At first glance, Bishnupur, about 140km by road from Kolkata, is similar to any Indian town: modern, crowded, wayward traffic. But look around you and soon you will discover hints of a glorious past. Temples, art and craft, textile, music and more, which once flourished here under the patronage of the Malla rulers.
Even though there is no recorded account, local tales link the lineage of the erstwhile Malla rulers to an unnamed royal prince and his wife from Rajasthan. Apparently, while on their way to Puri in Odisha, the woman gave birth to a son in a forest here and died. The prince not knowing what to do with the baby left him there and went his way. The baby was found by a tribal woman and nurtured, and later she put him under the care of a local priest. The child was named Raghunath and was later installed as a king following several incidents that indicated his royal virtues. As he was an excellent wrestler, the dynasty founded by him in the late seventh century came to be known as Malla. King Jagat Malla shifted the capital from Pradyumnapur to Bishnupur in the 14th century. It was in the 17th century, during the rule of Bir Hambir, who converted to Vaishnavism, Bishnupur began to make its mark as a centre of temple building.
Interestingly, there are more temples built of laterite stones than terracotta in Bishnupur even though it is the latter, by virtue of its intricately carved tiles and panels, which have made the town famous.
Notable features of the temples include the style of the roof (‘chala’) and the number of turret-like structures (‘ratna’) on them, terracotta tiles describing tales from the life of Krishna, from the epics and other religious texts as well as pictures of then contemporary lives, including royal processions, royal hunts, boats and boating, etc., and stucco work on some of the laterite temples.
It is not possible to see all the temples in a day. Even if you focus on a few temples, progress is likely to be slow if you plan to study the carved panels and photograph them. Most of the temples are under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and have ticketed entries. So, it is best to start with the Ras Mancha, from where you can buy a ticket for all the ASI temples.
Although the concept of Ras Mancha is prevalent across Bengal, the one at Bishnupur has no parallel due to its unique architecture. Built of laterite, the main structure is situated on a square platform. There is a small shrine at the centre from which three corridors with vaulted galleries spread out. From the outside, the roof rises in a pyramidal structure. Like elsewhere in Bengal, idols of Krishna from neighbouring temples used to be brought here during the festival. No matter where the audience stood on the corridors, they were able to see the idols. The ASI dates the Ras Mancha to 1600.
The Dalmadal cannon is a popular attraction here. Made of wrought iron, it is linked to a legend which says the presiding deity of the town, Madanmohan, fired the cannon to protect the citizens from the attacking Marathas. According to the ASI, the cannon is datable to the 18th century and is inscribed with Persian words.
The plain-looking Mrinmoyee temple, dedicated to goddess Durga, dating back to late 10th century, is probably the oldest among the existing temples. Some of the popular terracotta temples are Shyamrai (built in 1643), Jor Bangla (1655), and Madanmohan (1694). Malleswar (1622; the only temple dedicated to Shiva among all the Krishna temples), Kalachand (1656) and Radheshyam (1758) are some of the popular laterite temples. If you want to see more, travel a little off centre to the Jormandir temple complex, where lie three laterite temples built in 1726.
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In between the temple visits, budget some time for souvenir shopping. Apart from making traditional toys (including the unique long-necked horse), the terracotta artisans of Bishnupur now also make decorative pieces and ornamental fashion accessories. If you have half a day to spare, pay a visit to Panchmura village, about 25 km from Bishnupur by road. Home to traditional potters and terracotta craft manufacturers of Bishnupur, the entire village is like an open-air museum.
The royal courtiers of yore were fond of a card game played with hand-painted cards. Essentially the deck of cards were painted with images of Dashavatars (the 10 incarnations of Vishnu) and had special coloured codes and dots for playing. Although the cards are on display in many museums around the globe, it is now a dying craft. Only a few members of the Fouzdar families still make them.
If you are fond of textiles, a look at the Baluchari sari manufactured here is a must. Manufactured on hand looms, the silk sari has tales from the epics woven along the ‘pallu’, with the designs repeated along the borders. Although the saris can be bought off any of the shops (where you will have more choice of designs) in the town, ask local people for directions to weavers’ cooperatives. Unless part of any contracted consignment, the weavers often agree to a direct sale of the saris.
And finally, just as you begin to get tired under the cultural overload, make your way to any of the local sweet shops. The royal family had got some of the best sweetmeat makers of Bengal to settle in Bishnupur and their families continue with the tradition.
Bishnupur is well connected to Kolkata by road and rail. By road, the town is about 40km from Kolkata. The early morning trains, Rupasi Bangla Express (from Santragachi station) and Aranyak Express (from Shalimar station) are the best trains; they have ac chair car and take between 3 and 3.5 hours to reach.
Even though a popular tourist destination, there is lack of luxury accommodation. The tourist lodge run by West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation is the first choice of most travellers. Privately run Hotel Annapurna is another option.
The best time to visit is between December and February. Even in winter, the sun can be strong, so keep a cap/umbrella and carry drinking water while visiting the temples.
The Bishnupur Fair will be held from December 23-27, 2019