I am told there are no direct buses to Mt Abu from Udaipur but I can get off at Abu Road and change. Abu Road is a town along the highway. The road to Mt Abu climbs on the Aravalli Hills. The landscape is dry and rocky. Trees are many but they are either leafless or sport dry leaves. I guess in the heat of summer, bush fires may be common in these parts. On the way up by bus I notice a roadside shrine. Outside it is a little stuffed horse stitched in cloth. It is common for people in rural areas to use effigies for worship.
‘You have to buy a ticket. Ten rupees,’ tells me a guy. He has just boarded the bus.
‘But I already have a ticket,’ I reply and show him the same.
‘No, no. Not bus ticket. This is different.’
I learn that every visitor coming into Mt Abu needs to pay a Passenger Tax. This is new. I have not been slapped with such a tax anywhere else in all my travels across the country. I pay the guy and he moves on to other passengers in the bus. Meanwhile, the bus has stopped before its entry into town to allow for this collection. Only residents of Mt Abu are exempt from this tax.
Mt Abu is truly a tourist destination. By first impressions, this is not because of what it is but rather what it has become. There are gift shops, fancy restaurants, posh hotels and more. Tourists are many and traffic is almost continuous. The first room I check out is pricey and way above my budget. When I walk out without making an offer, the rate is slashed immediately by hundred rupees. I walk a little away from the bus stand and take a room at a place that looks more a dharamshala than anything else. I think it is maintained by Rajasthan Tourism Department or perhaps by a local government body. At two hundred rupees, its not worth the price but the room and the toilet are clean. That’s all I need.
No matter what may be said of Mt Abu and its various attractions, I am here to visit one thing and only one thing. This is the Dilwara group of Jain temples up on the hill. I take a shared transport and get there in the afternoon hours. I wish I had arrived at Mt Abu earlier in the day but I had missed my connection at Abu Road and had to put up with a long wait. So I have only a couple of hours to admire the great art of these world famous Jain temples.
The group consists of five marble temples built between 11th and 13th centuries. Among the five, I recall the small Mahaveer Swami Temple which contains an interesting relief of nearly 180 miniatures of tirthankaras. Of the other temples, the best of the best are in two of them – Vimala Vasahi dedicated to Lord Adinatha and Luna Vasahi dedicated to Lord Neminatha. Vasahi is an old world that means temple. I have come across its equivalent in Karnataka where it goes by the term basti or basadi.
I cannot really say if the Adinatha Temple is better than the Neminatha Temple or vice versa. All I can say is that both of them are apparently plain on the outside but on the inside they are packed with sculptures and reliefs all over. If temple art is to be defined for beauty in its elemental form, these temples would be the ones to define it. The architecture of the interiors is simply superb; and so is the art. Domed ceilings contain floral patterns so superb that they aspire to that elusive concept of the sublime. The beauty of these ceilings remind me of the similar ones in Karnataka in the Haveri region built from the time of the Western Chalukyas. At Mt Abu this beauty is greater simply because the medium is white marble.
Beautiful torana arches link pillar to pillar. Brackets chiselled with damsels in Jain tradition look down from their high places. In pillared corridors, panelled ceilings contain almost infinite variety of floral patterns in relief. At times it appears that the flowers have just open their buds, fresh, fragrant and free. Deities of the Jain pantheon adorn many such panels in place of floral compositions. After two hours of wandering around among the wonders of these temples, I still find reasons to be excited and celebrate new discoveries.
It is said that workers at these temples were paid by the weight of stone they could chisel out of the compositions. No stone canvas is sculpted in coarse forms or completed in a hurry. Reliefs are sharp and detailed. Lotuses bloom with sharp-pointed petals. Kirtimukhas look every bit alive and real. Dancers, musicians, gods and goddesses all wear the finest of jewellery. Every deity has a poise in the way their hands hold symbolic weapons and tools. Jainism is all about non-violence. The presence of weapons in the hands of these deities represent to me an iconographic corruption of the faith under the influence of Hinduism. In one pillared corridor, a line of white marble elephants look every bit realistic and beautiful. Jali screens in beautiful patterns stand as partitions in places. Along the corridors are shrines for the tirthankaras. Most of all, it is a joy to wander under the domes, between pillars, across open courtyards and through cool corridors.
I could spend hours more here but I am driven out against my will. The temples are closing for the day and I cannot hang around any longer. Back in town I wander down to the Nakki Lake and later visit a museum setup by members of the Brahmakumari group of devotees. In the evening, the entire place around the lake is crowded. The rest of Mt Abu doesn’t interest me one bit. I return to my room after dinner, lie down and think about the wonder of the Dilwara group of Jain temples. I seriously doubt if anything else in India can achieve this sort of beauty.