The day was starting to give in to a warm glowing sunset, when my neighbor said they had called my stop. I was afraid of not understanding the pronunciation and asked to be helped to the guys sitting by. Then the young man came to inspect that the train station was not occupied by suspicious malevolent people (at the time I was pretty confident nothing could have happened to me in India but with all recent news I am grateful to this casual gentlemen). Then just one second before, he asked again , prompted by his father: “Are you sure you really have to get out at Bishnupur?” I smiled and reassured him. I take it must not have been a frequent sight a traveller bound to Bishnupur, even the guidebook description was respectful but far from enthralling. Only that a couple of year back a book had come to my hands about the terracotta temples and then I started to wonder where I could find them and finally I go there. Bishnupur not only was dotted with this singular and discrete gems but also turned out to be a charming countryside small town in Bengal , where the jungle and the fields are never too far and where kids splash into little ponds with creepers all around.
How the temples came to populate this sleepy countryside? It appears that under the rule of Mughal, the local aristocrats (zamindars) , the Mallas, had virtual freedom to do as they pleased and they built a wealth of temples in a local unique style. It could have been that this quiet land was very bustling a couple of centuries back, when the centre of power was here. The Mallas have disappeared (apparently maybe) and Bishnupur has gone back to its quiet life. Other areas of Bengal have also been endowed with these temples, sometimes thanks to prospering merchants around the eighteenth century.
The temple in its function and structure is always a Hindu Temple, like what we have seen here and here. There is a central shrine and there is a vestibule, a mandapa. Of course the pinnacle on top of the temples, something halfway like a campanile tower (maybe rather an orissan shikara, or tower, that we have not seen yet), is surely different.
And what about when the temple maker went into a profusion of little pinnacles : these temples would made you think of Saint Petersburg and not the West Bengal countryside. Indeed the pinnacles , ratna, were a particular preference of the Malla of Bishnupur that so initiated the ratna style.
As much as these temple are quaint, quirky and contain amazing terracotta work, I immediately loved them. Later and recently when I gathered more information on how they developed they became even more special to me.
These temples could never have been built if two different cultures did not meet.
On one hand, their shape is inspired by the most simple and organic building, the bengali thatched roof hut. The hut would have been built in mud and bamboo and would make sure that the roofs are curved to protect the house from the rain. The temples conserved the simple square or rectangular basis and the shape of the roof. Indeed , if you look at this temple you can see in it too huts joined together.
The jorbangla or the dochala roof (referring to the hut thatched roof) names refer to the origin of the temple from the hut.You can see the thatched roofs and long arches. Mmmm, arches… yes let’s speak of the arch. As I said here, the arch was not an indigenous architectural feature (broadly speaking at least). The arches were surely used as a shape, but they were corbelled or the stones were carved out to mimic the shape, therefore they did not have any supporting function.
Arch, keystones came into Indian architecture vocabulary thanks to the conquest by the Ghaznavids. The first Mosque in Delhi still had corbelled arches, soon afterwards the technique was absorbed by the local builders and spread all around.
So people could have fun and do this :
The several layers of structural arches would have never been possible without the introduction of the arch and you can see the influence of the Mughals also in the shape of the portico arches.
It seems that then Mughals picked the thatched roof style seen above to introduce it back in some pavilions or balconies in Rajasthan: i find utterly fascinating how much art and creation comes from one style impollinating another and then being changed by the second himself.
At the time I visited them I did not know much about architecture, function and history. But I stayed hours to admire the different terracotta images.
Some of them talk of daily life in the countryiside.
Would those be historical records? possible
This one below looks like a happy couple in a temple that look very much like these ones: are they Krishna and Radha?
Then there are musicians:
This is a very populous Mandala with Krishna in the centre: are all of them his gopis (milkmaids lovers)?
This below seems to be a more historical scene, maybe a scene from a market.
Another important marriage.
The density of the terracotta scenes and figures merge into the floral garlands or geometric patterns, as if humans and gods sprout from a landascape of flowers and leaves without solution of continuity. When you look at the temples from few meters away, you hardly notice them on the surface, they are like some solid flickering, but then you get the stories unfold endlessly. They are born in that same matter as the earth below and the countryside is made of.
The temples are perennially lively thanks to their terracotta images, their floral designs and the red color almost mirror the surrounding countryside with its lush vines and ponds and trees . They give you surprise when you recognise a figure among the multitude, as if you had recognised somebody in a crowd. They make you feel as the market, the feast , the celebrations for the weddings are still going on, and their joy is soon passed to you.
Such is the naivety and yet skillfulness of the craftsmen that did this. There is simplicity and yet richness to the images.