A tiny town in the heart of rural Bengal surrounded by paddy fields and hutments, flanked by low hills and lakes, little known to the outside world, and taken for granted by the locals. Bishnupur, in the first look, may seem like an ordinary hamlet, displaying no visible sign of being an important center on the historical and cultural map of Bengal. But sometimes what appears to the eye may not always be true.
Founded in the 8th century, Bishnupur was once the capital of the prosperous Malla dynasty. The kingdom patronized art and music, built elaborate terracotta temples and organized ostentatious religious festivals. It was famous for its musical gharana, terracotta work and Balucheri saris. This, however, may not be reflected in the way the town is today, and you might be lost in its meandering lanes desperately looking for the wealth it was once famous for. Like we have been for the past 30 minutes.
“Aanpi ayidike chole aan!” Help finally arrives in the form of a kind toto driver who has perhaps been noticing our struggle. He leads us through alleys and lanes in to a clearing in the middle of a congested residential area. And so, we finally arrive at one of the grandest building in town: Rasmanch.
“Rasmanch was built in 1600 AD by the great king Hambir. It was used specially during the ‘ras’ festival; idols from all other temples were brought in and displayed in the galleries. The public would assemble in the lawns to witness the festival – it was a spectacular view. Sadly, the festival no longer happens here because the building is now protected.” Madhusudan Mukherjee, our middle aged guide tells us as we explore the nooks of the elaborate stage.
The building is held together in an intricate pattern of thin bricks and indigenous mortar of lentils, spices, milk, rice husk etc. Low arched corridors run through its length and breadth surrounding the dark sanctum; arches of the corridor border the pyramid of the sanctum. Standing on a high plinth, the rasmanch looks sturdy and handsome, it is impossible to believe that it is over 400 years old.
A handsome Krishna stands surrounded by hundreds of gopis. At a little distance you see peacocks and deer, creepers and trees. Not far from them is Arjuna, on his knees with his head dropped; he sits in front of Bhishma on a bed of arrows. There is Hanuman too, and lord Ram and Sita with their entire entourage and the ten-headed demon king, Ravana.
We are now at the Shyam Rai temple amongst jasmine trees and manicured lawns, and among the famous terracotta tiles that have pulled us all the way to this little town. Located off the main city, the complex displays some trappings of a small tourist center: vendors selling cotton gamchis and rough terracotta figurines, a few totos waiting for customers, and a uniformed guard next to a blue ASI board. The temple itself is much smaller than one would expect, and much more intricate than one can imagine.
The unique roof features four towers at the corners and a dome in the center, the inlay work on the tiles ranges from the tales from the epics and incarnations of gods to depictions of European invaders and Chinese traders. Scenes from daily life of people of the Malla dynasty also feature prominently. The sanctum is sealed for visitors and a blue board declares, “moving upward the temple is prohibited”, so I make do by looking at it from a distance. Some parts of the building have turned black with moss, some have worn out with time, but the imperfections lend themselves beautifully to add to the temple’s appeal.
A little away, in the southern group of temples, the scene is quite different. Made of laterite stone, these temples display a mix of various architectural influences: curved Bengali roofs, single Odiya spires, grand Mugal arches and dark Hindu sanctums. Some are painted, some are bare bricked; some stand alone, some have companions. Dotted by teak and jackfruit trees, enclosed by low moss-covered walls, inhabited by birds, squirrels and critters, they transport you to another time. It is hard to believe such a place exists barely a hundred miles from a bustling metropolis. But then, one finds peace in the most unexpected of places, Bishnupur being one such.
How to reach: Bishnupur is connected by direct train, cabs, and buses from Kolkata (139 kms); it takes about 4 hrs by road and 3 hrs by train. It is also accessible by road from Jamshedpur (167 kms) and takes about 4 hrs by car. The nearest airport is Kolkata.
Stay: It is best to do a day trip to the town (you can take the Rupasibangla express to and from Howrah, or retain the cab). Should you choose to stay overnight you can book the WBTDC guesthouse.
Trivia: Bishnupur is famous for its terracotta work, especially the Bankura horses. It also makes exquisite Balucheri saris, and some of the best Bengali sweets like Pantua, Sitabhog, and of course the Rasgulla and Sondesh.