Bishnupur, in Bankura district of West Bengal, is known for its famous Terracotta temples. The name of Bishnupur comes to the top of the list when there is a mention of terracotta temples in India and this tiny region holds the maximum number of these remarkable structures of ancient art and architecture. Terracotta is an old form of art made of clay which is then baked and glazed. The Bishnupur temples are wonderful examples where terracotta art has been used in its unique way.
The literal meaning of terracotta is baked earth and the term is generally used for sculptures, pottery, jewellery and tiles made of clay. The first mention of terracotta dates back to an early age of Indus Valley Civilisation (3000-1500BC) where terracotta female figurines were unearthed during the excavation of Mohenjodaro. The other mention of ancient terracotta findings were of Burney Relief from Mesopotamia, some from Mesoamerica (regions of ancient North America), Egypt, Greece and China.
Since the Indus Valley Civilisation, the terracotta sculptures have been in constant use in India with a considerable mention in the Gupta period and then in multiple temples across Bankura to terracotta sculptures till date made and sold as decorative pieces, pottery and jewellery. Terracotta tiles have been extensively used in the Bishnupur temple architecture during the reigns of Malla kings who have been attributed to the construction of these famous terracotta temples.
The erstwhile kingdom of Malla kings was known as Mallabhum and it covers the present area of Bankura district and some parts of the surrounding areas of Bardhaman and Birbhum districts. From the 7th century until the British rule the region has seen the consecutive rise and fall of the Hindu rulers including the Malla Kings. With no proper evidence to suggest the rise of the Malla kings to power, it still remains undocumented.
The Malla kings name suggest its origin from the Sanskrit word ‘Malla’ meaning wrestler. There is also a possibility of some link with the resident Mal tribes who were considered close to the Bagdis. The reign of the Malla kings included the territory of Bankura, a part of Burdwan, Birbhum, Santhal Parganas, Midnapur and also a part of Purulia.
For more than five centuries the Malla kings have been ruling the western part of Bengal when the Bhaktiyar Khilji, the military general of the then Delhi Sultanate of Qutub al-din Aibak began his conquest to reach the fertile areas of Bengal. Yet the forested region of Mallabhum was unknown to the Islamic invaders. The Malla rulers flourished till the Marathas (known by the locals as Borgi) completely vanquished the region plundering all wealth creating atrocities and bringing down the wealthy reign to its utmost poverty.
Adi Malla was known to be the founder of the Malla kingdom and also the first Bagdi Raja. His consecutive successors successfully ruled Mallabhum for years independently without any outside influence. Hambir Malla Dev (popularly known as Bir Hambir), the 49th ruler of the throne was a powerful man. Records suggest that he frequently robbed the devotees who travelled from Vrindavan to Gaur. On such an account he robbed a devotee named Srinivasa.
This was the turning point of Bir Hambir’s life who was moved by the recitation and readings of various manuscripts by Srinivasa. He subsequently converted into Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Srinivasa was bestowed with enormous riches and lands as a gift from the pleased king Bir Hambir. He introduced the worship of Madan Mohan in his reign which was followed by the construction of various temples dedicated to Vishnu during the reign of his successors.
Raghunath Singh who was third in the line to the throne after Bir Hambir was conferred upon by the Kshatriya title of Singh by the Nawab of Murshidabad. The reign that followed was the golden age of the temple architecture in Bishnupur. Numerous temples and palaces were built during this reign. He constructed the Shyam Rai, Jor Bangla and Kalachand temples.
Later Bir Singh and Durjan Singh contributed to the construction of lakes of Lalbandh, Krishnabandh, Gantatbandh, Jamunabandh, Kalindibandh, Shyambandh, Pokabandh and other temples. The golden era of the temple construction and the Bishnupur rulers came to an end with the seizure by the Marathas and the consecutive attack by the Maharaja of Bardhaman.
The form of Vaishnavism practised in Bishnupur was preached by Sri Chaitanya Dev and was a branch of the North Indian form of Vaishnavism followed by the acharyas of Vrindavan. For the celebration and the performance of the rituals of the cult, the Rashmancha was built. Stone was not in abundance in the region so an alternative of brick and terracotta tiles were used which was the introduction of a unique form of architecture in temple construction during the period.
The deities worshipped in these temples are the various forms of Lord Krishna whose worship was prevalent during that age in Vrindavan with different names like Madan Mohan, Shyam Raya, Radha Raman, Keshto Raya, Madan Gopal, Murali Mohan, Gopinath, and so forth. Though the temple style was different and distinctive from those of the Vrindavan style.
The temples were mostly double storeyed. The lower floor had the deity which used to be worshipped while the upper shrine was used for the other religious rituals during festivals. It is said that the architectural pattern of the temples was derived from those of the 14th-century Islamic architecture of Bengal in amalgamation with the local style of construction having a cubical base, sturdy pillars with many facets, pointed arches with cusps, interior vaulting and outer terracotta decoration.
These temples of Bengals were classified under the broad category based on the structural pattern – Deul, Ek-Bangla or Do-Chalala, Char-Chala, At-Chala, Ratna, Ek-Ratna, Pancha-Ratna, Naba-Ratna, Dalan and so forth. As a general design layout for the interior of the temples here, there is a porch covered by the vault and the sanctum is covered by the central dome. The curved roofs (Chala) of the Bengali huts have inspired the exterior curved cornice and the parapet of the temple.
Deuls are the earliest architectural style of Bengali temples. These temples can be identified by the square central structure, vertical projection and curvilinear tower. The Do-Chala temples are the most common type of early temples found in Bengal. These structures are inspired by the small single-celled hut of the region. The primary identifying character is the double-layered curved roofs that slopes down to meet the edges.
The Char-Chala style of architecture again resembles the simple Bengal hut. This is identified by the single-layered curved triangular roof meeting at a point on a square central structure. The At-Chala temples are the compressed or shortened Char-Chala temples with another miniature Char-Chala temple added on the roof of it.
The Ratna form of architecture is comparatively of a later period with an altogether different style of roof although the central sanctum remains the same rectangular structure. The design pattern varies in the form of a flat roof topped with one to multiple pointed apexes called ‘Churas’ or ‘Ratnas’. The Ek-Ratna, Pancha-Ratna and Nava-Ratna temple thus varies on the basis of the number of towers on the temple roof.
The different types of temple architecture prevalent in the then Bengal carved its own niche that is unique and can be isolated from the other temple architecture of the period in other parts of India. Over and above the use of terracotta tiles to cover the brick structure has added to the elegance of these temples and converted them to a visual delight. Thus Bishnupur became famous to the world and is known for as the terracotta temple town.