Bishnupur: Temples of the Earth

By Live History India

Live History India

Think ‘terracotta’ and the famous Terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China comes to mind. But did you know there is a whole temple complex made of terracotta in Bishnupur, West Bengal?

Radha Madhab Temple, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

It’s hard to imagine an entire holy city built of terracotta, but visit Bishnupur in West Bengal and feast your eyes on a temple town built purely of clay and brick. Bishnupur, 139 km from Kolkata, was built by the Malla kings who ruled a part of West Bengal between Burdwan and Purulia. The temples are dedicated to Lord Vishnu – hence the name ‘Bishnupur’ in local parlance – and were built across 700 years, from the 10th to the 17th centuries.

Jor Bangla Temple, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

The Bishnupur temple complex consists of 20 temples. The first of these, the Mrinmayee Temple, was built in 997 CE by King Jagat Malla. The temples of Bishnupur reflect the local architecture of Bengal and most of them were built between 1622 CE and 1758 CE. 

Pancha Ratna Temple, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

The unavailability of stone in the flood plains of Bengal probably led to the extensive use of terracotta, but it is a testimony to the skill of the sutradharas, or the local temple builders, that these temples survive to this day!

Rasmancha Temple, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

 The Rasmancha temple is unique, with its unusual elongated pyramidical tower surrounded by hut-shaped turrets, which was very typical of Bengali roof structures of the time.

Madan Mohan Temple, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

The Madanmohan temple built by King Durjana Singh Deva, has a square flat-roofed building with carved cornices, surmounted by a pinnacle. Impressive carvings on the walls of Madanmohan temple depict scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.

Sculptural details, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

The images you see etched on the Bishnupur temples are also quite unique. This could have been because the artists who worked on the temple complex were illiterate and had no access to the epics and the stories associated with it, which were in Sanskrit. Their only access to this repository was through the works of local Bengali poets, who wrote dramas and ballads.

Intricately carved pillars, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

The
poetic licence they enjoyed allowed them to weave in new episodes and
interpretations based on local customs and traditions, thus bringing new facets
to the stories from the Mahabharata
and Ramayana and also the art of
these temples.

Intricately carved temple columns

Ornate carvings on the temples, Bishnupur by Team LHILive History India

Visit Bishnupur today and it is hard to imagine that this was once a great centre of art and culture. The Malla kings were patrons of Vaishanavism and invited scholars and artists from all over to Bishnupur. Much of this richness is reflected in the terracotta temples that stand tall even today.

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