Last month, during the auspicious festival of Durga puja I had a pleasant experience of staying in the beautiful town of Bishnupur. Bishnupur is a small town located in the Bankura district of West Bengal.
This place is renowned for its iconic terracotta temples and so it is also fondly called the Terracotta Town of West Bengal. The two most convenient modes of transport are either by a personal vehicle or by the train; we availed the latter. It took us roughly three hours to cover 201 kms.
The journey felt very refreshing as our train chugged along the green rice fields surrounded by the white “Kash” flower ( Kans Grass), the harbinger of autumn in Bengal. The autumn sky with tenuous clouds scattered here and there added to the beauty of the passing scenery. As we got down at the Bishnupur station, a car from the hotel picked us up. After checking in, I retired to my room; since it was an early morning train, I was a bit tired and hungry. Lunch was ordered in the room and we dug in heartily.
In the evening, the reverberating sound of the ‘dhak’’ (a drum rhythmically beaten to ring in the festival) filled the air; songs after songs were blaring out from the microphone. Although it was noisy, yet the spirit of the puja had rightly set in. Like the locals we had visited a nearby pandal and took many pictures of the Goddess. Light was coruscating through the walls of the pandal; the ethnic painting on the walls were a beautiful projection of the artist’s imagination.
The next morning the hotel arranged for a certified guide and a tuktuk for us; they showed us around the town. First, we headed to the Rasmancha. Built by king Hambir Malla, Rasmancha is the oldest brick temple in India and also one of the only two known heritage monuments (the other is the destroyed Pyramid temple of Ahichhatra) in the country with a pyramidal structure. This less explored terracotta masterpiece is the only one of its kind in India, a pride of West Bengal.
Subsequently we visited the Jor Bangla Temple; this temple resembles the traditional thatched huts; it is considered as an architectural marvel and is featured on WB Tourism website. Most of the temples in Bishnupur have a base of laterite rock but the rest of the structures were being built by burnt brick or terracotta. As there was a dearth of rocks in the area the temples were constructed with the same. The Mallas who built these structures were supposedly the exiled kings from Jaipur. As they settled in Bankura and the adjoining Birbhum, Purulia and Jharkhand, these places are also known as Mallabhum.
While rambling around the temples our guide explained about the intricate works of terracotta depicting Ramayana and other Hindu religious texts. Travelling further I came across some local artisans selling a variety of things made of burnt clay. I couldn’t resist the temptation of buying a thing or two from their humble collection; the long-necked terracotta horses, typically known as the Bankura horses have their origin here. There were so many things to choose from and the prices were dirt cheap.
Soon we arrived at the Shyam Rai temple built by king Raghunatha Singh — the structure is gargantuan and ornamental. The temple worships Vishnu as Krishna and represents the Panchatantra architectural style. The roof consists of five towers, one of which had been destroyed by the Bargis (the Maratha invaders) and later reconstructed by the Archaeological Survey of India.
While the tuktuk was speeding past the nondescript part of the town, I had no inkling that I would land up in front of the colossal terracotta gateway known as the Bara Darwaja. This main gateway of Bishnupur stands tall and has its counterpart in the Chhota Darwaja or Garh Darwaja. People, cows and scooters criss-cross the gate throughout the day. It may not be a spectacular structure or sight but considering its rich history the ASI must cordon the area off and maintain it, considering the fact that it had once been the main entrance of the fort.
The next visit was at the Nandalal temple; it is known as the ‘Eka Ratna’ temple (single pinnacled) and is surrounded by sprawling gardens on both sides. Next in line was the most important Madan Mohan temple, it was built by the Malla king Durjan Singha. It is also an eka ratna temple but relatively bigger than the rest. Legend has it that Madan Mohan defended the Mallas in the battle with the Bargis who attacked Bengal.
Time was running out, so paid a short visit to some other temples including the Jor-Mandir group of temples (the area resembles Myanmar’s Bagan, albeit at a much smaller scale). On our way back stopped by to take pictures of the famous Dalmadal Kaman (Canon). The canon was installed to defend the rajas from the Maratha attacks.
In the evening, our hotel was all decked out with shimmering lights. A group of baul singers had come to serenade us; they belted out a few ear pleasing numbers. Authentic Bengali cuisine was served at the buffet. I polished off the food and hit the bed with the soulful tunes still lingering on my mind.
The next morning, we booked a car and headed straight to the Susunia Hill. The place is known for its holy spring, flora and of course the mischievous monkeys. Susunia is a part of the Eastern Ghats; it took us around two hours to reach the spot. The journey en route was absolutely mesmerising; the wide expanses of green and the livestock grazing on them, the tribals passing by with haystacks neatly bundled up on their heads gave a vivid feel of rustic life.
On reaching the hills I could see locals selling crockeries, made of rock, in their makeshift shops. Like the other tourists we also started trekking the hill but was forced to come down because of the menacing monkeys. Nevertheless, I had a fun time interacting with the villagers, sipping coconut water and clicking pictures.
While returning we visited a small town by the name of Mukutmanipur. The place is located at the confluence of Kumari and Kangshabati rivers. The Mukutmanipur Dam is the second largest earthen dam in India. After spending sometime by the river we headed back to the hotel. On the way our driver suggested that we must visit the artisans’ colony in Panchmura. The Bankura horse is being made in Panchmura. The artisans live in humble dwellings but their houses are a treasure trove of exquisite handicrafts and artefacts. We drew up to one such house and picked up a lot of mementoes.
The day was closing in, we had quite a few kilometres to cover; so without further delay our car hurtled through the undulating roads and we came back to Bishnupur after sundown.
The next day, after checking out, I was sitting at the station waiting for the train. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind, I started wondering why Bishnupur still couldn’t make it to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (it is still in the tentative list of heritage sites). But I was distracted by the deafening whistle of our Kolkata bound train that came rattling over and halted on the platform.