The Temple City of the Jains

The Temple City of the Jains

By Jaromír Skrivanek

[Since youth, Jaromír Skrivánek has loved India and, alongside his university training as an artist, he read everything he could on its history, traditions, philosophy, and literature. In 1967 and 1974, through the courtesy of the Czech Artists’ Union, he visited India as a learner, bringing with him only the essentials: sketchbook, pencils, notebooks, a perceptive eye, and an open heart. His travels there, by plane, train, bus, and often on foot, were truly a “pilgrimage to its temple cities,” for his Indian friends had enabled him to penetrate into remote and hidden places, to see, sketch, and absorb something of the soul of this mysterious land of vivid cultural contrasts.

On his return to Czechoslovakia he wrote and illustrated Za krásami Indie (Pursuing the Beauties of India), originally published in 1967 by Orbis, Praha, Czechoslovakia, and again in 1988 by Albatross, Praha. We take pleasure in sharing with our readers a condensed version of chapter 2, translated from the Czech by Mrs. Kamath of Bombay. — ED.]

In the darkness one winter morning I set out for one of India’s sacred mountains, Satrunjaya, a distant violet silhouette. A whole day’s climb and stay on the mountaintop awaited me. Following a wall of gray cacti, I reached the foot of the steps which stretched all the way up the mountain to the renowned Jain temple city. As dawn was breaking I bought twelve bananas, stuffed them in my bag, and began the ascent on foot along with other pilgrims. I noticed men quickly and adroitly carrying small seats, suspended by ropes from bamboo poles, containing merry children, hefty matrons, or bespectacled gentlemen quietly reciting their spiritual chants from small books.

Crowds of beggars threw themselves at me, but as the sun got hotter they withdrew to the shade of the trees lining the path. Young beggar girls with naked children in their laps sat in the dust on rags; invalids and blind women with white eyes cried for alms in a way that brought to mind scenes from ancient tragedies, but here it was not a single individual begging for his private needs, but the very basic cry of nameless pain. Like one of the carriers, I bore this load on my shoulders, a heavy burden indeed. It was too heavy. I could not give them anything; I could not help.

The ascent was interrupted by many halts at small, shady temples and shrines, and by the panorama of the red plain where villages looked like scattered handfuls of white sand. But at last I stood by the city walls of grayish sandstone and granite covered by green lichen and the patina of age. They ended in battlements shaped like inverted lotuses. Was this a fort to guard the treasures of the temple, or did it symbolize strength of mind? In this country the dividing line between reality and symbol seems faint indeed.

Since ancient times the Jains have built sanctuaries where their founder — Adinatha Rishaba, the first Tirthankara, father of Bharata after whom India was named — became enlightened. The oldest surviving monuments, however, are from the 11th century, because waves of Moslem invaders looted and nearly ruined the city. As the desire of every orthodox Jain is to visit here at least once and if possible build a marble shrine, the city soon recovered and is today a memorial in sculpture and relief of the whole of Jain mythology.

Before the second gate I was led into the guardsman’s lodge. The commander of the temple guards examined me attentively. His look became stern when he saw my leather bag. “The order of this holy place does not allow that any living creature be killed within its precincts, not even a fly or ant. Therefore, remains of killed creatures may not be brought into the temple city. Before entering you must take off your bag.” Obediently I put it on the table and we passed through the gates where benignly smiling guards sat surrounded by a heap of sandals and shoes. I stood for a while helplessly, not knowing where to put my canvas shoes so I would find them again. An old gatekeeper stood up, took my shoes, placed them in a niche, and sat down on them with a smile.

Once in the city I found myself in a labyrinth of marble shrines, temples, and underground caves — a cascade of marble where one could wander for hours. Peace and calm reigned. In the niches sat thousands of sculpted figures with crossed legs — apostles of the Jain faith, the Tirthankaras. Below their marble eyelids were inserted glinting pearls or semiprecious stones so that an intense sparkling gaze seemed to follow me from inside all the shrines.

The head guard led me out of this maze up steep steps, broad but without any railing. At first I supported myself on the bastion wall, but we climbed beyond that, passing round cupolas where there was nothing to hold on to. I glanced over the battlements into the abyss and the Gujarat plain. At last we reached a narrow gallery at the highest point of the temple roofs, where I sat down faint from hunger and thirst. The guard took leave of me; I opened my sketch book and looked at the temple city. Wherever the eye reached lay a jungle of towers and cupolas, a riot of marble pictures on walls, decorative symbols, dancing mythological figures reaching upwards like fingers pointing to the clouds. From a small shrine below, the kind face of a graying monk smiled at me; behind him stood two other monks. Shortly one of them ascended, placed a jug of cold water in front of me, and smiled.
After completing three drawings, I descended to another courtyard where a religious celebration was taking place. Hundreds of devotees, in special saris of garnet red or of the color of ripe oranges, were moving from shrine to shrine placing red roses or petals before the statues that others smeared with sandalwood paste, many chanting the mantra Om, namo arihantanam, “Om, we bow before the victor over the enemies!” These enemies are not outside, but are within all of us: hatred, jealousy, and sensuality.

Going round the central temple I sat on a marble step close to the place considered most sacred. The “reyen” tree which stood there is alleged to be 5,000 years old; in its shade one of the Tirthankaras, obtaining enlightenment, pressed the soles of his feet into the soil. A frequent Jain symbol, these imprints are carved in low relief into marble slabs near the tree, a shining swastika depicted in the middle of the soles.

Gradually the people left the temple city through various gates. The commander of the guards led me to his room, pulled from a chest a piece of yellow paper, and spread it on the table. His finger moved over the map, stopping at a particular spot. “Here in the mountains is a cave where my guru lives,” and he pulled from his pocket a photograph of an athletic-looking Indian with a fine head of hair and beard, looking like a man at the height of his powers: “This man is 250 years old. He introduced me to certain yogic practices. In case you are interested, he will come here tomorrow morning before sunrise and will teach you how to evoke the power of the snake (kundalini).”

This teaching reaches back to the very beginning of Indian culture. Rousing in oneself the “power of the snake” is expressed poetically as the turning of the river against its own flow. This force, according to yoga teaching, is concentrated at the base of the spine, and after certain exercises it ascends the spine right to the top of the head. Indian teachers and practitioners maintain that he who achieves this can remain young in body for unlimited periods, according to his choice. The commander explained further that the majority of Indians, apart from attending school, receive instructions from a spiritual teacher, someone who lives an exemplary life and who masters completely one or the other of their religious teachings. The main qualification, however, is his ability to transmit to others knowledge of how to reach union with universal consciousness. Each individual consciousness is only a fragment of the still undeveloped whole; yoga is one method of reaching unification. It could be said that the whole of India is covered by an invisible network of pupils and teachers.

We took leave of each other, and I started down the steps. A student joined me and pressed a red rose into my hand, one of those countless thousands which were offered in the temples. I descended leisurely, smelling the fragrant flower.

Next morning I went to look at the oldest part of the city. I did not avail myself of the commander’s enticing offer to rouse the power of the snake because I did not succeed even to wake myself in the morning and overslept. Besides, I could not imagine making such a climb in utter darkness. Once there I visited several places that had enchanted me the day before. This time the atmosphere of the city was of utmost solitude — the only other living creatures among the stone walls were turtle doves and pigeons. Surrounded by silence, I sat and drew. After a while I returned to the second largest temple containing a statue of Adinatha which, according to tradition, was sculpted many centuries ago when people were most akin to the gods. The present-day Jain temples are said to be copies of a tribune or dais which was put up for the first Tirthankara by the gods, led by Indra. The tribune-temple, called sam-avasaranam (Literally, place of “descent” of a heavenly influence; a holy assembly of the Jinas or Tirthankaras), was built when the Tirthankara, thanks to his ascetic life, reached omniscience and was to preach for the first time before the gods, men, and animals.

I entered the nave which faced east. The figure on the altar, dressed in garments of silver and inset with costly stones, is said to be alive, the three other figures in the temple being only reflections of god — his teaching which is being preached to the whole world for the salvation of all beings. The large mirrorlike eyes glistened with a moist sparkle, giving such a lifelike impression I expected them to blink at any moment. The Jains maintain that some of these old statues float above their pedestals, hovering in space so that it is possible to pass a silk scarf under them.

The heat in the courtyard was oppressive, and the coolness of the temple together with the weariness of several days acted as a soporific. There was not a soul about. I sat down on the marble floor, and in this fatigued state a dreamlike urge arose to understand the Jain teaching that aims not only at seeking god, but which glorifies human action as the only way to liberation, shaping our fate here and hereafter — to discover how far it answers the mystery of human existence. A melody on the air seemed to whisper: “We lose our way in the world of colors, forms, and imagination, and do not know either the beginning or the end. The mystery is impenetrable like a crystal ball, whose transparency is tantamount to invisibility. The mystery is also dark, like a crypt where one goes blind from lack of light. You never know whether you stand in the middle or find yourself at the beginning of the maze. It seems unbearable to be face to face with the final Mystery.”

I was roused by the creaking of the heavy temple door. Surrounding dusk had almost turned to darkness. The guard was locking the gate: in Jain tales those locked overnight in the temple hear the music of the twelve musicians who are carved in marble below the top of the temple cupolas, dancing naked with their instruments. I ran to the exit and called to the guard, who was not in the least surprised. I took my shoes and left. Behind the fortifications of the temple city I looked down the scarred slopes, overgrown with prickly bushes, cacti, and clusters of trees. In the middle of the slope was a small blue lake, far away from the path and steps. Nearby a herd of goats grazed by a goatherd and some maidens spread washing on the dried grass. Behind a fence of cut twigs stood a cluster of simple huts of twisted logs and straw.

The stone maze had exhausted me completely. I felt that only the human spirit gives life to everything and that life itself is of utmost value. I felt like lying down by the water, merging with this simple life and feeling on my forehead only the weight of the transparent air.

I planned to leave town by train the same evening, and on my way to the station halted at a large hall where free hospitality was provided to pilgrims, the poor, and all who halted there, made possible by a wealthy Jain pilgrim wishing to gain merit. Inside, half-naked children roamed about happily; a row of large metal vessels stood on tripods over open fires. There was laughter and the clatter of vessels and long-handled ladles which poured sauces and soups into dishes or cups to go with rice balls.

I arrived at the train station in complete darkness and was handed into the charge of an old railway employee. He did not take his kindly eye off me for a single moment. When I bought a cup of tea from the wooden stall, he carefully watched that I got back the proper change. He found me a comfortable seat on the bench in a corner of the platform and stood over me as if protecting me with his frail shoulders against the night, looming large behind my back. When my train came, he guided me right to the door of the carriage where, thanks to his unfailing instinct, he found a seat for me, and when I wanted to press some money into his hand, he was the first person I met who declined with a smile and with dignity.

We shook hands in a friendly goodbye and as the train started I kept looking at him from the window. He stood there alone on the platform, waving till he turned into a tiny spot which was swallowed up by the night.

From: Sunrise magazine, December 1991/ January 1991 – Copyright © 1991 by Theosophical University Press