Friday, August 18, 2017

Terracotta Tales Of Bishnupur!

 After years of being in the bucket list, we finally landed in the quiet sleepy town of Bishnupur which is home to a series of centuries old terracotta temples built by the Malla Kings. Bishnupur town was named after Lord Vishnu by Vashnavite Malla kings as their main deity was Lord Vishnu. Facing shortage of stones in the area, the Kings decided to build terracotta temples, crafted from local laterite and brick, the temples were covered with terracotta tiles depicting scenes from the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana. Terracotta literally means baked earth in Italian and the style of architecture used in these temples is a blend of Bengali, Islamic and Oriya. Bishnupur town is not just famous for it's terracotta temples but is rich in it's heritage, architecture, culture and handicrafts such as pottery and weaving. A school of music called the Bishnupur Gharana, was established here in 1370 AD under   the rule of Malla kings. Not to forget the famous baluchari sarees that are famous in Bishnupur.

The temple town of Bishnupur has a lot of temples that can be easily visited either by Eco friendly electronic rickshaws or cycle rickshaws. During our stay here for over 2 days we chose both options and were so mesmerized by these beautiful temples that we visited all of them not once but twice.
There is nothing like an early morning sightseeing experience. We started with Ras Mancha temple, the oldest brick temple built in 1600 AD by Bir Hambir. This temple has an elevated square base with a pyramid shaped tower surrounded by hut shaped turrets. The commanding Ras Mancha temple has arched pillar which are equidistant and flawless. It was a tradition in earlier times wherein all the idols of Radha-Krishna in the town were displayed at the Ras Mancha temple during the Vaishnava Ras festival. It is best to start the tour with Ras Mancha temple as tickets can be picked up for gaining access to the temples. A paltry sum of Rs 15 per person gained us access to all the temples and monuments in Bishnupur.

Next stop was Gumghar, a massive structure built over a hill that is in a very sorry state. This doorless and windowless structure left us wondering the purpose behind building it. Was it a massive well or a granary or was it used for an entirely different purpose. Not much is known about this place and we guess it will just remain a mystery lost in time.

We then headed to the splendid Shyam Rai temple built by Malla king Raghunath Singha in 1643 AD, a fine example of Pancharatna style consisting of 5 shikaras on a curved Bengal Chala Roof. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, this temple has many carvings depicting scenes from his life. A grand sculpture of Krishna playing flute and pretty women dancing around him was stellar. This is one of the best temples in Bishnupur and made our long journey totally worthwhile. The lively carvings were standing right in front of our eyes but were unbelievable. The minute details in each carving are mesmerizing depicting not just scenes from Puranas but portraying the religious, political and economic life of people. The miniature carvings on brick are so fine and exquisite that it is impossible to recreate.

Next stop Radha Shyam temple, this is one of the living temples built by Malla ruler Chaitanya Singha in 1758. This Ekaratna temple stands within a courtyard enclosed by high boundary wall. The ratna or shikara of this temple is dome shaped and slightly different from the other Ekaratna temples of Bishnupur. The massive Vishnu carving of him resting on his snake bed is eye candy. Scenes of war, celebrations and everyday life is depicted to perfection. Another interesting find in this temple were ancient scriptures carved on the wall.

Right adjacent to Radha Shyam Temple is Lalji temple built by Malla king Bir Singha II in 1658 AD. It is one of the most impressive Ekaratna temples of Bishnupur. Inscriptional evidence on the temple suggests that this temple is dedicated to Radha and Krishna. The magnanimous monuments of Bishnupur reminded us of Orchha and Khajuraho.

A little ahead of Lalji Temple is the epic Jorbangla temple. Also known as Kesta Rai temple, it was built by Malla ruler Raghunath Singha in 1655 AD. This is one of the most spectacular temples of Bishnupur. A pair of hut shaped structures with slopping roofs join together. The temple walls narrate scenes from Epic Krishna Leela. The scene depicting and elephant uprooting a tree is so realistic. A pair of elephant carvings left us perplexed as we did not know if they were mating or fighting. Extensive day to day events, valor, warfare, art are so lively portrayed on brick. One particular scene that stood out was of two men carrying a successful kill.

The hunting scenes and daily social lives depicted here on terracotta stand testimony to the legendary craftsmanship of ancient Indians. The depiction of sailors on their intricately carved boats with their oars are stunning to say the least. Each temple has amazing sculptures, people merry making playing musical instruments. sur sundaries, mythical creatures and many more.

While the temples are a little off the main road, the Pathar Darwaza, also known as Large Gateway, has the road running through it's centre. This gateway was the northern entrance to ancient fort of Bishnupur and Malla Kingdom. Standing tall even today it was once the front line defense of Malla Kingdom. Built in the second half of the 17th century, it has double storied galleries flanking the passage for accommodating troops and there were arrow slits for the archer and gunman. Followed by this, we walked through the arched small gateway that leads to the ancient fort of Bishnupur.

Mesmerizing Madan Mohan temple that is in the far end of the town, was our next stop. Built in 1694 by Malla King Durjan Singh, it is the finest example of a brick structure with a single dome that sits pretty on a curved Bangla Chala Roof. The terracotta carving on this temple is one of the finest in the Country. The beams have amazing artisans entertaining us even today. The perfectly carved concentric circles with intricate bead like carvings left us in awe. There are several sculptures striking romantic poses that stand testimony to how we Indians have celebrated Love for centuries. Each terracotta carving is epic and paints a story and do watch out for the lively ducks that adorn these walls.

We took a turn and headed back to the other side of town to see the remaining temples and monuments. En route do watch out for homes that are held together with all natural material. We stopped at Stone chariot next. Stone chariot which dates back to 17 Century is a finest example of Bishnupur temple architecture in a miniature form. This small double storeyed monument is supported by three wheels on each side. The lower storey resembles Ras Mancha temple and the upper storey resembles Shikhara of Eka Ratna Temple.

We then headed to the much revered Chinnamasta temple. Chinnamasta literally translates to "She whose head is severed" in Sanskrit.  It was one of the most stand out sculptures of a Goddess we have ever seen. The Goddess was holding her own severed head in her hand. A Goddess of contradictions, she is considered as someone who is both- a life giver and life taker. She is also considered as a symbol of sexual control and an embodiment of sexual energy. This temple though pretty old has been renovated and is on the way to the Dalmadal canon.

Hardly at any distance was Dalmadal Canon, the iconic wrought iron with a massive muzzle that was a legend of it's time. In all possibility, it was one of the largest canons of the Malla rulers. This was used against the Maratha Invaders. The road that leads to Chinnamasta temple and canon has plenty of saree shops and one can check out the famous Baluchari sarees in any of these shops.

A small detour from the canon took us to a series of identical temple. We stopped to checkout the Nandalal temple built sometime in the 17th century. Just a little ahead from here is an amazing garden and Kalachand Temple. Built in 1656 AD by King Raghunath Singha, the sculptures here depict scenes from Krishna Leela, puranas and contemporary life. Just before Kalachand temple is the Radha Madhab temple that was built by Churamoni Devi, the daughter in law of Malla king Gopal Singh.

Not just the temples on the tourist circuit, do watch out for several other monuments that date back several centuries and are strewn around Bishnupur village. Another must visit place here is the Bishnupur Museum. One very interesting encounter that we had was watching a young boy who was playing cricket all by himself. He was smacking the ball right into the centuries old monument. In his own world and happy plying the game, he was the bowler, batsman, fielder and to our surprise he was also keeping scores.

Almost all monuments and temples of Bishnupur are extremely well kept and super clean despite absence of trash cans nearby. Either people do not litter or cleaning staff are doing a wonderful job. Another interesting aspect of Bishnupur is almost every home has a lovely green lawn and the entire village is dotted with mango and jack fruit trees. The rickshaw rides would cost around Rs.200-250 for the entire tour and we would say it is completely worth it.

The best way to reach Bishnupur from Kolkata which is at a distance of 132 km is to opt for the much economical and reliable Indian Railways. We boarded the Aranyak Express that reaches Bishnupur at 11 am. The train journey opens up beautiful views of rural West Bengal. En route we enjoyed amazing local breakfast of Poori Bhajji and motichur ladoo at Kharagpur Junction.

Once we reached Bishnupur station, there were plenty of cycle and auto rickshaws to ferry us to 'Bishnupur Tourist Lodge-' A government of West Bengal undertaking. This is one of the best stay options in Bishnupur. The perks of being a less commercialized destination. They don't have fancy stay or dine in options. Be sure to make online reservations as the place could get booked up. We opted for AC large double bedded room which was priced at Rs 1800 per day excluding taxes. The room was very spacious and clean offering comfortable bed and other modern amenities. The lodge has plenty of vast open space with massive trees that attract a lot of birds.

The service standards of the Lodge are pretty good. Be sure to carry a printout of the reservation slip and original ID cards. However, when we checked in the friendly staff were not very particular about the print out. The food at the Tourist lodge is lip smacking and reasonably priced. While we were here we faced frequent power cuts but the Lodge had power backup which serves as another reason to stay here. An evening stroll in Bishnupur is highly recommended. While in Bishnupur, do try the jeera soda available in almost all stores.

After our hearty dinner of Poori and Aloo sabji on our second day here, we walked to the amazing "One Scoop Ice Cream Cafe." It is a must visit in Bishnupur and a perfect way to end a happy day. This cozy ice cream parlor beats the massive ice cream chains in metros by a mile. Run by an energetic youngster, there are plenty of flavors to taste and choose from. We opted for the chocolate with nuts, rabdi and tutty frooti flavor with a dash of strawberry crush. The local ice cream tasted amazing and it came with one of the crispiest wafer cones that we have ever had. Three generous scoops of ice cream costed us Rs 55.

Bengalis love their sweets and hence there are several shops catering to their sweet tooth. We stopped by "Fresh Dairy," a little gem that was dishing out fantastic Bengali sweets and savories. We highly recommend the unique Chinese patties and Desi ghee Kalakand. Their samosas are smacking good and finally we satisfied our sweet craving with Malai Chum Chum. All put together it costed us a mere Rs 46.

Another interesting offbeat destination that is a must visit is Gangani Canyons just 30 km away from Bishnupur. 


  1. Your blog post covers the legacy of Bishnupur beautifully

  2. Thanks a bunch Durga Prasad. Glad you liked our post.

  3. Very nice post!! Useful with lots of information.

    1. Thanks Aravind! Glad to know you liked the post.