Ruled by an uninterrupted line of Hindu Rajas of the Malla dynasty, Bishnupur developed a unique form of architecture and has perhaps the most brilliant and detailed terracotta work in Eastern India that has withstood the ravages of time.
Located in the Bankura district of West Bengal, it takes about five hours to drive down from Calcutta. The landscape is gently undulating and dotted with sal (Shorea robusta; a tall timber tree) and mahua (Bassia latifolia; a common shade tree), the fine red soil lending it own beauty to the place.
The history of Bishnupur can be traced back to AD 694. The period before this is shrouded in mystery. King Raghunath I founded the Malla dynasty in AD 694. However, it was much later in AD 994 that the place was named Bishnupur. The name is derived from 'Vishnu', the majority of people belonging to the 'Vaishnava' sect.
The most powerful king of the dynasty was King Raghunath Singh Dev II. His reign started in AD 1626, at the same time as the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan occupied the throne in Delhi. Administration of Bengal was in the hands of Shahjahan's son Suja. He developed a deep friendship with the king of Bishnupur and there followed a period of peace when art and music, already flourishing, reached its height. It was during this period that the Jorebangla Temple was erected.
The ancient capital of Mallabhum, Bishnupur, is a repository of some excellent terracotta temples. The brick temples at Bishnupur, built between the 17th and 18th centuries when terracotta had reached its zenith under the Malla kings, are located in the ruined fort area and its neighborhood.
The oldest brick temple is a curiously shaped Rasmancha with an elongated pyramidal tower surrounded by hut-shaped turrets. It was built in the late 16th century by King Beera Hambira. Terracotta gained further momentum under King Raghunath Singh, son of Beera Singh, who built the Pancha Ratana Temple of Shyam Rai and the Jorebangla Temple of Keshta Rai. The temple of Shyam Rai with its superior figurines and floral patterns was the first of its kind in Bengal.
The temple of Madanmohana, the best known in Bishnupur, in the Sankharipara area was built outside the fort compound by King Durjana Singh Dev, son of Raghunath Singh, in AD 1694. It is built in the eka ratna style, a square flat-roofed building with curved cornices, surmounted by a pinnacle. Its rich decorations and designs surpass the Shyam Rai and Keshta Rai temples. Here, for the first time, there are bigger terracotta plaques than those in the other two temples. There are impressive scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas carved on the temple walls.
Apart from temples, Bishnupur has some very attractive bandhs or large tanks that offer good sightseeing. The Lalbandh, Krishnabandh, and Pokabandh were built by the Malla kings around 17th and 18th centuries. These were made to provide water to the villagers and to protect the town from enemy attack by draining out the water towards them.
Bahadur Khan of Delhi, who was the descendant of the great Tansen Bahadur Khan, started Bishnupur Gharana of Hindustani Music. Raghunath Singh Dev, who was particularly fond of music, brought Bahadur Khan to Bishnupur. Under Bahadur Khan, Hindustani Classical music flourished. This was the root of the famous Bishnupur Gharana, which has given eminent modern exponents such as Gyanchandra Prasad Goswami, Ramesh Bandhopadhyay, and many others.
ART AND CRAFT
The most famous art form of Bishnupur is its terracotta work. The exquisite craftsmanship of the terracotta artisans is evident in the Madanmohana Temple and the Shyam Rai Temple. The temple walls are richly decorated with the carvings of different aspects of Krishna's life-playing with Radha and the other milkmaids, incarnations of Vishnu, etc.
One of the most expensive saris in India, called the Baluchari saris, are created by craftsmen of this place. The silk strands are dyed separately and then put into a loom. Designs are woven with the help of a series of punch cards that are hung from the top of the loom. These punch cards are rectangular pieces of cardboard with hundreds of holes punched according to the design.
The colored strands pass through these holes and fall into place very precisely on the loom. One sari may have an entire episode from the Mahabharata woven into its border and pallu.
FAIRS AND FESTIVALS
Poush Mela, which is also known as the Bishnupur Mela (fair), is held every year around December 25 near the Madanmohana Temple. This fair stretches over four days and is similar to the Poush Mela that is held annually in Shantiniketan at about the same time. During the fair, people from all the nearby villages come together to celebrate the end of the agricultural season.
HOW TO REACH
Located 200 km northwest of Howrah, Bishnupur can be reached both by train and bus. The place is only a 5-hour drive from Calcutta and regular buses, taxis, and trains are available.