Ranakpur isn’t easy to get to by public transport. Buses are there but they are not all that frequent. Moreover, the distance from Mt Abu is considerable. I leave Mt Abu at half past seven. I arrive at Abu Road early enough but the next bus to Sadhari (Saadhadi) is not before quarter past ten. So I kill time catching up on my notes or playing a game on my mobile. Despite this long wait I am quite relaxed. I know that the bus will come into the stand early. I know that it will depart on time. This is not Orissa where you can wait for hours not knowing if a bus will really arrive.
It is only March but it feels like the height of summer. I am thankful for the window seat. The breeze is somewhat cooling on my sweating skin. The bus is crowded. Men wear white turbans on their heads, traditional angrakhas in whites and white dhotis. Other men prefer more colour in their dress, particularly when it comes to turbans. As for women, everything about them looks traditional – their toe rings, large silver anklets, large white bangles worn on the upper arms and colourful waist bands. The mix of people in any bus in Rajasthan makes a photogenic picture.
What really worries me is the guy charged with the responsibility of taking all of us safely to our destinations. This guy is a restless driver. He constantly flips the numbers on the music CD trying to find some song that would interest him. With one elbow on the wheel, he manages to gulp down water from a bottle. He is on the phone half the time. He prepares his gutka with occasional glances to the road ahead of us.
On the road to Jodhpur, I notice a man tugging a small sheltered cart. The heat is getting to his body but his mind seems as resolved and determined as ever. He has taken off his shirt and his sweat is dripping down in free flow. His hair is matted, a certain sign of spirituality and belief in these times. The cart is decorated with pictures of gods and goddesses. A board announces his intentions,
All India Foot Yatra
Started on 7-2-2009
When I arrive at Sadhari, it is half past two. The place doesn’t look much. I munch on some biscuits and wait for a connection to Ranakpur. Ranakpur isn’t far. The bus arrives at quarter past three. In under half an hour, I am at the famous Jain temple of Ranakpur.
‘Are you Jain?’ the man asks me from behind his writing desk. I am seated before him on the mat, cross-legged. Ledgers, receipt books, files and papers are stacked up near the desk. Other men sit at their own desks in two rows. This is a traditional office where chairs are unnecessary.
‘No. Hindu,’ I reply. I am wondering if I’ll get a room.
‘What jati?’ he continues.
I am not surprised. I have been asked about my caste before. It seems that we Indians still like to look at differences, even if it’s just for record-keeping.
The room is basic – a small space of 8 x 8 feet square. There is no furniture. There isn’t space for any. A dirty mattress is given without any sheets whatsoever. They collect a deposit of hundred rupees for the mattress. The deposit will be returned during checkout. Many such rooms line the courtyard on two sides. Diagonally across are the toilets and bathrooms. To my far right, over an intervening wall, I can see the shikaras of the grand temple.
Photography is allowed for a fee of fifty rupees. The temple closes for visitors at 5 pm. I skip the photography part and enter. I have learnt that when it comes to famous places, superb professional quality photos can be obtained freely on the Internet. Surely they are much better than my own.
Since the images of Mt Abu are still fresh on mind, I can relate to the architecture and art of this temple. While at Mt Abu the grandeur is all on the inside, at Ranakpur the temple is impressive even from the outside. Many little shikaras are arranged together over little shrines on the inside. The entrance portico is three storeys high with two balconies projecting out on the higher levels. Approaching it from the entrance flight of steps, the picture is grand. Expectations are high.
Lord Adinath is the main deity of the temple but the popular name for the temple is Chaumukh Temple. The names comes from the fact that within the interiors there is a symmetry on all four sides with respect to the sanctum of Lord Adinath. Like in Mt Abu, the temple architects have invented here clever interiors that are mix of closed and open spaces linked together seemlessly. The architecture allows for natural light and ventilation that are so rare in Hindu temples. In fact, antaralas and pradakshinapathas in Hindu temples are usually dark and secretive.
Built in the 15th century it is said that it took the sculptors 50 years to complete this masterpiece. It is easy to see why it might have taken so long. Everything here aspires to great art. The countless pillars are packed with motifs or sculpted figures in marble relief. Pillared mandapas generally create an open octagonal space crowned by a domical ceiling of exquisite beauty. Female dancers or musicians on brackets create a converging perspective in these ceilings. These brackets stand on pedestals sculpted with Ganeshas in varying poses. The domes are similar to those at Mt Abu but perhaps larger in scale. Beautiful torana arches link pillars. The experience of seeing so many of these masterpieces of Indian art in one place is nothing short of overwhelming.
It is said that there are underground chambers in this temple. In times of trouble, such as Muslim invasions, idols used to be hidden in these chambers. I leave the temple at five but wander around to the other temples. I meet a couple from Scotland. I saw them first at Udaipur’s City Palace. In the world of tourists, you are bound to come across one another sooner or later. It’s really a small world. They have been in India for three months and they get around in their Enfield Bullet. The vehicle is not registered to their names but no one really bothers. Ever since they bought the bike, less touts have been bothering them. Their next stop is Varanasi.
We walk together to the neighbouring temples. There is a Parshwanath Temple next door. Further afield is the Surya Temple. Both are small temples in comparison but the outer walls contain beautiful reliefs. The Surya Temple in particular contains miniature horses raring up to support deities on pedestals. In this manner, the architects of this temple have redesigned traditional mouldings and articulations to great effect.
Early dinner is served in the dining room to the left of the temple office. For a nominal price, dinner is simple and superb. It is tasty, not too salty, not too oily and not too spicy. I only wish they would give more vegetables but I guess they would have had I only asked. I am glad for this meal because the temple is really the only thing I see in Ranakpur. There is a small eating place by the road outside the temple where the bus stops. There are a couple of shops. I buy a bottle of water from one of them. Otherwise, I don’t see anything else in Ranakpur, not even a village to go by that name. We are in the heart of the Aravalli Hills. I can see the hills in all directions. Perhaps tomorrow morning I will do a short hike.
In the evening I return to the temple for pujas. I meet Hiralal from Delhi, obviously a Jain. He is eighty years old.
‘I am a statistician. I worked for insurance companies all over in Europe and in the US,’ he says as we walk up the stairs into the temple. The great sculptures are lost to darkness. A few oil lamps are flickering in the main mandapa. There are no electric lights in the temple. The mood is perfect.
‘This is the only thing that was left,’ Hiralal points to the sanctum as we enter into the mandapa.
People trickle in for the evening puja. There is not really a crowd here. Those who are present are pilgrims who have made long journeys to be here on purpose. I am the only tourist at the moment. The priest arrives but really every male member present here is dressed like a priest – a white dhoti, shirtless and a white cloth draped loosely across the body.
‘Arati utarna, arati utarne ka ghee,’ shouts the priest. ‘Ek maand paanch rupai. Patchpan maand.’
This is all new to me and I ask Hiralal about it.
‘An auction happens every evening and the proceeds will go to the temple. People will bid for the ghee that will be offered during arati,’ he explains.
‘What does he mean by five rupees per maand and fifty-five maand?’
‘A maand is an old unit that stands for forty kilos. Fifty-five maands of ghee are to be offered at a starting price of five rupees per maand.’
Someone shouts, ‘Elevan.’
The auction is underway. An assistant to the priest stands in the balcony and shouts out the latest bid. Once upon a time, the temple would have been packed and the crowds outside might have participated in such an auction. Though the traditional is alive, it is strangely out of place today. The assistant shouts out to an empty courtyard in the deepening darkness of the twilight. This echo of the bid is perhaps heard only by the yonder hills.
‘Twenty-one… Twenty-five… Thirty-one… Thirty-five…’
Apparently the bid has to be completed before 7 pm. Closer to this deadline, prices hit a sharp rise.
‘Fifty-one… Sixty-one… Seventy-one… Seventy-five… Seventy-five going once, going twice, going thrice.’
The gentleman who had pursued doggedly from the start has won it. Within minutes the priest announces the second item, ‘Mangal deep ka ghee.’ This is over quickly and the evening puja is underway. Everyone participates. I do my bit with the arati. Unlike in Hindu temple rituals, I have always seen people participation in all Jain temples. I experienced this for the first time at Humcha in Karnataka.
Oil lamps flicker occasionally. Sculptural details of the temple are lost in darkness. Everything is reduced to shape and form. Flickering shadows add to the mood. The face of Lord Adinath is lit brightly in a surrounding darkness. All focus is on his face and that beatific smile. The moment is really special. It will be hard to forget.
In the morning I vote against a hike on the hills. I visit first the Parshwanath Temple. A few brass and stainless steel utensils used for temple worship lie in the sun to dry. I walk around admiring the sculptures on the outer walls of the shrine. I make a sketch of a few dancers and musicians, damsels with beautiful hairstyles, jewellery and dresses. The lintel and door jambs to the inner spaces are packed with minute reliefs. Two elephants tussle on a stalk of plant, a common motif also found in Jain temples of Mt Abu and Chittorgarh. There is seamless beauty in which these mouldings rise to the shikara of the temples.
The last thing I do at Ranakpur is to return to the main temple. I sit in a corner, unmindful of visiting tourists, and stare at a domed ceiling. I bring out my sketch book and lose myself for an hour in wonderful fifteenth century creations of Jain India.