Whenever I had to catch an early morning train or flight I skip sleeping the night before. In fact, it’s simpler than waking up and getting ready. It was not different that day. The whole night was spent watching movies. I took a shower at 4 in the morning and had breakfast in the food stall outside the hostel gate. That guy used to open the shop at 2 and close at 10 – some unusual timing but was a big hit among the hosteller. I hopped on the 5-O-Clock bus Jadavpur which took me to Howrah Station by 5:30 – a distance generally covered in one and half hours.
To get the 6:30 Rupashi Bangla Express, I had plenty of time. Sourav and Deepanjan, my comrades for the day also reached in time and our journey to the heart of Malla Kingdom begun. Deepanjan, our encyclopedia gave us a lesson on the history of the town.
Bishnupur located in the Bankura District of West Bengal was once the most prosperous city in the ‘Mallabhum’ region. The extent of ‘Mallabhum’ included parts of present-day Bankura, West Midnapur, Birbhum, Bardhaman & Purulia District of West Bengal and also Parts of Santhal Pargana District of Jharkhand. Though the Malla kingdom was present in the area for more than 1200 years, its peak was reached in the later parts and at that time – it became a centre for folk culture, art & architecture.
The first Malla ruler – Adi Malla – dates back to 694 AD. After the death of Harsha, entire north India was under a political turmoil and innumerable small kingdoms rose to power. Malla kingdom was one of those but while most of those kingdoms were defeated after the Islamic invasion, Mallas could hold their ground till India regained Independence. It is most probably the hilly terrain, forests and lack of treasure that stopped others from attacking this area.
A story suggests that, at that time, Padampur was the power centre of the region and Laugram was a forest village nearby. While travelling to Puri, A north Indian prince and his pregnant wife halted at Laugram. While the prince continued his journey, his wife stayed back under the supervision of a Brahmin. The wife gave birth to a boy who grew up to be a powerful young wrestler and soon received a title – Adi Malla or the Original Wrestler. The king of Padampur was impressed with the young man and gave him authority over Laugram and few adjacent villages – where Adi Malla started his journey. His son Jay Malla who succeeded the chair after 33 years of rule by his father was ambitious and attached Padampur. After successfully conquering the fort there, he had a big area to rule over. Jay Malla shifted his capital to Bishnupur.
The ancestors of Adi Malla were Vaishnavite. The journey of Adi’s father to Puri (to visit Jagannath Temple) could be a theory in support of that. The tradition was continued and when Jay Malla established his new capital he named it Bishnupur – the adobe of Vishnu. For 860 years from Adi Malla’s time, the dynasty was supreme in the region and by the start of ninth century AD the entire Mallabhum region was under their control.
For almost 860 years and a rule of 48 kings, Bishnupur remained only an isolated kingdom hidden in the jungles of Chotanagpur Plateau. It was only their 49th King – Bir Hambir Malla, Bishnupur came in direct contact with the outside world and that caused a huge change in their own art and culture. Bir Hambir (1565 – 1620) was contemporary of Emperor Akbar and was also associated with him in Akbar’s struggle against the Afghans. Bir Hambir used to pay an annual tribute to the Subedars of Bengal province under the Mughal rule. Bir Hambir was the first Malla king to convert to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and that brought a huge change in the cultural fabric of the region.
It was under Bir Hambir’s noble supervision, that the Famous Rasmancha was built in the year 1600. The Rasmancha temple is a living example of Hambir’s patronage for art & architecture. After his 55 years long reign, Dhari Hambir Malla Dev ruled Bishnupur for six years (1620-1626). After him, the throne passed to one of the most famous kings of the Malla dynasty – Raghunath Singha Dev. Impressed with the bravery of Raghunath Singha, the governors of Bengal under the Mughal rule conferred him with the title ‘Singha’ or Lion. The title stayed with all future male rulers of his dynasty.
Raghunath was a devoted patron of Art & culture and under him, the Bishnupuri art & architecture evolved. Four most magnificent terracotta temples were built during this period – The Kesto Rai Temple or the Jor Bangla Temple, The Shyam Rai Temple or the Panchchura Temple, the Kalachand Temple & the Malleshwar Temple. The most interesting fact about these temples is that all of the four temples are built in a different style of architecture – a clear indication that Raghunath Singha was keen on experimenting with architecture. He was an able administrator who built a huge dam in the city to supply water to the people.
Bir Singha, the next in line, was also a good administrator and concerned to culture. Bir Singha built seven big lakes in Bishnupur and also the Lalji Temple. It is his rule when the magnificent fort around the city was built. Bir Singha has enough forsight to see an enemy knocking on his door anytime and he built the fort. Not much of the fort is visible now but only the gates are present. His wife Churammoni Devi also supervised construction of two beautiful temples, Madan Mohan & Murli Mohan Temple. Bir Singha’s son Durjan Singha continued the construction of Madan Mohan Temple along with his mother and the temple was ready in 1694.
Things were more or less in control till 1741 when the Marathas invaded the Bengal Province. Though the Bishnupur kings were not very powerful and were subordinates under the Mughal Governors and then the Nawabs of Murshidabad, they enjoyed suzerainty. It was during the Maratha Attack that the region was completely devasted with a huge casualty. The rulers of that period, Gopal Singha Dev and Chaitnya Singha Dev were more religious and less administrator. Though the fort saved the kings, the region was totally destroyed by the Marathas. Bishnupur could never rise from that and eventually, at the early nineteenth century, the entire Mallabhum was sold to the Burdwan Raj.
That officially brought the end to the Malla Kingdom of Bishnupur – a city once glorious for its rich art and architecture. The glimpses of the shining past can still be observed in the scarlet temples of the city – our destination. We reached Bishnupur and our journey through the magnificent history of the Malla Rulers of Bishnupur was about to begin.