Ranakpur Temple, Rajasthan

Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India – Woke up early this a.m. in Udiapur and I grabbed a rickshaw over to the post office to get rid of my swords. On the way over to the post office I noticed most shops and businesses were closed and when I queried this fact, my driver told me that everyone was on strike due to the BJP rally to be held in Delhi in two days’ time. To give the reader a little background, on December 6th, 1992 the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) political party [hard-core Hindus] held a rally at Ayodah where there stood a Muslim mosque on a site where the Hindus believe is sacred to their god Ram (they think it is his birth place). In the frenzy of the rally the crowd of Hindus went out of control and tore down the mosque in a mass riot, with many casualties and injuries. This was the catalyst which caused the destructive riots in Bombay in early January. The Hindus have since erected a makeshift temple honouring Ram, and at present the Indian Supreme Court is to rule what is to happen with the disputed site – whether the mosque will be rebuilt or a Hindu temple erected, or both. The BJP is so popular all of a sudden because the Indian central government removed the BJP ruling governments from the following states immediately after the Ayodah incident: Utar Praedesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthstan

The national press is attempting to organise a grass-roots movement to make the site a memorial for both religions. The BJP had scheduled to hold a political rally in Delhi on February 25th, but about a week ago the central government banned the rally fearing more riots reminiscent of those in Bombay. The BJP is a legitimate political party, and they voiced some very strong opinions about the government banning their rally. To draw a parallel, that would be like the U.S. government banning the Democratic or G.O.P. from having an open rally somewhere. After the ban on the rally was announced the BJP declared that the rally would be held anyway with supporters (one million expected) traveling to Delhi from all over the country. The Central government then stated (about three days ago) that the borders with the neighbouring states, Utar Praedsh and Haryana) would be closed to prevent supporters from going to the capital city. We talked to a woman yesterday who said no trains or buses were going up there at present. This leads us to the strike in Udiapur.

I saw a lot of military men walking around the city, and based on our observations driving around the city in a rickshaw and by bus, the ratio of businesses open to businesses closed was close to 1:25. It was very eerie, and seeing that we were leaving Udiapur that morning, both of us hoped the buses weren’t on strike. We arrived at the station just in time to catch the bus to Ranakpur where there is supposed to be a large temple honouring the Jain gods.

Four hours later the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere in the Rajasthan countryside. We passed through the gates into the temple complex and secured a room not 50 metres from the steps to the temple’s entrance.  We dropped our stuff off and removed all articles made of leather (as they’re banned inside the temple) before heading over. We climbed the two flights of steps up to the temple’s entrance, which reminded me of entering our own U.S. Capitol building. The Jain temple wasn’t just big – it was enormous, and both Rich & I drew in our breath in awe as we ascended the steps into the centre of this all marble pious structure. The steps place you at the centre of the temple directly in front of the largest deity. The hall itself must have a minimum of two hundred intricately carved columns, each the size of an ornamental column outside a building, and no two which are identical. The beauty of the carvings and the obvious effort it took for the Jains to construct such a temple made me that much more appreciative that we’d gone out of our way to see it.

Of all the things I’ve seen in India I believe this is the most beautiful place we’ve visited. As you are required to leave you shoes at the door upon entry we got to roam around this marble behemoth barefooted, which only made the visit that much more pleasurable, as it was possible to relax. The temple is huge inside with three different levels for you to walk around on – checking out the carvings. Due to its enormous size it took us about thirty minutes to wander through the entire complex (1,444 carved columns total with two smaller temples inside). I shot off almost an entire roll of film and after wandering around a bit I’d lost Rich – that’s how big it is. – so I headed back to the room to dump my camera and day pack off before returning to the temple for another wander.

The jayfay had visited and I eventually found Rich walking around the temple a short while later. We walked all over the temple when we noticed one slab of marble missing from floor, with stairs descending below. Rich sat down to write Nate a letter and I went walking around. One of the things that struck me was that there were virtually no other people in the temple. For the first time in a long time there weren’t half a dozen people everywhere you went – it was deserted. This only added to the relaxed environment in this white temple of peace.

As I walked around I passed the stairs in the floor again, only this time I leaned over and swung my torso down into the hole to have a look: three steps down, ninety degree turn to the left then only darkness. The opening to the stairs was only about two and a half feet wide so I thought it might just be a tiny storage area and moved on. Went back and got Rich, then the two of us returned to the room to retrieve our cameras for yet more photos of this architectural masterpiece. Upon returning we were sitting in the same hall as the hole with the mystery stairs when Rich saw a couple of men walk behind the pillar nearest the mystery stairs, squat down, then disappear. They could only have gone down into the bowels of the temple via the stairs we’d been eyeing for the past hour. Five to ten minutes later the men reappeared, led by one of the temple assistants. We asked the assistant to take us down and he referred us to the priest of the temple. I asked the priest if he could take us to the underground temple (I’d found that much out) and he replied he’d do it for twenty rupees. Not knowing if it was blasphemy in the Jain religion for haggling with a priest I naively made the counter offer of ten rupees. He consented and led us back over to the staircase in the floor. He went and procured a candle, then nimbly made his way down into the hole.

The entrance was really narrow, to the point where you have to twist your body around the marble floor piece to get down there, and once we were past the three initial steps the staircase turned and made a rapid descent to the lower level of the temple fifteen feet down. The air had all of a sudden became ten degrees warmer and so humid. The stone steps had that clammy feeling of condensation and the air felt heavy in your lungs as we breathed. The priest led us down the steps with his candle into a room lined with pillars – yet another, smaller underground temple. We walked down a hallway where the priest pointed out where stone incarnations of Jain deities had once stood, since destroyed, then he crouched down and made his way through a small opening to the left, taking our only source of illumination, the candle, with him. Wee followed the priest’s candle light through the hole and when se stood up we found ourselves in the centre of another circular chamber. The sounds of our voices were echoing off the walls when the priest demonstrated the acoustics of the room. He held one note with his voice and the sound resonated so perfectly around the room, actually vibrating my organs in my chest. The room was used for meditating with perfect acoustical reverberation for the chants; those clever Jains! The priest held another note for us for the longest time then he led us out through the hole in the wall. through another dark passage to the second underground temple, surrounded again by columns all around.

Just as we were about to ascend the steps out we were stopped by a group of Jains climbing down in. One of the men was so surprised to see a sahib down in the bellows of one of their most religious mecca points he made more than a few exclamations in Hindi. Judging from his reaction he was saying things like “I can’t believe it! They (we tourists) even got down here!” We climbed out, thanked the priest, gave him his ten rupees then headed over to one of the other buildings in the complex for some dinner.

Figuring the cuisine we were about to have was going to be as Jain as could be (this was a mecca point) we had no idea what to expect. The meal began – it was a thali consisting of puri, rice and some sort of sauce, along with this potato dish and another cheese dish of some sort. The puri, rice, papadams, and endless portions of all the items on my plate kept coming as though there were some never ending supply. I had this feeling this must be what Henry VIII felt like – the instant one of the main courses on your plate was empty one of the servers would appear to replenish your helping. We gorged and just shoveled the food down; I think it was the best meal I’d had in the past month, if not the entire time we’d been in India – all for Rs9 (US$0.27) We went for a walk around the temple complex after dinner, thinking we should look at the smaller temples, not just the most beautiful, most amazing, massive one. It was dusk and we made it just in time to the three smaller temples to see the insides lit by candle light and to make a Rs1 offering. We walked by the big temple again on the way back to the room, but got sidetracked and sucked back into the big temple. I couldn’t walk by without seeing it lit by candlelight.

When I entered there was some sort of ceremony going on with some worshippers in the main hall who seemed to be praying for a person or group of people The worshipper would say a name to the temple assistant who would scream it very loudly to another assistant on the second balcony. The second assistant would then, in turn, scream the name across the whole of the complex. We left during the name screaming to return to our room and view the temple from our porch. Just as the stars began to appear over the silhouette of the temple, all of a sudden all these bells began to ring inside the temple. The bells were loud from where I was sitting, so they must have been deafening inside, accompanied by a bass drum being beaten in time. It was a surreal effect – having all of these sounds emanate from this temple at dusk. These were the sounds you would expect to hear come out of a temple in 1600, not 1993. but the temple is still functioning and is still a pilgrimage point for the Jains. Both of us were really relaxed after our day of exploring the temple; I’ll probably go out in the morning and take some more photos before our bus to Jodhpur arrives.

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