Krishna, one of the ten incarnations of the preserver god Vishnu, is possibly the most compelling deity in the Hindu pantheon. Over the centuries his divine and multi-faceted nature has been the inspiration for thousands of poems, devotional songs, paintings, sculptures and temples. Often he is portrayed as a righteous king, the upholder of dharma, who through his immense power destroyed a myriad of terrible demons. In his early childhood he is depicted as mischievous and miraculous; for example, when his foster mother, Yeshoda, glanced into his mouth to see if he had stolen butter, she saw the entire universe. But it was Krishna, not as the heroic upholder of dharma in the Bhagavad-Gita but as the playful young gopa (cowherd) growing up in the fertile forests of Vrindavan, around whom many Vaishnava bhakti cults emerged in the late medieval period, particularly in northern India.
A sixteenth century Bengali saint Caitanya (1486 -1533), was largely responsible for initiating the regeneration of Vrindavan into the material version of Krishna’s paradise, complete with temples, gardens and famed images of the young god. ‘Caitanya’s yearning for God took the form of an intense love for Krsna whom he regarded, not as a mere incarnation of Visnu, but as the supreme person known as the Bhagavat representing the Ultimate Reality.’ (Acharjee, 2002: 28-9) A special feature of Caitanya’s Bengali Vaishnavism was the joint worship of Radha and Krishna. One of Krishna’s attributes is Satchitananda meaning pure bliss – the nature of infinite love. Radha is the manifestation of his love, thus they are one and the same. She is like a mirror in which Krishna sees his reflection. Hence, they are necessary to one another.
After Caitanya’s death, one of his pupils went to the Bengali town of Bishnupur to establish the Vaishnava religion. The local ruler soon set about trying to recreate Vrindivan in Bishnupur – complete with temples, landscaped areas of jungle and a large body of local devotional poetry. Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the landscape of Bishnupur, the Bankura region and the surrounding districts of southwest Bengal, became decorated with over a hundred unique double-storied Ratna (jewel) temples designed specifically for the worship of Radha-Krishna. Bengal was dominated by Muslim Mughul rulers and this Islamic influence can be seen in the beautiful temples which were built to house Krishna during this period.
I love this design! Such imagination! One can understand why the local village inhabitants were so rapidly drawn to this religious branch of Hinduism. Not only did it have impressive temples, but the worship consisted in large part, of impassioned devotional singing, ecstatic dancing, and eating the remains of the delicious food offered to Krishna.
The temples were built from local materials – red brick with intricate terracotta relief panels – which provided a beautiful contrast to the luscious green foliage prevelant in the fertile plains of Bengal. The wonderfully curved roofs of the temples are reminiscent of the those seen on typical Bengali huts. Vaishnavism shared a need with Islam for congregational space. Thus, mosques having created a successful architectural formula became the obvious influence for bhakti temples. With their diversity of influences, combined with relief panels illustrating tales of Krishna from the Ramayana and other traditional and local sources, the temples appear truly innovative and unique. The second story, common only to these Vaishnavi temples, was necessary because two shrines were needed to re-enact Krishna’s time at Vrindivan.
Why was the most frivious episode of Krishna’s life worshipped by the Vaishnavi’s? David Kinsley refers to a popular Bengali saying: “Without Krsna, there is no song.” (Kinsley, 1972: 178) This saying seems to convey everything that is playful and devotional about the religion and due to its attractive nature, populist. The movement, in order to establish itself needed a visual expression of the importance of Krishna, a monument symbolising their devotion to him, and an image to offer this devotion too. Thus, a new temple form was created to fulfil the ritual requirements of a movement which only began in the sixteenth-century.
The countless relief panels that decorate the facades of these ratna temples are exquisitely detailed – almost unbelievable considering their medium. They combine delightful figurative work with delicate arabesque foliage (the latter adopted from Islamic art).
This terracotta panel illustrates the Rasa Lila, a famous episode from Krishna’s time at Vrindavan when he replicated himself so that every gopi believed that she alone was dancing with Krishna. The Rasa Lila is circular in form and in the centre Radha danced with Krishna.