Article: Jain temples

Contributed by Julia A. B. Hegewald

Temples associated with different faiths in South Asia often share architectural elements and display styles common in a region and historical period. Although Jain temples frequently share the architectural and artistic elements found in temples of other religions, they are distinctively Jain. Their religious buildings are specifically adapted to Jain spiritual ideas and ritual practices. There are three striking features of Jain religious buildings. Firstly, there is usually more than one shrine in a temple. Next, most are surrounded by additional buildings that form part of the religious building. Lastly, temples are frequently clustered together to produce temple complexes or ‘temple-cities’.

A Jain temple may be referred to by many different names. Terms for ‘temple’ used in early Jainism were sometimes unclear because activities such as teaching, worshipping and residing did not have special areas and often happened in the same place. As buildings and rooms in Jain temples became dedicated to certain purposes over time, so the terminology became more precise. The term used in the present day varies according to the region of India and the local language.

There are several distinct architectural types of Jain temple in India. These range from cave temples, stupas, pavilions built to shelter holy footprints and statues through maṇḍapa-line temples, ‘four-faced’ temples – caturmukha temples – and havelī temples to hall temples, domestic house temples and small shrines found inside private homes. The most common type is that of the maṇḍapa-line temple, which has one or more shrines and halls. Also typical of a Jain religious context are mythological and cosmological temples, which reflect unique Jain cosmological traditions. More rarely found temples are the towering kīrtti-stambha mandirs.

Jain temples are found in all parts of the Indian subcontinent, with particularly well-known examples in Mount Ābū, Rāṇakpur, Mount Śatruñjaya and Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa. Outside India, Jain temples follow the same model of complex multi-shrined buildings.

Different terms for a Jain temple

This 19th-century temple in Kolkata is a Śvetāmbara temple dedicated to the tenth Jina, Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala.

Śītalanātha Temple
Image by pm107uk – Paul © CC BY-NC 2.0

There are numerous different words among Jains for a temple. Those which derive from early texts, such as the Jain Āgamas, can be quite vague. In the first centuries CE, the same term could be used to describe cave temples and also the residence of an ascetic and a religious school, as the functions were not clearly separated. Only during later centuries did a more precise set of terms develop, when buildings were put up for specific purposes and followed distinctive layouts. These terms describe and clearly distinguish among the individual buildings and their various roles.

A Jain temple is frequently called by the Sanskrit word caitya and its Prakrit version ceia, which can also be used to describe a religious icon. An alternative word is the Sanskrit balānakabalāṇaya in Prakrit – which appears to describe only part of a temple structure. An expression common throughout the south of India is paḷḷi. This can be used for a temple, the lodgings of a nun, a cave and even a school. Another example of a word for a Jain temple that has other meanings is vihāra, which can mean both a temple and a monastery.

In modern terminology, Jain temples in the south of India, particularly in Karnataka, are referred to as basadi or basti. Terms commonly used in the north are typically compound phrases consisting of jina before a word meaning ‘house’, ‘residence’, ‘seat’ and so on. This results in words such as jinā-laya and jina-mandir, and terms such as jinā-yatana, jina-gṛha and jina-prāsāda. In Gujarat in particular, and anywhere else the Gujarati community has migrated, Jain temples are usually called derāsar or daherāsar. These are derived from the Sanskrit devagṛhā-vasara. Common modern derivatives are dherī and dehrā.

Parts of a Jain temple

Main hall of the Vimala Vasahi temple, completed in 1088. The magnificent dome features sculptures of the 16 goddesses of magical knowledge – vidyā-devīs. Dedicated to the first Jina, R̥ṣabha, the white marble temple is one of five temples at Mount Abu.

Dome of the Vimala Vasahi
Image by olderock1 – Rakhee © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jain temples demonstrate designs and styles found in many religious buildings constructed for other South Asian faiths. Despite this and the influence of local and historical fashions, Jain temples can often be easily identified because they reflect and support Jain religious beliefs and practices. These unique characteristics include having more than one shrine in a temple and, secondly, several separate, smaller temples or shrines grouped around the central building.

The majority of Jain temples in India consists of three core building elements:

  • image-chamber – garbha-gṛha
  • hall – maṇḍapa
  • porch.

Though these elements vary in number and relative proportions in various temples, all Jain temples are built on a platform. This physically raises the temple above the surrounding land and creates a distinct sacred area. High walls surround the temple compound, further marking off the holy ground of the temple from the ordinary concerns of the householder.

Shrine, hall and porch of a temple

Their mouths and noses covered, Jain women stand before a highly decorated idol in a shrine in a temple in Mumbai. Offerings used in worship rituals are behind them, such as rice, coconuts and flowers.

Women and an idol in the temple
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The temple’s sanctum is the focal point of the building and may house a statue of a sacred figure or abstract religious element, such as the eight auspicious symbols, the siddhacakra, the cosmic person, yantras and sacred syllables or mantras. In many cases, the shrine holds large numbers of sacred objects. Most temples throughout India have several shrines. These are connected to a hall.

The halls can have side walls and be closed or may simply have pillars, which leave the sides open. Most halls have a pillared interior because the columns are needed to support the ceiling. Temple halls create an approach to the shrine and house more religious statues and ritual equipment. Halls are used for rituals, the recitation of sacred texts and for larger gatherings that involve singing hymns and performing dances.

Porches are very small, simple halls that provide access to shrines and maṇḍapas.

A fourth element may lie between the image-chamber and its hall. The small vestibule – antarāla – is a space in which worshippers can stand and gaze at the icon or follow rituals conducted within the shrine.

In certain temple types, these elements can become exaggerated. In a courtyard temple, for instance, the shrine is usually very wide and spacious and there is an open court in addition to the halls. In a hall-type temple, one major hall acts as the main temple element and the shrine is often not clearly separated, but only indicated by the pavilions or altars raised above the ground at one end of the open hall.

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