I was surfing the internet for places I need to cover for winter vacations when I recalled a wise advice, “To explore the world, explore what is within yourself”. A line that held a strong meaning in what I actually wished to have. With a long term fight with my inner self and a little bit of creativity of what I wanted, I chose to explore a corner of my state which holds a heritage value in the whole country and beyond. Bishnupur Mela, being my primary objective led me to Bishnupur in Bankura District, in West Bengal. Like always, my knack of knowing a place inside out before speeding on to explore it remained intact and I dived into the history of the place.
Bankura district has been famous for Bishnupur and its Terracotta temples, Balucheri Sarees and Shri Krishna Raslila, to name the majors. Going back to the time from where I gathered information about the history of Bishnupur led me to the time of the Gupta Period. The place was ruled by the Hindu rulers who looked up to Samudra Gupta. It has always remained a land which ran between the lines of being an independent land and vassal land which is why, it is sometimes also known as Mallabhum, because of the Malla Kings who once ruled the place. In the time between the 17th century and 18th century, the Malla Rulers, who were also known as Vaishnavites, built the terracotta temples which carry a heritage value in today’s time. These temples are famous for their unrealistic architecture which holds a classical essence of the Bishnupriya style. The Malla rulers were the one who established this culture which is being cherished in today’s time.
The distance from where I started, Kolkata, is about 130 kilometres which are a 3-hour comfortable ride. Finding the directions of the place was not a big task for me, without the use of GPS as it is quite prominently known to be a centre of culture and art throughout the Bengal. Some of the prominent rulers that I came across in the books and internet were Bir Singha Dev and Raja Raghunath Singha Dev who played a vital role in making Bishnupur one of the capital places for Bengal’s art and culture. Although there is no major history of the place before the introduction of the Malla Rulers because they were the one who formulated the importance of the whole land. It was a surprise for me to know that within a short span of less than a hundred years, the rulers turned the face of a place to a cultural hub of the entire state. Nevertheless, the work is commendable and is cherished by everyone till date.
The major deity of this temple are Radha Krishna which might ring a bell to the people who have heard about the famous Rasa Festival which is held every year. It is said to be constructed in the year 1600. This temple is said to be one of the oldest temples which were built by Raja Bir Hambir. The architecture of the temple was a little ahead of its time which can be noticed in its elongated pyramidal structure. The temple is surrounded by turrets and the roof is specially designed with Bengali style structures of the older times. It is one beautiful temple that you would not want to miss to see while you are at Bishnupur.
This Gouranga and Krishna temple is a classic example of the terracotta carvings for which the temples of Bishnupur are famous for. The temple was built around the time of 1650 with traditional Bengali designs and other remarkable carvings by King Raghunatha Singha Dev II.
This is also a temple during the 1640s that is for Lord Krishna built by King Raghunath Singha. Like the name suggests it has a 5 building structure. The centre of the temple is an octagon while the surrounding structures are square. This is a beautiful temple to visit which shows the different phases of the life of Lord Krishna. Personally, I loved the terracotta designs carved out on the walls of this temple because the designs were well put and engineered to look good on the walls. You can also notice some traditional designs on the roof and remaining walls of the temple.
Madan Mohan is another name of Lord Krishna and this temple is built by King Durjana Singh Deva. The structure of this temple is unique and simple. It is a flat structure with a pinnacle on its top. However, within this simple design lies its elegance in the amazing wall carvings that reflects scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. You can also find different versions of famous folk stories on its walls and roof that are beautifully placed by the architects. It was built in the last part of the 1600s, around 1692-1694.
This is one of the few temples in Bishnupur which is not dedicated to Lord Krishna. This temple was built around the time of 1735 which explains its origin. The Midnapore’s Guin family built this temple which hails the Lord Chinnamasta. The design of the temple is not that architecture wise advance but a must visit for all the people who want to have a peaceful time.
This temple was built for Lord Krishna and Radha in the year 1658 which is another remarkable example of architecture in the 1600s. It was built by the King Bir Singha II who wanted this temple to be made in the ekaratna style. This style is basically a structure having a square based flat design with a curved top. The temple is filled with traditional carvings and designs. Its walls and roofs are decorated with ornamental designs and ‘kathas’ of Radha Krishna in a beautiful manner. I loved the location and feel of the temple which is well maintained till date.
This temple might not be so popular in the list of the prominent temples in Bishnupur, but this is a personal recommendation for all the people who want to witness the elegance in simplicity. This was built in the 17th century by King Raghunath Singha. It is built in an ekratna style which is a very popular design. The best part about this temple is, it is solely built with laterite stone, which is why it is unique.
I was well versed with the fact that Bishnupur is a place filled with religious values and it holds a lot of festivals and fairs. Among all the festivals that are celebrated throughout the year, some of the most prominent festivals are the Snake festival that is carried out in the month of August, Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Diwali Mahotsav. Bishnupur is particularly famous for holding the Bishnupur Mela in the month of December. It is also otherwise celebrated among the winter festival which was my major attraction at this time of the year. Although held in the month of august, the Jhapan Festival (Snake Festival) is one of a kind which is held at Bishnupur.
The history ranges back to 400 years in this regard. It was started by a Zamindar named Ballav Sen who used to invite snake charmers from different places to assemble at Bishnupur during the Manasa Puja. A large variety of snakes is brought to the place which performs a lot of stunts and talents of the snake charmers. Other than the snake festival, the Durga Puja and Kali Puja is also vividly celebrated in Bishnupur. A lot of people from around the parts of Bengal and other states come to see the different idols of the goddesses. It might not be as big as the other populated places of West Bengal but it is definitely big and worth a try.
As the Bishnupur Festival was my prime objective to be at Bishnupur, I wanted to have a prerequisite idea about it before actually experiencing the same. It is one of the most popular festivals throughout the Bengal and defines the true Bengali culture in its purest form. It is also regarded as one of the most popular national fairs held in India with a lot of visitors from faraway lands. The Madan Mohan Temple which was built by King Durjana Singh Deva in the year 1694 holds the festival’s primary point. Some of the prominent things to notice in the Bishnupur Mela are the amazing terracotta temple and fascinating silk sarees and a lot more traditional elements.
Like any other festival and Mela, Bishnupur had nothing typically unique about it, but the elegance and the style of celebration reflect the true essence of Bankura’s legacy. The Bishnupur Mela is attended by a lot of people from around the world. The general exhibition is regarding the sale of local handicrafts, printed and handwoven clothes and sculptures. I was amazed by the fine work of the artists in producing goods of such perfection. If that was not enough for fascination then Bishnupur Mela also has a special attraction of rich traditional music and dance which fills the festival with charm. This is one of the major reason for the attraction of tourists to the Bishnupur Mela. I could know with the amount of delight about why Bishnupur Mela is so famous. Along with all these, the timing of the festival is adding up to the charm as well. It is held every year from the time of 27th December to 31st of December. This time of the year has a beautiful feel to it which can be clearly felt at this winter festival.
This form of music is said to come into existence in the 13th century according to some of the feeble sources that claim so. The major distinction was noticed in the 17th century when the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb had successfully spread the essence of Mughal Empire throughout the country. Bishnupur was a patron of artists and a lot of musicians and singers moved to the shelter of Maharaja of Bishnupur. One of the most famous Dhrupad singers in the history is said to be Bahadur Khan belonging to the Senia Gharana who are believed to be descendants of the great Tansen. Bahadur Khan was not only an excellent vocalist but he could also play instruments like Veena and the Rabaab very efficiently. With his great musical abilities, Maharaja Raghunath Singh Deo II honoured him with distinction as the court singer. He also made arrangements that enabled the locals to learn music while he will personally bore their expenses. This made the Dhrupad music grow a lot while Bahadur Khan grabbed himself a lot of students to pass on his musical abilities. Ustad Bahadur Khan had a sincere disciple named Ramachandra Bhattacharya who became the founder of the Gharana which in today’s time is cherished.
Going deeper into the history of the evolution there were some prominent names that I came across such as Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande and Radhika Prasad Goswami who were experts in redefining Ragas. One of the most prominent events in recent history was the visit of Prince Edward to India in the year 1921.He had chosen singers to sing six Ragas for the six seasons to come. The Bishnupur Gharana stood out with 3 singers representing the total of 6. The names associated were Satyakinkar Bandyopadhyay, Kshetra Mohan Goswami and Gopeshwar Bandyopadhyay. A number of talented and popular Dhrupad singers assemble in the Bishnupur winter festival to pool their talent. The style of their singing is still remarkably unique and stands out among the audiences. The beauty of the Ragas presented by the singers through Aalaps is simply amazing and astounding to witness. They usually use musical instruments like the Harmoniums, Sitars and Iktaars to play the songs. Each of their songs lasts for about 10 minutes till they shift to another which is unconventional to the modern age songs. Some of the popular Dhrupad concerts that take place in Bishnupur festival are by Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay, Ashish Sankrityayan, Jadunath Bhattacharya and a lot more. Every year, a lot of fresh faces are also seen presenting their musical abilities on stage with Pandits.
For the love of art and a sense of respect for the craftsmen who devote all their life in mastering the art of producing something incredible, terracotta art has been topping my list of admirations. The history of the terracotta design, like I had read before came from the Malla rulers who had worked towards the betterment of this art. Bishnupur is said to be a hub of incredible terracotta designs and temples for which it is famous throughout the world. The origin of the terracotta design longs back to the 15th century and over the time it has grown to be even more fascinating and the existing beauties are cherished with all the good heart.
Terracotta art is basically carried out with unglazed clay or ceramic stones with the porous body which is easy to carve. The general firing temperature to carve out are a thousand degrees which can easily be done with modern day tools. However, the best of terracotta art which is in the walls and roof of the temples are all handmade and carried out with extreme precision. This is one of the major reason for their popularity and it is commendable.
I had a full research over the temples which has the best terracotta designs in it and I was not disappointed with the list of temples I made to visit. Starting off with the Madan Mohan Temple to the Jor Bangla, Bishnupur Fort, Rasmancha and Ek Ratna temple, all of them were filled with terracotta art which enhances the overall feel of the place by manifolds. The terracotta art is also exhibited in the Bishnupur Mela where the visitors can collect souvenirs and other indoor decoration items for their homes. There are also exhibitions of heritage valued terracotta arts which become one of the major attractions of the festival.
Apart from the beautiful singing performances and terracotta arts, the rural art exhibition was something I was looking forwards to. I had heard a lot about the perfection of the rural artisans who present a lot of amazing goods in the Bishnupur Mela. The goods generally comprise of local handicrafts like seashell work, terracotta works, clothes, and silk materials. All of the goods are produced with perfection by the locals of Bankura. One of the best things that I liked about the winter festival is the indulgence of rural artisans from various parts of Bengal.
Some of the most popular art exhibits are of the Baluchari Sarees which is a fine example of the silk cloth designs developed by the locals of Bankura. You would also come across Dokhra Items for exhibition and sales which are fine examples of excellent metal casting art by the locals of Birbhum district. Along with all these, you would also find lantern making and Dasavataar Pot making stalls in the Bishnupur Mela.
It is developed and originated in Bishnupur and it is also regarded as the oldest traditional art of the whole place. The Bishnupur Mela would not be complete without the stalls of these Conch Shells which are set up by the Sankha Banik groups/tribes. They are artisans who have been mastering the art of Conch Shell designing since a long period of time. They make bangles, carve out structures and creatures and also some religious designs on the conch shells. It is a treat to see the stalls put up by Shri Gopal Nandi who is known for his award-winning art and designs. You can also go for buying some of the designs from the Bishnupur Mela. However, the conch shell designs are pretty costly and they are often used only for exhibition purposes.
I had a great time exploring the technique behind carving a conch shell, but I was extremely curious to find out why the price of these items is so high. I realised, that these works are typically restricted to the Sankha Banik cast and the art is carried out very precisely. Learning and acquiring this art is a difficult process and hence, the price is high. This is generally a treat to people who like to collect such art pieces.
At this point of time, it is obvious that the involvement of the terracotta design is almost particular in all the fields. The jewellery design did not lag behind either. The jewellery designs are special in Bishnupur only because of the non-conventional designs created by the local artisans. These might not be the most popular terracotta products but they are definitely one of the most fascinating. They usually do not use any expensive metals to make jewellery with such design.
Another popular design for the jewellery is the Dokhra art. It is regarded as one of the most ancient forms of metal casting which are originated from Bengal. The tradition was started by the Dokhra Tribes and it has spread throughout the country in the present time. These designs are also usually carried out on silver and bronze metals which can be easy to carve.
I had always fancied about the encounters with an unexpected charm which play an important role while you are exploring a place. The books and the articles on the internet have not totally justified the true essence of the Bishnupur Mela that a traveller would experience. It definitely opened up my viewpoint towards what was in store for me, but what I experienced was truly out of the world. A visit to a place like Bishnupur would tell why it is so popular throughout the country and the country and the world.
Images copyright @Indiatweets