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Bengal’s terracotta temple trail

Bengal’s terracotta temple trail
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Talk of temple sculptures and one immediately thinks of Khajuraho, Konarak  or south India. Or of other places. But very rarely of West Bengal, or to be specific, its terracotta temples. Which is a pity, for the terracotta temples of Bengal are things of sheer beauty. Unique in style and displaying some of the finest craftsmanship ever, these red brick structures fittingly deserve their place in the sun.
 
But before I plunge into my narrative of the terracotta trail of Bengal, let me make a confession: I have been in Kolkata the most of my life and am a fairly keen traveler, but had never really cared before to check out these gems in my own backyard. That is till Guptipara happened to me, a few years ago.

‘Not everything remarkable from the past finds a place in museums or history books’, said my friend. ‘To know them you need to walk off the beaten track. Like visit my village.’ Fascinated by this rather curious invitation, I took it upon myself to visit Guptipara, a village-turning-into-a-small town in the Hooghly district of Bengal,  about three hours away from Kolkata. Little did I know then that this visit would turn out to be an eye-opener for me and mark the beginning of an intriguing journey along the terracotta trail.

At first glance, Guptipara, with its dish antennas and beauty parlours, seemed to be just another moffusil town, trying its best to keep in step with time. But then my friend took me down to see the centrepiece of Guptipara – its four Vaishnavite temples, arranged in a neat quadrangle within the enclosures of a high wall. I was at once humbled and awestruck, having never expected such a grand spectacle in this nondescript place: the temples looked brilliant, what with their bright red colour, their gracious hut shape, and above all, their walls lined with sculpted brick panels. The sculptures, I noticed, were extremely intricate and depicted scenes from our epics. My friend informed me, with discernible pride, that the oldest of the four shrines dates as far back as the time of  Mughal Emperor Akbar. In the lengthening rays of the setting sun, the red temples slowly turned vermilion, casting a spell over me.

With this visit to Guptipara, I was bitten by the terracotta temple bug. I looked them up on the internet and learned that there are many terracotta temples spread across several districts of West Bengal, and some on the other side of the border too, that is, in Bangladesh. Amongst these, only the temples of Bishnupur are somewhat fashionable with the tourists; the rest of its ilk are hidden under a cloak of urban neglect and ignorance. While the oldest of these temples date back to around six hundred years ago, the younger ones are possibly about two hundred years old. One interesting aspect of the temples, I was told, is their architecture. The builders of yore drew inspiration from the mud-plastered thatched huts dotting the landscape of rural Bengal. Many of the temples were thus built with one, two, four or eight rounded roofs and made to resemble the dwellings of ordinary people. The materials of construction too were not stones transported from elsewhere, but bricks made from the locally available clay. No squandering of materials or energy, perfect examples of what we called today’s ‘green architecture’.

Armed with all this knowledge, I took the train one cold December morning, to Bishnupur, a town in Bankura, a district of Bengal famous for its amazing skills with terracotta. From the ambitious temples built centuries ago to the more modest objets d’art of contemporary times, Bishnupur is easily the terracotta capital of Bengal. However, no amount of prior homework had prepared me for the wonders that are the temples of Bishnupur, especially Rashamancha, a 16th century terracotta temple that glows orange in the midst of a vast field in Bishnupur. The beauty of the temple lies not in any fancy motifs, but only in the symmetry of its structure and the honest, imaginative brickwork.

Well, there is a pyramid, surrounded by hut-shaped turrets, stacked on the temple roof; but their purpose is not mere embellishment but to accentuate the symmetry of the structure. Inside the temple, layered corridors lead to the sanctum. The corridors are a delightful, dense, dark maze and a bunch of school kids, out on an educational excursion, were having a ball of a time playing hide-and-seek there. The door to the sanctum being closed, I peeped in at the idol of Lord Vishnu through a small window.

While Rashamancha enthralled with its minimalist design, the other temples of Bishnupur evoked awe by virtue of their exquisitely sculpted terracotta panels. I particularly loved Shyamrai, a 17th century temple, splendid in its five towers and elaborate sculptures all over its walls. The terracotta craftsmanship apart, what struck me as quite remarkable was the fact that each temple, despite belonging to the same school of architecture (the classical Bengal), sports a distinctive look and holds out a different promise for the visitor. By the end of my two-day Bishnupur trip, I had seen over 30 temples and still had not had enough of them.

 My next (and till now the last) stop in the terracotta trail was Kalna, a small town in the Burdwan district.  The town located on the banks of river Bhagirathi was a flourishing river port during the rule of the Maharajas of Bardhaman ( also called Burdwan). The maharajas had built several magnificent temples with terracotta ornamentation.  Needless to say, Kalna too did not disappoint. While there are temples galore in this town, its star attraction is a walled temple complex. The terracotta temples inside make for a an eclectic collection – some striking in their sheer size and style, others overwhelming in the brilliance of their sculptures. The terracotta trail is a long one – the towns of Antpur, Kotalpur and Boronagar being a few of its other important points. Someday I hope to visit these towns too. And someday I hope many people would take trips along the terracotta trail. And marvel at the sophistication with which the terracotta artists wielded their tools, centuries ago.

Getting There: Bishnupur, the most famous terracotta town, is around 150 Kms away from Kolkata, well connected by rail and road. Other terracotta towns too are also well connected by rail & road from Kolkata.

Where to Stay: There are plenty of places to stay at Bishnupur. Possibly the best choice is Bishnupur Lodge run by West Bengal Tourism. For further details please visit http://www.westbengaltourism.gov.in.

BISHNUPUR FESTIVAL


Bishnupur, the land of Malla Kings and majestic temples, where the red soil sings paeans in praise of its artistry, where the mornings are blessed by the distant sounds of the flute of a shepherd boy and the evenings reverberate with the rhythm of tribal drums, celebrates a festival from
27 to 31 December. This Poush Mela celebrates the end of harvest near the Madanmohana Temple, and offers unique handicrafts, sculptures, and hand-woven textiles, made by rural artisans from all corners of West Bengal. Its famous Baluchari silk sarees and red, burnt-clay Bankura horses, Dokra work, Patachitras, Dasavatara Cards, fancy brass items, conch shells, and delicious Bengali sweets, are on sale.

Music performances highlight the rich traditions of the Vishnupur Gharana and  tribal and folk dances display the rich history this Rarh Bhumi boasts of. With the Raj Moncho in the background,  performances of famous Indian folk and modern artists, jatra, (its rural theatre), and tribal dances like Chhau, Jhumur, Tusu, are enjoyed by 4 lakh visitors.
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