“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Built 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:
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 🙂