India day eleven
27.10.2015 - 27.10.2015
Bidding a somewhat reluctant farewell to the beautiful hunting lodge of Rawla Narlai after breakfast, we were nonetheless eager to see what further wonders Rajasthan had in store for us, and were not to be disappointed. On a wooded hillside in the Aravalli range, north of Udaipur, is an exquisite Jain temple, intricately carved in white marble – Ranakpur, our main objective for the day.
The temple only opens to visitors at midday so we took our time on the drive, stopping from time to time to take photos – women at work in the fields, a troop of lively langur monkeys.
On the road to Ranakpur
We made a slightly longer stop in Sadri to stretch our legs and take a few photos. It was a few weeks before Diwali and already the flower sellers were out in full force with their garlands of marigolds and other flowers. As everywhere in Rajasthan we found that many people were happy for us to take photos, although a couple of women here said no.
This is a busy market town and something of a hub for the surrounding rural communities in the Aravalli hills. Many people here are Jains and there are a couple of small temples in town, but it is most notable for its proximity to perhaps the greatest of India's Jain temples at Ranakpur.
Ranakpur is dedicated to the first Jain tirthankar Bhagvan Adinath. It was built in the 15th century and today stands as a monument to the vision of its founder, Dharana Shah, as well as to the skill of the sculptor who designed and created it, Depak, and of course to the devotion of the many Jains who have worshipped here over the centuries and who continue to do so today – this is both historical sight and living place of worship. The main temple n the complex is Chaumukha Mandir, and it was there that we spent most of our time on this visit, as do most people who come here.
Chaumukha Mandir means Four-Faced Temple and it is so-called because it has a four-way symmetry, with four entrances and four identical images of, to whom it is dedicated – each facing in a different direction. The interior consists of 29 interconnecting halls, 80 domes and 1444 individually engraved pillars, no two of which are alike – and it is stunning.
This Jain temple at Ranakpur is widely considered to be the most beautiful in India, and one of the most important. It was built in the 15th century, inspired by the vision of one Shreshti Dharana Shah, a minister in the court of Kumbha Rana, the ruler of Mewar. A devout Jain, who had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy, Dharana Shah had a dream in which he saw the Nalinigulma Viman, a divine flying chariot mentioned in Jain mythology, and he resolved to build a temple to resemble this heavenly image. He persuaded Rana Kumbha to donate some land and he agreed, encouraged to do so by Acharya Somasundarsuriji his spiritual teacher.
Dharana Shah then set about the search for an architect to bring his vision to reality. Many famous artists and scholars submitted designs, but none was quite right, until a more humble sculptor named Depak presented his ideas. These impressed Dharana Shah and he could see that his vision would be realised by this man, and so their partnership was formed and over the next fifty years the temple constructed, at a cost (it is said) of ten million rupees – a fortune at that time. The result is spectacular, both outside and, especially, within. Each of the 80 separate domes is carved in concentric bands, and the whole building is covered with delicate lace-like carvings and geometric patterns. The brackets connecting the base of the domes with the top are covered with figures of deities.
Chaumukha Mandir exterior
Visiting the temple
The temple is reserved for prayer in the mornings so is only open to tourists from midday, closing at 5.00 PM. Entry is free but you must pay 100 IR for photography (the fee is per camera, including phones, so leave any you don’t want to use with your driver if possible). You can also pay 200 IR for an audio guide, which is reasonable given the large amount of interesting information it conveys. You are required to leave photo ID when renting this, so that means handing over your passport. Mehar assured us it would be safe; we were given a receipt and both were returned OK after our visit, thankfully.
Some rules for visiting
When you visit Ranakpur you are a guest of the Jains and it is only right that they ask you to follow certain rules connected to their beliefs – but there are quite a lot of them, as the sign indicates. The most important ones to be aware of are:
~ dress respectfully, with long trousers or skirts (below the knees) and shoulders covered
~ remove your shoes at the entrance
~ do not wear or carry any leather (belt, wallet, purse etc.) – your driver will look after these if you have one, or you can hire a locker
~ don’t take in any food or drink, even water – again, leave these with your driver or use a locker
~ don’t take any photos of the idols
~ don’t touch any of the carvings
~ women who are menstruating are not allowed to enter (I don’t know whether or how they check this but it would be respectful to obey)
~ pay the fee if you want to take photos, and carry the ticket you’ll be given in case challenged (we weren’t)
Inside the temple
Inside the temple
When we entered we were approached by a Jain priest who wanted to say a prayer for us. We agreed and he chanted something but then asked for a donation to the temple. Although this seemed not unreasonable, we then realised that every monk was doing the same; however, after we had been seen to refuse the next two who approached us I think they got the message and stopped trying! It was only later that I spotted a line in the leaflet that accompanies the audio guide: “No Tips to Staff”. Nevertheless, it made for a pleasant little encounter and we didn’t resent paying the small tip.
I so loved wandering around in here and taking photos. Remember, you have to pay for that privilege and even so are not allowed to photograph any idols, which are the Buddha-like figures. But there is so much else to keep you and your camera busy – wonderfully carved details on the pillars, hidden corners with unexpected glimpses of the world outside, other visitors (both tourists and worshippers – but be discreet), and more. Although to be honest photos don’t really do this place justice, as it has a special, rather calm atmosphere that has to be experienced first-hand.
I found the audio guide very helpful and comprehensive – in particular if you want to understand more about what you are seeing and about Jainism. There are 17 numbered stops in all, although I only listened to about half I think. The first few are the most useful in explaining the history of the temple and the religious beliefs that influence its design. After that I played the tape just at those points where something in particular caught my eye or intrigued me.
Look out for the dancing goddesses that adorn the pillars, the many representations of the idol or Tirthankara, the large marble elephant statues (well, you won’t miss those!), and especially the marble rock in which over a hundred intertwined snakes have been carved. Taking photos of the latter is strictly forbidden, but you will find plenty of images on the internet from those who have clearly ignored that rule and not been spotted. I won’t collude with their disrespect by posting links, but if you search for “Ranakpur snake heads” you will be rewarded!
Details on pillars
The Jain religion
We had learned a bit about Jainism when visiting the temples in Jaisalmer Fort a few days previously, but I repeat it here as it really helps to know some of this when visiting here – both to understand what you are seeing and also to explain the reasons for all those rules.
At the heart of Jainism is respect for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself. Jains believe that animals and plants, as much as human beings, contain living souls that should be equally valued and treated with respect and compassion. Unsurprisingly, Jains are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimises their use of the world's resources – they were “green” long before most of the rest of the world realised the necessity of conservation. They believe in reincarnation and that the final reward for those who follow the religion’s tenets is an eventual escape from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth to live for ever in a state of eternal bliss. There are no gods – the faithful pray to 24 idols who represent the tirthankaras – people who have achieved that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and now show the path to others. It is to the first of these, Adinath, that this temple is dedicated. The idols look to the uninitiated a little like Buddha, but you can recognise a Jain idol as it always sits with legs crossed and hands folded while the Buddha may be seen in a wide variety of poses.
Jains follow three guiding principles, known as the “three jewels”: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The latter means following the five mahavratas or vows, of which the most important is non-violence and the others non-attachment to possessions, not lying, not stealing, and sexual restraint. There are two major sects: the Digambara (meaning "sky clad" – i.e. naked) sect and the Svetambara (meaning "white clad") sect. The Jains at Ranakpur belong to the latter group.
White clad Jain in the temple grounds
The Sun temple
There are several smaller temples in the same complex as Chaumukha Mandir – one dedicated to Neminath (the 22nd tirthankar), one to the Parasnath (the 23rd tirthankar) and one to Surya Narayan, the Sun god. At Mehar’s suggestion we visited the latter, which is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the main one, near the entrance to the car park.
This dates originally from the 13th century but was rebuilt in the 15th. It is much smaller than the huge Chaumukha Mandir but is equally intricately carved, this time from white limestone rather than marble. There are dancing goddesses, horses, little elephants, and all sorts of filigree patterns.
You have to remove your shoes to go inside but otherwise there are fewer rules than for the main temple as far as I could tell, and no fee to pay for photography.
By the way, there is also a Hindu temple dedicated to the Sun just to the south of and outside the Jain temple complex. We didn’t visit this but I mention it as I have seen some confusion between the two elsewhere.
The Aravalli Hills
After some days in the desert it was a surprising and pleasant change to find ourselves among these wooded hills (much as I love deserts). After leaving Ranakpur in particular, to drive south towards Udaipur, the road wound upwards with hairpin bends in a manner reminiscent of a much more northern climate. We stopped at one point to get great views back down the road towards Ranakpur’s many domes and could see then what a wonderful setting this temple has.
The Aravalli range runs south west to north east across much of western India. Its northernmost point is in Delhi, Raisina Hill, where Lutyen’s Presidential Palace stands (see my Delhi entry - Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating). I hadn’t realised when we were there a week or so before this that I was standing on the last peak of such an ancient chain of mountains. These are very old mountains, no longer growing in height as the tectonic plates beneath them have stopped moving, and have been worn down over the millennia – unlike the much newer Himalayas to the north which are still rising.
We followed the winding roads through the hills towards Udaipur …