Luxury of the ascetics.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Amid Delhi’s dense tangle of mosques, forts and tombs, it is easy to miss the city’s non-Islamic heritage. Let Jain Svetambar Temple not be one of them.
The most beautiful Jain temple in the capital, it is lavishly decorated with intricate artwork on its pillars, walls and domes. Tucked at one end of a quiet alley off the main lane of the incredibly noisy Kinari Bazaar in Old Delhi, it traces its history to the Pandavas of Mahabharata times. However, the temple’s triple-storeyed marble building, dating from the late 18th century, is no relic of that mythological past.
As one of the two sects in Jainism, the Svetambaras, unlike the Digambaras, believe in wearing clothes. In this temple you see priests dressed in white (Svetambara means ‘wearing white’). The simplicity ends there.
The devotional area on the first floor, reached by steep marble stairs, launches a delirious assault on the senses. It is as if the asceticism that a Jain follows in life (no onions, no garlic, no meat) is being compensated by the gold and silver of this temple.
The central courtyard, overhanging with four giant chandeliers, has exquisitely carved “Mughal” arches. Gilded paintings with gold filigree work cover the walls. Painted in the Mughal-era, some panels show women dancers, while others are more religious with images of holy men. One of the niches in the corridor has statuettes of all the 24 Jain thirthankaras, the enlightened spiritual teachers – or prophets – of the religion.
At a corner sits the dramatic black image of Lord Parasanath, the 23rd tirthankara. Made of the rare kasauti stone, it is installed on a marble pedestal, covered by an ornately carved golden canopy.
In the sanctum sanctorum, the chief deity, the fifth tirthankara Sumatinath, is of white marble. The statue has a silver crown, a forehead adorned with a diamond tilak and a pure gold necklace. The dome has gold leaves pasted on a base of natural glue extracted from trees. The silver-plated door, opening into the shrine, is sculptured with the icon of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.
The second floor is yet more flamboyant with wall-sized glass mosaics representing the life of Lord Mahavir. Restored early in 2010 by artist Zenul Khan from Rajasthan, the dome at the shrine is painted with figures of nobles, musicians and dancers.
The museum on the ground floor has rare manuscripts, embroideries in gold thread and objects of pure silver. Worldly luxuries, Jain-style.
Where Jain Swetamber Mandir, Naughara street, Kinari Bazaar Time 6 am to 8 pm (If closed, ask around for the caretaker) Nearest Metro Station Chandni Chowk