Bishnupur in Bankura district of West Bengal is regarded as temple town. Bishnupur was once the capital of Malla kings. A new dynasty known as Malla dynasty began in 694 A.D with Adi Malla (694-710), the first king. With his accession a new type of calendar, Mallabda began. There is a difference of 101 years between Bangabda (the Bengali calendar) and Mallabda with the former starting in the year 593 A.D.
Apart from being the temple town, Bishnupur is also culturally famous. A new type of classical music – Bishnupur gharana finds mention. Baluchari saree has a huge demand not only here but also overseas. There is another thing which is equally famous and is a part of the rich cultural heritage of Bishnupur and a very “unique example of Bengal’s folk art ” – Dashavatar Tash (Cards).
Dashavatar or ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are Matsya (fish), Kurma (turtle), Barah (boar), Nrisingha (a combination of man and lion together), Baman (dwarf), Ram (the central character in Ramayan), Balaram (the elder brother of Lord Krishna), Parshuram (sixth incarnation with axe), Buddha (the ninth incarnation with peace) and Kalki (the avatar yet to come).
History says that the Dashavatar tash came into existence during the reign of 49th Malla King Bir Hambir (1565-1620) who is also famous for building the Rasmancha – an architectural wonder – in Bishnupur around 1600 A.D. Bir Hambir had a good relationship with the then Mughal emperor Akbar and had visited the latter’s court in Agra a number of times where possibly he might have seen the playing of cards – Mughal ganjifa with 96 cards. He returned to Bishnupur keeping in mind an intention of creating a new card with some uniqueness. So came Dasavatar tash. The game is played using 120 cards with various rules and regulations.
Now the cards are not prepared from any paper; instead they are made from cloth. It sounds something uncommon; not at all. A peculiar technique is used in preparing the tash (cards). A piece of cloth is folded a number of times in order to make it a little bit thick. Alternately, eight layers of cloth is placed one after the another and each is pasted using natural glue or gum prepared from tamarind seeds and sirish (a tree famous for gum). Then they are kept for drying. Later a layer of chalk dust is also applied over it. After that using a smooth stone the sides are evened out so that it looks good. The cards then feel like as if they are made of hard board. The tash are then cut into round shapes with 4 and 1/2 inch in diameter.
The pictures of various deities are painted using purely natural colour. More or less each card has a red border and it adds to the beauty of the Dashavatar Tash. The colours are not only natural but also lively. The reverse of the card has a red colour owing to a layer of gala (wax) and sindoor (vermilion) being applied.
The cards are still prepared by the Faujdar family near Manasatala of Sakhari bazaar which is close to Madanmohan temple in Bishnupur. The Dasavatar tash which was once played as an indoor game by the Malla kings now finds a place in the collector’s archive.
Date of posting: 7th January, 2019.