Feudalism’s collapse brought a redistribution of wealth and the rise of merchants. This happened during a period of about five hundred years, but at different times in different parts of the world. The Islamic Maghrib perhaps began this transition earliest, but did not develop resource hungry capitalism. Parts at the edges of Europe, on the other hand, evolved into mass-market capitalism by the seventeenth century. By the time the transition happened in the rest of Europe and the world, resources had already been grabbed by the new empires of market capitalism. One can see that seeking markets and capital as a major cause of wars after that. Independent beginnings of other streams of mercantilism can be seen almost everywhere in the world. Bikaner turned out to preserve such a history.
I’d seen seen gushing reviews of Bhandasar (Banda Shah) Jain Temple in various travel web sites. When I tried to locate it on the map, I saw that it was close to several groups of havelis in the town. Rajasthani havelis are mansions built by the new merchant class which arose as the feudal system which supported the Mughal Empire, and its dependent kingdoms, began to collapse. The earliest of these grand havelis date from the early and middle 18th century CE, and their construction continued into the early 20th century. The temple in its present form is likely to be 18th century. The local legend says that it dates from the 12th century could perhaps mean that there was a temple in that locality which dated from earlier. It is not uncommon even now for rich families to build grand structures for pre-existing temples where they worshipped. The external structure of sandstone and marble, with whitewashed masonry bits looked interesting, but not terribly grand. The inside was another thing altogether.
The entrance portico was richly painted, and I paused to take a photo of the ceiling (featured photo). The caretaker opened the door, told me to keep my shoes and bottle of water outside, quickly instructed me that I could take any photo I wanted, that I should not enter the garbhagriha, that I should circle it clockwise, that I could leave an offering of money if I wanted but none was required, and that I had an hour before he had to close up for the afternoon. I stepped on to an abstract geometric mosaic on the floor, looked up, and was flabbergasted at the decorations in the mandapa. Overhead were scenes from the life of an ascetic preacher. There were paintings of walled cities with people in celebration, a desert scrubland much like that outside Bikaner, black buck, chinkara, and camels, skies full of dark blue clouds with bolts of lightning corkscrewing from them, caparisoned elephants, masses of jewelled horsemen, and among them an ascetic preaching. The temple is dedicated to the fifth of the Jain Tirthankars, so I suppose that is him.
Jainism is an ancient religion, contemporary with Buddhism, but unlike its companion religion, had been somewhat marginalized until the rise of Indian mercantilism. In the two millennia before the modern era , it had built for itself an elaborate mythology, including that of the twenty three Tirthankaras which precede the founder, Mahavira. There are few tangible remnants of its early history. The immense monolith in Sravanbelagola from the 10th century is an early Jain monument, but most major Jain temples were built in more recent times. This temple is so organically integrated into its surroundings, that it is clear that it is must have evolved with the rise of the merchants of Bikaner. Sculpture is not its forte, painting is. Every surface was painted. Welcoming couples were painted on to the numerous doors which granted access. This is usually a symbol of openness to all people regardless of gender or belief. I noticed that each human figure was richly jeweled. Was this aspirational, or did it reflect the lifestyle of the Jain merchants when they were first painted?
One corner of the temple was dedicated to music and dance. I saw musicians painted on to doors, playing hand held stringed as well as percussion instruments. Another set of doors had dancers performing something close to the modern garba. The statues in this corner also represented dancers. The learnt from the caretaker that the temple committee commissions restorations of a few sections of paintings at a time, but the process is fairly common. That was one reason that only a few paintings looked faded.
The walls were so full of details that I was lost in them as I traverse the narrow alley around the central garbhagriha. But when I looked up, I noticed that the ceilings were richly decorated too. I wondered whether these delicate shades of blue and green were traditional or require ultramodern chemical technology to achieve. Of course, the 18th century was fairly modern, and a lot of the technology of colours had already been developed by then. There are Portuguese documents from a century earlier which talk the of profusion of artificial colours that they saw in India. Temples are the most conservative organizations in the modern world, so changes would be slow. Nevertheless over three centuries colours could have evolved.
Off in one dark corner was this gem of a door. With the semicircular arch above it, and stained glass insets it was one of a kind. Strangely, it seemed not to be regularly used. The niches in the wall were stacked with account books and loose papers, and a bed roll was piled up near it. What was its purpose? I looked around for the caretaker, but he was busy instructing new arrivals. I noticed that he gave them half an hour. I was sure we had spent more than half an hour inside, so perhaps his times were a little elastic. We thanked him and stepped out into the bright sunlight outside.