'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


A photo showing a stretch of laterite terrain, gently undulating. In no apparent order, stood a few brick-built structures; all were about the same size and had the same plan - a square base surmounted by a sort of dome, not hemispherical but paraboloidal. The picture came with a question as to the function of those buildings. One ventured: "Not sure, but they look like tombs, you know, like those Qutub Shahi tombs in Hyde." And then came the answer: "They are not tombs but temples, all dedicated to Krishna! And the place is Bishnupur, not all that far from your Cal!"

The other day, I was feeling bored. Then I remembered Bishnupur and checked online and saw there were seats free on the Rupasi Bangla Express leaving Howrah early next day; that was that.

The train started on time but ran into severe fog and took nearly 3 hours to reach Kharagpur. Thereon, the weather cleared up and warmed up (and the surrounding countryside grew more rustic). The sun was blazing away when I got down at Bishnupur at 11 (proper winter and proper summer the very same day at pretty much the same place!).

Very brief history: Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla kings, who were Vishnu-Krishna-Radha devotees and built these temples starting from around 1600 AD to around 1800. The temples are of either brick masonry or laterite (abundant in the area); some have laterite plinths and brick superstructures. The laterite temples usually had white stucco coats - most of which have worn off with time. Some brick temples are profusely embellished with terracotta reliefs. They also incorporate structural arches formed with special wedge-shaped bricks.

Let me first issue a couple of warnings to those who want to go to Bishnupur. The Archeological Survey's guide book has a map which is accurate with shapes and orientations but has the distances off-scale by a factor of almost 3! And mid-Feb is not the time to visit the place, unless one plans to be there in the morning or evening. I ended up being on my feet continuously for 5 hours and some in the hottest part of the day and towards the end, was beginning to cramp up and feel faint. There is another reason to avoid my kind of day-trip from Cal. Red is the dominant color of all these temples and it can acquire a magical hue in twilight. And midday glare is hardly the right kind of illumination for examining *anything*.

About half a dozen of the temples are clumped within a quarter kilometer radius (the ones in the photo mentioned above) and located to the south of a vast lake called Lal-Bandh. And there are well over a dozen more of impressive ones (more impressive than the ones in the cluster). But they are strung out in a 3-4 km arc along the eastern rim of the town (the railway line is its western limit); several are located among modern dwellings and need a certain amount of asking around to reach. Pictures of all temples mentioned below can be seen on the Wikitravel page on Bishnupur.


1. 'Ras Manch' is said to be a kind of permanent 'festival pandal' with a square laterite plinth, thick brick pillars and a curious pyramidal roof - indeed, the pandals made at Belur Math for the various Pujas have a similar outward appearance. But then the Manch is very different - there is no hall within but only narrow passages among the pillars and walls. In there, it was refreshingly cool.

2. The 17th century 'Shyam Raya' temple has a square plan, a central pinnacle and 4 auxiliary towers at the 4 corners. This plan is called the 'pancharatna' (5 jewels). In front-view, with the central pinnacle and two flanking towers, the building has an unmistakable latin-church look. This may not really be an accident because the Portuguese had built a church at Bandel (only 150 km away) in 1599 and that could have influenced the Mallas. In that case, the Mallas deserve credit for being the only Indian Natives to adapt European religious architecture to achieve something really non-trivial - Konkani temples, with their long halls and bell towers are, to me, more imitation-European than creative.

Note: The other temples in Bishnupur have only the central pinnacle. The much more modern Dakshineswar temple in Cal has 9 pinnacles - a central summit surrounded by two concentric squares of towers, a style called a navaratna (9 jewels) - and when I first saw it a year ago, I had thought it looked very 'churchy' and recorded the impression in an earlier post here.

3. The 'Jod-Bangla' temple is remarkable for its shape - a scaled up copy in brick of a pair of thatched huts standing abreast. The walls are covered with impressive terracotta reliefs. The Avataras, Krishna's adventures and escapades... Then there are hunting scenes, other genre scenes. Then one sees Ganesha, Kartikeya, Vishnu himself riding Garuda all engaged in single combat with human looking adversaries (the only violent Ganesha I have seen, apart from some specimens in Ganesh-Utsav pandals in Maharashtra). Ducks, lions and elephants are recurring motifs; somewhere I saw a badly done camel too.

It was probably Howard Roark who said the classical Greek architecture is not really great but fundamentally flawed in that it merely reworked in stone, patterns earlier developed in and for another very different medium - timber (I have not read 'Fountainhead' properly; whatever of it that I did read was not particularly likable either). By the same token, the Jor-Bangla is no big deal, copying in brick+terracotta the mud-built and straw-thatched shrines from a more distant past. Very personally speaking, this temple brought back distant memories of a house of made of chocolate and biscuits which I had read in some European fairy tale.

The above 3 buildings apart, most Bishnupur temples are of the square plan - paraboloidal pinnacle type. But overall, this place has a near-unparalleled range of religious architectural designs - even the complex at Pattadakal, though much richer in art, has less architectural variety.

4. I also saw two 'unrestored' temples - with grass and even gnarled trees having sprouted from all over their structures. There was something very romantic about them and I think it would be a good idea and a non-trivial challenge to preserve them in their present state (retain the trees but ensure that they don't collapse the temples) - am reminded of the photo of a colossal Buddha face from Angkor Wat being 'strangled' by the roots of a fig tree.

5. Two 'chariot shrines', one standing next to a bigger temple in the above cluster, one alone, next to a small pond, among hutments. Both are scaled down copies of single-pinnacle temples and are around 6-8 feet in height. These have wheels meant to give the chariot look but they never seem to have been movable - the wheels are too small and few in number for that. There is a mystery here: on the one hand, there are full and grand temples - like the Konark temple or the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram - which are decorated with wheels and made to look like chariots; and on the other hand, there are proper 'rathas' (many of which are in the South) built like temples but with big and massive wheels which allow them to be actually pulled around by devotees. So, rather than make temples that can move or attach wheels as pure decorations to big and static temples, why did these guys build miniature temples with non-functional wheels?


Bishnupur is an underdeveloped and dusty rural backwater. The roads are narrow, irregular and poorly surfaced with open drains and gutters and heaps of rubbish all over (the worst being mixtures of shaving cream and human hair heaped near the many barber shops). Beneath some of the sparse tree population sit crowds of clay images, including stylized Bankura horses(*); these seem to be in active worship. Stray dogs abound, many in particularly wretched health (and I nearly stepped on the carcass of a freshly-stillborn pup) but mercifully there are no filthy pigs. The town has a large number of ponds (including the Lal-Bandh, named after a legendary royal concubine by name Lal Bai, who committed suicide in it) - encroached upon by weeds, their banks strewn with decaying remnants of recently held pujas. Right thru the day, one sees women walking home from a dip, draped in dripping sarees. This recurrent picture has no sensual lyricism about it or soft folds of greenery to frame it (as was the case in Satyajit Ray's 'Ashani Sanket') - just harsh, impoverished everyday reality.

(*) - the famous 'Bankura horses' (Bishnupur is in the Bankura district) look very similar to the equally stylized Ayyanar horses of Tamil Nadu but are usually smaller in size and are seldom colored. Let me also record a personal memory with clay horses. Long ago, there used to be a children's book 'Dul-dul, the magic clay horse' (inspired by Bankura?). I never read or possessed it but do remember asking Pop, showing him the cover - 'This horse looks like an ass!'


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