Pancha Ratna Mandir - the five-pinnacled temple

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Gupta Vrindaban
A Secret Garden

By B Aikat

Vrindaban kunja van men kaise baje bansuri – Raga Dhrupad
Who plays that flute in the enchanted gardens of Vrindaban?

26 March 2005: The year was 1759. The new ruler seated on the Mogul throne in Delhi was Badshah Alamgir, as he was popularly known. The mood was sombre and introspective in Delhi, unlike the earlier era of Akbar when spiritual discourse and interfaith discussions were encouraged. The new King had forbidden the practice of spiritual music, particularly in the ancient style of music called Dhrupada. When artists employed in the courts of Shah Jahan, who specialised in singing about the romantic escapades of Krishna, were no longer able to earn a living they found a welcome mat at a place far from Delhi in the East, in the Parganas of Bengal.

The tiny kingdom was Vishnupur and the rulers were the Malla family. It mattered little that there was a “King every kilometre” in those days in Bengal. This was an enchanted little puri, or town, this place called Vishnupur - a secret garden far from the prying eyes of the Delhi Sultanate.

This was a place of true renaissance of the Krishna cult far from the original birthplace of Krishna and his playground at Vrindaban. This was a place where Krishna was worshipped with all the fervour of his childhood Vrindaban. Love was in the air, rasa (emotions) and ranga (colour). The Ras mancha (a stage for dances) was busy every evening where dances took place celebrating the flirtations of Krishna with the beautiful Gopis (milk maids) of Vrindaban. The Ras mancha still stands today, with its one hundred and eight portals. The significance of one hundred and eight in Indian mythology is that it is a multiple of the numeral nine, considered to be a magical number because the result of its multiplication always adds up to nine (one plus zero plus eight).

Music was an integral part of the revival and a new genre of music called the Vishnupur gharana was developed which was based on the ancient That or mode called Dhrupad or Dhrubapada, named after the evening star Dhruba. Indian music is modal and is probably based upon Greek Aeolian modes, which came to India through a city-state established by Alexander called Gandhar (present day Kandhar). Indian music is called Gandharva Vidya or knowledge given by the Gandharvas, who were possibly residents of Kandhar.

This was a revival of all things pre-Mogul in a place far from the prying eyes of Delhi and its sombre mood.

But along with the revival of the plastic arts came another revival, which is what this report is all about. The ancient art of building terracotta temples was also revived. Beautiful temples were built in the Bengali tradition of chala, or thatched roof, where a hard building is shaped like a soft thatched roof as depicted in the attached photographs. The temples were exquisitely decorated with stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, above all, with the stories of the playful Krishna and the milkmaids with whom he frolicked in Vrindaban.

There are two particular buildings, or temples, which can be considered to be the epitome of the Vishnupur terracotta style. One is the Pancha ratna (five pinnacled) temple, whose picture is attached, which was built around 1643.

The other is the Jor Bangla (attached house) temple built around 1655, which as seen in the photograph, is basically a side-by-side assembly of two normal buildings called Bangla. It is interesting to note that Bangla is the name of a language but it also means a place to live or a house, as depicted in this temple architecture. It is said that the English bungalow, the word as well as the idea of a detached residence, perhaps originated from this concept called Bangla after the British went to India.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The British have not yet arrived and the Mogul influence magically stops at the outskirts of Vishnupur. Once we are inside Vishnupur, we are in an enchanted place whose architecture is entirely Bengali, the material is the soil and the form is pure without any influence of Greek or Egyptian grandeur. An enchanted garden near the Sundar bans (the beautiful forests) is where the courtiers played all day in the ecstasy of love and romance fuelled by the lores of Radha and Krishna. In this picture on the right, the priest is standing at the entrance of the famous Radha-Madhab temple where a single light bulb visible in the inner sanctum illuminates the deities Radha and Krishna.

Other forms of art also took shape. A type of silk weaving called Baluchari evolved where artisans could weave exquisite stories from Indian mythology in silk. This art has recently been revived, with the help of the central government and some French made Jacquard type looms. Unfortunately, there were some children working the looms when I was there and when I asked them why they were not in school, they disappeared.

Present situation
The condition of many of the structures is poor, as terracotta is a fragile medium. However, airborne pollution from the nearby mega polis of Kolkata (a distance of three hundred kilometres) is probably more of a problem for these fragile forms. Some repairs visible here and there seemed to be plaster patchwork and no attempt was made to replace lost or fallen pieces with identical sculptures, although it is entirely feasible with the local artisans. The reason may be lack of funds and/or maintenance being carried out by day labourers.

As they say, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. It is hard to assess which of India’s monuments deserves the title of “A story of love and romance”, the Taj Mahal or the city of Vishnupur. The one immortalises singular love, the other universal love with the spirit that pervades all living things.

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