Monday, June 18, 2012

Bishnupur the land of “Trance in terracotta"

Shyam- Rai

When I was packing my bags for heading to Bishnupur, I was skeptical as to whether it was a right decision to slog in the autumn heat in the heart of Bengal. Some hill station would have been a natural choice. But prodded by my friends who insisted on salvaging their little knowledge of the history, I was sort of quasi-convinced that the trip won’t be a disaster. I was wrong, terribly wrong. I came back as a person who was better aware of the history of the soil he lives in.

2885 Up Aranyak Express took us to Bishnupur  from Shalimar, a small terminus 5 kms away from Howrah and is easily accessed from Kolkata by cabs across the Vidyasagar Setu. One can board the same train at Santragachhi which is on S.E.Railway main line and accessible by road through the same Vidyasagar Setu.  Else you can board the 2883 - Rupashi Bangla Express which starts at 0600 hrs from Howrah and reaches Bishnupur(200km away) by 10 AM  The distance on road is much shorter, only 150 Km. CSTC busses are available from Esplanade in the morning. It will take about  four and half hours and even less, if you drive in your own car.

We headed for the tourist lodge to freshen up. Had our lunch and booked a rickshaw, the main mode of transport, for sight seeing. Fortunately he was a part-time guide too who went on with his commentary as he pedaled from one spot to another.

Bishnupur became the capital of the Malla dynasty in 994AD when King Jagat Malla shifted to it from Pradamnapur, where the first ruler of the dynasty Raghunath was crowned in 695AD.  But it boomed to its peak, centuries later, during King Veer Hambir. It was said that he was a ruthless ruler who plundered the wealth of all those who traversed his territory, came across in his looting spree Srinivasa Acharya, a beloved disciple of Shri Chaitanya and a Vaishnava scholar of Chaitanya cult. He became his disciple in Acharya’s influence and became a Vaishnava.  To atone for the sins, he in built the wonderfully designed “Rash Mancha” which is a unique combination of Bengal’s Chala (roof of a hut) and Egyptian pyramid structure. The façade of this 51 feet high and 80 feet long covered pulpit is poetry on burnt laterite. Every year “Rash Leela” is held over here from ages. Since stones are unavailable in this part of Bengal, the temples were built on burnt laterite(red-clay), rich in iron content. Soon he built another temple called Dalan Mandir for Mrinmayee which was the royal deity. One has to buy a ticket of Rs.5/- from the Archeological Survey of India counter at Raash Mancha to visit the temples.
Raash mancha

The temples in Bishnupur are named according to the number of miniaturized pinnacled shrines atop the main chala (mainly a curved cornice roof upon a rectangular structure, resembling the thatched roof of hut) of the sanctum. These are called RATNAs, e.g. Ek(one) Ratna, Dwi (Two) Ratna, Pancha( five) Ratna etc. Veer Hambir’s successor King Raghunath Singh built the some exquisite temples in his tenure. He built Malleswar Mandir in memoir of his predecessor (Veer Singha), Kalachand temple (1656AD) and Shyama Rai or Kesta Rai in mid seventeenth century, a pancha ratna temple in the  
name of Lord Krishna. This has porches on four sides and three arch entrances, which reminds us of Islamic architecture. One cannot be but dumbfounded seeing its terracotta designs and filigree engravings upon the burnt bricks all through. Close to it is Jore Bangla (joint house), built by the same king. Radhe Shyam, Lalji (Ek Ratna) Krishna Balaram, Nikunja Bihari and temples built by different kings of this dynasty. The temples, in general, have molded burnt and designed clay panels fixed on clay brick structures.  

The Radhe Shyam temple was built in later part of the Malla dynasty and is exquisite example of terracotta and stucco. Along with Keshta Rai this temple is one of the finest examples of resplendent terracotta architecture.  Madanmohon temple is another creation of the Malla dynasty built by King Durjan Singh in 1694 AD. The Ek Ratna styled edifice is intricately designed pillars depicting 64 dance poses makes one awestruck. This is arguably the best known temple of Bishnupur. Stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are resplendently displayed in the walls.

The remnant of a fortress can hardly be seen but its existence is proclaimed by Pathar Durwaza- a fine arched gate way built with dressed laterite blocks. King Veer Singha built it in the second half of the seventeenth century. It has double storied galleries. The central passage is flanked by spaces which could accommodate troupes. The sides have arrow slits for the archers and the snipers who acted as the first line of defense.

From temples we can now move to Dolmadol, a huge cannon which lies in open air for centuries without rusting. The engravings upon the body of the cannon are interesting. Brute force lies cheek by jowl astute art forms. Using this cannon Raja Gopal Singh used it to drive away the Bargis (Maratha Warriors).

Bishnupur’s contribution to music is no less intriguing. It has contributed the famous “Bishnupuri Gharana” to Hindustani classical music. It had started during King Raghunath Singh Dev and is still continuing with great élan.

The craftsman of pottery, jewellary, crockery, metal wares and weavers are passing the baton of a rich heritage replete with finesse. Baluchari and Tussar sarees made of finest silks are manufactured here. A long neck horse popularly known as “Bankura” horse is also a popular memento in demand.  Chhau Dance is one of the traditional arts that still thrive in Bishnupur.

In December end Poush Mela is held in the precincts of Madanmohan temple and the week long festivity and cultural programmes make Bishnupur a attractive destination for the tourists. In August, an unique ritual of Jhapan is held when the snake charmers exhibit their tricks with poisonous snakes to appease Ma Monosha, the goddess of snakes in Bengal.

One can also visit Mukutmanipur, a reservoir on river Kangashabati, 82 Kms away. Its serenity around along with the hilly landscape makes it worth visiting. Staying at Peerless Resort there is another experience to relish.

Hotels in Bishnupur: Bishnupur Lodge run by W.B. Tourism – 03244-252013; Hotel Bishnupur-03244-252243, Hollywood Hotel & Resorts, etc