Article: Temple-cities

Contributed by Julia A. B. Hegewald

Visiting temple-cities

Pilgrims climb some of the thousands of steps at Mount Girnar. Overlooking the town of Junagadh, the Jain temples at this holy site are built on the five peaks of the mountain and attract thousands of pilgrims annually.

Pilgrimage at Girnar
Image by gatomato © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

No human beings live in the temple-cities. There are no shops and houses, and no streets inside the cities. Therefore the temple-cities are not cities in a domestic or commercial sense.

Pilgrims and priests climb the hills in the morning, venerate the statues, clean the compounds and descend to their accommodation at night. People visiting the city walk barefoot on small, usually paved, paths, so that they can follow the concept of ahiṃsānon-violence – and avoid stepping on minute creatures.

Many temple-cities contain large sub-complexes and group their temples into smaller sets. This helps pilgrims to find their way, since they usually visit the individual temples of a sacred site in an organised and ritually prescribed sequence. These temple clusters are regarded as pure spheres, which aid meditation and the development of a detached attitude towards the physical world. Focusing on spiritual progression instead of material concerns is what Jains should aim to do.


One of the best-known pilgrimage centres for Śvetāmbaras, Mount Shatrunjaya in Gujarat has nearly a thousand temples dispersed over the two peaks and the valley in between. This temple-city is mainly organised into walled enclosures – 'tunks' or 'tuks'.

Temple-city of Mount Shatrunjaya
Image by liketearsintherain – tommy © CC BY-SA 2.0

Temple-cities have developed from the Jain custom of constructing many shrines close together. Temples and shrines are built with donations from lay Jains, who gain spiritual merit from this act. Holy sites that have special religious significance attract many donations over the centuries, meaning that popular pilgrimage centres are frequently very large and may well be described as temple-cities. A temple-city may develop from just two original temple compounds next to each other.

The various temples and shrines that comprise a temple-city are probably built over some time, rather than all at once. The buildings may therefore display a variety of architectural styles. Donors express their devotion by giving money towards the construction of impressive temples and entire temple-cities. Such donations also glorify the Jain religion and the 24 enlightened saintly teachers, the Jinas or Tīrthaṅkaras.

There is a smooth transition from a number of tightly grouped temple compounds to the creation of substantial, fully-fledged temple-cities. The more statues and donations a sacred site receives, the more it expands and comes closer to the ideal of the temple-city.

In many instances, this process starts with just two neighbouring temple complexes. In such cases, one is often administered by the Śvetāmbara sect and the other by the Digambara community. This is the case at Taranga and Idar, both located in Gujarat. However, double complexes do not only exist at jointly managed Jain sites. There are examples where two Śvetāmbara complexes are next to each other, as may be seen at Bikaner in Rajasthan.

Temple-cities across India

The development from temple compounds towards the creation of complete temple-cities can be found in all regions of India. The most famous temple-cities are the principal pilgrimage sites in the Jain faith.

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