The long-established tradition of rasa leela (Dance of Divine Love) has been prevalent in West Bengal for centuries. This auspicious occasion is either celebrated on Krishna Janmashtami or on Kartik Purnima where Lord Krishna is brought from different temples and placed on a viewing pavilion called rasmancha or dolmancha. One of the most famous rasmancha is the Rasmancha at Bishnupur built entirely in terracotta. This architectural marvel was built somewhere between 1587 – 1600 C.E. by Bir Hambir of Mallabhum who favoured the use of the fine terracotta easily available in Bishnupur. Traditionally rasmancha is either hexagonal or octagonal in shape to facilitate viewing from all sides but the one is Bishnupur is built on a square plinth.
This unique edifice also called ‘Pride of Bishnupur’ is the oldest terracotta temple of its kind in the world and is a subject of fascination for architects, historians and artists. This impressive temple stands on a square platform measuring 30 metres at a height of 1.5 metres above the ground. The base of the rasmancha is built with the locally available laterite stone while the upper part of the structure is built in bricks. The steps leading to the platform give you a beautiful perspective of the arched corridors and the play of light and shadow.
The plan of the temple shows three rows of galleries which used to house the images of gods and goddesses brought specifically for people to see. It is said that these used to be worshipped by the royal priest and were shown to the commoners for the entire duration of the festivities of rasa leela. This is a very interesting concept brought forth by the Hindu Malla kings which is not practised anywhere else.
The outermost gallery has a typical Bengal hut style roof with turrets shaped accordingly creating a very unusual effect on the roof. The building is constructed carefully on a grid system with 16 grids in the centre (4 grids on each side) that encloses the sanctum sanctorum dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha Devi and 100 smaller grids (10 grids on each side) that form the three galleries. Each side has four dochala (two roofed design) and each corner has an aatchala (eight roofed) that adds to its magnificence. There is also a secret room and a tunnel built for the king to escape in case of an ambush.
The surfaces of the temple have beautiful carvings of dancing men, dancing women and lotus. The external arches appear cusped while the internal ones are plain. The detailing on the arches and the brickwork is visually superb and makes for a thought-provoking study.
The pyramidal roof is the most amazing considering the time when this structure was built. ‘Bengal’s own pyramid’ as it called is outstanding in terms of its construction as it has been built with terracotta, mud and perhaps indigenous mortar more than 400 years ago! This stepped pyramid is typical of the temple design of the Malla kings and is said to be the highest in Bishnupur.
There is a well-kept garden which also serves as an excellent viewing point. There are some cannons kept in the complex dating back to the Malla period. This building is a protected monument of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is highly recommended to take a guide when you visit Bishnupur to truly understand the noteworthy contribution of the Malla kings.
Though a lot of the stucco work has fallen off, there is an old-world charm to this place while you walk through the arched corridors imagining the kind of grand celebrations that have been held here in the past.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)