Ranakpur temple: Magic in marble

Print edition : September 25, 2020

The Ranakpur temple. Its impressive front view of has a series of narrow domes flanking the main dome. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The interior of the Ranakpur temple is a veritable labyrinth of pillars. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Meghanada Mandapa, which houses four identical idols of Adinatha facing the four directions. This is referred to as the Chaturmukha style of temple architecture. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The temple’s hall of pillars is positioned in such a way that the slanting rays of the sun reach most of the pillars at some time or the other during the day. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Kinnaras and apsaras look down on you from the pillars. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Each pillar is a visual treat: Nymphs playing various musical instruments.

Saints and gods. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Motifs on pillars include Rishab, chakras, birds, and so on. Each pillar is a visual treat. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The stylised elephant statue in the main dancing hall is the star attraction for visitors. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

An intricately carved altar. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The sanctum where the daily puja is conducted. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The sanctum sanctorum, with one of the four Adinathas of the Chaturmukha scheme.. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A dome with 12 Vidyadevis. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Twelve spokes on the roof of one of the domical shrines, sporting devis, dancers and minstrels. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Dancers ornament this dome. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A dome of a subsidiary shrine. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

(Below) A panel with tiny shrines. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panel with tiny shrines. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

An alcove shrine. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

playful elephants on a frieze. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Ranakpur temple, a three-storied structure built in 1436, stands out from other temples in Rajasthan not for its grandeur but for its 1,444 luminescent marble pillars, each exquisitely and intricately carved from the base to the roof.

DEEP in the partially desiccated undulating plains of the Aravalli ranges between Udaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan, hidden away from highways and thoroughfares, stands a structure of unmatched elegance and filigreed symmetry. Carved in translucent marble and reflecting the dun hues of the surrounding desert, the Ranakpur temple is one of the finest Jain temples in Rajasthan’s shrine-studded landscape. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Ranakpur temple puts Pali, the district in which it is situated, on the pilgrim and tourist map.

We were oblivious to the presence of this rare gem as we went coursing across the desert in search of that most elusive of cats, the leopard. Rajasthan is a haven for leopards, and sightings are guaranteed if you go to the Jhalana Safari Park, a reserve on the outskirts of Jaipur. We had taken five safaris over three days and feasted our eyes upon several of these lithe and lissome beasts in their various moods. Jhalana is a reserve created exclusively for leopards, but we wanted to see the cats in their natural habitat. We were driving towards Jawai, a rocky hillock home to more than 200 leopards that had found a safe refuge on this barren rock. Every night, they come down from the hillock, cross the road and go into the scrubland in search of prey. Before dawn, they are back on their hilltop haven. The leopards of Jawai were immortalised in a 2016 documentary by Discovery Channel (Jawai: India’s Leopard Hills) that put Pali district on the wildlife enthusiast’s map.

Unique ecosystem

Even without leopards or shrines, this part of Rajasthan is spectacular. The Jawai dam and lake are home to several species of waterfowl. This landscape of scattered rocks and hills has given rise to a unique ecosystem that shelters unique wildlife. It was when we stopped for tea that we learnt about our proximity to the Ranakpur temple. Although it was just an hour away from Jawai, we might have missed it completely. We decided to check out Ranakpur before heading to Jawai.

And what a feast the temple turned out to be; it is a joyous expression of the most intricate designs that any sculptor can coax out of marble. It stands out from other temples not for its grandeur or size but for its lace-like latticework wrought on marble, resembling nothing less than a lacemaker’s designs woven out of thread with a crochet needle.

The temple itself sits on a pedestal of an acre-sized plinth on the slope of a hillock. It is a three-storied structure of imposing proportions. The front view of the temple is impressive in its width, with a series of narrow domes flanking the main dome, all aflutter with flags. A steep ascent up the steps brings you to a narrow gateway, which gives no hint of the glorious edifice behind. As you emerge from this gateway, the first impression you get is of a massive hall held up by a line of luminescent pillars, all of them exquisitely carved and some of them reaching up to the third floor. You are dazzled by the brightly lit hall. As your eyes get used to the brightness inside, you see a veritable wave of pillars as if you have entered a labyrinth of latticed pillars. Each pillar is intricately carved from the base right up to the roof and embellished with gods, goddesses, kinnaras, apsaras, dancing nymphs, yakshas and yakshis. Wrapped around each pillar are the entire pantheon of local and mythical fauna, apart from curling tendrils, flowers, buds, leaves and geometric designs. Ganeshas hold up the pillars from their base.

A closer examination of some of the pillars—it is not possible to examine all the 1,444 pillars—reveals that each one is different. The noteworthy aspect of this labyrinth is that it is positioned in such a way that the slanting rays of the sun reach most of the pillars at some time or the other during the day.

The pillars, each an objet d’art in itself, assume a magical sheen as the brilliant desert sun pours in through the gaps between the pillars to caress the filigreed sculptures, casting captivating patterns on the walls and the floor. The marble blushes and changes colour in response. If you spend an entire day at the temple as I did, you will notice how the marble changes from grey to dun to fawn to brown and even shades of green as its smooth surface refracts the spectrum of light. The light effects in the Ranakpur temple enhance and embellish its silent eloquence.

Although completed in the 15th century, Ranakpur was veiled in gunghat for the next three centuries, after Aurangezeb advanced towards Mewar and pillaged Ranakpur. This was followed by famine. Ranakpur’s precincts were overgrown with weeds and shrubs, its pillars, domes and chapels providing convenient hiding places for dacoits and other fugitives from the law. Denizens of the jungle too found a safe haven here. It was only in 1897 that the Shri Sanga of Sadri, a community congregation of Sadri town where Ranakpur is situated, decided to hand over the maintenance and upkeep of the temple to the Anandji Kalyanji Trust. Fortunately, no permanent damage had occurred and the temple complex was restored fully. Not only was it made accessible to pilgrims and tourists alike, but dharamshalas were also built to house the pilgrims visiting from far and wide.

Chaturmukha style

Built in the Chaturmukha style of temple architecture, the Ranakpur temple is dedicated to Rishabdev, the first Jain Tirthankara. Chaturmukha refers to the four identical idols of Adinatha facing the four directions inside a large ornamented dome called the Meghanada Mandapa. This is the garba griha, which is open on all four sides. The Meghanada Mandapa is a storied majestic structure whose domed roof is large enough to support a multiplicity of divinities. While there are other Chaturmukha temples in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina faiths, no other temple interior in India equals the grandeur of the Ranakpur temple, according to the architectural historian Madhusudan Dhaky.

The origin of this marvellous temple can be traced to a dream that Dharana Shah, a minister in the realm of the Rana of Kumbalgarh, had. Deeply spiritual, Dharana Shah is said to have had a vision of a celestial flying palace with pillars—nalini gulmavimana—a kind of oracle. When he consulted his guru Somasundarji about the significance of the dream, he was told to construct a temple in the shape of the celestial vimana. Dharana found in Rana Kumbha of Mewar a willing patron and supporter and thus commenced the quest to replicate the vimana on earth. When Dharana set about looking for a suitable architect to bring his dream alive, he was fortunate to meet Depaka, a fiercely independent-minded architect, and commissioned him for the project. Conceived and executed under the skilled stewardship of Depaka, the temple is a manifestation of the versatile potential of marble from nearby Rajsamand.

It took 50 years to complete this edifice of immense beauty. However, Dharana got the four marble Adinatha images installed in Chaturmukha style even before the construction was completed because he was keen to have the deity installed by Somasunderji, who was already old. The temple took its name from the Rana, its chief benefactor, and came to be known as Ranapur, which later became Ranakpur.

While the Chaturmukha shrine is the heart of the Ranakpur temple, there are other lesser domed shrines, some 76 of them. Most shikharas are embellished with a chakra each, the spokes holding up dancing damsels, musicians with myriad instruments and elaborately and intricately carved patterns. Marble seems to have become putty in the hands of the sculptors and artisans, who coaxed evocative figurines in the nooks and crevices.

As I saunter past the numerous pillars trying to capture the beauty on a memory card, I realise that it is impossible to film these entirely unless I spend a week in the temple. There are a few visitors about, gaping in awe at the roof and pillars. The stylised elephant statue in the main dancing hall is the star attraction for visitors to pose against. Of course, all of us had to leave our cell phones at the gate and bring only our cameras inside, for which the temple charges a nominal fee.

A pillar close to the entrance to the main shrine records in Sanskrit that Depaka built this temple in A.D. 1436 on the instructions of Dharanka with the support and patronage of Rana Kumbha, the King of Chitor.

Apart from the pillars, domes, friezes and altars, what catches your eye is the marble panel depicting particular gods and scenes. A standing Parasvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara, is surrounded by a 1,008-headed coiling snake. The coils all but obscure the yaksha and yakshini, a half-human half-snake creature, two naginis and some cauri (whisk) bearers all of whom also populate this panel. Pilgrims have wedged rose petals into the gaps of the snake’s coils.

Evening aarti

There is more evidence of this being a living temple as the evening aarti time approaches. Suddenly, the devout among the visitors form a queue before the sanctum. The murmur of voices becomes a hushed silence. My curiosity is piqued as I join the line. Then, the voice of the priest calls out in Hindi, demanding to know how many maunds, at five rupees a maund. This baffled me until I learnt that the opportunity to worship first at the evening prayers was accorded to the highest bidder of the evening. The bidding is in terms of the price of ghee. Today, the bid is settled at 100 maunds of ghee (3,700 kg), which a local family paid to get the first glimpse of the deity as it is unveiled. Devotees can make a further bid for the opportunity to receive the first prasad from the mangal aarti. The temple trust struggles to maintain this elaborate complex and has improvised ways to raise funds to supplement the revenue it gets from the sale of tickets. Of course, everyone is welcome to worship but only after the winners have had their fill of the Lord.

We troop out of the temple at 5 p.m., the closing time. There are a few more shrines in the compound, including a Surya temple and a Parasvanath temple, both smaller than the main structure but just as beautiful. The atmosphere is serene. Supreme silence reigns.

Sudha Mahalingam is the author of two books: The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy, published by Penguin, and a coffee-table book titled Mustang: Mystique of a Mountain Kingdom. She is currently the Raja Ramanna Chair Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor