The murmur of Terracotta

‘Baked earth temples, where the fired 
body is porous.
How does this work? Monsoon rains drench all,
But there they are, that should have melted wet in the wash
And drained and dribbled away, solidified like candle wax,
But they stand in their various stalwart clay red forms…..’

We boarded an early morning train from Santragachi Junction for our three-hour journey to Bishnupur, the temple town of West Bengal. We had heard tales of its heritage, architecture and fascinating terracotta artifacts.

Alighting at a quaint station,  our waiting car whisked us to the Banphool treehouse resort in the Joypur forest area where we were booked to stay over the next few days. I was visiting the Bankura district for the first time and realised it had excellent forest cover.

Banphool Treehouse

Did you know that Bishnupur was the jewel in the crown of arguably one of the oldest-running kingdoms in the world? The Malla dynasty was founded in the 7th century and continued to exist till the beginning of the 20th! Moving along the narrow roads and lanes, I mused about this continuation of a single dynasty over a thousand years through the turbulence of India’s history. I could not think of any other kingdom of India which had replicated this feat. Waves of Muslim invasions through the Khyber pass, the might and spread of the Mughal empire, the colonization of the sub-continent by the British had ensured that the longevity of homegrown kingdoms remained limited. So how did the Malla kingdom continue the way it did? Was it because the Malla kings had the wisdom to be flexible and used diplomacy to ensure they were not conquered? Or was it because the focus of the invaders was on the fertile and revenue-generating Gangetic plains and the forest areas of Bankura and Bishnupur held little attraction? Or could it have been a combination of both?

The uniqueness of Bisnupur’s architecture stems from the short supply of stones in the area. The local architects, centuries ago, found a way to build using the local ‘Laal Matti’ red clay; they used burnt bricks made of this. Incredibly the builders could use the interlocked red clay bricks to make roofs and overhanging arches without the need for concrete or other supporting structures. The temples and buildings made in this manner, using laal mathi bricks, locally available laterite blocks, and Terracotta overlays, have survived for centuries!

 It is said that the kingdom of Mallabhum, in its heyday, extended far beyond Bankura. Encompassing as it did the districts of Burdwan, Birbhum, Midnapur, Purulia and going up to the southeast part of present-day Jharkhand state. What to me remains intriguing is the flowering of creativity manifested by the fascinating Terracotta art form, the Dokra craft on metal, the timeless beauty of Baluchari and Tassar sarees and the Hindustani classical music form known as Bishnupur Gharana. What is that which catalysed this huge upsurge of artistry in a forest land? What could have been the motivation to sustain such creativity against all odds?

Which brings me to the Terracotta temples and the associated art form which the Malla rulers took to mesmerizing heights. The intricately chiselled terracotta panels stand out, depicting as they do, mostly incidents from Krishna and Radha’s liason, but to a lesser extent, important scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharat and Ramayana.

Terracotta panel

The Rasmancha, a four-century old arched temple structure with a pyramid-like top. Replete with visions of Radha playing with Lord Krishna during Rash Purnima, that full moon night in November.


The arcs and the arches…

The Shyam Rai temple, the only panch ratna or five pinnacle temple in Bishnupur with terracotta art on all four sides.

Shyam Rai temple

The Jor Bangla temple, with an innovative roof design akin to two thatched roofs joined together.

Jor Bangla temple

The Madan Mohan temple, a large structure with exceptionally detailed wall art depicting Krishna Leela.

Madan Mohan temple

‘…….Each one a sculpture, arcs and arched doorways, outer walls
Of small framed panels, depicting: Ganesh, Siva, Varuna, men
And women, carriages and animals, cows and collocations
Of the visible world, elephants engaged in the act of coition,
Mounted, each panel an astonishment, hundreds of them,
On each side wall. One temple’s roof’s a pyramidal lift
Of straight diagonal lines, converging; another’s is as swift
A symmetrical curve as a scimitar’s blade, four curves,
Balanced; another’s uses square shapes; all are brazen,
Terra cotta red, and smell of cold earth. The air is wet and warm……’

Outer walls

Chiselled intricacy of Terracotta

In fact, I learned that the Bishnupur temples were inspired by those built in faraway Vrindavan, tales of which had been brought by travellers and vaishnavite disciples over the centuries. However, the architecture and forms remained distinct, following local traditions and innovations.

Nestled incongruously amongst the terracotta temples sits a large four-meter Dalmadol cannon. Legend has it that when attacked by Maratha marauders, the Malla ruler himself fired the cannon to save the region.

Dalmodol Cannon

I had gone to Bishnupur to see the temples. I returned reliving the entrancing tales of Mallabhum’s Rajas, their creative passion for architecture and their devotion to Lord Krishna. Do I still hear the sounds of Rasleela in the corridors of Rasmanch? Do the murmurs of Terracotta surround me whichever way I turn?

In Musing……..                                                                   Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: Quoted verses are by Alan Riach, Scottish author and Academician.

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