and mischief. The intricacy of the carvings is intriguing. Panels include stories of everyday life and activities, puranic or old mythological stories and motifs depicting flora and fauna, both real and imaginary. Unfortunately, some of the carvings have begun to decay and erode.
The second style is the chala style, which imitates the triangular roofs of mud huts in rural Bengal. Jorbangla temple is a leading example of this style, and here, the twin triangular roofs are further accentuated by another roof on top called charchala. If, instead of one roof on top, there are four roofs, it would be called atchala, referring to the total of eight roofs. For the Jor-Bangla style, the name itself is indicative of the characteristics of the roof, as ‘jor’ means ‘two’ or ‘twin’ and ‘Bangla’ refers to the common roof style of Bengal. The roofs are shaped like thatched hut roofs with exten-sive carvings on the ceiling, and exterior and interior walls. Carvings here most prominently depict the Krishna-leela, as well as the lives of humans and animals. Also known as the Keshto Rai temple, it was built in the mid-17th century AD by King Raghunath Singh and is one of the most famous temples of the region, due to its triangular roof design.
Labour of Love
The Shyam Rai temple, popularly known as the Panch Chura temple, is famous for its five pinnacles and approach through triple-arched entrances on all four sides. It’s the most prominent example of the panch-ratna type. This structure is one of the most important monuments of the Archaeological Survey of India, due to its well conserved state and the elaborate designs on its exterior. There are terracotta carvings on all four sides, as well as on the inner walls and pinnacles. The Raas-leela (tales of the love between Lord Krishna and the cowherd girls, and the divine love story of Krishna and his supreme beloved Radha) is depicted on terracotta panels; the lovemaking scenes are some of the most admired artworks within the Shyam Rai temple.
Built in 1643, this temple with its extraordinary terracotta decor and structural pattern, continues to be an exquisite beauty. The sculptures here represent scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, alongside depictions of hunting. The cornices are engraved with friezes showing choirs and lively dancers. The panels show carvings of Radha and Krishna’s dances, as the ornate porches and plinths reflect the splendid craftsmanship of the region in those early periods. The temple was built completely in brick, and one can only imagine what it took to craft and carve its many structures – large and minute. It must have necessitated extreme dedication and concentration to accomplish such works of art.
Icon of Bishnupur
Besides these temples, there is the Rashamancha, a unique brick structure built by Bir Hambir in the 16th century. It’s a huge square building with a pyramid roof built on a raised laterite plinth that measures 24.5 by 10.7 metres. The structure is encircled by labyrinthine lanes taking you to the centre, which is locked now, but may have one time served as a shrine.
On all four sides are 10 arches carved with a lotus motif; these open onto even more arches, as you move inside the structure. On top of the outer arches there’s a series of curved roofs, each one roughly covering the two arches and a smaller version of them covering the corners. In the middle is a massive pyramid roof composed of bricks, giving an impression of a staircase from certain angles. This place was meant for fairs and festivals, and still hosts an annual event called Rasa Festival where people from nearby villages and towns come to display their village idols in the galleries of the Rasamancha. It is said that this is a one of a kind structure, with no parallel found anywhere else in the world, making it a unique landmark of Bishnupur.
Bishnupur is a fascinating destination that chronicles the era of the great Malla Kings whose deep spirituality is visible in the terracotta temples that continue to draw pilgrims from across the world.
Stories on Saris
The carvings on the ancient temples of Bishnupur inspire the town’s sari weavers who weave the designs on exquisite silk saris. Visitors to Bishnupur can watch the weavers at work, producing the Baluchari saris that Bishnupur is famed for. Using colourful silk threads, the weavers tell the stories of the Ramanaya, Mahabharata and Krishna-leela through the saris. If the weave is done using silk thread, it’s called Baluchari, and if done using gold thread, it is called Swarnachari. The sari making industry here is characterised by small workshops that produce only two to three saris a week. To accentuate the look with a local touch, accessorise, with Bishnupur’s terracotta jewellery. Each terracotta region produces a ceramic of a distinct hue; here terracotta tends to be orange and red, with a bright shiny surface.
Connecting the Sites
Bishnupur’s 22 terracotta sites, which are nationally protected, were once located in the same sprawling campus. However, today they stand fragmented and visitors need to navigate narrow lanes, many criss-crossing each other, due to growth in human population and unplanned urban development. The West Bengal state government, having declared Bishnupur as its first and only heritage city, is trying to restore one common pathway connecting all the temples, making accessibility to all the sites easier and quicker.
Kolkata to Bishnupur
Bishnupur is located about 150km from Kolkata. Regular buses, taxis and trains are available at the main railway station of Kolkata – Howrah Junction – but driving there off ers a scenic route through rural West Bengal.GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kolkata from Kuala Lumpur daily. For lowest fares and flight info, head to airasia.com.