CHRONICLES IN CLOTH & CLAY
WORDS AMBIKA GUPTA
PHOTOGRAPHS KRISHNA ANGIRA
GREAT FROM Kolkata
GREAT FOR temple-hopping
Bishnupur is a village of artisans and craftsmen; men of prodigious skill who uphold a tradition of quiet brilliance, not unlike the founder of the Malla dynasty, Adi Malla, during whose reign the village was a stronghold of fine arts and culture. Today, it’s a quiet town with moss-covered walls, narrow streets and cooking smells wafting out of houses. But don’t be fooled by this unassuming facade – you’ll be surprised by what you discover once you step onto the well-worn verandahs and push past the heavy wooden doors.
In dimly-lit rooms, weavers are busy creating mythological stories on the panels of Baluchari saris. In the Patrapara area, scores of wooden looms are at work daily. With each hypnotic click, they bind intricate details and sumptuous colours into six yards of rustling silk. In some houses, patterns are being traced on paper, while, in others, silk thread is being spooled.
The locals, while friendly and helpful, aren’t terribly talkative. On the other hand, the eloquence of the sculptures of Bishnupur’s famous terracotta temples will leave you speechless. The southern group of 17th-century temples is made of laterite stone, and displays an intriguing mix of architectural influences: the single spires are Odisshi, the curved roofs are Bengali, and the arches are inspired by Mughal architecture. It’s utterly peaceful here as you walk on pathways under jackfruit and teak trees, making you want to linger more. But drag yourself to the central group of temples, in the heart of town, to see the terracotta sculptures.
The temple walls here are adorned with carvings, depicting stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, dasavatars (the different forms of Lord Vishnu) and scenes from contemporary social life, like a king getting a massage and what appears to be women playing with a yo-yo. The most recent and only living temple in this group is the Radhashyam Temple, built in 1758, while, 800m north-east of this group, is Madan Mohan Temple, with carvings on just one wall and friezes with rows of geese, which signify peaceful times. The Shyam Rai Temple in the central group is the most striking building. At each corner of this peculiar structure are square towers and, in the middle, a two-storey octagonal tower. Still, this is nothing compared to the truly grand and highly unorthodox Ras Mancha, built by King Bir Hambir to house Krishna idols from other temples during the Ras Festival celebrations. The central shrine is encircled by three galleries and enclosed within an imposing pyramid structure, which, in turn, is surrounded by curved domes and supported by lotus-shaped pillars.
While Bishnupur’s claim to fame is its terracotta temples, the museum next door is a good place to see terracotta in another form. Here you will see the earliest models of the famous Bankura horses. You can also see entire armies put to dry outside homes in Panchmura, or potters’ village. Almost every house here has a potter’s wheel and you can watch the terracotta horse come to life within.
As you make your way back to Bishnupur, the road meanders through woods and paddy fields flooded with muddy water and colonies of bullfrogs croaking raucously. And if you listen closely, the lush countryside of Bishnupur has stories to share too.