Chennai To Bishnupur: An Enchanting Odyssey
The journey from Chennai to Bengal takes one through quaint temple towns to ultimately end at the bastion of crafted architectural marvels – Bishnupur
Our decision to drive up to Bishnupur from Chennai is as sudden and impulsive as our holiday plan. Having read some interesting facts on Bankura district's Bishnupur and its wealth of brick temples, my brain ticked off this destination. My husband and I tossed a couple of suitcases in the boot of our Innova and with Sekar, our long time chauffeur at the wheels, we hit NH 5 – the Chennai-Kolkata highway. We decide to cover the distance of approximately 1,630 km over three days with night halts at Visakhapatnam and Bhubaneswar.
The weather gods are in a benevolent mood. The sky hosts vast tufts of grey clouds bringing temperatures down. We drive past endless miles of dense, fruit laden mango orchards interspersed with paddy fields as we skirt villages of Andhra Pradesh. Though we cruise at a good speed, every now and then Sekar is forced to apply the brakes to make way for several two and four-legged creatures that emerge bang in the middle of the road from nowhere!
With brief halts for breakfast at Nellore and lunch at Vijayawada, we are on our way to Visakhapatnam, a major port of the Bay of Bengal, roughly 350 km away. Cooler climes welcome us as we approach Visakhapatnam, where we halted overnight at Haritha Beach Resort, Rushikonda, which accords us a magnificent view of the azure blue sea.
We are up to an early start and spend a few hours exploring some sites along the city's coast. Ramakrishna Beach, more popularly known as RK Beach on Beach Road, is abuzz with joggers. We breathe in bountiful of the early morning air and proceed to Kailasagiri, a hilltop park that is adorned by towering idols of Shiva and Parvati, sculpted in white marble, and an innovatively crafted floral clock, 10 feet in diameter. In the tranquil hours of the morning, with the park almost to ourselves, we enjoy scintillating views of the Bay of Bengal from its eastern edge. In good time, we make it to the famed INS Kursura Submarine Museum on Beach Road, from where we take off to the picturesque coastal village of Bheemunipatnam, a former Dutch settlement, our final sightseeing spot in Visakhapatnam. An ancient clock tower, an old Dutch cemetery, a lighthouse and painted sculptures of the Buddha delivering his first sermon to five of his disciples, beckon visitors to this quaint village.
Following a simple South Indian, pure vegetarian breakfast at Haritha Resort, we once again hit NH 5 on our way to Bhubaneswar, our next night halt destination. We are fascinated by the plethora of shrines in Bhubaneswar, especially its landmark Lingaraj Temple, an architectural beauty. It's well past dusk when we check into Swosti Grand where we order room service. We sate our rumbling bellies with an aromatic repast of naan and spicy baingan bhurtha and follow this up with a flavoursome cup of mishit doi to soothe our tired senses before we hit the bed.
A cloud filtered crescent of sunlight is beginning to emerge on the horizon as we hit the highway again, on the final stretch of our journey to Bishnupur. Our excitement is reaching its crescendo as we get closer to our destination.
Bishnupur, which derives its name from Lord Vishnu, is a revelation. The ancient administrative capital of the Malla kings is a rich repository of excellent terracotta temples with stunning architecture, most of them constructed between the 17th and 18th centuries. The rulers have left their indelible imprints in the sands of time, and a rich legacy for posterity. The town boasts more historical temples, most of them honouring Vaishnavite deities, than any other place in West Bengal. In fact, most of the shrines are a celebration of Vishnu in the form of Krishna. The Ras Mancha, Jor Bangla, Shyam Rai Temple, Radhe Shyam Mandir, and several others built of terracotta bear testimony to the ingenuity of the Malla kings, who in the absence of stone and other suitable materials, used rough-pitted, laterite rock and tacky clay to create these brilliant and aesthetic edifices.
The reigns of Bir Hambir, Vir Singh and Raghunath Singh witnessed the zenith of cultural and architectural excellence, resulting in a cornucopia of temples, of which only 26 survive. Though in various states of preserve and desolate, bereft of visitors, it is evident that these ASI-protected monuments are well-maintained.
As we weave our way around the town, navigating our vehicle deftly between two and four-wheelers, two-legged and four-legged creatures, bullock carts, cycle rickshaws and even tempos and trucks, we are struck by the town's profoundly rural flavour. Paradoxically, though the town appears frozen in time, net cafes and the tinkling sounds from up-to-date mobiles testify to a people who are in tune with modern times.
Splendour is everywhere in Bishnupur – in its temples, its tanks and in its handicrafts. The red edifices, often set in the midst of well-manicured lush lawns, beckon to us from every nook and corner as they stand majestic against a clear blue canvas. A blend of aesthetics, utility and environmental well-being defines the temples of Bishnupur. Further, the design of these structures bear striking semblance to the native huts of Bengal. The carvings sculpted on baked clay tiles have been plastered on to the brick walls and special adhesive plaster made from natural ingredients have been used to buttress the construction.
Legend has it that Bir Hambir, a ruthless ruler who robbed and looted devotees, became a staunch devotee of Vishnu when he once found no treasures, but Vaishnavite texts in a bag he had thieved from a pilgrim. Further, he was most-affected by a heart-wrenching rendition of the Bhagwad Gita by a certain Srinivas Acharya who was travelling with the pilgrims. Hambir gifted vast amounts of land and money to Acharya and introduced the worship of Madan Mohan in Bishnupur. With this incident, temple building reached a feverish pitch in the region and its oldest and most unique landmark monument, the Ras Manch came into existence in 1587.
We begin our tour of Bishnupur with Ras Manch, a unique construct, not a temple in the conventional sense, but a congregation centre for the Gods during the Ras festival, celebrated with much pomp and pageantry during the rule of the Mallas. Built during the reign of Bir Hambir, the Malla king, a pyramidal superstructure covers the square shaped laterite plinth of the unique structure. The only one of its kind in Bengal, and perhaps India, Ras Mancha has few sculptures. Its sturdy pillars which support 108 arched gateways are embellished with sculpted figures of dancers and musicians.
While Krishna Leela appears to be the favoured theme of the sculptures, episodes from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata come alive on the walls of a cluster of temples. 64 dance poses, carved on the pillars of the Madan Mohan temple, our next halt point, leaves us entranced. The profusely ornamented exterior walls of the ekaratna temple, having a single square flat roof with curved cornices, delight the visual senses.
While most temples in Bishnupur display a very ornate front in contrast to simple rears and sides, they adhere to three architectural styles, most prominent among them being the canopied flat-roof ratna style. Depending on the number of canopies or shikharas on the roofs, these temples are classified as ekratna, pancharatna and navaratna. Of the several monuments in Bishnupur, the Shyam Rai Temple built during the reign of Raghunath Singh, is most distinctive. A plethora of figurines and floral motifs that adorn the temple speak volumes for the artisans and craftsmen of the times. While most carvings are associated with Ras Lila, Radha and Krishna, several cornices have friezes with sculptures of musicians, dancers and hunting expeditions of the royals.
While most surviving temples of Bishnupur were built when the region was witnessing a revival of Hinduism, especially with the Krishna cult gathering momentum, there is evidence of Islamic architecture in some of the monuments.
After covering most temples, we see the Dol Madol, a giant canon built by Raja Gopal Singh in 1742. The weapon echoes history as it was especially created to keep the invading Maratha troops at bay. There is an interesting story associated with the canon. 18th-century Malla empire reeled under multiple adverse circumstances that included invasions and natural calamities.
Lord Vishnu himself is believed to have descended on Earth as Madan Mohan, to rescue the kingdom from the marauding Marathas, in answers to fervent prayers by Gopal Singh, one of the last Malla kings. According to the villagers, the Lord fired the canon because it could not be handled by any human being!
Still dizzy from the enchanting temples that dot a nondescript village, we wind our Bishnupur odyssey by shopping for some local handicrafts, the beautiful Baluchari saris with tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata woven on them, and a couple of terracotta horses.