Design

Brilliance in brick and clay

We drive 150 km northwest of Kolkata to come upon the nondescript but architecturally rich village of Bishnupur in Bengal’s Bankura district. The hamlet beckons with its plethora of brilliant brick temples, most of them dedicated to Lord Vishnu, built by the Malla kings during their reign from 1590 to 1806 CE.

The temples of Bishnupur as in most of West Bengal are categorised as ratnas or gems, according to the number of miniaturised pinnacled shrines on top of the main curved cornice roof upon a square or rectangular structure. One of the most striking of these temples is the Shyam Rai Temple built by King Raghunatha Singh in 1643 – a structure that is massive in scale and in ornamentation. The temple, which honours Vishnu as Krishna, reflects the Pancharatna architectural style, and is perhaps West Bengal’s oldest surviving temple representative of this design. The edifice with its five towers, the central and tallest one surrounded by one each in the four corners, stands magnificent in the midst of well manicured, lush lawns.

Built entirely of brick, the only building material abundantly available in the region at the time, the Shyam Rai temple stands on a low square plinth with a char chala roof surmounted by ratnas or gems at each corner. While the towers in the corners are square-shaped, the central tower is octagonal in shape and they rest on a sloping roof in ‘Pida’ order. Each of the four sides of the temple greets us with triple multicusped arched gateways, leading to the sanctum around which runs a well paved circumambulatory path. The curved cornice and eaves, derived from the thatched bamboo hut, so characteristic of Bengal, are special features of the temple, as of the others in Bishnupur. This style, directly descended from the bamboo framework of the huts, was originally bent into this shape to drain off rain water during frequent and intense downpours.

Baked tales in clay tiles

The absence of stone or any other building material did not prove to be a deterrent to the architects and artisans of the times. Rather, they baked tales in clay tiles, narrating episodes from mythology and life, breathing life into bricks to give rise to a new form of temple architecture that lead to the construction of terracotta temples that were elaborately and intricately clad in high quality square panels of terracotta reliefs. The use of bricks in construction obviously meant that the routine column-beam style of building, characteristic of most early Islamic structures, could not be adopted. Hence, arches have been used to span spaces and support the weight above. Yet, a unique feature we observe about the Shyam Rai temple vis-à-vis most of Bishnupur’s temples is the influence of Islamic architecture in its curved ceiling.

Floral motifs

The Shyam Rai temple, with its superior figurines and floral motifs, was the first of its kind in Bengal. Its exterior and interior walls and ceiling are emblazoned with a profusion of stunning terracotta sculptures portraying Krishna Leela, episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the socio-economic and political life of the people of the times. Particularly brilliant is the rasa mandala which embodies the convergence of artistic and structural knowledge. We also get to see a few specimens of the Gandhar style of sculpture on its walls. It is believed that the artisans of Uliwara and Panchmura villages close by were instrumental in carving high quality terracotta tiles with splendid engravings on them.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 7:21:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/homes-and-gardens/design/brilliance-in-brick-and-clay/article6574599.ece

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