Amidst the ancient mountains of the Aravalli Range, half an hour’s drive away from the mighty Kumbhalgarh Fort, stands the 15th century CE Jain temple of Ranakpur – an architectural wonder of massive proportions. Dedicated to the first Jain Tirthankar, Rushabhdev, also called Adinath, the temple of Ranakpur has over a thousand intricately carved pillars, each unique! But that is just a small part of this spectacular architectural marvel.
The region of Mewar, (presently in south – central Rajasthan) has been an important centre of Jainism since ancient times. Earlier, the Jains were a trading community, but from the 13th century CE, they also began to serve as treasurers and ministers at the courts of Rajput rulers. Savvy in finance, they were responsible for controlling the state purses. As a mark of respect for this community, it was only a matter of time before the state patronized Jainism and its religious establishments, even though the Rajputs themselves were Hindus. Thus, today we see a major presence of Jain temples even in forts like Chittorgarh.
The Legend of Ranakpur
Legend has it that in the 15th century CE a Jain trader named Dharna Shah dreamt of building a nalini-gulmavimana, or a flying pillared palace in honour of Rushabhdev, the 1st Tirthankar of the Jains. To fulfil his dream, he went in search of artisans and met a man called Depa, who was hired as the architect for the temple. Later, he requested the ruler of Mewar, Rana Kumbha, of the Hindu Sisodia clan of Rajputs for land.
Since Dharna Shah was also a minister in his court, the king obliged, and as a gesture of gratitude, the temple was named ‘Ranakpur’. A copper plate inscription dated to 1437 installed at the entrance of the temple, and Sanskrit text Soma-Saubhagya Kavya composed in 1497 help us date the building.
Incidentally, Rana Kumbha is among the fiercest opponents of the Delhi Sultanate and was known for various constructions including the Vijay Stambha, a nine storey victory tower.
However all didn’t go well. According to the local belief, the construction of the temple which started in 1389, could not be completed even after fifty years. A worried and ageing Dharna Shah is said to have installed the idol of the Principal deity. In the late 1430s, after the completion of the temple, the idols were ceremoniously installed by Dharna’s guide and inspiration to build the temple, a jain monk named Acharya Somalsundarsuriji. About ninety-nine lakhs of rupees were spent on the construction of the temple.
Nestled between the green hills, the monument is a sight to behold. Spread over an extensive base of 48,000 sq.ft. and rising 102 ft. with three storeys, the Ranakpur temple is massive, with 29 halls and 84 idols. The temple has elaborate domes, shikaras and minarets, pillars and arches all made of soft grey marble rising majestically from the slope of a hill.
The temple has four doorways which lead to the four chambers, which in turn lead to the main hall. The quadruple image of Adinath is placed here. The top of the entrance is graced with akichaka, a man with five bodies which represent fire, water, heaven, earth and air. The ceiling is decorated with leaves of the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpavriksha.
But the architectural marvel here is the network of 1,444 pillars through the hall. Each pillar is unique in its design. And despite this dense network of pillars, the design allows for a clear sight of the idol of Adinath.
The placement of the pillars has been done keeping natural light and shadows in focus. This also allows for the free movement of air, creating a cool and serene environment.
Each pillar is finely carved with floral designs, depiction of animals and heroes and damsels along with complex geometrical patterns. No two pillars are identical. Another stunning feature of these pillars is that they change their colour from golden to pale blue every hour as the day advances. The domes are linked by brackets which are adorned with various sculptures. Most common are the figurines of nymphs playing the flute in various dance postures.
Tucked into corners and crevices of the temple are fine engravings of Jain scriptures. There is a sculpture of Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar, being protected by a 1008 headed serpent. Interestingly, the carving is done on a single block of stone.
There is also an artistically detailed model of the famous Shatrunjay Tirth at Palitana, a major Jain pilgrimage center in Gujarat, created in spite of minimum resources in those times.
In 1443, the poet Megh was astounded by the beauty of the Ranakpur Temple and he composed “Ranakpur Chatur Mukh Prasad” in which he described the city of this temple as similar to Patan, an ancient fortified town of Gujarat famous for its sculpted monuments.
During the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), Muslim armies advanced through Mewar and pillaged Ranakpur. In later centuries, famines decimated the population in the surrounding area. The place was abandoned by the locals and this in turn led to encroachments by bandits.
It was only in the middle of the 20th century that the community took notice of the temple, which had collapsed in parts, and made efforts to restore it to its former splendour. This was possible due to the efforts of the Anandji Kalyanji trust, then headed by the famous industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai. It was reopened for to the public in 1953.
Besides the majestic temple, there are several other temples in the complex such as the Surya Narain temple (or sun temple) which dates back to the 13th century. Seen here is the image of Lord Surya in his chariot of seven horses. There are also temples dedicated to other Tirthankars. The one of Lord Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar, has its walls embellished with Jain figures. There is also a temple built for Lord Neminath, the 22nd Tirthankar.
The Ranakpur Temple is an architectural marvel that brings forth a spiritual serenity that is really unparalleled and is a treat to the senses. Considered one of the most spectacular buildings in the world, the Government of India even issued a beautiful stamp on the temple of Ranakpur on 14th Oct 2009.
The Ranakpur temple is truly a jewel, one must visit.
Cover Image: Nagarjun Kandukuru via Wikimedia Commons
LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
One can reach the shrine easily as it is connected with almost all parts of Rajasthan. The nearby railway station of Falna is about 35 Kms away. Direct buses ply between this place and Udaipur, Abu and Nakoda. From the temple, the bus stand is only 100 meters far. There is a tar road upto the temple and private buses and cars can go right upto the gates. Nearest airport is that of Udaipur which is 90 kms away and the airport of Jodhpur is 170 Kms away from this place.
‘Artist’ is not a term one usually associates with Rabindranath Tagore. After all, he was a Nobel Laureate and the poet who gave India her National Anthem. But did you know that this creative genius who seized the paintbrush in his 60s, is also considered a Gem or Navratna of Indian art ?
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books