Rasmancha – Bishnupur

In towns and villages all over West Bengal one can find examples of Rasmancha and Dolmancha. They are usually quite small structures, Dolmanchas being square or rectangular in shape, Rasmanchas being octagonal or hexagonal, raised up on a platform and crowned with a pinnacle. Their main purpose is to allow an idol, usually Lord Krishna, to be viewed from all sides on certain festival days.

It comes as no surprise that the temple town of Bishnupur has its very own Rasmancha, but this is unlike any other example in West Bengal, and is architecturally unique in India.

Located in the heart of the town as one would expect considering the purpose of the structure, the Rasmancha is huge, measuring 30m square and 12.5m high. The 1.5m high platform is built from laterite stone, but the main structure is fashioned from bricks, a combination that is itself quite unusual. What catches the eye more than anything else is the pyramidal shape of the roof, another unique element that would not be out of place in Egypt. I’m sure some conspiracy theorists would go wild at the sight of this :-).

At the very heart of the structure is a small shrine (locked, and too dark to photograph), with three consecutive circumambulatory galleries on all four sides with vaulted ceilings. Each elevation has ten arched entranceways, allowing as much light as possible to penetrate the interior. Combined together it creates a labyrinth inside, it’s all too easy to become a little disorientated as you navigate around the 90 columns.

The outermost circumambulatory gallery projects out from the pyramidal roof above, and instead has a Bangla (hut) style of roof, yet another totally unique element unparalleled anywhere else.

Apart from a few lotus motifs on the façade of the Rasmancha, the temple is almost completely undecorated. The east elevation does have some isolated images of dancers, which I sadly missed as that was the only side I didn’t examine in any detail due to time constraints. My thanks to Luigi Lazzaroni, who has kindly given me permission to add his images of the dancers to this blog, these were taken during his visit to Bishnupur in August 2015.

Some stucco is still present around the entrance arches, particularly around the south-east corner of the structure. This got me wondering if the pyramidal roof also received the same treatment, and that appears to be the case with a few faint traces visible high up near the peak. One has to try and imagine just how different the Rasmancha would have appeared hundreds of years ago, it would have been visible for miles around. It’s another parallel one can draw with the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, that were once clad in shining white marble to create a similar visual impact, albeit on a much grander scale.

Dating the Rasmancha at Bishnupur has proven problematic. There is no foundation inscription, minimal ornamentation to give us any clues, and the uniqueness of the structure means we can’t infer a date from similar datable structures. Up until recently it was thought to have been built by the 49th Malla King Bir Hambir (1565-1620 CE), with a construction date of circa 1600. A recently installed Archaeological Survey of India information board suggests that some reassessment has occurred, and the blind arcade motif that runs along the front of the platform on all four sides suggests a date of late 17th century.

For nearly 250 years the annual Rash festival was held at the Rasmancha, where all the idols of Radha Krishna from neighbouring temples were brought here for public viewing. This was stopped in 1932, I’m not sure why as it seams a great shame to allow such a tradition to cease. I presume it was probably when the monument became protected.

It’s worth noting that as of 2023 the Rasmancha, Jor Bangla and Shyam Rai require a ticket for entry, one ticket covers all three monuments. You can purchase tickets online, but if you want to purchase a ticket in person this is the only place with a manned ticket office, so you need to come here first. Although you don’t need a ticket for the other monuments, the security guards will sometimes ask to see one, so it’s probably best to purchase one regardless of which sites you intend to visit that day.

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3 replies »

  1. Hi Kevin, I admire your photographs, and your astute texts even more. I don’t think my observation is for the public, in this troubled time. Raslila under the full moon enacts the amorous play of Krishna with Gopis. The first legal act stopping the Devadasi tradition dates to 1934 when the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act was enacted. The inner sanctuary at the core of rituals connected to the fertility cult can be reconstructed from the ancient Mesopotamian religion in which the handmaids of Ishtar played a crucial role in which the king, as the high priest participated. Submerged memory coded into the DNA transcending time and space, manages to turn the ziggurat inside out. I made field trips to Bishnupur in the late ’80s & early ’90s. You missed the rural ambiance when you could walk from one monument to another, with nothing to interrupt in between. Nor even people. The place was abandoned with no tourists. I admired the people as being conscientious, and not encroaching on a place of valuable heritage. Unlike Mahabalipuram, where I come from. Sadly, they have proved me wrong. Rasmanch is about Raslila, about dancing couples, and dancing under the moonlight in a circle, illustrated extensively in the ‘terracotta temples’ of the region, which visitors automatically connect with the Rasmanch, whether such reliefs are inset or not! This is about perception involving neuroscience, I suppose. Ras Lele or Ras Mahotsav is a State Festival of Assam, occurring according to the lunar calendar in late November or early December. Assam is also known for the Tantric tradition of Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. The goddess in the underground sanctuary mensurates in June (Ashaad). Folk traditions juxtaposed with architectural heritage have enduring historic value. What a pity, that no one recorded the Ras Leela festivals of yore. Regards, Arputharani

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