Around 695 AD, one Khastriya King during his travel was forced to stay in a Brahmin’s house residing at a village named Lau due to the ill health of his expecting wife. This village was located near Kotulpur of today’s Bankura district of West Bengal. The King‘s wife delivered a child and died. The remorseful king surrendered his infant child to the Brahmin as his guardian and left the place. The child grew up to excel on every spheres of life and went to become the first Malla King – Adi Malla and established the Malla Kingdom. After 300 years the kingdom was shifted by one of his descendents. The new Kingdom’s name was Bishnupur. It is said that this descendant named Jagat Malla was inspired by divine intervention to build up a temple of Goddess Mrinmoyee at Bishnupur and shift the kingdom there.
King Bir Hambhir
Bishnupur shot into fame during the rule of Malla King – Bir Hambhir the 49th Malla King (1565 CE to 1620 CE). He was friendly with Mughals and took their side in their battle with Afghans. However after his interaction with Vaishnav guru Srinivas Acharya, Bir Hambir become his disciple. This incident resulted in a revolutionary change in Bishnupur and the Malla Kingdom became a hub of Baishnab culture. After a tour of Vrindavan with his guru, the King built started building up Baishnab structures and temples which was followed by his descendants which evidently turned Bishnupur into the most talked about temple town of Bengal.
Boarding the Howrah Purulia Express we reached Bishnupur around eight o’clock in the night. A cycle rickshaw journey of 20 minutes took us to our night’s stay at the West Bengal Tourist Lodge. Settling up for the night in our comfortable stay, we rose early next morning to start our tour of Bishnupur. After a refreshing bath followed by a sumptuous breakfast at 07:30 in the morning, we walked to reach our first stop – The Rasmancha. It is here you have to purchase tickets for entering Rasmancha, Jor Banglo (Kesto Rai) Temple and Shyam Rai Temple. Most of the prominent temples in Bishnupur are undertaken by the ASI (Archeological Survey of India).
Established in 1600 AD by the King Hambhir, the Rasmancha was used to display all the local idols in public during the Ras Festival. The Rasmancha stands on a raised laterite plinth with a Pyramidal Superstructure. It is thrilling to walk though its circumbulatory galleries having several arches through which the sun creates a mysterious light and shade effect. It is a unique and unparallel piece of architecture. However, it is painful to see ignorant and cattle class tourists having engraved the interior bricks with their names in crudest possible way.
Two Gateways and Stone Chariot
From the Rasmancha we took a brisk walk. Passing through narrow lanes of Bishnupur we finally came to an open space and encountered a stone gate on the middle of the road. This is known the Small Gateway to the fort. There is a small mound nearby besides a water body locally known as Murcha Hill (!) where canon is fired during Durgapuja. To the North West of this entrance there is small stone Chariot made of laterite stone. Like the Rasmancha this 17th century build structure is one of its kinds.
The next structure was an immense gate which was once entrance to the Bishnupur Royal Kingdom. Not only it is an entrance but it has a huge terrace which was perhaps to keep track of enemy soldiers. We were told that there is a secret chamber in its top floor from where soldiers could perform surprise attack on the enemy.
Two Ek Ratna Temple
As we entered through this gate we saw one Ek Ratna (One Pinnacled) temple on the far left side surrounded by a big boundary. This is the Laljiu temple built in 1658 by Malla King Bir Singha. Surmounted by a single Shikhara, this temple has ornamental stucco decoration on low relief carvings on its front wall.
Retracing back we encountered another interesting temple surrounded by a boundary again falling on our left. Perhaps with the most interesting temple gateway at Bishnupur, this is the Ek ratna Radheshyama Temple. Built in 1758 by the Malla king Chaitanya Singh, the triple arched gateway has two domes like structure with open windows on it. Most probably Shehnai used to be played here in old days.
The temple has an unique shaped Ratna (Pinnacle) on its top. There is a small Tulsimancha inside. Among the various artworks on its wall do not miss Vishnu in Anantashayan posture. It may be worth mentioning that all of the idols of deities belonging to several dilapidated temples are kept here and are worshiped together.
Beyond Radheshyam temple there is a small mound. On its other side there is a water body popularly known as Shyam Bandh. Bandh implies water tanks in Bengali. The Malla Kings had made seven Bandhs to relive people of water scarcity during the summer.
Mrinmoyee Temple & Bishnupur Fort
Just opposite to Radheshyam temple is the small and fresh painted single floor Mrinmoyee Temple. This is the oldest temple of Bishnupur. Regular worship is done here, especially during Durga Puja. Beyond the temple there is a pond. On its banks lie the ruins of Bishnupur Royal Palace/Fort. You can see the dome shaped towers from a distance. We took a tour inside the ruins but it is not advisable to venture inside. The route is full of undergrowths and a probable nesting place of snakes.
The Jor Bangla alias Kesto Rai Temple
Retracing back from the fort and crossing the Radheshyam temple, we went to see one of the star attractions of Bishnupur – The Jor Bangla alias Kesto Rai Temple. Built in 1655 by Malla King Raghunath Singh, this temple is known as Jor Bangla because it has two Ek-bangla or Do Chala structures (Roof with Double sided curved thatch) conjoined together, one acting as a porch, and the other as a shrine. ‘Ek’ indicates one and ‘Jor’ signifies double in Bengali. We had to show our tickets here to get entry.
Frankly speaking thirty minutes or one hour is actually a very short time for devoting time to this temple. To see all the sculptures on its wall in details, the minimum time should be at least one day. Still try not missing architecture which shows events with multiple scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Examples are of King Dasarath killing Sindhumuni’s Son, Marriage of Ram, Saga of Laxman & Surpanakha, Krishna’s childhood activities. Single scene events include renunciation of arms by Bhisma, Bhishma lying on a bed of arrows (Sharashajja), Parvati feeding Ganesh & Kartika and Portugese Warships.
Following are interesting panels from the walls of Kesto Rai temple, which I have included in my blog.
Some dilapidated structures
From Jor Banglo it is a 15 minutes’ walk on in to the Pancha Ratna (Five Pinnacled) Shyam Rai Temple passing by two deul shaped deserted temples (Jugol Kishor Krishna Balaram Temple) on your right and a severally dilapidated temple on your left. The later known as Mahaprabhu Temple is identical to the Kesto Rai temple, but unfortunately now totally in ruins. Walking further down on the road we turned right to go into a rather picturesque lane. Just at the entrance of this lane on the opposite side there is a sinister looking square shaped deserted structure, locally known as Gumghar(Torture chamber).
The lane opposite to Gumghar was lined with trees on the left over a stretch of elevated mound. This lane took us to the Shyam Rai Temple. On the other side of this mound there is a canal besides a parallel lane. Maybe once upon a time this was a part of trench or moat around this temple. At Shyam Rai Temple, we also we had to show the ticket.
Five Pinnacled (Panch Chura) Shyam Rai Temple
Built in 1643 by King Raghunath Singh, this temple has triple arched gateway on its four sides and has innumerable terracotta artwork on both exterior and interior walls. Even the four of five towers have extensive decorations on it. The fifth one was reconstructed by ASI after it was severely damaged in the past. Look out for the huge Raschakra, numerous scenes of Krishnalila, Indra fighting sitting on elephant, various hunting scenes, Battle between Ram & Ravan. Like Kesto Rai, you need at least one day to vividly explore the sculptures of this temple.
Following are interesting panels from the walls of Shyam Rai temple to give a fair idea about the class of Terracotta art in its wall.
Both of these temples are superior work of art, unique in their own style. I wonder why they are still not declared as World Heritage by UNESCO.
It was 11:00 now. Departing from the Shyam Rai temple, we chose our next stop as the huge Madanmohan temple. This was in the other part of city and we hired cycle rickshaws to reach our destination.
Madan Mohan, Madan Gopal & Sridhar Temple
Built in 1694 by the Malla King Durjan Singh, this Eka-ratna with smooth rekha tower temple is surrounded by a boundary wall with a Do Chala triple entry gate. The temple itself has triple entrance and Lord Madan Mohan (an incarnation of Bishnu) is regularly worshiped here. That allows you to get over the base of the temple and see the architecture close at hand. Among the excellent terracotta works on its wall, watch out for Nabanarikunjar (nine Gopinis forming an elephant), Incarnation of Krishna as the King, Slaying of five sons of Pandava princes in the battle, Sita in Ashok Ban, Ram Ravan Battle, birth of Krishna, Mace fight between Bheema and Durjodahan. Also there is a Chandimandap inside the complex opposite to the temple.
Following are few interesting panels from the walls of Madan Mohan temple.
We bought one small guidebook from an old aged vendor in front of the temple. The book was small but extremely informative. It is a good ready reckoner for all the temples of Bishnupur.
From Madanmohan we travelled to the 2nd Panch Ratna temple – The Madana Gopal, which was yet on another side of the city. This South facing temple is situated inside a market area located between Jamuna Bandh and Kalindi Bandh. Instead of a King this temple was made by Queen Shiromani alias Churamani Devi (wife of Malla King Krishna Singh) in 1665. This South facing temple has an octagonal centre pinnacle whilst its other pinnacles are four cornered. Built with laterite stone, this 37 feet temple with triple arched gateway has very little terracotta sculpture left.
There is only one Naba Ratna temple (Nine Pinnacled) Temple at Bishnupur. Located in Bose Para near to the Madan Gopal temple, this triple arched gateway structure is known as the Sridhara temple of the local Bose Family. This east facing temple has no connection with the Malla Kings and is assumed to be constructed during the beginning of 19th century. This is the most ‘youngest’ brick temple of Bishnupur, thus its terracotta sculpture styles is bit different. Look out for the huge terracotta Krishnalila on the central Panel of the temple and Rama Sita on throne on the left hand panel.
On our way back we stopped at an artisans den to buy the local Dasavatar playing card. Unlike ordinary cards they are made of a round piece of cloth with tamarind seed butter to make it stiff. Natural colours are used to depict the Dash Avatars (Ten Avatars of Lord Bishnu).
It was exactly 12:30 p.m. when we reached our lodge. We had a lovely lunch at the in house restaurant of the lodge, followed by a short siesta.
A visit to the Local Museum
Around 14:00 we visited the local museum- Aacharya Yogesh Chandra Purakirti Bhawan. The Museum is a must see for archeology and history lovers. Nearby is Lalbandh, one of seven bandhs (tanks) build up by Malla Kings. Made Famous by local folktales and the novel of Ramapada Chowdhury, the popular belief is that it was named after the beautiful Lalbai, the paramour of king Raghunath Singh (2nd). However historical evidence says it was constructed during the rule of Bir Singh and was named after Laljiu. Near to Lalbandh is a modern temple of Devi Sarbamangala.
Dalmadal Canon and Devi Chinnamasta Temple
From the museum, we went for another round of temple hopping. We took the road just adjacent to the tourist lodge. Our first destination was not a temple but a huge Canon named as the “Dalmadal”. There is a story prevailing that when Bhaskar Pandit and his Maratha Bargis tried to attack Bishnupur in 1742, Lord Madan Mohan himself had fired this canon to drive them out! This huge canon is around 12.5 feet and was made with 63 iron rings. Nearby is the temple of the headless Goddess – Chinnamasta (A form of Kali). The Idol is of a rare kind, although the temple has been renovated in modern style.
The Seven Laterite Ek Ratna Temples
Opposite to this temple, there is a road which leads to a cluster of seven laterite stone built ek-ratna (one pinnacled) temples. Once upon a time these were all covered with stucco as laterite usually gives a coarse appearance. However with passing of time, maximum of the stucco work has wearied off.
The first on the left is Nandalal temple with ridged tower and almost no decoration on it. Just opposite to it are three temples in a separate complex. Built by Malla King Gopal Singh in 1726, the temples are collectively known as Jor Mandir. The temple on the south has several scenarios from Mahabharat and Krishna Lila on its walls.
Walking further down the road we came to yet another laterite structure – Radhagovinda Temple. The temple is visible from the road, but you have to walk for sometimes and take a right turn to enter it. Constructed by Krishna Singh in 1729, this temple is adjacent to the three Jor Mandirs. Inside the complex there is small terracotta chariot. You can view all the four temples together by climbing on to a nearby mound
On the same road after 5 minutes we came to the 1737 built Radhamadhab temple having a unique Do Chala Mandap structure with ten columns on its western side. This structure is similar to the gate of Madan Mohan temple. Only difference is that since the earlier structure is fixed with the wall and hence has only eight columns.
Like the Madan Gopal temple, Radhamadhab temple was also built by Churamoni devi. Apart from scenes from Krishnaliala, Dasavatar and others on the outer triple columns and on the walls there are several scenes featuring animals. These were also once upon a time totally covered with Stucco.
Further down in the same complex near the archeological office we came across the last and the oldest of the laterite structures – the Kalachand temple. Like the previous temple, this shrine is surmounted by a Shikara on a sloping roof. Built in 1656 by Maharaja Raghunath Singh, the temple shows mainly various scenes from Krishnalila.
Retracing back to the road, we discovered an alternative route on our right which is a typical country road. Walking on it by passing the Ramananda College we came to the main road which is known as the Bishnupur College Road. Turning left, we reached the tourist lodge after a brisk walk at around 17:30 in the afternoon. In the weekend the Rasmancha, Shyam Rai and Kesto Rai are illuminated with light. However we were too tired for a return trip and called it off for the day to retire to our rooms.
Bishnupur is famous for its Baluchuri Sarees and its terracotta souvenirs specially the horses of Bankura. Bishnupur is also the origin of Bishnupur Gharana of Singing – A Dhrupad tradition of Hindustani music.
A ride to the local Artisan’s village
The next day we took a trip to the village of Panchmura which is an artisan’s village in a hired car through the famous red soiled road of Bankura. We got a live demonstration of Terracotta artifacts being made which was in itself very thrilling. Almost every hut has several artifacts on display in front of their house. We bought several souvenir items which came at a much cheaper rate compared to the city shops.
We returned to the town around lunch time. Having spent a nice weekend we left for Kolkata in Rupashi Bangla express at 17:23 with a promise in mind to come back soon. There were so many temples and places yet to visit in and around Bishnupur.
Bishnupur is well connected with Kolkata by train and bus. Trains like Purulia Express, Rupashi Bangla Express and Aranyak Express offers regular service. The Journey takes 3:30 to 04:00 hours by train.
Although there are several hotels at Bishnupur, the best place for lodging is the West Bengal Tourism lodge. The in House restaurant is good for simple Bengali foods and snacks.
Timing of Temples and Tickets
Ticket booking for three temples starts from 07:30. The Temples are officially open upto 17:30 in the afternoon. Ticket cost is Rs 5 for all the three temples. Still Camera shooting attracts no fees, but video shooting will cost Rs 25 per camera. Like all ASI monuments tripod is not allowed inside any of the temple complex.
1. Bankura Jelar Purakirti (Bengali) by Amiya Kumar Bandopadhyay
2. Banglar Mandir Sthyapatto O Bhaskorjjo (Bengali) by Pranab Roy
3. Temple Art Of Late Medieval Bengal By Nihar Ghosh
4. Guide book on Bishnupur by Gunamoy Chakaraborty