All About The Terracotta Carvings Of Shyam Rai Temple, Bishnupur

The five-spired Shyam Rai Temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal, speaks eloquently about Bengal's architectural legacy
The incredible beauty of the Shyam Rai Temple in Bishnupur
The incredible beauty of the Shyam Rai Temple in BishnupurDr. Indranil Banerjee/Wiki Commons

Bishnupur, about 130 km by road from Kolkata, is one of the most popular sites for discovering West Bengal's rich cultural legacy. This erstwhile royal kingdom of the Malla rulers, now part of the Bankura district, is famed for its old terracotta and laterite temples displaying the diverse forms of Bengal temple building. The temples from the 17th and 18th centuries, with their colourful terracotta panels, are the main attractions here. Almost all temples have exquisite carvings showing various occurrences from Krishna's life, the epics and other sacred scriptures, and contemporary life.

Among these, the five-spired Shyam Rai Temple in Bishnupur speaks eloquently about Bengal's architectural legacy.

A Work Of Art

In 1643, King Raghunatha Singh (1702-1712) of Mallabhum constructed the Shyam Rai Temple to honour Lord Vishnu in his avatar as Lord Krishna. It was built in the panchratna architectural style (five pillars on the roof) and is possibly the state's oldest temple in this style. It has square-shaped corner towers and walls painted in the Gandhar Buddhist art style. The temple's four sides are followed by arched doors leading to the sanctum. The intricate carvings on baked terracotta bricks demonstrate incredible skill and talent.

Intricate carvings on terracotta bricks
Intricate carvings on terracotta bricks Amitabha Gupta/Wiki Commons

About The Malla Kings And Clay Art

Adi Malla founded the Malla dynasty. The 10th Malla monarch, Jagat Malla, relocated his realm to Bishnupur. Due to a lack of stone in Bengal, burnt clay bricks were used as a substitute, and architects in Bengal discovered a new means of creating a beautiful craft known as 'terracotta'.

The art of terracotta reached its pinnacle during the seventeenth century. Raja Jagat Malla and his descendants constructed numerous terracotta and stone art temples.

Shyam Rai Temple is a masterpiece in both design and construction, entirely constructed of clay bricks and coated in burnt clay (terracotta) tiles. The flat, curved roof of the building is a unique element of Bengali architecture. Like most of the temples in Bishnupur, this temple is devoted to Lord Sri Krishna and Sri Radha.

Various religious scenes, such as "Indra battling sitting on Oirabot," "Saga of Ram and Raban," "Glimpses of Krishna Lila," "Love of Radha-Krishna," "Hunting scenarios from old civilisation," and so on, depict Bengal's terracotta art at its best. Another highlight of this temple is a gigantic Raschakra that displays various forms of "Radha-Krishna Lila amidst Gopinis."

The Bankura horse is a famous handicraft made in this region
The Bankura horse is a famous handicraft made in this region Rajes Jana / Wiki Commons

Things To Do

The 17th-century Jor Bangla temple, with its unique double roof and walls covered in finely carved terracotta plaques, is one of the most prominent temples here. You can also go to the terracotta temples of Madanmohan, Malleshwar, and Muralimohan. Popular laterite temples include Kalachand, Lalji, Madangopal, Radha Madhav, and Radhagovinda.

Check out the 16th-century Raas Mancha, a one-of-a-kind edifice, almost pyramidal in shape.

The Dalmadal cannon is another must-see attraction.

What To Buy

Pick up traditional textiles and handicrafts of Bishnupur. The famed silk Baluchari sari can be purchased directly from weavers' cooperatives. Also available are patachitra (painted scrolls) paintings. There are shops all across town selling terracotta toys. The most famous one is the traditional long-eared Bankura horse, which is the symbol of Central Cottage Industries).

Getting There

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, Kolkata (about 212 km from Bankura) is the nearest airport. From there, you can take a train or car to Bishnupur. There are regular trains from Kolkata to Bishnupur.

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