Ranakpur in Rajasthan is synonymous with its world-famous Jain temple. So much so that another, older temple located less than half-a-kilometre from the Jain temple lies virtually forgotten, visited only by the someone who knows about it existence – the 13th century Suryanarayan Temple or Sun Temple.
It is around 3 in the afternoon when our group arrives at the Sun Temple. Looking back, I’m still astonished that we made it to the temple for there are no signboards or markers to guide a visitor to the Sun Temple. If the manager of our tour group had not known about the Sun Temple, I doubt we would have visited it.
Built from low-grade marble, which has weathered beautifully over the centuries, the exterior of the temple is intricately carved with Surya or the Sun God seated on a chariot drawn by horses. The temple faces east, and has a sanctum topped by a shikhara in the nagara style, and an octogonal mandapa preceding the sanctum. The mandapa has some of the most exquisitely carved pillars and sculpted toranas I have seen. This is the first time I’m visiting a sun temple and I’m fascinated by the unusual motifs and iconography on the walls here.
“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), ParsvanathTemple (Jaisalmer), Parsvanath Temple (Lodhrava or Lodarva or Lodrava), and Ranakpur Temple.
Yesterday my boss walked into my room to find me staring out of my office window, apparently lost in my own thoughts. He waited a while before clearing his throat and saying, “Thinking about that Rajasthan Trip of yours again?” My sheepish smile confirmed his guess that I had indeed been thinking my recent 11-day trip to Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh, Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
It has been 2 weeks since I returned to Mumbai, but you are still in my mind during all my waking and sleeping hours. The bright blue skies, starlit nights, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and peacock calls are something that I sorely miss. It was a trip that challenged and reiterated in equal measure my notions of who and what you are. It was also a trip that delighted, surprised, awed, and sometimes saddened me.
Do you know that my visit generated 1,752 photographs? That 90 percent of the photographs have been deleted is testimony to my photography skills, and not due to any fault of yours. How clearly I remember the first of the many photographs I clicked: the arid yellow landscape, green shrubs, the bright blue skies and a woman clad in bright-coloured clothes.
Bikaner Railway Station was the first of the many surprises you sprung up on me. Are you sure that it was not a sprawling haveli once-upon-a-time, which then got converted to a railway station? When I posted a picture of the railway station on my Facebook timeline, many people did not believe that it was a railway station !