There they stand, a profusion of brick temples in all their majesty, testifying to human ingenuity overcoming nature’s parsimony. The lack of suitable building materials in the region did not deter the 7th-century Malla kings of Bengal from pursuing their love of art. Making abundant use of the humble potter’s clay, the Malla kings gave full cry to their creative and architectural prowess to erect the magnificent terracotta temples of Bishnupur.

Our trip to Bishnupur in West Bengal’s Bankura district, 200 km from Kolkata, happens by accident. We weave our way through a maze of traffic that includes rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts, and some motorised vehicles that must have seen better days. The town seems frozen in time, expect for a sprinkling of Net cafes and mobile phone outlets here and there.

But nothing can distract the visitor from the town’s distinctive temples, which bear striking resemblance to the native Bengal huts in their structural design. Sculptures etched on baked clay tiles are plastered on to the brick walls. The special adhesive used was made from natural ingredients including tamarind seed, sticky pulses, ripe bananas and jaggery.

The construction work reached its pinnacle during the reigns of Bir Hambir, Vir Singh and Raghunath Singh in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, 26 of the temples survive and are scattered within what once used to be the fort area. The ASI-protected monuments are in various states of preservation.

The temples largely celebrate Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, the presiding deity of the Malla kings. The ornamental plaques display stunning craftsmanship and the sculptures bring to life tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, besides portraying Krishna in various moods and poses. Bir Hambir began the worship of Madan Mohan in Bishnupur, and it was during his reign that the region’s oldest and most unique landmark - the Ras Mancha - was built in 1587. Located outside the fort area, it is from this monument that we begin exploring the grandeur of Bishnupur.

The Ras Mancha, set amidst a lush and manicured lawn, served as a congregation point for the various temple deities during the Ras festival. With its pyramid-shaped roof, raised on a laterite plinth, the huge rectangular structure is one of its kind in Bengal, and perhaps India. Carvings depicting dancers and musicians adorn the thick pillars that support the structure’s 108 arched gateways.

Our next halt a few minutes away is the sculpturally resplendent Madan Mohan temple, built in 1694 in the ekaratna style marked by a single square, flat roof with curved cornices. The pillars embellished with carvings of 64 dance poses leave us spellbound. The exterior walls are densely ornamented with characters from Hindu mythology.

Bir Hambir’s successor, Raghunath Singh, was the first Bishnupur king to use the title ‘Singh’, conferred on him by the Nawab of Murshidabad. It was during his reign that one of Bengal’s prized monuments, the Shyam Rai Temple, was built in the Pancharatna architectural style. While most of the carvings are associated with Ras Lila, Radha and Krishna, some cornices have friezes of musicians, dancers, royal hunting scenes and a variety of fauna.

The Bishnupur temples are largely characterised by an ornate front that contrasts with a simple rear and sides. Depending on the number of canopies, or shikharas , the temples are classified as ekaratna , pancharatna or navaratna . The Jor Bangla temple is a prominent example of the Chala style, marked by triangular roofs that resemble a typical Bengali hut. The Odisha architectural style, Deul, comprising long curvilinear or tapering towers is the third prominent form in Bishnupur.

With time running out, we hasten to the Dol Madol, a huge cannon built in 1742 by Raja Gopal Singh to keep Maratha troops at bay. The 18th century spelt doom for the Malla kingdom and Bishnupur, plagued by invasions and famine. However, in addition to the temples, the Malla kings’ lasting legacy includes the many bunds or water tanks they built, which provided continuous water supply to the people and safeguarded against enemy attacks. These impressive structures today lie waste and bereft of water.

For visitors, Bishnupur’s heritage treasure-trove also offers the finely-crafted clay Bankura horse and Baluchari saris with beautifully woven images from the Ramayana and Mahabharat.