Bishnupur : The Terracotta Temple Town

Bishnupur literally means ‘city of lord Vishnu’. Bishnupur is located 132 km from Kolkata and it is the headquarters of the Bishnupur subdivision of Bankura district (WB). The Rajas of Bishnupur were known as ‘Malla’ and their kingdom ‘Mallabhom’ (মল্লভূম). ‘Malla’ means ‘strongman’ or ‘wrestler’. The patronage of Malla king Veer Hambir and his successors Raja Raghunath Singha Dev and Bir Singha Dev made Bishnupur one of the principal centres of culture in Bengal. Most of the exquisite terracotta temples for which town is justly famous were built during this period. Malla kings were patrons of Vaishavism (a major Hindu tradition focused on Lord Vishnu). Temples were their favorite form of architectural expression and terracotta (burnt clay) the preferred medium, as the stone was in short supply in the region. A plethora of brilliant brick temples was built during 17-18 century here.
Architect Priyanka Mangaonkar Vaiude—a specialist in brick technology—who studied the Bishnupur temples extensively for their architectural details, writes, ”These temples have elaborate representation of themes which are borrowed from the Puranas. Hence, these temple decorations were also acting as a medium to educate common people about our culture and traditions. Most of the decorations are typically Gupta in style. Largeness of conception, the dramatic vigor, and the liveliness of the pictures depicted on bricks and plaques stand for the vividness of wall paintings and frescoes, the dearth of which is compensated by these pictures on bricks and plaques.”
Bengal had a scarcity of stones; as a result Bishnupur temples were mainly built with coarse-grained laterite and bricks made of red-clay. The basic construction material for the temples here was the local red soil. Out of the red clay terracotta tiles were made. The tiles were ornamentated with scenes from Hindu epics like the Bhagawata, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Stories from these epics were artistically depicted. These tiles were then fixed on the walls of the structures built with bricks.
The architecture of Bishnupur temples generally resembles the design of local huts.
The temples of Bishnupur are categorised as ‘ratnas’ or ‘gems’, a popular style of Bengal/Bangla architecture. In this style, number of ‘pinnacles’ or ‘Shikhara’ are important. One-pinnacled temples are termed as ‘Eka-ratna’, Five-pinnacled ones as ‘Pancha-ratna’ and nine-pinnacled ones as ‘Nava-ratna’.
Since 1997, the temples of Bishnupur is on UNESCO World Heritage Site’s tentative list.


Most important edifice of Bishnupur and an icon of West Bengal tourism, the Rassmancha, was built in 1600 AD by the King Bir Hambhir. This unique 12.5m high pyramidal structure stands on a square platform of size 24.5m X 24.5m of laterite blocks. It is an impressive square building with a small shrine in the centre and three-corridor galleries with vaulted roofs enclosing it. It has only a single chamber, the sanctum sanctorum, with an elongated tower, surrounded by hut shaped turrets.
The main structure stands on a 1.5m high square foundation built of red-soil bricks. The roof of the structure is supported by 40 pillars and arches. This is one of its kind cultural masterpiece in the country. The building was used to display all the local Radha-Krishna idols in public during the Ras Festival. This annual festival was held till 1932.


The Madan Mohan Temple is a ‘live’ temple, enshrining the metal idols of Krishna and Radha, unkile many others of the town. Lord Madan Mohan (Krishna) is the presiding deity and puja is offered daily. The temple is also one of the largest old temples in town. It is believed that this particular deity saved Bishnupur town during Maratha attack led by Bhaskar Rao, by firing the grand Dalmadal cannon.
This ‘Eka Ratna’ style (having one top tower or ‘Shikhara’) temple was built by the King Durjana Singh Dev in 1694 AD. The main temple is square on plan and stands on a high plinth of 16m made of laterite blocks. It has three arched entrances on three directions. There are 6 high steps from the ground level to get into the main temple. The architecture is significant for its square flat roof, cornices that are curved and a pinnacle on the top. This style is also know as ‘Ek-Chala’ in traditionally Bengali architecture.

The temple ceilings are carved with detailed artwork. The outer walls (artwork on only two sides remain) and the pillars are all of extremely beautiful intricately carved terracotta sculptures, depicting various scenes from the ‘Puranas’, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’. Most of them are related to Krishna. The most notable sculpture is ‘Nabanarikunja’ (nine females forming an elephant). A mandap is situated opposite to the temple is also an example of Bishnupur style of architecture, with a sloped chala type roof, called ‘Chandi Mandap’.


The Shyam Rai (Pancharatna) Temple was built by King Raghunatha Singh in 1643. It is a five-pinnacled temple. It is considered as oldest surviving structure of its kind in West Bengal. The edifice with its five towers, the central and tallest one surrounded by one each in four corners, stands magnificent in the midst of a lush lawn. Each of the four sides of the temple has triple multi-cusped arched gateways, leading to the sanctum around which runs a well paved circumambulatory path. This is the only temple in Bishnupur in which we find some influence of Islamic architecture in its curved ceiling. Here we also find fine figurines and floral motifs. Its exterior walls are emblazoned with a variety of magnificent terracotta panels portraying Krishna Leela, episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Entry is prohibited and one can’t see the interior walls. A brilliant ‘Rasa mandala’ motif here is unique.


The Jor-Bangla or Kestorai temple was built by Malla king Raghunatha Singha in c.1655. It is one of the best structures in Bishnupur. Situated near the Panchratna Temple, it follows the jor-bangle style of architecture. Jor-Bangla type of temple consists of two inter-connected thatched roof like structures. The inter-connected thatched roofs here are crowned with a turret. The base of the temple is a square of size 11.8m X 11.48m, and the height above the platform is 10.7m.
This temple is considered as one of the finest example of Bengal terracotta art and decorated with numerous panels depicting a wide range of topics. Panels of ships and boats are quiet common. There are also a profusion of exquisite panels from the two great epics ‘Ramyana’ and ‘Mahabharata’. Other panels exhibit scenes of royal hunting, musicians and dancers along with floral and geometrical patterns.


The Radhashyam Temple is situated just next to the Jor-Bangla Temple. It dates back to 1758 and was constructed by the Malla King Chaitanya Singha. This ‘Eka-ratna’ (single pinnacled) temple is built of laterite stone and contains lime stone stucco decoration. The temple is enclosed with high walls. The entrance consists of a triple domed Islamic style gateway. This temple has an elaborate ‘tulsi mancha’. The temple has a unique shaped Ratna (Pinnacle) on its top. Some idols of deities belonging to a few dilapidated temples are kept here and are worshiped together.


In c.994 Malla king Jagat Singha shifted his capital from Pradamnapur to Bishnupur as Bishnupur was surrounded by a hilly terrain and provided a better geographical security. The temple of Mrinmoyee (dedicated to Goddess Durga) was established in c.997. The name ‘Mrinmoyee’ means ‘anything that is made out of mud’. Temple’s old structure no longer exists. The idol of Mrinmoyee (Goddess Durga made of mud) is housed in a new structure, situated opposite the Radhashyam Temple, but the tradition of worship continued. The oldest annual Durga Puja of West Bengal is performed here, without a break, since 998 AD.


The Radha Laljiu Temple was built exactly 100 years earlier than the Radhashyam Temple. Built by the Malla king Bir Singha in 1658. This single Shikara (Eka-ratna) style structure is surrounded by a big boundary and is considered as the finest laterite stone temple in Bishnupur. Dedicated to Krishna and Radha, the square structure stands on a raised plinth, having a roof slightly sloping on four sides. The temple used to have exquisite ornamental details on its wall, but now only some traces of this can be seen on parts of the arched openings.


Nandalal temple is an ‘Eka-ratna’ style temple and was built in the second half of seventeenth century. Built with rust coloured laterite stone, it has a tower resting on a square building with the curved roof typical of Bengal-type. There are covered porches on all four sides around the innermost sanctuary where the idol was kept, and there are three arched openings at each of the two adjacent sides of the temple. It almost looks like more famous Madan Mohan temple, but it is smaller and much less decorated.


Built by King Krishna Singha in 1729, the Radhagovinda Temple is another ‘Eka-ratna’ temple built with laterite. It is situated right opposite to the Radhamadhav temple. The square structure stands on a raised plinth and is about 12.4m on each side and 10.7m in height. The temple consists of a square lower storey in thatched-hut fashion of Bengal Temple architecture with a curvilinear tower above it. Its facade is profusely carved. A beautiful stone chariot is also present in the temple compound. Traces of bas-relief carvings of geometric pattern and human figures including mythological characters, originally applied with stucco works can be seen.


Kalachand Temple is special for its towering pinnacle. It was built in 1656 by the Malla king Raghunath Singh (who also built Jor-Bangla and the Shyamrai temples). This design of the lower storey of this ‘Eka-ratna’ laterite temple is based on the thatched hut style of Bengal. The square base of the temple is 11.1m X 11.1m and its height is 9.2m above the platform. There is a circumambulatory corridor around the main shrine. The structure has three arched openings on each of the four sides. This is probably the earliest ‘Eka-ratna’ temple in Bishnupur. It was once covered with stucco decoration, only traces of that elaborate decoration remains now.


The Radhamadhav Temple lays enroute to the Kalachand Temple. It is about 11.1m on each side and 9.2m in height. It looked very similar to the Kalachand Temple. Differentiating between them would have been difficult if not for the Shikara of the Radhamadhav. The exterior walls depict stories from the Puranas. The Radhamadhav Temple has a Kirtanshala as well. This Eka-ratna temple is built of laterite and consists of a square lower storey with curved roof symbolic of Bengal Temple architecture and a north Indian sikhara on top. The entrance has three arched gateways. Unlike most other temples of Bishnupur, only on two sides of the temple there are three arched openings.
The temple was built by Churamony Devi, queen of Krishna Singha in C.1737 AD (some claim it was built by Shiramoni Devi, one of the wives of the king Bir Singha). The temple has exquisite ornamentation particularly in its front wall depicting Puranic episodes, Dasavatara, Krishna-Lila, animal, various symbols etc.


Popularly known as Jor Mandir (pair of temples), it is actually a complex of three Eka-Ratna temples: Two big temples of same size and a small one. These ‘Eka-Ratna’ or ‘one-pinnacled’ rust-coloured laterite temples were built by Malla King Krishna Singh in 1726. The big temple has a square base of 11.8m X 11.8m and a height of 12.8m above a low platform. The roofs of all three temples are typical Bengali ‘chala’ type with a tower or ‘sikhara’. Most of the art works or decorations on the temple-walls are almost vanished.

Related reading:,_Bankura

Terracotta Tales: Entangled Histories of Bhakti, Violence and Empire from Early Modern Bengal

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