Miles and miles of fluorescent paddy fields, picturesque ponds surrounded by low hillocks, tiny rivulets flowing through verdant greens, and the occasional group of tribals dancing on the road – travelling to Bishnupur, a small town in Bengal, is like travelling into a picture postcard.
The erstwhile capital of the prosperous Malla dynasty, Bishnupur may be a small, unknown town today but there was a time it was considered the cultural capital of Bengal. Ruled for over a thousand years by the Malla Kings, Bishnupur was famous world over for its arts, architecture, crafts, music, and textiles. While this may not be visible on the face of the town’s narrow lanes and dilapidated facades at first, but beyond the mossy ruins, crumbling havelis, and meandering streets is an enchanting kingdom waiting to be explored.
How to get to Bishnupur
Bishnupur is well connected by rail and road from Kolkata, Shantiniketan (Bolpur), and Jamshedpur (Tatanagar). From Kolkata (139 kms), it is a 4-hour drive and a 3-hour train journey (Rupasibangla express 12884). Jamshedpur (167 kms), a major town in Jahrakhand, is about 4 hrs by road, and Shantiniketan (115 Kms) is also 4 hours drive and 6 hours by train. The nearest airport is Kolkata.
The drive to the town is picturesque and green, with paddy fields, lakes, hills and tiny hutments along the way. There are, however, limited options to eat on the way, so carrying your own picnic is a great idea. Train rides are often basic though beautiful. Travelling in second class to soak in the fresh air and gorgeous Bengal countryside and to sample lip smacking snacks like Jhaal Muri, Chop, Mishti, and Daab, and sometimes live music by local performers is highly recommended too.
What to see and do in Bishnupur
Begin your day with the famous Terracotta Temples. Spread throughout the town, the traces of older structures can be found scattered throughout the town, the major temples – Rasmancha, Shyam Rai, Madan Mohan, Jorbangla, and Lalji – are still in great condition and protected by the Archeological Survey of India. Guides, mostly local middle aged men, certified by West Bengal Tourism, can be easily found by these temples and will show you around the town for as little as Rs. 250 – 300.
Made over two hundred years ago, between 17th and 18th century, these temples are made in diverse styles. Rasmancha, for example, was made in the year 1600 AD by king Bir Hambir for the annual ‘ras’ festival, looks more like a baradari and less like a temple. The building stands on a high platform and is held together in an intricate pattern of thin bricks with indigenous mortar of lentils, spices, milk, rice husk, etc. Low-arched corridors run through its length and breadth, surrounding the dark pyramidal sanctum while the dark garbhagrigha is devoid of any ornamentation or deities.
The Southern Group of temples, not very far from Rasmancha, is made of laterite and is an interesting mix of architectural influences – single spires, curved roofs and arches – all taken from contemporary architectural styles of Odhisha, Bengal, and Persia respectively. Some of these are painted in lime others in are bare bricked. Dotted by teak and jackfruit trees, enclosed in mossy walls, inhabited by birds, squirrels and critters, the place transports you into another time. The newest – and the only living temple in Bishnupur – is the Radhashyam Temple. Built in 1758 the temple stands a little away from the rest but is worth a visit for the local flavour of rural Bengal. You can offer prayers to the Radha and Krishna glimmering in the dark sanctum, or sit by the gate and look at small town go by: elderly women in starched Taant saris, men in Dhuti, bare bodied boys running around, and girls in school uniform walking in groups.
The Bishnupur Museum, also known as Acharya Jogesh Chandra Purakriti Bhawan, should be next on the list. This little museum in the middle of the town is home to hundreds of artifacts, figurines, and manuscripts and reflects the town’s glorious past. The ground floor is dedicated to manuscripts, pictures and musical instruments from the Bishnupur Gharana, figures of Hindu & Jain deities and medieval models of Bankura Horses found in excavations. The first floor meanwhile contains arts and crafts like Terracotta Tiles, Dasavatar Playing Cards and Textiles. Most charming sight here, however, is the army of clay horses drying in the sun. Located in the center of the city, the museum is closed on Mondays and National Holidays, and costs Rs. 5 to enter.
The Chinnamasta Temple, dedicated to the headless devi, is good for a quick evening visit. Built in the famous Tantrik style of Bengal’s temple architecture, the shrine is revered by locals for the supernatural powers of the deity Chinnamasta and is an interesting blend of tradition and superstition. Located in the shopping lane, next to the famous Dalmadal Cannon of the Malla dynasty, it makes for a great pit stop before indulging in some lebu cha (lemon tea) or rong cha (black tea) and some tele bhaja (fritters) in a shack outside.
What to buy in Bishnupur
Bishnupur is home to thousands of artisans and craftsmen who have upheld the tradition of craftsmanship and skill of this little town for many centuries. The weavers of Bishnupur create mythological stories on the panels of Baluchari Saris, the potters mould lumps of clay into majestic Bankura Horses; Ironsmiths create deities out of Bell Metal and Brass and Sankha Banik, a specialized community of craftsmen, carve Conch Shells.
The town is famous for its Dokra Art, Jewellery, Dasavtar Playing Cards, and Balucheri Saris. Terracotta work, however, remains the most exquisite craft here. Bankura Horses, which range from a few inches to over 5 feet in height, are not only famous within the country (you’d see them in many a hotel), but are also exported all over the world.
Most shops are set up outside the workshops on the Chinnamasta Road, at Dalmadal Para and are reasonable priced. The shopkeepers are nice and do not peruse you beyond a point, they may however gently coax you to carry a souvenir home.
Where to eat in Bishnupur
Bishnupur has the perfect setting to sample authentic Bengali cuisine. Small hotels, tiny shacks, and unnamed shops sell the most delectable – and affordable – sweets, snacks and meals. Hotel Monalisa, for example, offers many versions of the Bengali Thali (primarily non-vegetarian). The restaurant at Bishnupur Tourist Lodge has good dining options including Bengali, North Indian and Chinese. For Jalkhabar, as the town calls its snacks, the small hotels/dhabas at the Bus-Stand offer rustic yet delectable menu of luchi, ghugni, singhara, mishti, chops, kachauri, and of course tea.
Sweets of Bishnupur are famous all over Bengal. Small shops selling traditional sweetmeats like pantua, mihidana, kodapak, sondesh, cham cham and of course rosogulla can be found at every corner; each one is as good, if not better than the other. With the treats starting at as little as Rs. 5 a piece, we recommend you sample as many as you can, and pack some for home too.
When to visit Bishnupur
While the town has moderate summers, it is best to travel to Bishnupur in the cooler months between September and March.
The Bishnupur Festival, organized in the last week of December, in the Madan Mohan Temple Complex, presents a great opportunity to witness local music, dance, crafts, and culture as a whole. Craftsmen, musicians, singers and artists assemble from all over Bengal to showcase their skills and trains full of devotees make way into the town.
While the Bishnupur Festival showcases arts, crafts and textiles of Adi Malla’s capital, the Bishnupur Music Festival brings together some of the biggest names in Bishnupur Gharana of Hindustani Music (set up by the Bahadur Khan, a disciple of Tanseen, under the reign of Raghunath Singh Deo II).
Performances from prominent singers and musicians from the only musical gharana (style) from Bengal render the town magical every evening.* Sitting in the shadows of the temple, on deep red earth, under the starry skies and listening to the maestros perform, is an experience like none other – just like Bishnupur is a town like no other.
This story first appeared in CondeNast Traveller.