The Jain Temples of Rajasthan: Bhandasar, Jaisalmer, Lodhrava & Ranakpur

The painted ceiling at the kaner, Rajasthan, Travel
The painted ceiling at Bhandasar Temple, Bikaner

“Look at the ceiling and see the beautiful gold leaf work,” the priest-cum-guide at the Jain Temple urges our group.

Everyone obediently looks up at the ceiling appreciatively. Some of them, including yours truly, try to see the finer details of the paintings on the ceiling by zooming their camera lens on it.

“What are the images depicted on the ceiling all about?” I ask.

“Those are our Jain stories,” says the priest-cum-guide.

“What do they say?”

The priest-cum-guide smiles, “Madam, you will not find them interesting. You look at the beautiful frescoes and painted pillars and take beautiful pictures.”

Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner
Painted pillars at the Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner

“But how will I know what I’m looking at if I cannot understand what I’m seeing?” I protest.

“You are a non-Jain and these stories are not important for you. Admiring the beauty of the temple is more than sufficient for you,” calmly responds the priest-cum-guide.

I am rendered speechless with indignation and outrage at this statement. And as I discover during the course of my Rajasthan trip in February this year, it is only the beginning. I have conversations like this at all the Jain temples I visit. There are slight degrees of variations, but all visits go something like this: I am warmly welcomed in (for a fee, of course), have the history of the temple narrated to me, urged to look around and take photographs (except of the sanctum sanctorum), have a tikka applied… But the moment I ask details as to what the art and symbolism of the icons and sculptures mean, there would be these very indulgent and polite refusals to elaborate.

Absence of any kind of literature or accompanying audio guide at the temples only added to the general frustration. While I can say that I have visited certain Jain temples in Rajasthan and know the history associated with it, I have no clue as to what I really saw or know the story behind what I saw.

To write this post, I have tried to recollect what I saw, read the notes I had scribbled, and went through the photographs I had taken. The result is a blogpost that is part rant, part sketchy information, part photo essay, and part observation of some of the Jain temples I visited in Rajasthan: Bhandasar Temple (Bikaner), Parsvanath Temple (Jaisalmer), Parsvanath Temple (Lodhrava or Lodarva or Lodrava), and Ranakpur Temple.

Bikaner is home to some 27 Jain temples, and the grandest of them all is the Bhandasar Jain Temple, whose foundations were laid in 1468. Commissioned by Bhandasa Oswal, construction of the temple was completed only after his death in 1514. Legend says that 400 kilos of ghee were poured into the foundation of this temple and it is this ghee that regulates the temperature inside the temple ! The three-storied sandstone and marble temple is dedicated to Suminath, the 5th Jain Tirthankar.

Every inch of the temple interior is either painted or sculpted and the frescoes narrate the life stories the 24 Jain Tirthankars. The first floor of the temple is adorned with beautiful images of the Tirthankars, and the beautifully carved balconies on the first and second floors offer great views of Bikaner city.

Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner , Rajasthan, Travel
A painted door
Bhandasar Jain Temple, Bikaner , Rajasthan, Travel
Idols of Tirthankars at the Bhandasar Jain Temple

Jaisalmer Fort houses 7 Jain temples within its walls; all of them were built between the 15th and 16th centuries. The temple spires are very prominent and can easily be picked out from anywhere in the Fort. Dedicated to different Tirthankars, all the temples are built from the golden-yellow Jaisalmeri stone and are connected with each other making it quite confusing to the casual visitor to separate one temple from another. The temples dedicated to Chandraprabhu, Rishabhdev, Sambhavnath and Parsvanath are the among the largest and also with the most impressive carvings. The entrance to the Parsvanath Temple is particularly stunning.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa, Jaisalmer
Jain Temple spires as seen from the Rajmahal at Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer Fort Jain Temples, Rajasthan, Travel
Entrance to one of the Jain Temples at Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonar Killa, Jaisalmer
Detail from the entrance to the Parsvanath Temple

Lodhrava (or Lodarva or Lodrava) was the ancient capital of the Bhatti Rajputs, the rulers of Jaisalmer. Since the city stood on an ancient trade route through the Thar Desert and was vulnerable to repeated attacks and sacking by invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni (in 1025 CE) and Muhammad Ghori (in 1152 CE), the Bhattis decided to shift the capital to what is today present-day Jaisalmer.

Lodhrava would have remained forgotten if not for its Jain temples. These temples, which bore the brunt of the sacking and looting by invaders, are also built from the same golden-yellow stone that is found in Jaisalmer. Though the Parsvanath Temple at Lodhrava has undergone some amount of repair and restoration, the damage it has suffered is not immediately visible.

Lodurva Jain Temple, Parsvanath , Rajasthan, Travel
Jaali work on the walls of the Parsvanath Temple, Lodhrava
Lodurva Jain Temple, Parsvanath , Rajasthan, Travel
Defaced face of a sculpture at the Parsvanath Temple at Lodhrava
Lodurva Jain Temple, Parsvanath , Rajasthan, Travel
Stone or lace? Carving on the ceiling in the main hall of the Parsvanath Temple, Lodhrava
Lodurva Jain Temple, Parsvanath , Rajasthan, Travel
Detail of carving at the Parsvanath Jain Temple, Lodhrava

Ranakpur Jain Temples left me open-mouthed with wonder. Perhaps, Rajasthan’s best-known Jain temple (and with good reason too !), it was built by Sanghvi Dharnasha Porwal, a minister in the court of Maharana Kumbha. This is one of the rare temples that acknowledges its architect and craftsman, Depa. Completed in 1439, the multi-storeyed temple covers an area of 48,000 sq. ft., is 102 ft. tall at its highest, and is dedicated to Adinath or Rishabhdev, the first Jain Tirthankar.

Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavel
Ranakpur Jain Temple. The temple has no walls and the spires are supported by its columns and beams

Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavelBuilt entirely of marble, the temple has weathered beautifully over the centuries, giving rise to some beautiful textures. The priest-cum- guide said that the architect deliberately chose slightly imperfect marble, as “only God could be perfect, and not humans or human creations”. The temple is supported on 1,444 richly columns with images of dancers, musicians, guardians, Hindu deities, animals like lions and elephants… It is said that no two columns are alike and to continue with the belief that only God could be perfect, one of the pillars is slightly crooked.

The interiors of the temple cannot be described in mere words, at least I am not capable of doing so. All I can say is that every surface, except the floor, is carved and it is an explosion of art all around you. I think that even if I spent a month at the temple, it would not be enough to see and appreciate all that the temple has to offer. A miniscule sample is presented below:

Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavel
Clockwise from top left: A many-hooded snake protecting Adinath and his family from a deluge; Krishna on Kaalia the snake?; a head with 5 bodies, representing the 5 basic elements; this sculpture is supposed to contain 108 Oms !
Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavel
A fraction of the 1,444 columns holding up the temple
Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavel
A wall panel with miniature shrines and Tirthankars carved on it
Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, TRavel
A decorative ‘toran’ carved from sandstone

The visits to the various Jain temples in Rajasthan underscored a serious ignorance on my part — I wasn’t aware of the variety, history and sheer numbers of Jain temples in Rajasthan. For some reason, I always associated Jain Temples with Gujarat and Karnataka. This trip also made me aware of just how ignorant I was about Jains and Jainism. Not for lack of trying though.

I still remember the day when I was refused entry in a Jain temple in Mumbai on account of being a non-Jain. I must have been 8 years old at that time and my friend and her mother, who were Jains, had taken me there. How the priest figured out I was not a Jain is something that I have still not been able to understand as both my friend and I were dressed in our school uniforms. I remember being quite upset at that time, and after that never attempted to enter a Jain temple again till I visited Sarnath in 2011. But I was so worried about being asked to leave the temple at Sarnath that I didn’t take the opportunity to really see and learn from that visit. The fact that I was allowed inside a Jain Temple in Rajasthan showed that at least some things have changed between the time I was 8 and today (I haven’t yet tried visiting a Jain temple in Mumbai). However, entry into the temple has not necessarily meant access to the belief system or understanding what Jainism is all about.

Back home in Mumbai after my Rajasthan trip and still outraged over not been given answers by the priests-cum-guides, I threw myself into searching for information on Jainism, Jain mythology and legends, and Jain art. I found a wealth of literature in Gujarati and Kannada, both languages I do not know, and very limited literature in English. I haven’t given up in my quest (oh yes, this has become a quest) to attempt to understand a belief system. I am aware that progress will be very, very slow but I am not going to give up

Dear reader, if you have any leads, suggestions and references to help me out in this quest of mine, I would be ever so grateful. Thank you 🙂

42 thoughts on “The Jain Temples of Rajasthan: Bhandasar, Jaisalmer, Lodhrava & Ranakpur

  1. Hi Sudha…These temples are exquisite and a peace of India not many look at. One of the great thing about Jain temples is that they were built by merchants and ministers and not by kings. I am a little puzzled about not telling the story, as when I visited Dilwara temples in Mt. Abu every time the guide told the complete story, folklore etc. of every single temple, but they do not allow any photography inside and cell phone etc need to be left outside.

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    1. I must say that you were very lucky then, Desi Traveler, and I would have preferred listening to stories over being allowed to take photos.

      None of the temple priests-cum-guides went beyond the history of the temple or a story connected to the temple. Any request for an explanation or meaning of a painting, icon, or sculptures were just met with either the briefest of answers or polite refusals saying that it was not necessary. But they would definitely tell us what to photograph and how to photograph to get the best possible shot.

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  2. Some of the pictures are really wonderful Sudha and give a glimpse into the intricate workmanship for making these temples, like the picture on the jaali work. I have only been to a join temple in Kenya, and they were very open about explaining the different parts of the temple .. may be in Rajasthan, they are more resistent because usually most people are not interested in such things and they may be feeling offended?

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    1. Thank you, Sunil. I must say that you have been very lucky. I live in the hope that one day I will visit a temple where everything will be explained to me.

      I don’t think it is about resistance or feeling offended; I think it is more the fact that they don’t have to or need to. While donations from Jain devotees does help in maintenance of temples, a significant amount of money comes in from entrance fees and camera fees. So I feel that most of these temples just about tolerate non-Jain visitors !

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  3. Beautiful.. I just wonder how much time it might have taken to do this. These days even with the modern tools you can hardly find such things. Love the paintings.

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    1. Welcome here Ravindra, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Yes, the artwork is stunning indeed and from whatever the priests told me most of the temples were built over an average period of 50 years.

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  4. I wish you all the very best with your quest. It is a significant part of our history that is draped under the name of religion and therefore not really available to non-jains like us. How wonderful it would be to know in detail the birth and progress of one of the oldest belief systems of our country.

    Another thing I noted was the photo of 108 0m that you speak of. When we visited Ranakpur we were told that is the motif of the kalpataru tree. So this too is something I would be interested in knowing more about.

    A true Jain scholar is in high demand right now to answer our queries…:-)

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    1. Thank you very much, Atula. I now wonder how those who are not familiar with Hindu art and mythology feel when they visit Hindu temples? Are guides and priests dismissive or condescending ? 😦

      Yes, I am intrigued about the ‘Om’ ceiling carving bu for another reason. When I had visited the mosques at Champaner, the Jama Masjid there had a similar, if not the same design carved on the ceiling. And of course, the guide said that it was an Islamic design ! https://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/the-forgotten-medieval-ruins-of-champaner/

      And dear, true and patient Jain scholar, where art thou?

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  5. lovely post, Sudha! among these, i have only been to ranakpur, and i still remember the beautiful work vividly, though i hardly clicked any pics then. visiting the Dilwara temples was just as wonderful, but unfortunately, they didnt allow photography, and apart from the history, didnt offer any explanation either… when we visited the jain temples near Ambaji, we were allowed a free rein, but again, they seemed surprised that i even wanted to know stories, and told me they couldnt explain…the only change from this was on my recent trip to wayanad, when we visited a ancient jain temple maintained by the ASI, when the chap on duty explained a lot of the carvings to us… anyway, you can read more about that on my blog later…. and i am a willing collaborator for your ‘quest’ on jainism…. incidentally, intach (i think) has some programmes in the south re jain and hindu temple histories.,… lakshmi went on a tour with them once.

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    1. Join the Quest Club I say ! 🙂 And waiting to read more about your visit to the Jain Temple in Wayanad. Thanks for the info on the Intach programmes and I will check with Lakshmi about this.

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    1. Welcome here, bnomadic. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post and comment as well. The temples are amazing and even this adjective does not do them justice 🙂

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  6. I have come across guides who are not aware of stuff and just say some stupid reasons to evade the questions and only hope that you werent with one such! but neverthless, beautiful pictures and write up, Sudhaji! Especially the painted door, entrances and wall panel! As I read, I was only wishing that you had known few more stories! 🙂
    I think you should take a look at the publications by Dharmasthala Temple, they are again in Kannada and I have read some of the finest histories on their books.
    Happy Trippin’

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    1. I have met those such guides too, but it was not the case here. These were the temple priests and would have been just perfect to explain the the art and symbolism.

      I have heard of excellent publications by the Dharmasthala Temple, but unfortunately I don’t know Kannada. So I will either have to wait for English translations or learn Kannada. let’s see which happens first 🙂

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  7. The Ranakpur temple is surely splendid. The carvings are exquisite.

    I don’t know much about Jainism, too. However, I do have some Gujarati friends, who might be able to help you in your quest. I haven’t been in touch with them for years, though, so not sure how the quest will fare. We can give it a try, though. I’d be happy to be of help. 🙂

    You might also want to read Nine Lives by William Dalrymple, if you haven’t already. It has stories about 9 different religious faiths in India, all depicted very interestingly. I think one of them is about Jainism. I am sure the book will interest you.

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    1. Thank you so much for your offer and suggestions, TGND. I am looking for literature in English or Hindi on Jainism, with special interest in Jain Art and Mythology. I have got a basic books on Jainism, which I plan to read now. I have read Nine Lives and though it is a nice book, it is not what I am looking for.

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  8. I havent seen the Bikaner temple but the ones in Jaisalmer and Ranakpur were really awesome. The best thing is that even the new Jain temples are very intricately carved. I saw one coming up in Kanchipuram and it was very beautiful 🙂

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    1. I loved Ranakpur for its carvings. But I have a soft spot for Lodhruva – there is something about that temple that appealed to me. Imagine being the most important temple for years in the capital city of a kingdom and then ravaged and abandoned. I

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  9. As always, your pictures are beautiful and the explanation so apt and informative. The painted door, ceiling and pillars at Bhandesar Temple are so lovely. It is amazing that after so many years, they are yet so vibrant. I also loved the picture of the jaali work at the Lodhrava temple. As you mentioned, the whole ceiling looks like a canopy of lace.
    I have seen the Dilwara temple in Mount Abu, and I know I came away amazed by the intricate and detailed carvings. The priest was very friendly with us. But, then, our tour faculty was a Jain of Rajasthani origin. I do not know if that made a difference.

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    1. A warm welcome to my blog, Richard, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      I look forward to visiting your blog and reading all about your experience and also about Jainism from your perspective.

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      1. I was looking around for information on Lodurva Jain temples and I came across your blog. Like you, I am also on a quest, but my questions are purely architectural. I have been studying Ranakpur temple for over 6 months now, and I must tell you, it is not only a magnificent temple in terms of its Art, but is also rich in its architectural understanding. I wont be able to explain the architectural details here, but ill try giving a brief, the references of which you may find in a lot of books. Please pardon my simple language.
        Jainism was contemporary of Buddhism, and was started in India. Both these religions were an outcome of rejection of Vedas – the Brahmanical text. Thus, one may keep in mind that Jainism was an offshoot of the Hindu religion, and the basic protoype of temple of both the religion are same, consisting of a Garbhagriha(Sanctum) and a Mandapa(pillared hall). However, the beliefs of both the religions were different. Jainism believed in liberation of soul of a human being – to become a perfect man – just like Mahavira, who was the last Tirthankar. The idol worshipped in Jain temple is a human being, and not a god. One may find that although there are 24 Tirthankars – all of them look almost same – which tells us that there is no one truth, and no one god. This is 1 major difference between both the religions.
        Now ill jump to Ranakpur temple – this is a chaumukh temple. that is, the main shrine (Garbhagriha) has four idols facing the cardinal directions – the reason being the concept of Samvasaran. Samvasaran is a ceremony done when a Tirthankar achieves liberation, it is a preaching hall, like a theatre, where gods and other human beings, animals come to hear the preachings done by Tirthankar. Ranakpur, is believed to be designed like this ‘theatre’, where the tirthankar spreads his teachings all around. the temple is square in plan, completely bounded by huge walls, leaving an opening only where the Titrthankar faces. Thus you will find the temple of Ranakpur completely secured – you will not be able to see anything outside the temple, but is only open where the idol faces.
        This itself is a symbolic representation of Jainism manifested architecturally in the temple. Now if we look at carvings done on columns, you will find a difference from dilwara temples – the reason being craftsmen. dilwara temples were made 300 years before Ranakpur. During these 300 years, there were invasions of Sultans in these temples, thus we see the islamic influence in the columns of Ranakpur. in columns of delwara, there are figurative carvings, whereas in Ranakpur, major part of columns are covered in geometric patterns – much of what we see in Islamic buildings. secondly, never before a Jain temple has a triple storey in temple, which we see here. some historians have again compared it to Jama Masjid, Ahmedbad.
        We see a lot of new things happening in Ranakpur, a deflection from previous Jain temples and i believe it is important to see this temple in light of its architecture more than its art. Carving wise, Delwara seems richer.
        These are major highlights in Ranakpur temple, and the claims that the columns are purposely tilted or bad quality of stone is used to protect the temple from evil spirits is completely false. These are just technical errors which are highly possible in 15th century. I think its important for the priest-cum-guides to know this, to give interesting information. the problem is most of the people are tourists, and not like you or me, who try to have a complete understanding. One day i will take people on tour to this temple to show the real value, hopefully.
        I recommend you to read a historian called M A Dhaky for more information The best book I recommend is a guide book written by him, found in office of temple. Unfortunately it is only in Gujarati, the english version is just about ok.
        Hopefully, this was as interesting to u as it was to me,
        Good luck!

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  10. Chanakya, Bhamashah n Amit Shah are jems of Jains who guided this gr8 nation. Similarly we find gr8 Maharajsa / gurus who guide society and in same fashion we find gr8 architecture, in fact most beautiful in India, this is my personal feeling as per my education and experience.

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