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Terracotta tales from Bishnupur

As soon as you start moving around in Bishnupur, you start spotting these masterpieces in red baked clay around every nook and corner. While one can spend a lifetime exploring these temples, there are a few temples one must not miss.

Anuradha Goyal

The history of ancient India is written in stone in its various temples across the length and breadth of the country. So what did the people do when they had no stones worth sculpting in their regions? For that answer we will have to travel about 160 kilometres from Kolkata in West Bengal, to a quaint little town called Bishnupur or Vishnupur. This is where I found the most exquisitely carved terracotta temples, built 400-500 years ago by the Malla dynasty that ruled from there. Most temples are dedicated to Lord Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu that the dynasty believed in.

As soon as you start moving around in Bishnupur, you start spotting these masterpieces in red baked clay around every nook and corner. While one can spend a lifetime exploring these temples, there are a few temples one must not miss. My most favourite temple is the Shyam Rai temple built in the Panch Ratna style has the some of the best carvings in terracotta. A famous panel here depicts Krishna playing the flute with Gopis all around him. Jor Bangla temple takes its architectural inspiration from the humble hut of a common man in Bengal. Its roof is shaped like two huts that have been joined together and this style of architecture is called Chala. Day-to-day life of the people of Bengal is depicted on the panels here. I remember a boar panel that depicted the scene of rain rich areas of Bengal. The Madan Mohan temple is known for some lovely sculptures that use composite art like creating an elephant using figures of women. Themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata remain the most common for the terracotta panels in the temples here. These temples are brick temples with sculpted terracotta panels pasted on top of the bricks. Besides temples there is a huge one of its kind rectangular structure on a raised platform called the Rasamancha that was a public place used for fairs and festivals.

Bishnupur along with the neighbouring town of Bankura is also known for their Baluchari and Swarnachari Saris that are hand woven by the weavers here till date. The borders of the silk saris woven here carry the same patterns that are sculpted on the walls of terracotta temples. More often than not, you find motifs of Radha Krishna or Krishna’s sermon at Kurukshetra woven into the saris. Sometimes you can find a small story from these epics woven on the Pallu of the sari. Picking up a sari here is like picking up a piece of Bishnupur and its history along with the craftsmanship of its artisans who can weave stories with an effortless ease. Baluchari Saris use only silk threads and when a gold thread is used they are called Swarnachari. With time weavers have started making dress materials but they can’t match the charm of these saris.

The Bishnupur-Bankura area is known for its signature artefacts – horses with sharp pointed ears that you cannot miss in Bishnupur. You find them in all sizes – from miniatures to life size and curiously they are always in pairs – created in pairs, displayed in pairs and sold in pairs. I could locate Bankura horses in terracotta, in brass and in conch shells – all three materials that are widely used to create art pieces at Bishnupur. At Chhinmasta, we found a vast range of Dokra metal ware that is still made using the ‘lost wax method’ that dates back to the time of Indus Valley Civilization. Dokra art is found in many regions of India but I have never seen jewellery made of Dokra anywhere except Bishnupur. To see the conch shell carvings, head to Sahkari Bazar in Bishnupur. Here I saw pearly white shells being skillfully carved with auspicious signs and geometric designs. Bangles made of conch shells are a favourite among the Bengali brides and here you will always find a pair of Bankura horses carved on them.

The Fauzdar family in Bishnupur still keeps the tradition of handmade Ganjifa cards alive. Now Ganjifa cards were the predecessors of modern day playing cards and were hand painted traditionally on various themes.

I was in awe of this small town when I discovered that it is also home to the Bhishnupur Gharana – a branch of Hindustani classical music and is very well known for its Drupad tradition. Legend is that the gharana belongs to the direct descendents of Tansen and in modern times highly influenced the singing of Rabindranath Tagore.

There are not many places that are as culture rich as this small town of Bengal.

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