Bishnupur Terracotta temples of W. Bengal - inspiring monuments - 01.

We are mostly accustomed to visiting  Hindu temples  constructed with   hard rocks  like basalt  as in the Deccan region, granite,  sandstones  and bricks  elsewhere especially in south India.   Have you ever heard of  beautiful terracotta Hindu temples made from  reddish clay soil?  Yes,  such temples do exist in large numbers in West Bengal and they stagger our imagination. The temple town of  Bishnupur in Bakura district about 200 km from Kolkata city has numerous terracotta Hindu temples   (built in the 17th and 18th centuries) of different shapes, each surpassing the other in beauty, albeit their  simplicity.   Bishnupur,  synonymous  with God Vishnu, has  exquisite temples dedicated to  ''Sri  Krishna'', a form of Sri Vishnu. You may call it a ''Land of Sri Krishna.'' Most of them are located at a short distance from the town. 

Jor Bangla terracotta temple, Bishnupur,

Terracotta temples of Bishnur, W. Bengal,

There are more  than 20 or 25  temples in clusters with some built in isolated places; example:  the Pancha Ratna  temples. With respect to its design and style, it is a total departure from conventional temple architectural  norms and style  like Nagara which is quite common in the state of Odisha.  No traces of Dravida,  Chalukya or  any other southern Indian temples.  No elaborate garbagriha with a particular design  and no  grand or long  prathaksshna path (prakara) around the sanctum. Also absent are the flagstaff   (Dwajasthambham) and entrance gate with a tower above  or shikara or amalaka above the sanctum, mantap or arthamatap as  in traditional  temples.  No mystic animals like Yali  or dwarapalas (sentinels) at the entrance  common in south Indian Vishnu and Hindu temples or Amman temples.  Not even Kalasa on top.  Yet they are attractive  and inspiring, and never fail to get  our attention. The mandirs or temples in W. Bengal focus more on bhakti devotion to  a deity or two, prompting harmony   among the communities living around the temples. The architectural concept is different from the rest of India. You can not see a variety of gods or goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. No navagraha shrines on the temple premises either . 

Terracotta temple, Bishnupur,

What is unique about  these terracotta temples is the  basic construction material and the presentation of filigree on the walls. The construction material is  reddish laterite clay soil formed as a result of  chemical weathering of laterites (rich in iron) locally available in plenty. It is the main material for making terracotta tiles,  jewelry, figurines, pottery and other decorative artefacts  for which this town is well-known.  

These temples are not multi-tiered  massive structures that require sound foundation. Rather, most of them   resemble like  red-colored  huts in a  rural  setting. Some have slanting roof around with a small dome like feature atop.    They  have quite impressive  nicely  carved and molded terracotta decorations  with certain themes. The molded optimally  baked clay panels were fixed on the structures raised with clay bricks.  Filigree is a form of delicate decorative work commonly used by artisans like jewelers.  Here,  on the  filigreed terracotta tiles are  meticulously depicted various episodes from the puranas  -  Hindu epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Bhagawata Purana. The depiction on the structures bears testimony to the ingenuity,  artistic talents and  imagination of the workers of the past era. It is a time consuming  job  executed  with  proper pre-planning.  

The vernacular temple architecture  is  mostly clay based, reason being the Bengal region lacks outcrops of hard rocks and it forms the the Gangetic plain. The available material for building contraction is  the reddish clayey soil - lateritic clay along with and burnt-bricks.  The roofing style of temples of this region  is related to traditional   old-style mud plastered thatched   rural huts with paddy on top. It  may consist of one or more  distinct layers of slanting rounded roofs.  The Hindu temples built between the 16th and 19th century in this region resemble  those  rural structures - simple to look at, but elegant in style. They showcase  multiple artistic influences  prevailing in this region and their limitless stretch of imagination and native techniques.  The terracotta exteriors with rich carvings are the hall mark of  Bengal temples. 

Bishnupur, west Bengal,

What made the ruler of this place build such simple but wonderful temples of beauty and grandeur  without going after  large  and grand  temples?  The ruler  Birhambir (of the Malla dynasty) was once a bandito and indiscriminate looting was his calling. A  fortuitous   encounter with a Vaishnava saint/ scholar Srinivas Acharya of  the Sri Chaitanya tradition  of  Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533; founder of  Gaudiya Vaishnavism, marked by intense devotion to Sri Krishna)   had a deep impact on his mind. 

The bandit mistook the bundles of religious  manuscripts on Vaishvavism  that the Acharya had carried  for  jewelry. The Acharya elucidated him the stories of Sri Krishna and the benefits of Bhakti.   Realizing  his folly and the  past untold miseries he caused to countless people in a moment of aberration of mind, he decided to make amends and became a Vaishnavite, dedicating his life to the service of Sri Vishnu (Bishnu; in Tamil Perumal ). He further granted a large land to  the  saint  and build a  center for  Vaishnava worship  in this part. The ruler, on his part,  resolved to build many  Vishnu and Sri Krishna temples in that area.  After his death, his descendants followed suit.

It was the Cultural renaissance in the areas of  art  work and temple construction  between 17th and 18th centuries   changed the  socio-cultural scenario of this region  which was once an island town with eight interconnected embankments and artificial lakes. They served dual purposes - they beautified the town and also acted as a   protective moat to  prevent raids by neighboring powers.