Ranakpur is a village located between Jodhpur and Udaipur. The marble Jain temple in Ranakpur, dedicated to Rishabhdev and built in the fifteenth century CE, is one of the most marvellous temples in India.
The temple is designed as chaumukha, or with four faces. The construction of the temple in the quadrupled form symbolizes the tirthankara’s conquest of the four cardinal directions and hence the cosmos.
Writes the Japanese architect Takeo Kamiya on the Chaturmukha design, “Then, why was it especially Jainas who developed chaturmukha (four faced open) type shrines? As it is impossible to come up with a complete answer to this kind of question, there is no way but to set up a hypothesis in accordance with its religious doctrine. The hypothesis is based on Jaina logic.”
Takeo explains “contrary to many other religions, Jainism avoids dogmatism and eliminated self-righteous statements like ‘This is the very truth.’ Everything has many aspects, and each religion, doctrine, and statement has a certain sense of truth. Therefore unilateral or absolute judgment about a matter has to be avoided. In making a decision, one should consider that it is right.”
He adds his own thoughts on the subject, writing “This concept seems quite modern when we look back on the history in which a lot of religions insisted on the validity of their own gods and views of the world, which sometimes resulted in wars. Although there had been a lot of religious conflicts in India in the past and that still continues, Jainas have never committed to military conflict. If every religion took this viewpoint of Jainism, how peaceful the world would become. I would imagine that this relativism was a driving force to develop chaturmukha (four faced) images and chaturmukha-type of Jaina temples. Never assuming one absolute God (Jainism is an atheistic religion), the attitude of regarding even the twenty-four saviors of Tirthankaras (Jinas) as existence that can be seen from multilateral viewpoints made it possible to create chaturmukha images in which 4 statues are placed back to back with each other, and to develop an architectural style of chaturmukha shrine.”
The art and architecture of the temple are based on an ancient Jain temple at Mirpur in Rajasthan. Two Jain brothers, Dharnasha and Ratnashah, built this temple with the patronage of Rana Kumbha of Mewar.
Dharnasha, the younger of the two brothers, was a minister in the state and a strong devote of Acharya Somasundarsuri ji whose discourses inspired him to get this temple built. Sometime in the second half of the fourteenth century, Rana Kumbha acceded to their request for land for the temple on a condition that it should be accompanied by a township. Dharnasha agreed joyfully and commenced the construction of the temple and the township simultaneously.
Quite naturally, the temple is also known as “Dharnavihar” after its patron. Dharnasha had dreamt of the “Naliligulm Viman”, a celestial spaceship. The temple can be considered a realisation of this vision. Driven by the vision, Dharnasha commenced his search for the master architect and sculptor who could translate his dream into a reality in marble. He rejected hundreds of submissions and was getting impatient when he learned about Depa.
For Depa, art was an expression of his soul, a prayer, a solemn worship – not a means to make money. He led an ascetic life. It was Dharnasha’s lifestyle and religious conviction that appealed to Depa and he agreed to take up this monumental assignment. Hundreds of sittings later, Dharnasha was spellbound by the exact translation of his dream in the model plan by Depa. More than two thousand five hundred workers were engaged for the construction, which took about fifty years to complete.
Spread over forty eight thousand square feet, the Ranakpur temple is based on pillars and is made of sevali and sonana stones. There are one thousand four hundred and forty four pillars. Apart from the sheer number, the breathtaking carvings, all of them different, are outstanding. The pillars are also very creatively placed so that the pilgrim’s view of the tirthankara idol is never obstructed.
One of the most beautiful creations at Ranakpur is Dharnendra and Padmavati, which is an idol of Parsvanath standing in kayotsarga meditation pose along with the thousand-hooded cobra. It is the magnum opus of the temple.
Another decorative masterpiece is the Kalpavali, engraved in the vestibule ceiling of the temple. These delicately carved floral creepers look like individual circles of garlands at first glance, however on a closer look one notices the continuity of this single creeper branching out in a fractal pattern, transforming the temple into divine sculptural space.
It is believed that two centuries after its establishment, the temple suffered at the hands of Mughal invasion led by Aurangzeb. Subsequent droughts caused mass migration, and the abandoned ruins were taken over by vegetation.
The temple was renovated in the modern era by Sheth Anandji Kalyanji trust.
Text: Dr. Kumarpal Desai [From the book on Ranakpur Tirth by Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Trust] Additional commentary: Swetha Prakash
Photographs: Rajiv Rathod