THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time ………
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape?
Of deities or mortals or of both,
In temples or the dales of Arcady?
--- Ode On A Grecian Urn, John Keats.
Way back in the 1980s Prof. Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal , in his path breaking work on the various finer nuances of social mobility had aptly probed into a correlation between temple building and the socio cultural upliftment amongst the various cross sections of the motley coloured society which can even be elucidated in the light of sanskritisation . The social context and the geographic locale of his research were posited against the backdrop of Gopabhum (Birbhum , western Bardhaman etc ) and Mallabhum ( Bankura , Birbhum , parts of Bardhaman , Santhal Parganas and parts of Purulia ). Temple building, in this work, has been explained as a visual externalisation of corporate social mobility that the socio economic sub-alterns from the Nabasakh and other merginalised(antyaja / ajalachal ) castes were aiming at.
At the dawn of the Aryan culture the northern and north-western part of India initially came under the direct influence of the sanskritised Aryan culture and civilisation. Even the Vedas – the canonical text of the Aryans – are also believed to have been composed somewhere along the banks of the river Saraswati. In course of time the Aryan culture made its gradual progress towards the south and eastern part of the sub-continent. Forests were cleared with the help of Fire (which has been hailed as God Agni), large tracts of land were brought under cultivation and human settlements spread. However the eastern and inaccessible north eastern parts of the country remained long out of the ken of the Aryan influence and came to be termed pejoratively as the Barjyabhumi or Vajjabhumi i.e. the land that should be avoided to save Aryan civilisation from the aboriginal , animistic , tantric cults of the region . It was only in the 6 th century AD during the Gupta Era that Bengal came under the purview of the Aryan culture. Even then the radh – which was then known as the Sumbabhumi – remained a forbidden place, aloof from the ‘high’ culture mainstream sanskritised Aryan civilisation in the Northern and Eastern part of the region and was wallowing in the gory tantric practices and popular religious cults of the local people. While passing through the forested terrain of the radh, Mahavir (540 – 468 BC) is also said to have been waylaid by the aboriginal, pagan local people who even set the wild dogs after him. Bishnupur, as a part of the larger canvas of the radh, is a curious case of socio cultural and religious transformation, a metamorphosis from Vajjabhumi or Bajrabhumi (i.e. wasteland or the rugged land of red soil) to an oasis of flourishing vaishnavite culture in the post Chaitanya (1486-1533) era.
Bishnupur, as a culturo- topographic landscape, seems to have experienced series of transformations. In the distant past, it was under the influence of the tantric Buddhist and Jain cults. The tantric icons of Parnasabari and Vajrasrinkhala, different manifestations of Goddess Chandi and so on ruled over the psyche of the people at large. This age at its mature phase was succeeded by the advent of the Sakta cults as may be found in the images of Devi Dandeswari (established by Jay Malla, the second king in the Malla dynasty bin AD 710 )and Devi Mrinmayee ( established by Jagat Malla, the nineteenth ruler of the dyanasty in AD 997 ). The latter is also worshipped as a representation of the Goddes Chandi. Human sacrifice and other types of sacrifices are also believed to have been performed at the altar of these deities to propitiate them. The different obscure branches of Saivism like Pasupata , Kapalika and Kalamukha etc also took their roots in the receptible soil and impressionable mind of the people of the locale . Temples dedicated to Saileswar , Sanreswar (both established in the reign of Prithvi Malla , the thirtyseventh ruler of the dynasty in AD 1295) , Malleswara ( constructed in the reign of Dhari Hambir Malladeve in the 17 th century ) Siddheswar at Bahulara ( Originally A Jain temple later turned into a Saivite one presently under Onda Development Block ) and so on bear testimony to this Saivite influence . At the penultimate stage of this transformation came the influence of vaishnavism at the hands of Sri. Srinivasa Acharya. The Malla king Bir Hambir Malla Deva, the 49 th ruler of the Malla Dynasty, who reigned in between 1565 to 1620 CE and happened to be a contemporary of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, took his initiation at the feet of the acharya and became a devout vaishnav and adopted the names of Sri Chaitanya Das, Brindavana Das and Sri Gobinda Dasa. From then onward started the outburst in the construction of vaishnavite shrines and temples like Rasamancha (constructed in the reign of Bir Hambir Malla), Shyamrai Temple, Jor Bangla Temple, Raghunath Jiu Temple (during Raghunath Malla the1 st ), Madan Mohana Temple (during the reign of Durjana Singha).
So one thing may safely be surmised that with the passage of time more and more people from the so far downtrodden sections of the society were getting silently subsumed into the fold of an all- encompassing Hinduism which even did not hesitate to include various tantric icons and deities associated with the fertility cults into its ever expansive pantheon. It was a turbulent time when power equation at the throne of either Bengal or Delhi became very fluid resulting in an all pervading ambiguity. Following the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1203/5, the flourishing culture in the vast culture topographical landscape of the radh came under severe attack. After the pathetic downfall of the Sena rule in the 13 th century, the centre of power in Bengal came to be occupied by the Muslims resulting in the gradual merginalisation of the Hindus whether of the upper castes or the so called antyajas or ajalachal. The rigid, irreversible and even hermeneutic stratification of the erstwhile sanatani, dogmatic Hindu society began to dilute. As the epicentre of political power was occupied by the Muslims, the Hindus were getting more and more ghettoised into the radha which then served as a safe outskirt of Bengal. On the one hand , the low caste people were yearning for social recognition and ascent along the social hierarchy , similarly the Brahmins or should I say the ‘high’ class Hinduism ; being exposed in the throes of attack from a foreign religion ; was forced into accepting the people from the lower castes like Hari , Dom , Bagdi , Sabaras and so on into its fold . Even the Mangal Kavyas sing panegyrics to the various obscure local tantric and fertility gods and goddesses like Manasa, Shitala , Chandi , Dharma and so on . Quite interesting thing is that most of these Kavyas are composed by poets and minstrels hailing from the upper castes like Brahmin, Baidya or Kayastha for example Manasa Mangal was written by Bipradasa Pipalai and Ketakadasa Ksemananda , Dharmamangala by Ramchandra Bandyopadhyay , Maniklal Ganguly , Chandi Mangala by Ghanaram Chakraborty , Ruparam Chakraborty , Sitalamangala by Akinchan Chakraborty , Annada Mangal by Bharatchandra Roy .
If we go by the theory of Sir. Milton Singer, we see a gradual progress from the little traditions; consisting of the tantric, animistic, popular cults and culture of the local people towards the ‘high‘sophisticated, vaishnavite culture of the sanskritised Hinduism. The temple building per se should be viewed against the broader canvas of sanskritisation of the local Malla chieftains who did not hail from any blue blooded lineage. It was through the process of building temples that a renaissance seemed to have dawned on the entire ethno topographic landscape. The rugged lands of the Chotanagpur plateau was soothed in the nectar of devotion, an unprecedented profusion of pure divine love for the ishta who was sought in the kanta komala image of Madana Mohana. It was a turbulent time when power equation at the throne of either Bengal or Delhi became very fluid resulting in an all pervading ambiguity. Following the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1203/5, the flourishing culture in the vast culture topographical landscape of the radh came under severe attack. After the pathetic downfall of the Sena rule in the 13 th century, the centre of power in Bengal came to be occupied by the Muslims resulting in the gradual merginalisation of the Hindus whether of the upper castes or the so called antyajas or ajalachal. The rigid, irreversible and even hermeneutic stratification of the erstwhile sanatani, dogmatic Hindu society began to dilute. The process of corporate social mobility experienced an unprecedented momentum. The so far neglected pagan deities like Manasa , Sitala and Dharma who also shared some affinities with the Tantric Buddhist and Jaina icons like Vajrasrinkhala , Parnasabari and so on , gradually made their ascent along the so far sacrosanct , impermeable hierarchy of Hindu divinity and were in course of time subsumed as regular members of the Hindu pantheon . With the passage of nearly four hundred years, the initial acerbity in the inter communal relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims also seemed to have mellowed down giving rise to an affable cultural milieu. The terracotta temples of the 16 th , 17 th and the 18 th centuries were constructed against the background of this socio – cultural melting pot.