Ornate marble pillars holding up carved ceilings
Architecture,  History,  Rajasthan,  Sunday Stills

Chaumukha Mandir, the four-faced temple of Ranakpur

On a wooded hillside in the Aravalli range of hills in Rajasthan, north of Udaipur, is an exquisite Jain temple, intricately carved in white marble, Ranakpur. It has a cool serenity, its pale stone a welcome contrast to the vivid colours and assault on the senses that is India.

The main temple here is Chaumukha Mandir, dedicated to the first tirthankara (Jain teacher or spiritual leader), Adinath. The name means Four-Faced Temple. It is so-called because it has a four-way symmetry; there are four entrances and four identical images of Adinath, each facing in a different direction.

The building of the temple

This is widely considered to be the most beautiful Jain temple in India, and one of the most important. It was built in the 15th century, inspired by the vision of Shreshti Dharana Shah, a minister in the court of Kumbha Rana, ruler of Mewar. Dharana Shah was a devout Jain, who had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy. One night he had a dream in which he saw the Nalinigulma Viman, a divine flying chariot mentioned in Jain mythology. Awaking, he resolved to build a temple to resemble this heavenly image. He persuaded Kumbha Rana to donate some land, and 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 humbler sculptor named Depak presented his ideas. These impressed Dharana Shah and he could see that his vision would be realised by this man. Thus their partnership was formed and over the next fifty years the temple was 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. It has 29 interconnecting halls, 80 domes and 1444 individually engraved pillars, no two of which are alike. Each dome 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.

This temple is both historical sight and living place of worship. It is helpful before visiting to understand a little bit about Jainism, and essential to respect their rules.

A bit about the Jain religion

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.

Jains believe in reincarnation. 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. These are 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. These 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; the others are 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.

Inside the temple

I was in my element wandering around in here and taking photos. I loved the dancing goddesses that adorn the pillars; the many representations of the idol or Tirthankara; the large marble elephant statues…

While it isn’t permitted to photograph any idols, there was so much else to keep me and my camera busy. There are the wonderfully carved details on the pillars; hidden corners with unexpected glimpses of the world outside; other visitors (both tourists and worshippers, photographed discreetly); and much more. Even so, my photos don’t really do this place justice; it has a special, rather calm atmosphere that has to be experienced first-hand.

Taking photos of the marble rock in which over a hundred intertwined snakes have been carved is particularly strictly forbidden. However, there are plenty of images on the internet from those who have clearly ignored that rule. I won’t collude with their disrespect by posting links, but if you search for ‘Ranakpur snake heads’ you will be rewarded!

OK, perhaps I should confess that accidentally a little of this much-venerated carving did find its way into one of my photos (see the lady in white in my gallery higher up this page). But I promise I didn’t know what I was photographing at the time!

I’m sharing this stunning white temple for this week’s Sunday Stills, for which Terri challenges us to feature objects that are the colour white.

24 Comments

  • Rajkumar Gaikwad

    Hi, I am glad you liked Rajasthan. It is indeed a beautiful state and Udaipur is one of the best places to explore the culture, temples and royal heritage. Loved reading your article.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 Yes, I loved Rajasthan – although Udaipur wasn’t my favourite city (perhaps we didn’t spend long enough there). I especially loved Jaisalmer and some of the smaller places like Bundi

  • Denyse Whelan Blogs

    What a delightful and interesting post you created here thanks to travel and other countries and cultures. When we lived in Sydney, there was an Indian Temple close to us. I hope you are going as OK as can be due to Covid. Denyse #sundaystills

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Denyse, and for the thoughtful enquiry re COVID. Yes, we’re doing OK thanks. Both my husband and I have had our first vaccination jabs and we’re looking forward to a very gradually reopening from lockdown over the next few months here, if the programme continues to go as well as it has so far. Hope you are well too?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Jo, I really appreciate the compliment 😀 I hadn’t heard of this place either and hadn’t been expecting much, so I think I was all the more taken with it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      And thank you again 🙂 We did spend quite some time wandering around and taking loads of photos, although it’s not a huge temple. And there are two smaller ones in the same complex that are worth a look, but nothing like as impressive as this!

  • Nancy Gordon

    Wow, fifty years for the temple to be built! I can see why with all the beautiful intercalate carvings. I too like the contrast of the white marble with all the bright colored clothing the people wear. Great photos and blog…Nancy

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Nancy 🙂 It’s very odd but I got two notifications that you’d commented. One was for this comment and it was clear that it came from you – your email address, your name on the page here 😀 The second looked like an anonymous commenter again and needed my moderation to approve it. No email address, no name, but the same wording exactly (so I’ll delete rather than approve, on this occasion). Did you try to comment twice, I wonder, or is this a weird WordPress error? It does have it’s little ways!!

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    Oh my gosh, the intricacy of the carvings are incredible to behold, Sarah! Your lens captures the details perfectly. I love the various pops of color of apparel worn by passers by. Fascinating to read, just lovely!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Terri, I really appreciate your enthusiasm for this post 😀 I loved those pops of colour too – without them the photos would start to look too similar even though every carving is different. I actually have the one with the monk on my dining room wall – one of a set we had printed of photos we took in Rajasthan 🙂 The one with the bell between two pillars is there too!

  • Marsha

    Amazing photos of a place I would never have seen, had it not been for your blog, Sarah. I liked the lady in white. She looked ethereal. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha, I really appreciate your feedback 🙂 For some reason this comment ended up in my spam and I’ve only just spotted it, so my apologies for the delay in replying. I believe the lady in white must be some sort of Jain nun as most women there wear bright colours, like those in my other photos.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I’m now retired but only since last spring – the retirement plan had been to travel even more but you can guess how that’s going! But we’ve always prioritised travel, both time and money 🙂 I used to be a librarian, working in the public sector where leave allowances were pretty good (and remember, ours are much better anyway than in the US – five weeks pa isn’t unusual). Then I did some years in a national government role, and for my final 12 years or so of work was a freelance consultant so could manage my own time. And my husband managed to retire at 50 so we’ve been pretty flexible for the last 12-15 years 😀

          • Marsha

            Wow, that is wonderful, and he must love to travel as well. My husband goes places but worried more about getting home. I think you are the third librarian friend I’ve met blogging. Blogging is the perfect “sport” for a librarian, I think. What I love about your blog is how knowledgeable you are about your travel. Very impressive, Sarah and fun to read. 🙂

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