Of temples and terracotta (Outlook Traveller)

I dawdled through the dingy gullies, passing by and catching sight of a few tea stalls, sheltered from the afternoon swelter by some half ripped up thatch covers on top, and treaded on the steps of Shyamal, my tour guide here at Bishnupur. I knew I could’ve done well without a guide for sure but then, I didn’t know every trivial thing about the place, and local guides are as much a source of knowledge as some British gazetteer compiled in the colonial era. Shyamal, my guide, was an old man, possibly in his sixties but the enthusiasm with which he led me forward, narrating the history of every single rock and shrub in the region, did catch my attention, for not many a man is able to keep his interest in cultural sites unceasing with age. Pacing forward for another ten minutes or so, we ended up in front of a big, blue ASI board, the information written on which had surprisingly evanesced and the name of the monument we had turned up near, changed from ‘Gumgarh’ to ‘Gumghar’, a most unfortunate act of vandalism by local residents.
Behind the board was a steep mound, enveloped with a heavy undergrowth of entwining vines, spinose bushes and a few jumbo creepers that served to be the only route upto the monument.
“There are snakes out there, babu! Don’t climb”, alerted Shyamal, convincing me not to amble up. Instead, we saw the monument from the road below. It was not necessarily a marvel but more of a reddish brown cube, without a window or a door in sight. There must’ve been a door somewhere but it didn’t show up the way we expected it to.
“They say people were tortured here to death! Hence the name Gumgarh. Don’t venture anywhere near! It’s haunted”, further informed Shyamal. I loved local folklores and could well guess that this was one of them, for going by the walls of Gumgarh, all that appeared to me was that this could’ve been some sort of a water storage tank or granary during the medieval times. Nevertheless, not wasting much time in contemplation, we turned right onto the central Rajbari road and strolling on for another ten minutes, stood in front of the Shyamrai temple. At the gates were a few local vendors selling handicraft terracotta items. I bought a pair of horse statuettes for myself, that costed me around two hundred Indian rupees, which in-fact is a meagre price for a terracotta item, going by the intricacy that could equal the ones designed by the Mallas themselves. The Panchachura (local term for the ShyamRai temple owing to the five shikharas on top) complex was well preserved, the architectural genius having been boisterously highlighted at every terracotta carving I could spot, the most beautiful of them being the Rasa-chakra that depicted the Hindu god Krishna playing flute at the centre, surrounded by the devout gopinis, dancing around him in circles, to the tune of his flute. It was divine and symbolised eternal love and reverence for the holy one.
Meanwhile, Shyamal pointed out a three pillared structure in the middle of the monument and informed me that it was here where the deities were usually kept. Bishnupur’s architectural pattern is quite similar all throughout, so one can easily expect to come across a three pillared garbagriha at every other temple as well.
Following this, we wended our way to the famed Rasa-Mancha. It took us an approximate twenty minutes by car, probably because of the huge traffic that had jammed our way owing to extensive travels in the post lockdown period and some sort of a local festivity being near hand. Forcing ourselves in with the help of the digital ticketing service introduced by ASI and a little bit of effort, I stood gaping at the architectural marvel that was extant in front of us. The upper half indubitably resembled a pyramid and the lower half was so intricately carved out of fine terracotta that it never seemed any inferior to the grandiose Indo-Saracenic monuments in the north. Observing the various Vaishnavite motifs on the walls, I enquired Shyamal on why terracotta was what the Mallas had used, instead of some other building material around, and was told of the acute shortage of marble and sandstone during the period, most of these monuments were built in.
In case you’re visiting Bishnupur for the very first time, it is of prime importance that you get to relish the delicacy of a typical Bengali lunch in a local dhaba nearby and purchase a Baluchari silk saree that has embroideries depicting stories from the mythical legends and costs you somewhere around Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 2,00,000 though the one I bought for my mother costed me 25,000.
Diving back into the journey, once you have visited Rasa-Mancha, Shyamrai temple and the Gum-Garh, it is well expected that guides will lead you to the JorBangla temple complex, the name for which literally translates to an ‘amalgamated roof’, Bangla being the architectural term of the Do chala sloping style the roof was built in. This Bangla style is very significant in the Indian history as it was later replicated by Emperor Shah Jahan in building the famed Naulakha Pavilion at the Lahore Fort premises.
In addition to the amalgamated roof on top, carvings on the walls of the JorBangla depict the first ever recorded accounts of Portuguese merchants and the European artillery in the province, that was then called the Sultanate e Shahi Bangla. The other ornate carvings in general include scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Krishna Purana and other such sacred Hindu scriptures and holy texts.
Footslogging from the JorBangla temple premises, my guide led me forward to the RadhaShyam temple (the entrance to which had two terracotta peacocks welcoming us and the uniqueness it possessed was the worship of the Radha Krishna deities inside the temple garbagriha, till this day) and then, moving on some more, to the fortified Lal Jiu mandir, a spectacular Laterite structure built in the ekaratna style of architecture, with a single shikhara surmounted on top. You can still find a half desecrated, winding pillared building on the rearer side of the temple complex, corroborating the Malla panache. Some metres ahead, lay the now closed Garh Darwaza, outstanding all others as an allegory of what the locals referred to as a “spectacular royal gateway”. Although the intricate detailings inside have certainly faded with passing time, the royal ambience fails not to enchant.
Apart from these, there are several other places of cultural interest in Bishnupur that you can visit, some of the popular ones being the Dalmadal Cannon, the haunted Lal-bandh and the magnificent stone chariot into the interiors, besides the dilapidated fort remains of the Malla kings and a towering obelisk called the Hawa Mahal on its outskirts. After dark, when you bid Bishnupur an adieu, passing through the Rajbari road and driving straight into the nearby jungles of Joypur, you can (or at-least I did) visualise the vainglorious Malla warriors on their horsebacks and the triumphant king on his regal elephant, all riding back once again, in unison, to the citadel of their dreams, to Bishnupur, and it is then that you get to realise how much the cultural splendour of this place of heritage leaves one intoxicated!