Bishnupur: Beyond the Terracotta Curtain

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    The town of Bishnupur, 140 km from Kolkata, gets top billing on tourist itineraries if you’re willing to venture out of the city limits to take in the terracotta marvels that define the town. These burnished, earthy temples, made of brick and embellished with intricately carved and moulded panels, are truly an extraordinary sight.

    But the showpieces of Bishnupur are a double-edged sword. Interestingly, only four of Bishnupur’s temples are made of terracotta. An overwhelming majority of them are made out of laterite stone, a marvel in itself.

    While they attract tourists in large numbers, the story behind these shrines and the people who built them take a backseat. This is due to our failure to look at places like Bishnupur as complete historic sites. Instead, we marvel at isolated monuments and ignore the context in which they exist.

    Bishnupur was once the capital of the powerful Malla kingdom, which ruled the region for around a thousand years. The name of the town derives from ‘Vishnu’ as the Malla Kings were Vaishnavites.

    This is the story of a Bishnupur that most visitors do not see.

    Abhaya Pada Mallik in his book History of the Bishnupur Raj (1921) writes that the kingdom of Mallabhoom once extended to the entire district of Bankura and even to parts of neighbouring districts. To the west, it stretched to Midnapore and parts of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, and to the east, parts of modern-day Burdwan. It was a kingdom that was roughly the size of Wales. The kingdom’s many rivers, hilly terrain and dense forests protected it from invasion.

    But passing through the kingdom was the ancient pilgrim road to Puri, which meant the residents of Bishnupur constantly mingled with Hindu pilgrims, from whom the ruling Malla Dynasty is believed to have emerged in the 7th CE.

    The dynasty was founded by Raghunath, also known as ‘Adi Malla’, who hailed from a Kshatriya family of Joynagar, near Vrindavan in present-day Uttar Pradesh. According to legend, a deposed King and his pregnant Queen were on their way to Puri, when they stopped at a village named Laugram. When the King realised that his wife was about to give birth, he left her in the care of a Brahmin named Manahar Panchanan and a Kayastha named Bhagirath Guha.

    He left his sword bearing the royal insignia with his wife, as a mark of the child’s royal lineage. Then he hurried off to Puri, never to return. The Queen delivered a baby boy and died in childbirth. The child was named ‘Raghunath’ and raised by Manahar Panchanan as one of his own. He grew up to become a famous wrestler, which earned him the sobriquet ‘malla’.

    According to legend, Nrishingha Deb, the King of Praddumnapur, 26 km west of Laugram, learnt of Raghunath and was impressed by the young man’s appearance and physique. He thus made him a petty chief of Laugram and six surrounding villages, in 695 CE. This was the beginning of the Malla Dynasty.

    When he helped Nrishingha Deb quell a rebellion raised by another chief, Raghunath was allowed to add his territories to Deb’s, thus increasing the size and prestige of his kingdom. When Raghunath died in 709 AD, he was succeeded by his son Joy Malla. But the fame of the Mallas had become so great that it made Nrishingha Deb feel insecure and it drove a wedge between the two families. Joy Malla laid siege to Nrishingha Deb’s capital, the fortress of Pradyumnapur, and defeated him. This is how the Mallabhoom Kingdom was formally established, with its capital at Pradyumnapur, 26 km west of Laugram.

    Over the next 17 generations, the Malla Kings continued to expand their kingdom. The 19th Malla King, Jagat Malla, who ascended the throne in 994 CE, shifted the capital from Pradyumnapur to Bishnupur. The area was then covered in dense forests and, according to legend, Jagat Malla was hunting there when he saw one of his hunting hawks being repeatedly chased away by a heron. Taking this as an auspicious sign, Jagat Malla moved his capital to the new site and built a magnificent city “more beautiful than the beautified house of Indra in heaven”. Sir William Wilson Hunter writes in his book, Parochial Annals of Bengal that it was during Jagat Malla’s reign that a number of prominent merchants made Bishnupur their home.

    Jagat Malla’s son Ramai Pundit spread Buddhism in the region, a religion that survives in the area to this day, although it has morphed into the worship of a folk deity known as ‘Dharma Thakur’. Today, there are a dozen incarnations of Dharma Thakur worshipped in the Bishnupur area.

    The fortress of Bishnupur, probably built when the capital was moved, was strengthened and the army better equipped and trained in the 13th CE, under Rama Malla. At this time, Bishnupur was the preeminent military power in the region, striking fear into the hearts of neighbouring kingdoms.

    The Mallas were known for more than their military might. They gave West Bengal the only classical music gharana it has the Bishnupur Gharana. Under Shib Singha Malla (r. 1370 – 1407 CE), Bishnupur became a major centre of music. Precious little is known, however, about the city itself.

    The Malla Kings maintained their independence until the 49th King, Dhari Malla (r. 1554 – 1565 CE). He was the first to accept the suzerainty of the Nawab of Bengal, and agreed to pay him an annual tribute. It was after the death of Dhari Malla, that Bir Hambir, the greatest of all the Malla Kings, ascended the throne in 1565 CE.

    Bir Hambir (r. 1565-1620 CE) was a contemporary of Mughal Emperor Akbar, and as the Mughal army was making inroads into Bengal, Hambir wisely allied with the Mughals against the ruling Pathans. As retribution, Daud Khan Karrani, the last Pathan ruler of Bengal, laid siege to Bishnupur. However, his army was repulsed when it attempted to storm the fort’s northern gate. The slaughter was so great that the gate acquired the name ‘Munda Mala Ghat’ or ‘wharf of severed heads’.

    It was during the reign of Bir Hambir that Vaishanvism arrived in Bishnupur and spread rapidly, thanks to the work of the Vaishnava preacher, Shrinivas. Since the royal family too converted to Vaishanvism, we find many traces of the religion appearing around this time. The many tanks the Kings of Bishnupur constructed all bore names from Vaishnava lore. Even surrounding villages were renamed Mathura, Dwarka etc after the places associated with life of Lord Krishna.

    The major Vaishanava festivals of Rash and Dol Jatra were introduced at this time. It was also then that the first mention of a Muslim saint in Bishnupur is found – Baba Qurban Shah, who was granted land in the city by Bir Hambir. His dargah still exists and both Hindus and Muslims worship here.

    It was during the reign of Bir Hambir’s son, Raghunath (r. 1626-1656 CE), that Bishnupur acquired most of the architectural characteristics that define it today. The majority of Bishnupur’s temples were built after 1622 CE, either during or after his reign. The five embankments meant to store water, still seen today, were also dug during his time.

    In 1702 CE, Raghunath Singha II ascended the throne of Bishnupur (the Malla Kings had acquired the title ‘Singha’ from Shah Shuja). During this time, Shobha Singh, the zamindar of Chetwa-Barda in the Chandrakona, rose up in rebellion and attacked Krishnaramrai (r. 1675-1696), king of Burdwan. On behalf of the Mughals, it was Raghunath Singha II who defeated Shobha Singh. Apart from the booty that he earned, Raghunath Singha II also carried away a Muslim woman, who some say was the wife of Shobha Singh’s general, Rahim Khan.

    This woman, named Lal Bai, held great sway over the King, and when news spread that she was planning to have him convert to Islam, the noblemen of the court rebelled. They had Raghunath Singha II murdered and Lal Bai drowned in a pond adjacent to her house. Both the pond and the ruins of the house are still standing.

    However, it was not internal strife but their devotion to Vaishnavism that probably explains the downfall of the Malla Kings of Bishnupur, according to Abhaya Pada Mallik. In his book History of the Bishnupur Raj, Mallik writes that Vaishnavism, with its message of peace, love and universal brotherhood, was incompatible with the martial spirit needed to administer a kingdom.

    In 1742 CE, the Maratha borgis (light cavalry) under Bhaskar Pundit laid siege to Bishnupur. They were unable to breach the city’s walls, and legend has it that Lord Madan Mohan himself fired the famous cannon called ‘Dalmadal’ to drive them away. However, the borgis wrought destruction in the surrounding countryside, eventually leading to a famine that greatly weakened the economy of the region.

    In 1748 CE, Chaitanya Singha ascended the throne but his succession was challenged by Damodar Singha, a grandson of his predecessor, Gopal Singha. After pitched battles could not resolve the matter, Chaitanya Singha escaped to Calcutta to seek the help of the British. The King was so impoverished by now that to survive, Chaitanya had to sell the idol of Madan Mohan to Gokul Mitra of Bagbazar, a wealthy Calcutta merchant, whose descendants are still in possession of the deity.

    While Robert Clive, the then Governor of the Bengal Presidency, did decide in favour of Chaitanya Singha, based on the principle of primogeniture, the Malla King was forced to make a pact with the British, which reduced Bishnupur to an ordinary zamindari. Despite that, thanks to the ruined economy, when Chaitanya Singha was not able to meet his revenue arrears, large tracts of land were confiscated by the British.

    When large portions of the zamindari had been sold and it was found that Chaitanya’s successor, Madhab Singha (r. 1801 – 1809) was still unable to pay the revenues demanded by the British, the remaining portion of the Bishnupur kingdom was put up for auction on 12th November 1806. It was purchased by the Tej Chand Mahtab, Maharaja of Burdwan for 2,15,000 rupees. With these developments, the glorious epoch of the Malla Kings of Bishnupur came to an ignominious end.

    From a heritage perspective, Bishnupur’s troubles are no different from those of another erstwhile Bengal capital – Murshidabad. Thanks to the policy of piecemeal preservation of monuments, instead of looking at them as a site, visitors do not get any sense of what the city of Bishnupur was once like.

    Rapid urbanization can change the very character of the site in a matter of decades. Tourists also do not venture beyond the few sites that are preserved and are on the tourist map. As a result, few realize that the ruins of the palace of Lal Bai, wife of Raghunath Singha II, still exist. Even fewer realize that the Bishnupur Raj family continues to live in the city. Unlike Lucknow, where one can pay for a dinner with a descendant of the Nawabs, the descendants of the Malla Kings keep an exceptionally low profile.

    Bishnupur is also covered with several large archaeological mounds. These are either not excavated or levelled to create parks for ‘beautification’. Thus, beyond the few temples that are protected monuments, everything else in Bishnupur continues to fade and decay. In another few decades, this once proud capital will likely be reduced to nothing more than a terracotta theme park.

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