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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Bishnupur

Guidebooks to India usually say nothing about Bishnupur, a town of 70,000 about 80 miles west of Calcutta. True, they have little to say about West Bengal period, except for Calcutta and Darjeeling, but Bishnupur is worth a visit.

An early European notice of the place came from J.D. Beglar, Assistant in the Archeological Survey. After touring the region in 1872-3, Beglar wrote: "Bishanpur [sic] is famed as an old place, and certainly contains very many temples and other old remains, but their age is not such as to merit detailed notice of them. They are almost all built in the Lower Bengal style, with curved roof lines, and the ornamentation consists generallly of sculptured or moulded tile work. Some of these are very fine, and stand out the weather very well; they consist chiefly of scenes from the lives of Rama or the Pandus, but principally of Krishna, to whom, or to whose mistress, most of the temples are dedicated; the sculpture, as may be readily guessed, is not very chaste."

Beglar's eyes must have been exceptionally sharp. Either that, or he was exceptionally prudish.

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Welcome to the ferry across the Dwarkeswar, maybe two miles from Bishnupur. The river flows to the right to form the Rupnarayan. It then joins the Mundewari and joins the Hooghly below Calcutta. Yes, it's low water, so the adventurous ferry trip of the monsoon season is replaced this time of the year mostly by a walk across sandbags.

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Room for lots more.

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Full speed ahead.

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The last bit you have to get wet.

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All kinds of stuff come across.

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Just downstream, fishermen place their nets. Now you're going to ask what's up with the pink. Good question, which as usual means I have no idea. What kind of fish? Stop it. You're wasting your breath, I'm just a gawker.

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For sure, if we want fish for dinner we'll need fuel to cook it. We can either buy it or collect it.

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Kindling patrol.

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Talk about juxtapositions. Not half a mile from the ferry, there's a school. The initials MIT stand in this case for Mallabhum Institute of Technology, a name no doubt chosen carefully and not just because there once was a kingdom here called Mallabhum. Its rajas built Bishnupur and its temples between about 1600 and 1750. As Beglar says, that's not very old--not old at all by Indian standards, but don't be too quick to dismiss.

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Surprised? Here we have one of many local fields getting prepped for potato planting. Potatoes? In the land of rice? The crop was hardly planted here a century ago but has become a major enterprise, probably much more lucrative than rice, pound for pound.

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On the drive out from Calcutta we saw half a dozen or more warehouses that had saved part of last year's crop for planting this year. Here, seed potatoes had just come out of storage and were getting ready for sale to farmers.

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I do like potatoes, but how can spuds compete with this? In this part of the world, the Lord's prayer should be tweaked to ask for our daily rice.

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You can find mechanical harvesters out here, but the great majority of the fields around Bishnupur are cut by hand.

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Men assemble huge headloads of paddy bundles and carry them to carts parked on a road nearby. Harvesting in this part of India, like plowing, is man's work. Women handle transplanting and weeding.

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I wish I could tell you how they hoisted the bundles. I'm just not observant enough.

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We're ready for threshing.

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And here's the electrically driven beast that does the job by spinning at a blurring speed.

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Like this.

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Watch your fingers. When were machines like this first used here? I'm guessing sometime in the 1990s. Certainly in those years in South India you could still find plenty of manual threshing--just whacking the bundle against a stone table the size of an elephant's foot.

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Afterwards, the straw is very neatly formed into stacks with their own more or less impervious thatch roof. Getting rain to run off stacks--and thatched houses--is a challenge during the monsoon.

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We've come into town. You're not too impressed by the main street?

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Like it better this way? By the way, you're on a bicycle.

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The main vegetable market, Madhavjanj Bazaar, is set back from that street.

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Nice vegetables, but not quite the extravagant setup of a big city market. Think the vendor has ever seen Calcutta's?

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A non-veg option.

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There aren't many relics of the early stages of Bishnupur's modernization or westernization or europeanization. But we know that conditions were desperate in the late 18th century, when a combination of raiding Marathas and famines destroyed the Malla rajas. A century later, in 1866, a British visitor came through and saw "a city of paupers" with "multitudes of deserted orphans... roaming the streets and subsisting on worms and snails."

By 1900, someone had accumulated enough wealth to invest in this block.

(The quote comes from Francis Skrine's Life of Sir William Wilson Hunter, p. 114.)

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Here's a sign of Europeans importing both their religion and their ideas of efficient design. On a budget, they have made no concessions to imported (or indigenous) esthetics, other than a nod to the Gothic.

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The K.G. Engineering Institute, on the east side of town, traces its roots back to 1922 and Krishna Gopal Ghosh, a local administrator who organized a crafts-oriented industrial school. It's much expanded since then but doesn't have much truck with tradition. The dormitories, like the church, accept a functionalism that was cheap and easy to build, which probably explains at least partly why it became extremely popular in newly independent India.

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Staff housing for the adjacent Ramananda College is more stylish.

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Can we call it Deco? Moderne? It may seem out of place here, but the college is named for Ramananda Chatterjee, a native of nearby Bankura and the longtime owner-editor of the Modern Review, an important journal pushing early in the 20th century for India's independence.

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People with money in Bishnupur build like this today.

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I'm looking for an archer hiding behind the battlements.

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What's that room up top?

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Does the roof remind you of anything? Why on earth bend corrugated sheets into curves?

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Another example, again on Ahalla Bai Road.

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Here's the source: a thatched roof with the archetypal Bengali curve at both the ridge and the eave. Curving the chala or thatch is said to reduce leaks.

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We'll come back to those curves very soon, because they are the most distinctive part of the town's temples. First, though, a little crash course on the Malla rajas or kings. The town's name is a variant of Vishnupur, the city of Vishnu. Why that name? I thought you'd never ask. But be patient.

We're looking at the pathat darwaja or "stone door" of the town's fort, built about 1650, or about 50 years into the town's glory days, which ended with the British takeover in 1760.

A British officer stationed here in the 19th century recorded the royal family's own account of its founding, to wit: about A.D. 695, the son of a king had been abandoned as an infant and was working as a cowherd for a Brahman. "One day, when, overcome with fatigue, he had fallen asleep under a tree, two huge cobras, raising their hoods about the sleeper's face, shaded him from the rays of the sun, till they were startled away by the approach of Panchanan searching for the boy. Impressed at this wonderful sight, the Brahman augured that it foretold the future greatness of the boy." (Quoted in Lewis Sydney Steward O'Malley, Bankura District Gazetteer, 1908, p. 23.)

Forty-eight kings later, we come to the first historically authenticated ruler, Bir Hambir, who ruled from 1565 to 1620. That's by Gregorian reckoning. The Malla kings had their own, obviously starting in 695. It's a handy conversion, because many of the temples in town can be precisely dated from plaques that give the the temple's dedication date according to the Malla calendar.

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Bir Hambir's son, Raghanath Singh, or possibly Raghunath's son and successor, Bir Singha Dev, built the "stone door" one brief century before the good times came to a miserable end, with the royal family subsisting on a British pension. O'Malley reported in 1908 (p. 37) that "their descendants, who live in Bishnupur... are now in reduced circumstances; but they retain a strong hold on the affections of the people, and it is not forgotten that their ancestors were the rules of the land."

For a time, the Mallabhum Kingdom had been almost independent, nominally part of a Muslim empire that allowed the Malla kings to take care of their own affairs, so long as tribute was paid--107,000 rupees annually in the case of Bir Hambir. Romesh Chunder Dutt, writing in the Calcutta Review for 1892, put it this way while deferring to the kingdom's mythic sense of its history: "Protected by rapid currents like the Damodar, by extensive tracts of scrub-wood and sal jungle, as well as by strong forts like that of Bishnupur, those jungle kings were little known to the Musalman rulers of the fertile portions of Bengal, and were never interfered with. For long centuries, therefore, the kings of Bishnupur were supreme within their extensive territories."

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In this land without rock, builders who sought permanence had the choice of brick or laterite, a tropical clay that, when exposed to air, hardens into a rock with a typically pitted surface. Some of the Bishnupur temples are brick; others, like this gate, are laterite.

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Laterite was also used for this cart, which never went anywhere. Why was it was built? Good luck with that.

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Dutt wrote of "strong forts." Shall we ignore the sign at an inner entrance to Bishnupur's? Bir Singh isn't going to object.

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Nothing too impressive at the start.

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Can we get over there?

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O'Malley offers this description of the fort and its palace in its prime. "Within the walls of the palace were theatres, embellished rooms, dwelling houses, and dressing rooms; and there were also a treasury, houses for elephants, barracks for soldiers, stables, storehouses, armouries, etc. The city was once strongly fortified by a long connected line of curtains and bastions, measuring seven miles in length, with small circular ravelins covering many of the curtains.... What the palace may have been in the palmy days of its ancient chieftains it is difficult to say, but at present an insignificant pile of brick buildings, surrounded by ruins, marks the site. A number of fine temples still remain, however, to attest the former prosperity of the Bishnupur Raj." O'Malley saw the place a year or two before he published this description in the 1908 district gazetteer.

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Brick was used here, in what I assume was part of the palace.

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Bir Singh excavated several tanks too. Locally called bandhs, this one is inside the fort.

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Here's the larger Poka Bandh, closer to the town center.

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Its waters are still put to good use, though perhaps not for domestic consumption, which was one of the original purposes.

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And now we start our temple tour, beginning with this, the rasa-mancha (or Rasmancha) built by Bir Hambir, the 49th Malla king and the one who initiated the city's golden age. Before we get into the weeds, notice the line of faux huts or haystacks. They are characteristic of Bengali temples.

O'Malley writes that Bir Hambir "was as pious as he was powerful, and was converted to Vaishnavism by Srinivasa." Bir Hambir, in other words, became a Gaudiya Vaishnava, a follower of the ecstatic worship of Krishna, a form of Vishnu. Srinivasa Acarya himself was a disciple of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, founder of the cult.

Got it? It was for Vishnu in the form of Krishna, along with Krishna's paramour, Radha, that the town's temples would be built. And it was for Vishnu that the town became Vishnupur, alias Bishnupur.

The rasa-mancha is the oldest thing is town today and no doubt the oddest. It was used only once a year, when images of Krishna and Radha were collected from the neighborhood and displayed here in a rapturous festival, a rasa.

Orthodox Hindus did not approve. In Temple to Love, her study of Bishnupur, Pika Ghosh quotes one Brahmin about the fervor of these Vaishnavas: "They form Kirtana parties; they dance and cry like mad men. The rites enjoined by the Vedas and the Tantras are abandoned. They have charmed the people by their songs and music."

Things have calmed down since then. Bishnupur's last rasa was held in 1932, and the rasa-mancha is now under the sober administration of the Archaeological Survey of India. Party poopers.

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The brick looks awfully good after 400 years. Too good, in fact. O'Malley in 1908 described the rasa mancha this way: "Unfortunately, the building is in a very bad state of repair, and it would be too costly to restore it. The masonry work seems to have been put up in a hurry, and it is now partly fallen and loosened everywhere, so that the restoration of the building would practically involve dismantling and rebuilding it entirely."

Sometime in the last century, somebody stepped in and did the work anyway. The ASI doesn't talk much about such efforts. Keeping mum preserves a sense of antiquity, even if it's fraudulent.

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The structure consists of a central pyramid rimmed by three rings of arches, ten in the outer, five in the inner, eight in between. The arches grow progressively simpler as you move inward.

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Here's the inner ring and the wall of the central shrine.

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The view outward.

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The shrine itself is locked and dark. Maybe you'll have better luck and be able to see what's inside, if anything.

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A ventilation shaft leads to some hidden central space but does reveal the crudely mortared brick core.

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You might think that the temples built by the Malla kings would grow bigger and more opulent with each new monarch, but no: you can't find anything as pretentious as this early temple, the Syama-Raya, built in 1643 (a few years before the stone door) by a son of Bir Hambir, Raghunatha I (1626-1656).

It's a pancha ratna or five-tower Bengali temple, with minarets atop a square building whose form alludes to a thatched hut. O'Malley recognized that the form was not only unusual for India but much older than Bishnupur. He wrote, "The curved battlements of the roof, made in imitation of the roof of the ordinary village hut, certainly must have been peculiar to the architecture of Bengal before the Muhammadans took over [in the 1300s]...."

The rope keeps visitors out of the temple, not to mention out of the upper floor. What went on upstairs is hinted at by Ghosh, who writes that the Malla kings built "temples as pleasure grounds of the gods, where Krishna and his beloved Radha could rekindle their passion." An original inscription in proto-Bengali at the main entrance states plainly that the temple was built for the pleasure of those two.

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Ghosh argues that the lower story contained a conventional shrine or garbha, literally the womb. This allowed the "upper structure to function in an unprecedented way as a shrine for ritual performances." Wish you could have seen the goings-on? Not a prayer. Ghosh explains that "uninitiated viewers, however, do not have such access to the divine lila [love play of Krishna and Radha]."

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The temple, as became characteristic of Bishnupur's other temples, is covered with hundreds of terracotta panels, some decorative but others illustrating scenes from the Indian epics.

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A good deal of the terracotta has been carelessly re-mortared; the ASI has also repaired and replaced parts of this temple's towers with plain brick.

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There's lots of hunting and/or fighting.

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This panel is particularly interesting because of the central terra-cotta piece, the one unspoiled by mortar.

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Here it again, with Krishna and Radha both above and below a roof. In other words, the panel shows a two-tiered temple, just like the one it's attached to.

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Krishna plays the flute while dancing with Radha and encircled by his devotees or gopinis.

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A few years later, in 1665, a slightly bigger version of the same temple was built near what is now the street market. For some reason, it hasn't come under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey and so is drab and missing most of its terracotta. It does have a name. It's the Madan Gopal Temple, built by Chudamanidevi, wife of Raghunath I's successor, Bir Singha.

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Here's a tiny version of the same form.

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And here's something very unusual. It's the Sridhara Mandir, built very late (in the nineteenth century, probably) as a private venture by the Bose family in the Bose Para near the Madan Gopal temple. It's not one of the Malla kings' temples, in other words. Notice that the upper floor is topped with another five towers or ratnas. Call this a nava-ratna or nine-tower temple.

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Can't help wanting a booklet explaining the images.

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The panel at the top just might illustrate the Vastraharana episode of the Krishnalila. Anyway, this behavior is unlikely to please orthodox Brahmins.

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The family that owns the temple buys replacement terra cottas as needed. They cost about a dollar each and are made in a local village.

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Had anyone in Bishnupur in the old days ever seen a camel? Maybe Bengal was more open to the world than we imagine. Certainly they had seen muskets like that one in front of the camel. And if you interject that this temple is much later than the others in town, I'll tell you to keep your eyes open, because there are old temples coming up with lots of guns.

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Here's the accessible shrine of the Sridhar Mandir.

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In 1655, only a dozen years after Raghunath's Syama Raya temple, the same king built the Jor Bangla or "Twin Bangla Huts" Temple. (The temple was finished in the first year of his son's reign.) The design is radically different, though again there's a lower shrine and an upper one.

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The temple is often called the Kestorai or Keshta Rai Jor Bangla and can be classified as a pair of do-chala or two-thatched huts supporting a char-chala or four-thatched tower. The curvature is extreme and begs the question I've postponed: why would kings imitate a poor bamboo-and-thatch hut? I don't think we have an answer to this. All we know is that, as George Michell writes in Brick Temples of Bengal, p. 10, "despite extensive experimentation and improvisation over some two centuries and more, architects never lost their fascination for these hut-like temples."

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The builders have even mimicked the bamboo framing of a gable and the purlins under the thatch. Despite all the imitation, the ground floor inside the two-hut building has only a single chamber.

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The main entrance is on the south; the opposite face has a blind entrance. The dedicatory plaque shows Krishna playing a flute on the right, while Balarama blows a horn on the left. A simplified translation of the plaque reads: "King Sri Raghunatha Simha, son of Sri Vira Hamvira, the king, gave this lofty edifice for the delight of Sri Radhika and Krsna, in the Saka year [961=1655 A.D.)

The full translation appears in A. K. Bhattacharyya, A Corpus of Dedicatory Inscriptions from Temples of West Bengal (c. 1500 A.AD. to c. 1800 A.D.) 1982, p. 79.

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Time for the wider world. Ghosh writes that "ships with animal-headed prows evoke that international maritime trading activity on the temple's walls. Armed guards aiming long-barreled guns alternate with the seated crew members who row the boat. Their short upper garments... mark them as European traders." Ghosh suggests that the five-towered temples look like modified mosques.

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Fast forward two generations to the Madan Mohan Temple of 1694, built by Durjana Singh, great-grandson of Bir Hambir. A single tower or eka-ratna rises above a square hut. The name Madan Mohan comes from Madan Mohan himself, the mesmerizing form of Krishna, who in turn is mesmerized by Radha. This god was the tutelary deity of the Malla kings, and his image was housed here until, in a desperate effort to raise funds, a later Rajah, Chaitanya Singha, sold or pawned it in Calcutta, where it found a new temple in which to reside.

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The shrine is lit but locked.

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Madan Mohan plays his flute. What's going on with that boat at the base? Is this a reference to the nauka-vilasa or pleasure-boating episode of the krishnalila?

Translation of the plaque: "In the Malla year counted by the heads of the King of Snakes which are one thousand, in the clear month of Asadha, this beautiful towered temple was given by the chaste king Srimad Durjana Simha along with his own mind (in the form of) a bee to the lotus-feet of Sri Radha and Vrajarajanandana (ie., Krishna) for their pleasure. 1000 [= 1695 A.D.]. (Bhattacharya p. 114 has a fuller translation.)

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Michell writes (p. 91-2): "The sculptures of the early temples at Bishnupur represent the first great monumental expression of Hindu terra-cotta art in Bengal.... There seems little precedence for this large-scale figurative art, the earlier preference for nonfigurative themes having completely disappeared."

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The shrine holds images of Krishna and Radha draped in flowers. Too bad we can't see him clearly, but you can see his flute, never far away.

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We're approaching the end of the dynastic line. It's 1726, and Gopal Singh (1712-1748) pious but ineffectual as a commander, is building Jor Ratna, a cluster of ek-ratna Bangla or Bengali-hut temples.

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In the next decade, Gopal Singh's daughter-in-law builds the Radha Mandir or Radha Madhava temple. It's 1737, and the British are 23 years away from taking control. Rather than with terracotta, the temple is covered with stucco, most of which has worn off.

These were the years of the Maratha invaders. We learn something of them, or of how Bengalis remembered them, in Ghulam Salim's Riyazu-s-Salatin, the first history of Bengal written by a Bengali. The book appeared in 1788, forty years after the events, but the wounds were still raw. We read (in the English translation published in 1902, p. 344) that the Marathas, "drowned in the rivers a large number of the people, after cutting off their ears, noses and hands. Tying sacks of dirt to the mouths of others, they mangled and burnt them with indescribable tortures."

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The builders were still faithful to the national style of Bishnupur. The roof is not only curved like a thatched hut but looks like thatch.

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Two years before the kingdom was ceded to the British, the Radha Syama temple was built in 1758 by the unfortunate Chaitanya Singha. O'Malley writes (p. 31) "He had been reduced from the position of a tributary prince to that of a mere zamindar, and being unable to collect his rents and pay his revenue, had been thrown into prison." Presumably, by this time he had already sold or pawned the image of his family's deity kept at the Madan Mohan temple.

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The stucco is mostly worn off.

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It's laterite underneath.

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The north side has the blind entrances I've mentioned before but never shown.

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A sheltered panel shows Vishnu asleep on Sesha and dreaming the Creation.

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Inside, there's a shrine with brutally lit and crude images of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and his disciple Nityananda.

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A simplified translation of the dedication might read: "Sri Caitanya, chief among kings, expert in pious deeds, gave in an assembly this divine and very beautiful house of variegated embellishments, well proportioned, amply stable, and esteemed for reasons of devotion on the full-moon day of the month of Kartika at the lotus-feet of Sri Radha and Krishna in the Malla year 1064 (=1758 A.D.).

For a fuller translation, see Bhattacharyya, p. 147.

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This nearby, undated temple is like many of its neighbors. The greenery is a standard ASI garden, but the atmosphere is suitably haunting.

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