Before we begin this article, ‘The Gaudiya Treasures of Bengal’ would like to apprise the reader that Bishnupur or Bana Bishnupur (as it is sometimes referred) is arguably the very best pilgrimage, where one could still get a first hand experience of the great opulence and grandeur that once punctuated the Gaudiya tradition of erstwhile Bengal. The whole town of Bishnupur, which was once the capital of the Malla kingdom, is adorned with magnificent temples, showcasing exquisite architecture, built with bricks and laterite stones, that still stand tall to tell a tale of a glorious heritage, that we people of Bengal should be exceedingly proud of. Bishnupur, the land of red soil, boasts of a rich culture that is second to none and is inhabited with such gentle dignified and well behaved people, who can indeed be compared to demigods. In a nutshell, Bishnupur has left a taste in us which we shall never forget in our life.
The earliest records of the Malla Kingdom of Bengal dates back to 694 AD, when king Adi Malla ascended the throne. The land ruled by these Malla Kings was known as ‘Mallabhum’ and was mainly centered around the district of bankura,but also included parts of Burdwan,Medinipur,Murshidabad stretching as far as ChotaNagpur in Bihar. The capital of Mallabhum came to be later known as Bishnupur, named after Lord Vishnu, the supreme personality of Godhead and since Bir Hambir, the 49th Malla king ,took reins of the kingdom (around the year 1565 AD), Vaishnavism became the predominant cult in these lands.
King Bir Hambir
The great Malla King Bir Hambir, was a contemporary of Akbar the great. It can be safely said that the golden age of the Malla kingdom, heralded when he (the 49th Malla King) ascended the throne of Mallabhum. He was a great warrior and a shrewd politician.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the conflict between the Mughals, who occupied almost the entire country, and Pathans, who independently ruled over parts of Bengal and Orissa, reached its peak. So when the Mughals attacked Orissa,in the year 1565 AD, the Pathans, led by their prince Dawood Khan, attacked the kingdom of Mallabhum, which at that time was being ruled by the aged Malla King , Dhari Malla. Over a million pathan soldiers knocked at the doors of Bishnupur. Dhari Malla, ordered his son Bir Hambir, to organize the forces and counter the aggressive Pathans.
Bir Hambir very quickly organized his soldiers, though they were comparatively quite less in number, and marched forward fearlessly to respond to the Pathan aggression. A fierce fight then took place which lasted for several days. The Pathans suffered a massive defeat and retreated. The place where this fight took place is today known as ‘Munda Malar Ghata’ or the place where Bir Hambir, by his strength and valor, created a garland(Mala) out of Pathan skulls (Munda).The Pathan prince Dawood Khan was captured during the fight and was then brought to Bishnupur as a prisoner. But subsequently, compassionate Bir Hambir, released Dawood Khan, sparing him his life. Glories of Bir Hambir spread far and wide, and people rejoiced and celebrated his victory. He was honored with the title “Bir” , which means the brave one. Some people are also of the opinion that this title “Bir” was actually bestowed upon him by the Pathan prince Dawood Khan, who was moved by his greatness. Bir Hambir was coronated as the next Malla king in the year 1565 AD and after taking the reins, he focussed on enhancing Mallabhum’s overall military strength, creating forts , building waterways,etc.
A few years later, after the death of the Pathan king Dawood Khan, the Pathan forces attempted to recapture Bengal. The then commander of the Pathan forces in Orissa , Katlun Khan,launched his attack on Bengal. Akbar, sent his best commander in chief, Man singh, to combat and restore order. King Bir Hambir, chose to support the Mughals in this war. The Mughals set up their camps near present day Arambagh, in the Hooghly district while the Pathans waited for them in Bankura.
The Pathans, resorted to trickery, and sent their messenger to the Mughal camp with a proposal for peace. Man Singh and his son Jagat Singh, couldn’t understand the evil intentions of the pathans and set foot in their trap. Jagat Singh was captured by the Pathans, on his way back and as a result the Mughal camp became highly demoralized.
While the enemy rejoiced, Bir Hambir very skillfully and deftly rescued Jagat Singh from the clutches of the traitor pathans and handed him over to his father Man Singh. Man Singh was very grateful to Bir Hambir and later lavishly praised him in the assembly of emperor Akbar. From then on, a very good relationship was established between the Mallas and the Mughals. The subsequent fight that ensued , resulted in a humiliating defeat for the pathans, with their leader Katlun Khan dying in the battle. The place where this battle took place, hence came to be known as Katlunpura or Kotulpur ,and is about an hour ride from Bishnupur. Katlun Khan was buried at this place..
The Books of Goswamis get stolen in Bishnupur:
From Nityananda Das’ Prem Vilasa, we come to understand, that it was Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s earnest desire that the books written by the Goswamis ,be brought from Vrindavana and studied in Bengal ,because Bengal was very dear to Him. He wanted all these books to be translated in Bengali so that they could be relished by the bengali devotees and enable them to further His mission.Also, there is another pastime in which the deity of Sri Govinda Dev jiu in Vrindavana personally spoke and instructed Sri Jiva and Srinivasa acharya to distribute these books.Thus, Sri Jiva Goswami requested Sri Srinivasa Acharya, Narottama Das Thakura and Syamananda pandita (refer – ‘Sri Syamananda Pandita’s Bhajana Kutira & Samadhi , Kanupur (Near Balasore)’) to carry all these priceless books from Vrindavan to Bengal. After taking due permission from the senior Goswamis and their worshipable deities, the three of them set out for Gaudadesha (Bengal), carrying the treasure of these transcendental books. The books were loaded into huge trunks, which were then locked and securely placed upon a bullock cart. Sri Jiva Goswami then gave the three enough money and men to accompany them during the journey.
They travelled all the way from Vrindavana to Bengal, taking the path through the Jharikhanda forest. Tears filled their eyes and ecstatic symptoms appeared on their bodies just remembering how Sri Caitanya had taken the same route while travelling to Bengal from Vrindavana. During nights, they halted at suitable places to rest and continued from there the next morning. Soon the bullock cart entered Bengal, and reached the borders of Bishnupur.
But Sri Gauranga had other plans. An incident then took place which not only shook the three devotees carrying these books ,but also the entire devotee fraternity from Vraja to Bengal. King Bir Hambir had a renowned astrologer in his palace, whose calculations were unmistakable. One day he informed the king that soon a bullock cart would be passing by the borders of Bishnupur ,possessing some priceless treasures, which would herald a golden age for his kingdom. King Bir Hambir needed a lot of wealth to rebuild his kingdom after the wars, and hence he ordered his soldiers, to hide near the borders and watch out for the bullock cart. He strictly ordered that no one should be getting hurt and the wealth had to be captured without shedding even a single drop of blood. The soldiers complied and the huge trunks in the bullock cart were subsequently stolen and brought to the King. The soldiers informed him that the looted bullock cart had arrived from Vrindavana.When the trunks were opened, Bir Hambir was utterly confused and could not fathom why someone would take the pains to travel all the way from Vrindavana to bengal carrying just a few books.Anyways, he ordered the trunks to be placed in the storeroom.
The books that were stolen constituted the very pillars of our sampradaya, the very essence of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement, that have taken years for our dear Goswamis to compose. Srinivasa Acharya, Narottama Das and Syamananda Prabhu wandered from village to village like madmen searching for the stolen books. They didn’t want to maintain their lives after this catastrophe. The stolen books included gems like Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, Ujjvala Nilamani, Vidagdha Madhava, Lalita Madhava, Hari Bhakti Vilasa, Sat sandarbha and Sri Caitanya Caritamrta.
Srinivasa Acharya recovers the stolen Books
Sri Srinivasa Acharya then wrote a detailed letter to Sri Jiva Goswami describing the entire incident. When the news reached Vrindavana, all the Goswamis lamented bitterly and wanted to give up their lives. Sri Srinivasa Acharya then started meditating upon the lotus feet of Sri Gauranga and Nityananda, in order to seek guidance and instructions. Then one night, he asked Sri Narottama Das Thakura and Sri Syamananda Pandita to return to their respective homes in Kheturi and Orissa. Srinivasa Acharya decided to stay back at Bishnupur ,hoping to recover these stolen books.
No one recognized Srinivasa Acharya in Bishnupur since he was a stranger here.He wandered like a madman, wearing just a small cloth and a cadar. Sometimes he begged food and sometimes fasted, drinking only water. After spending ten days like this, he sat down beneath a tree to take rest. A small brahmana boy,named Krishna Vallabha, whose house was in the neighbouring village of Deuli came and introduced himself.He requested Srinivasa Acharya to educate him in the scriptures and accept him as his student, to which Srinivasa agreed. Srinivasa acharya came to understand from the boy, that there were regular scriptural discussions in the royal court ,during which the royal priest would recite and explain the revealed scriptures. Together with Krishna Vallabha, Srinivasa arrived at the King’s court one day, to hear the royal priest speak.
Srinivasa couldn’t control himself when he heard the priest’s faulty explanations to Srimad Bhagavatam. He requested the priest to stick to the commentary of Sridhar Swami instead of adding his own mundane interpretations.The priest got very angry upon hearing this and asked Srinivasa to come forward and explain the verses himself. The priest didn’t know the stature of Srinivasa and considered him to be just a common man.When Srinivasa began explaining, the whole court fell silent as people listened with rapt attention.He provided conclusive purports for each verse.The priest surrendered at his lotus feet and requested him to forgive his offenses.Bir Hambir was also astonished and was moved to such an extent that he requested Sri Srinivasa to stay back as a guest in his palace, to which Srinivasa agreed.
Sri Srinivasa was constantly meditating on how to recover the lost books.He got up early in the morning and recited many nice prayers to the Lord. The king also got up early just to hear Srinivasa chant and considered himself very fortunate to have a man of such exalted qualities as his guest.Bir Hambir’s attachment to Srinivasa Acharya increased day by day. As he listened to Sri Srinivasa’s recitations of the revealed scriptures, his heart completely melted .He cried,laughed, and rolled upon the ground in ecstasy.The royal priest too shed tears hearing the nectarean lectures of Srinivasa. In Srinivasa, Bir Hambir at last found his eternal spiritual master, whom he had been long waiting for.
After a few days Sri Srinivasa revealed to Bir Hambir his real reasons for coming to Bishnupur. He narrated how the books of the Goswamis had got stolen while he, Narottama das and Syamananda Pandita camped for the night at Gopalpur.The king felt extremely ashamed of his misdeed, and led Srinivasa to the storehouse where he had kept all the Books completely unharmed.As soon Srinivasa saw the books, he felt elated with joy and as if regained his lost life. Bir Hambir then told Srinivasa acharya, that he doesn’t know whether his stealing of the books was something good or bad, because if he hadn’t got them stolen , Bishnupur would never be having the good fortune of receiving the mercy and association of such an exalted vaishnava as Srinivasa Acharya. Bishnupur would have been otherwise deprived of Sri Gauranga’s mercy.
Bir Hambir fell at Srinivasa acharya’s lotus feet and completely surrendered himself unto him. On an auspicious day in the month of Ashara (June-July), Srinivasa initiated Bir Hambir and gave him the required instructions. He instructed the king to begin with studying Sri Rupa Goswami’s books (refer – ‘Ramkeli, Malda – The once-headquarters of Sri Rupa and Sanatana Goswami’).Bir Hambir’s initiated name was Hari Carana Das and he began serving his eternal spiritual master with his mind,body and words. The king offered Srinivasa nice items in charity and also arranged for messengers to be sent across to various places to inform devotees about the recovery of the lost books. ‘The Gaudiya Treasures of Bengal’ has covered the life and pastimes of Srinivasa Acharya in a separate article entitled – ‘Sri Srinivasa Acharya’s Sripat, Jajigram (Near Srikhanda, Katwa)’.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s lila is exceedingly deep and very difficult to understand. He has a million ways of distributing His mercy. The stealing of the books were His means to deliver the kingdom of Bishnupur and its king Bir Hambir, who went onto become one of the most exalted and exemplary vaishnava kings of bengal. Bir Hambir ushered an era of devotional service and sankirtana yajna in Mallabhum, the glories of which are sung even to this day. That is why it is said that the magnanimity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is very unique, very miraculous (refer – ‘YogPeeth, Mayapur, Navadvipa – The birthplace of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’).
“Caitanya candra doya koro vichar, vichar korile citte pave chamatkar”
The Later life of Bir Hambir
King Bir Hambir was now a completely transformed person. The astrologer was right- the bullock cart had brought with it a huge wealth, a wealth that was instrumental in transforming Bishnupur to Vrindavana. Bir Hambir had found the path of love, the path of Bhakti, with which he now wanted to immerse one and all.
He associated with his Guru Srinivasa acharya as much as possible and learnt from him the conclusions of the revealed scriptures. To tie down his Guru to Bishnupur,Bir Hambir arranged for his guru’s second marriage with Padmavati,the daughter of Raghunatha Chakravarty, who were residents of the nearby Gopalpur village. Srinivasa Acharya was only twenty-five years of age back then. Both his wives, lived happily together, living by the highest vaishnava regulations. As time rolled, Srinivasa acharya bore a son and a daughter in the womb of Padmavati. The son was named Gitagovinda and his daughter named Hemalata.
After the disappearance of Srinivasa acharya, Hemalata devi assumed the role of Guru and was revered as an exalted Vaishnavi in erstwhile Bengal. The samadhi tomb of Srinivasa Acharya is located in Bishnupur. We are not sure whether this is the full samadhi or the pushpa samadhi of our dear Acharya thakura as one of his samadhi tombs is also located in Vrindavan.Anyways, this is one of the most sacred sites of pilgrimage for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Just beside his samadhi in Bishnupur,the house of Hemalata devi still exists where she used to reside. ‘The Gaudiya treasures of Bengal’ seeks her blessings and prays for her mercy in order to enter into the eternal pastimes of the Lord.The family line of Srinivasa Acharya continues to exist in Bishnupur till this day and prominent singers of Bishnupur Gharana like Sri Radhika Prasada Goswami and Sri Gyanendra Prasad Goswami belonged to this great lineage. There is a very good chance that the Bishnupur Gharana of music, which is the only authentic musical gharana of Bengal, had its early roots in the Manohar Sahi style of kirtana, propagated by Sri Srinivasa Acharya.
Bir Hambir went on a pilgrimage to Vrindavan with his dear Gurudev, Srinivasa.There he had the good fortune of taking the dust from the lotus feet of the senior vaishnavas who blessed him dearly. On returning home, he constructed several temples all over Bishnupur that still bedeck this magnificent city. Here he dug Radha Kunda, Syama Kunda and established different pastime places of Krishna including the different forests of Vraja.
The prominent Rasmancha, which was created to celebrate the significant Rasa festival of the various deities,is a representation of the exquisite architecture, that adorns the city.Srinivasa Acharya was so impressed, that he renamed Bishnupur as Gupta Vrindavan.
People were entranced seeing the devotional symptoms in Bir Hambir and sang praises about him. Even the Nawab,realized that Bir Hambir was not an ordinary man and decided to write off all the debts that Bishnupur had incurred. The Nawab honored him with the title “Dev”. After installing his son Dhari Hambir to the throne of Mallabhum, Bir Hambir retired from active life. He accompanied his spiritual master Srinivasa Acharya to Vrindavan where he spent the remainder of his life engaging himself in an intense Krishna bhajana. Bir Hambir’s complete samadhi temple is located at Vrindavan.Bir hambir heralded a golden age for Mallabhum and his descendants followed his precedent and continued to administer the lands and its citizens according to the Vaishnava siddhantas, keeping the Supreme Lord in the center. The rich legacy left behind by king Bir Hambir and the subsequent Malla kings ,as we shall discuss in the next articles, will forever be glorified, in the pages of our Gaudiya history.
What to See :
- The samadhi of Srinivasa Acharya
- The remains of Bir Hambir’s palace
- Take darsana of Sri Madana Mohana jiu
- The temples that the Malla Kings have constructed over the years at Bishnupur. It helps us obtain a sneak peek into the great opulence and grandeur that once punctuated the Gaudiya tradition of erstwhile Bengal.
On a closing Note:
‘The Gaudiya Treasures of Bengal’ has been striving to seek shelter of such great personalities throughout its spiritual journey. It is only with this objective of receiving their mercy and sharing it with others, that we have set out from our homes, trying to reveal to the world the mood and esoteric pastimes of these great men.The life and teachings, of these stalwarts inspire us to imbibe the same values and principles in our own lives and we pray that they mercifully bless us, so that we may forever contemplate upon their blissful pastimes.
We worship the lotus feet of our spiritual master ,whose causeless mercy has empowered us ineligible fools ,to gain entrance and take up service in this exalted abode of Bishnupur. We seek shelter of this holy land, and pray that its glories remain forever imprinted in our heart.‘The Gaudiya Treasures of Bengal’ offers millions of obeisances and humbly prays to Sri Srinivasa Acharya and Bir Hambir that we advance in our Krishna consciousness, develop attachment unto the lotus feet of Lord Gauranga and are able to serve Sri Guru & Vaishnavas, by our honest and sincere efforts. We seek their blessings and compassion , in successfully rendering this humble service of reciting the pastimes and revealing the pastime places of the Supreme Lord and His beloved associates.We shall consider ourselves greatly fortunate and our existence meaningful if Lord Gaurahari and our dear spiritual master are kindly pleased with our endeavours.
(The article continues in part 2)…
How to Reach:
The team from ‘The Gaudiya treasures of Bengal’ took a train (Rupasi Bangla) from kolkata to directly reach the Bishnupur station. The journey takes around 3 hours and on reaching there , we rested for the night at the West Bengal Tourism Lodge. The lodge is very beautifully decorated with fragrant trees. The rooms are very spacious having all the modern facilities.After completing our yatra, we boarded the same train , the next day evening, and left for kolkata. It is worthwhile ,acknowledging the assistance of Mr Biswajit Pramanik (+91 9474670110) , the local guide here in Bishnupur, who helped by taking us around the different places. The beauty of Bishnupur (sometimes also spelt as Vishnupur) enthralled us and the hospitality of the localites left an everlasting mark in our heart.