Think ‘terracotta’ and the famous Terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China comes to mind. But did you know there is a whole temple complex made of terracotta in Bishnupur, West Bengal.
Drive about 139 kms from Kolkata and you will come across a complex of intricately made temples that are quite unique. They are all made of terracotta or clay and it is amazing to see how they have stood the test of time!
Built by the Malla kings who ruled a part of West Bengal between Burdwan and Purulia these temples are dedicated to Lord Vishnu and were built over a long period of time; from the 11th to the 17th centuries.
The Bishnupur temple complex consists of 20 temples. The first of these, the Mrinmayee Temple was built in 997 CE by King Jagat Malla. This is an active temple even today and interestingly, the Durga Puja here goes on for fifteen days instead of the usual nine. In fact the Durga Puja is the big festival here, even though the complex is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Celebrations, in the entire complex don't start until a cannon has been fired from this temple! This tradition has gone back centuries.
The temples of Bishnupur reflect the local architecture of Bengal and most of the temples here were built between 1622 CE and 1758 CE. The unavailability of stone in the flood plains of Bengal, probably led to the extensive use of terracotta, but it is a testimony to the skill of the sutradharas, or the local temple builders, that these temples survive to this day!
Other interesting temples, include The Rasmancha temple, with its unusual elongated pyramidical tower surrounded by hut-shaped turrets, which was very typical of Bengali roof structures of the time. The Madanmohan temple built by King Durjana Singh Deva, has a square flat-roofed building with carved cornices, surmounted by a pinnacle. Impressive carvings on the walls of Madanmohan temple depict scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.
The images you see etched on the Bishnupur temples are also quite unique. This could have been because the artists who worked on the temple complex were illiterate and had no access to the epics and the stories associated with it, which were in Sanskrit. Their only access to this repository was through the works of local Bengali poets who wrote dramas and ballads. The poetic licence they enjoyed allowed them to weave in new episodes and interpretations based on local customs and traditions bringing new facets to the stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayan and also the art of these temples.
Go to Bishnupur today and its hard to imagine that this was once a great centre of art and culture. The Malla kings were patrons of Vishanavism and invited scholars and artists from all over to Bishnupur.
A lot of that richness is reflected in the terracotta temples that stand tall even today.
LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
The nearest airport to Bishnupur is Netaji Subhash International airport at Kolkata which is at a distance of 142 kms. Bishnupur is well-connected by rail to the rest of the country via Kharagpur and Adra. Trains ply between Kolkata and Bishnupur regularly as well.