The Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur, Bengal

The surviving brick temples of Bengal were mainly built during a period when the region was witnessing a revival of Hinduism with particular focus on the cult of Krishna. This was after prolonged exposure to Islam. As a result, temples built during the sixteenth century and later absorbed the monumental style of the traditional Muslim building forms and techniques.

Local materials, bricks and terracotta, and features like the curved "Bangla" roof blended with the Muslim domes and Islamic multi-lobed arches. This distinctive architecture also assimilated styles from the neighbouring regions. The influence Orissa style of temples arrived in the form of the "Deul".

The diverse influences can earn these temples the label of a "hybrid" form. However, these monuments should be valued for their unique creative attributes. Native builders assimilated and combined different forms to evolve a living tradition during a time when the other regions were witnessing degeneration to a sterile replication.

The temples can be classified into mainly the "Chala", "Ratna" and "Dalaan" styles. The first has the curved "Bangla" roof and the curved cornice. The second is characterised by the towers, while the "Dalaan" has the flat roof.

The vitality of the temples is not restricted to the architectural forms. The temple walls are covered with moulded baked clay panels. The early temples continued with the foliate and geometric designs of the fourteenth and fifteenth century mosques and tombs of Bengal. By the seventeenth century there evolved a rich iconography with religious and secular themes.

Favourites were the epic battles of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and of Chandi with the demons. The life of Krishna was another favourite. Secular themes included the warriors, hunters, musicians, tradesman, birds and animals.

The Mallas of Bishnupur

The Malla rulers of the region built the temples of Bishnupur. Towards the end of the seventh century Raghunath founded the Malla dynasty. Jagat Malla, who ascended to the throne in 994 AD, shifted his capital from Prodyumnapur to Bishnupur. Another successor, Ram Malla commanded an impressive army. Shiv Shingha was a patron of the arts and music.

The reign of Virhambir is considered as the golden age of the Mallas. After consolidating the military strength of Bishnupur he became influenced by the Vaishnava cult. The passion of the conquerer was replaced by the faith of the Vaishnav. The temples were on their way.

The Temples of Bishnupur

Virhambir built the Ras-Manch in 1587 AD. This is not a temple for any particular deity. All the images/idols of the gods of Bishnupur temple were congregated in the Ras-Manch during the annual Ras festival. The pyramid like structure of the Ras-Manch is the only of its kind in Bengal.

The Shyamrai was built by Raghunath Singha in 1643 AD. This temple is an example of the "ratna" style. It is a pancha-ratna or a five-towered temple built on a low platform. Terracotta scenes from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, the life of Krishna mingle with other gods and hunting expeditions of kings on the temple walls.  Here are some details from the temple walls.

The Jor-Bangla was built by Raghunath Singha II in 1655 AD. The roof of the temple is typical of the "Chala" style. A small tower adds strength and stability to the twin sloped roofs. Some of the finest works of terracotta are found on the walls of this temple.

Chaitanya Singha built the Radhya-Shyam temple in 1758 amidst economic crisis of the Malla kings mainly to perpetuate the temple building tradition of the dynasty.