A Day out in the Land of Terracotta (Part -I)
Our car was literally struggling through the snail paced traffic on the narrow streets of Bishnupur. There were almost every form of old and modern day vehicles on this narrow strip of road leading to Bishnupur Bus Stand which included cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles and motorized vehicles of the modern day. Unlike the cacophony of the metropolis in India, Bishnupur a small yet historically renowned town in the state of West Bengal, Bankura district, is located almost 200 km away from Kolkata. Bishnupur holds high as a heritage city mainly due to its past glory. The cycle rickshaw bells, the sound of bullock carts, the moos of cows, the horns of ambassador cars and buses along with the bus conductors calling for the passengers made the bus stand very noisy yet attractive in the early winter morning. The gems of Bengal architecture beckoned us in the paradise of terracotta. It was amidst this chaos, we were surprised to find some relentless hawkers selling terracotta jewelry, elephants, horses and toys made with terracotta in the chilly early morning. The smell of freshly fried samosa, kachuri and pakodaa which localites call ‘chop’ wafted over to the bus stand from the nearby food stalls. We could not restrict ourselves from having an oily breakfast which ended with Bengal’s most popular sponge sweet named ‘rasogolla’.
Terracotta means baked clay. Stones were scarce in the vast flood plains of Bengal. Nature’s parsimony gave the architects a little choice to restore a substitute. Clay was abundant in the flood plains and they used the burned clay bricks as the substitute of stone. This gave birth of a new form of temple architecture with a new vocabulary that we term Bishnupur Style.
Depiction of Ramayana and Mahabharata in Bishnupur’s Terracota works
Bishnupur was at its pinnacle as a hub of culture and architecture during the famous Malla ruler Bir Hambir, a contemporary of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. Bir Hambir accompanied the Mughal army against the Afghan rulers of the Bangal Suba. He met Vaishnav Guru Shrinibas Acharya, a direct disciple of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu during his visit to Vrindaban. He then decided to follow the path of Vaishnavism and made a cultural transformation in the entire Mallabhum region. Bishnupur became the citadel of Vaishnav literature, art and craft. It was here where the famous poet Krishnadas Kaviraj wrote ‘Sree Krishna Charityamrita’ by royal patronage. Royal patronage encouraged several craftsmen and artisans to give full cry to their creative and architectural prowess to erect the magnificent terracotta temples of Bishnupur.
Terracota works in temples of Bishnupur
Time seemed frozen here as we passed through the red soil roads except the bus stand and some of the places where the heritage temples are maintained by Archeological Survey of India. We started exploring the splendor of Bishnupur from Rashmancha. The oldest unique monument, an unparallel piece of architecture was built in 1600 AD by Malla king Bir Hambhir. We entered through the lush green, manicured lawn of the monument and purchased tickets for entering three temples – Rashmancha, Jorbangla (Keshtorai) temple and Shyam Rai temple.
The mysterious galleries of the Rashmancha, Bishnupur
Jor Bangla Temple is a baked mud temple resembling the traditional village huts of rural Bengal. The temple is also named as Keshto-rai temple. It was built in 1655 AD by Malla king Raghunath Singh. Lord Krishna in his Keshto-rai or Gouranga avatar is worshipped in the temple. The temple is an architectural wonder. It has several unique hallmarks. The first thing we noticed was the classical Chala or Bangla type sloping roof unique in Bengal. The two curved roofs are conjoined together by a ‘charchala sikhara’ on the top. We were mesmerized by the ornately carved terracotta ornamentations on the walls of the temple. Both the interior and exterior of the temple wall are abundantly decorated with terracotta sculptures depicting stories from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Among the marvelous terracotta ornamentation, Lord Krishna’s Leela and Vishma’s Swarasajja caught our attention.
The Jor Bangla Temple
…..To be Continued…..
Photography: Indranil Mutsuddi