Saturday 23 September 2017 News Updated at 03:09 AM IST
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Tales of terracotta - Deccan Herald
Tales of terracotta
Ranjita Biswas,
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Brick brilliance : Shyam Rai Temple; terracotta artefacts
If you want to see the best of Bengal-style architecture, you have to come to Bishnupur in Bankura district, about 132 km from Kolkata. The beautiful terracotta temples in this town talk about a time when art & crafts, architecture, music - in the classical tradition Bishnupur gharana - and Bishnupur style of painting flourished under the Malla dynasty.

As the name suggests, Bishnupur is a centre of Vaishnavite culture. The Malla kings had embraced the religion, greatly influenced by the 15th century Bengali Vaishnavite guru, Sri Chaitanya. They built these temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

However, the Mallas had ruled in this area from a much earlier time. At one time, this area was also known as Mallabhum after the ruling dynasty of the Mallas (denoting 'wrestlers’). In late 7th century, King Raghunath I founded the Malla dynasty. Later, the powerful King Jagat Malla decided to shift his kingdom to Bishnupur.

But the most powerful king of the dynasty was King Raghunath Singh Dev II, who ruled from 1626 AD. At that time, the administration of Bengal was under Shahjahan’s son Suja. He developed a close friendship with the king, and there followed a period of peace when art and music reached great heights.

The charm of the Bishnupur temples is that, they are built imitating the traditional Bengali-style houses with sloping thatched roofs. The artisans developed different styles like ek-chala (one roof), do-chala (double roofs), char-chala (four roofs) etc. The temples were richly embellished with terracotta work on panels, ceilings, walls etc.

The use of terracotta (burnt clay) had a practical reason. Bengal being mostly a floodplains country, stone was in short supply here. Hence the architects made use of the readily available clay and baked it in kilns to obtain a sturdy material for building. It was also easy to carve out decorations on this pliable material, which, till today, has survived to astound onlookers with their intricacy and beauty.

Panelled tales

The temple panels mostly depict legends in the life of Lord Krishna, his consort Radha, and people around them. The Shyam Rai Temple is popularly known as the Pachchura Temple because of its five pinnacles. Built in 1643 during the reign of Mallaraja Raghunath Singha, its terracotta work is one of the best examples of this Bengal speciality in architecture.

Not very far from here is the Kesto Rai Temple that flaunts a jora-bangla (two roofs joined) style. It is also considered one of the finest examples of Bengal terracotta art. The panels tell many stories from the Krishna episodes and the Mahabharata, like Bhishma on a bed of nails.

The Radha Shyam Temple nearby is single pinnacled, built of laterite stone, and contains limestone stucco decoration. The temple is enclosed with high walls, and its entrance consists of a triple-domed, Islamic-style gateway as it was built in 1758 under King Chaitanya Singha.
Among the famous Bishnupur temples not to be missed is the Madan Mohan Temple dedicated to Lord Madan Mohan (an incarnation of Vishnu). The idol is still worshipped here. Exquisitely worked terracotta panels adorn this temple.

A somewhat different structure is the Rasmancha, the oldest standing structure of Bishnupur, built by King Hambir in 1600. It’s not a temple, hence there is no idol inside. Resembling a congregation place, it is built on a raised stone-platform and looks like a stepped pyramidal structure surrounded by smaller, typical Bengal-style slope roofed structures.

Architecturally it combines a variety of styles and shows off the expertise of the artisans and architects. During the festival of Ras, idols from different temples are brought here for public display.

Yes for evolution

Bishnupur’s terracotta tradition, fortunately, has not waned like many handicrafts in India. In fact, in the recent years, contemporary as well as folk artists have used the art to fashion new products. The Bankura horse, logo of the Cottage Industries Emporium, remains ever popular among connoisseurs.

Today, they are also available beyond the traditional earthy colours (like in black, dark brown, coffee etc), without spoiling the effect. Decorative items like jars and vases in their myriad designs have been successfully exploited by the artists. Also getting increasingly popular are terracotta costume jewellery, which fly off the shelves.

Bishnupur is also famous for the metal craft popularly known as dokra.

Another Bishnupur speciality is the Baluchari sari. The fine silk sari is distinguished by an elaborate pallu which shows off figures of kings and queens or some story from the epics. The influence of the terracotta panels of the temples is easily discernible in the weaves.

After the harvest in winter, the Bishnupur Mela is held near the Madan Mohan Temple. The fair stretches over four days and people from all over the country enjoy and participate in it.

Another highlight during the season is the Bishnupur Utsav, held after the fair, a classical music and dance festival.