The first sound that greeted us as we entered Bishnupur was that of a bhajan being sung in chorus. I had dozed off in the car while driving with friends from Kolkata and the dholak (percussion) and khanjani (cymbal) beats jolted me out of my sleep. It took a few minutes to get my bearings before I was ready to start my trip of this ancient temple town. We made a quick lunch stop at the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation guest house, where we were staying for the weekend, before heading out.
Bishnupur, a small town in the Bankura district of West Bengal, is famous for its terracotta temples, pottery and Baluchari saris. It was the capital of ancient Mallabhum, kingdom of the Malla dynasty, founded in the seventh century AD by Adi Malla.
Bishnupur lies in the hot, rough, red soil belt of West Bengal’s harshest regions, and winter is the best time to visit. Despite it being December, it was scorching in the day. Miles of fields lay barren in the sun. The exposed expanse of burgundy earth scalded my sight. All of it changed instantly though as I ran into the shade of the Rash Mancha, a pillared community hall built by Bir Hambir, the 49th king of the Malla dynasty, in the 1600s. The purpose was to display idols of Radha-Krishna on the evening of Rash Purnima, when it was believed Krishna replicated himself to accompany thousand gopikas.
The Archeological Survey of India maintains several of the prominent temples in Bishnupur—visitors must buy a combined ticket (Rs5) at the Rash Mancha counter to enter selected temple premises.
The curved, arched terracotta columns created a panorama of filtered light and soothing shade. I couldn’t match up the Rash Mancha with anything I have ever seen in India or overseas, neither in beauty nor purpose. We took our time to roam the Rash Mancha, reserving other sights for the next day.
Early morning was ideal to start sightseeing at the fort to beat the sun. The northern entrance, called Patthar Darwaja (stone gateway), to a once grand fort is the only accessible remnant left. The two-tiered system with galleries to hide troops and a dried-up canal bordering the fort walls let us into a vast nothingness of wild greens and palace ruins.
Looking back at history, great rulers aspired to immortalize themselves by building grand edifices. Mallabhumi and its surroundings had no stones for such construction. Hence, potters innovated terracotta bricks—clay building blocks dried in the sun and burnt in fire to concretize. Gradually, artists started engraving sculptures into these tiles before fortifying them over smoke and fire.
After a quick look at the fort, the hours passed quickly walking around Radhe Shyam temple, Jor Bangla, Jugol Kishor Krishna Balaram temple and the Panch Chura Shyam Rai temple. Low relief carvings, ornamental stucco adornments, multiple arched gateways, thatched and conjoined roofing and pinnacles on them were a common feature in all of them. It was already 4pm and we were hungry.
There was only time enough to grab some typical postor bora (poppy seed fritters) before we headed back to Kolkata.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets at @Swati_Sanyal_T.