Article: Temple-cities

Contributed by Julia A. B. Hegewald

South India

The striking maṭha – often 'mutt' in English – in Melsittamur is the main religious centre for Jains in Tamil Nadu. Led by Bhaṭṭāraka Laxmisena Swami, the mutt is at the heart of the Digambara temples in the village.

Maṭha in Melsittamur
Image by Vijayan Teacher © CC BY-SA 3.0

It is common practice in the southern Indian states to have many temple compounds at pilgrimage sites.

In the small town of Shravana Belgola in Karnataka, for instance, the Arkaṇṇa Temple group consists of two walled compounds. At Varanga, in the same state, three religious complexes lie side by side, and at the site of Gommateshvara, near Mysore, five fenced sacred areas are grouped on and around the monumental central rock formation.

This tendency to build temple compounds next to each other has also led to the creation of so-called Jain temple-cities in the south. Those on Vindhya-giri and Candra-giri at Shravana Belgola, as well as the temple-city on Tirumalai in Tamil Nadu are dispersed over hill sites, with a concentration of temples towards the peak. The paths leading up the steep hills are lined by religious statues, small shrines and water structures.

As in other regions, not all Jain temple-cities in the south have been constructed on high peaks. The one at Melsittamur in Tamil Nadu, as well as the substantial Hiriangadi Temple complex at Karkala in Karnataka, have been created on level ground.

Urban temple-cities

Gatehouses to Koti Basadi and Guru Basadi. There are nearly 20 temples within the village of Mudabidri, with several temple compounds along one of the main streets. A centre of Digambara Jainism for centuries, Mudabidri remains an important site.

Entrances to Koti Basadi and Guru Basadi
Image by Vaikoovery – Vaishak Kallore © CC BY 3.0

Most Jain temple-cities are relatively isolated. They can be reached from towns or monastic settlements but are usually quite remote sites. An alternative form of the Jain temple-city is a dense complex of walled temple compounds in the centre of a city or in the main Jain quarters of a town.

This kind of urban temple-city can be found in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, where a large number of Jain temples are very closely grouped inside the old fort. Further examples, also from Rajasthan, are the high concentration of Jain temples in Nadol and Udaipur, where most of the temples are located along just one road.

The compact cluster of Jain temple complexes inside north-western Indian towns, however, can best be studied in Jamnagar and Sirohi, both in Rajasthan. In these towns, large areas have been densely packed with Jain temples, thus creating temple-cities within towns.

This phenomenon can also be observed outside the region of north-western India. For instance, there is a sizeable collection of Jain temples in the centre of Seoni in Madhya Pradesh.

An example of a Jain temple-city that forms the physical centre of an actual inhabited village in the south is Mudabidri in Karnataka. In Mudabidri the so-called Jain temple street runs through the centre of the village and is lined by walled temple complexes on both sides. In addition to the nine major temple compounds along this road, at least another seven large temple complexes are scattered throughout this large traditional south Indian village.

Temple-cities in art

This paṭa or cloth wall-hanging shows eight major pilgrimage centres and their associated events. In the centre is the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, in Pāvāpurī, where he was liberated. The other major Jinas are also represented, as are the pilgrims who visit.

Worlds of gods and saviours
Image by San Diego Museum of Art © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Because of the wide popularity and strong sacred associations of temple-cities, they have frequently been represented in Jain art. Artistic representations of temple-cities mainly consist of:

  • pilgrimage banners – tīrtha-paṭas
  • carved panels in marble
  • miniature models.

These sacred objects are displayed and venerated in Jain temples throughout the subcontinent and in temples among the diaspora. Jains study and meditate on these depictions of temple-cities for two main reasons. Firstly, it allows devotees who are unable to make the journey to these often distant pilgrimage centres to gain merit. Secondly, they can mentally visit a sacred site.

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