On the boundary separating Gujarat from Rajasthan stands a hill with some of the most outstanding (eleventh to thirteenth century) Jain temples. The somewhat drab exterior of these temples, like oyster shells, do not even hint at the profusion of delicate pure white marble sculptures within. The arid, near desert region of the state of Gujarat held a crucial position on the western projection of the Indian subcontinent that juts into the Arabian sea. Along its coastline were ancient trading posts that brought enormous wealth to the territory. In the tenth century the Solanki Kings (a branch of the Rajput clan) inherited this vast and prosperous land from the Prathiharas. Their reign also coincided with the period when Islamic forces were vying for power over the same trade routes. The great and opulent Somnath temple had been destroyed by the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1025, and although the Solanki rulers were having toward off the armies of the Sultans of Delhi for some time, and despite the threat of iconoclastic destruction, they continued to patronize and sponsor great building activity. During this time the lavishly decorated Hindu Sun temple was built at Modhera (see Ahmadabad) and profusely ornate Jain fortress-temples were constructed on hilltops at Satrunjaya, Mount Girnar, and Mount Abu, and later in the fifteenth century at Ranakpur near Udaipur in Rajasthan.
During a very brief period, between the fall of the Somnath temple (1025) and the invasion of Gujarat by Ala-ud-Din Khalji inn 1297, a group of Jain temples were constructed on the Abu plateau. Mount Abu rises 1000 meters above the plains and its highest point is called Guru Shikar (1772 meters) where there is a small shrine. The hillock derives its name from Mythology:
In eons gone by it was a favourite resort of the Hindu gods. A wide abyss mysteriously formed there and the sons of the Himalaya (Lord of the snow-clad mountains) were called to help fill it up. The youngest son, called Nandivardhana (Giver of increasing happiness), was lame and he came riding on the back of his friend Arbuda, a snake. Nandivardhana and the wriggling snake plunged into the hole and filled the great abyss and only his nose poked out on the surface of the earth and became a hill that trembled with the movement of Arbuda. This will which contains Nandi (happiness) was called Arbuda (Swelling tumour) or Abu after the friendly snake.
On this beautiful hilltop (built on increasing happiness) are a number of lovely lakes and houses, and strategic points from where the magnificent scenery of the plains may be viewed. Obviously a place of great religious significance, a site on the hill called Dilwara (deval-vara, province of temples) was chosen for the construction of Jain temples. The Solanki rulers gave their patronage to several rich Jain ministers and merchants who contributed to the construction of these magnificent shrines. There are four principle temples at Dilwara. The earliest is the Adhinatha (Vimala Vasahi) Temple founded by Vimala Shah, a minister under the Solanki ruler Bhima I, in 1032 and renovated many years later. To the south and east of this great temple are the Parshvanatha and a second Adhinatha Temple built between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The northernmost temple of this complex is the Neminatha (Luna Vasahi) Temple constructed around 1230 by two merchants, Vastupala and Tejapala, and extended in subsequent years. There is wonderful story about how these two merchants had accumulated so much wealth that they did not know what to do, and then came up with this novel idea:
Together they spent many hours discussing where they could hide their wealth and ensure that it would never get stolen. The discussions so concerned them that one day they forgot to eat their lunch. Tejapala's wife, Anupama, came to see what was the matter. She advised them to put their treasure on the summit of a hill so that it would always be visible and so safe that thieves would not dare to steal it. When she was asked what was meant she replied that Tejapala and Vastupala should build a temple on Mount Abu, Satrunjaya and Girnar, a treasure that would last forever.
The plans of the temples are quite similar and follow the Hindu temple model much earlier (and similar to the ornate interiors of the Sun Temple at Modhera). The temples are aligned east to west with the entrance facing the rising sun. A wall surrounds the main shrine, as you enter the gateway, the courtyard opens out into a pool of light and the inward-facing enclosure wall is studded with miniature shrines garlanding the temple in the center.
The concept of the bland outer enclosure wall and the jewel-like interior is consistent with Jain philosophy, based on the belief that all entities on earth, whatever their color or shape, are in varying degrees imperfect, yet they all carry the send of potential perfection. All beings, though they dwell in sorrow, greed, and hate, are intended to be omnipotent, unlimited unfettered, and free. Potential perfection and unlimited beauty lies within us all. As you step into the halls bathed in light and advance into the inner chambers the essence of the belief becomes clear, for beauty of this kind lies deep within the soul of the good and the kind.
Each temple is aligned on an axis and all the halls lead to the sanctum where the central image is placed. In the Adhinatha (Vimala Vasahi) Temple the central aisle leads into the mandap or hall adorned with the most beautiful carved pillars and walls. Above the mandap are domed ceilings (not true domes but corbelled ones) made up of concentric rings, each level projecting slightly and completely covered with sculptured panels of dancers, musicians, horses, and elephants. At the top of the dome the design closes in and descends in the form of an upturned lotus suspended from the heavens, as though showering blessings on all who pass beneath it.
The interior is covered in a pale white marble, and every inch of it appears to have been carved into intricate forms of female goddesses of learning and wisdom, animals, creepers, and floral motifs. The marble was quarried in the plains below and hauled up the 1000 meter hillside for the construction of these temples. The marble work inside is exquisite, for the hardness of the stone allowed for very detailed and intricate workmanship. It is said that the sculptors did not merely chisel out the marble statues from blocks of stone but spent hours rubbing the sculptures down to create a satin smoothness and a cream-like softness in stone. The workers, we are told, were paid not by the amount of work they did but by the quantity of marble dust they produced.
There have been many cities of the Jain temples of Mount Abu, with widely divergent views. Some have felt that the craft exhibited here 'was on the brink of something, exhausting itself and degenerating', others that the sculptural decoration is 'crisp, thin, translucent, shell-like treatment of marble that surpasses anything seen elsewhere, and some of the designs are veritable dreams of beauty'. There is something unreal about the whiteness of the halls, the play of light on the sculptures, and the abundant profusion of decorative work. It is perhaps appropriate to return to Jain philosophy to understand the meaning of the whiteness and the profusion of 'frozen lifeless beauty' that characterize the interiors of these Jain temples for, in fact, form and idea are perfectly synthesized.
In Jain thought there is a symbolic concept of the crystal of the life monad, which though a series of actions, ideas, and deeds gets stained and darkened. Ahimsa, non injury, is central to this way of life and should a person harm, even think of hurting or killing another, the crystal will grow dark and clouded. For himsa, violence, goes against karmic laws, adversely affecting the possibilities of reunion with the Almighty in future lives. From the darker shades of life and materialistic obsessions one can move like a buoyant balloon up to the realms of pure uncontaminated whiteness and purity. Rising through a succession of honorable reincarnations one can shed the colors of one's hatred and fear and become self-luminous, transparent, whiter than milk and pearls, resplendent like crystal. With incessant introspection, cleansing wisdom, mental and physical discipline, ahimsa, one can upward from selfish existence to the pure realm of the selfless and the 'stainless' sphere of the gods. Jain temples, adorned in the purest white marble, reflect this very idea.
Marble than was the perfect material. Its cool, superior, stainfree becomes the symbol of the shining light of wisdom and divine life. A constant reminder that everyone can attain pure wisdom; that all who follow the path of ahimsa will rise and mingle with those elevated self-illuminated souls that cluster on the ceiling of the temple.
A typical Jain image of a Tirthankara is then a perfect saint, completely detached from worldly bondage, selfish self-perpetuating desires, calm and unmoved by negative emotions that contaminate and dehumanize us. To call the figures rigid or lifeless would actually be complementing the artist whose chief endeavor was to portray that undisturbed calm of the saint and his complete disinterest in all that diverts and amuses us. For health, prosperity, and life-sustaining values the Jain pantheon incorporated several Hindu deities to pray to, but the Tirthankaras are always honoured for having risen above the mundane world of needs and wants.
What's In The Neighborhood
There are several beautiful temples to be seen at Mount Abu. This site has been developed as a tourist resort with hotels and walks along the lake and hills. Mount Abu is 165 kilometers from Udaipur where there are several lakes and palaces to see.
How To Get There
Today there are buses and cars that can take you up to the summit of Mount Abu. It is 250 kilometers from Ahmadabad and 165 kilometers from Udaipur. The nearest railway station is at Abu Road, 27 kilometers from Mount Abu on the Delhi-Ahmadabad line. There are small hotels and guest-houses for a comfortable stay. The major holidays of the Jain calendar fall on important days related to the life of the Tirthankaras. At Mount Abu grand procession is taken out in the month of Chaitra (March-April) to celebrate the birth of Risabhanatha, the first Tirthankara. The birth of Mahavir Jain, Mahavir Jayanthi, or Vaisali (the place where he was said to have been born) Mahotsav is also celebrated in Chaitra.