Article: Jain temples

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:

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.

Temple platforms

Worshippers leave the Ādinātha temple at Rāṇakpur, Rajasthan. They have left their shoes at the bottom of the steps because the temple area is sacred. All Jain temples sit on platforms or terraces – jagatī or vedī – creating sacred ground above the earth.

Worshippers exit the Ādinātha temple
Image by Christopher Walker © CC BY 2.0

Jain temples of all types are built on platforms or terraces, commonly referred to as jagatī or vedī. The terraces raise the temples above the ground and create a higher, sacred area that is qualitatively different from the lower profane area surrounding it.

Worshippers take off their shoes before climbing up to the sacred temple area. This ascent, however short, is symbolically related to the idea of the difficulties – durlābha – in reaching sacred places. By extension it also suggests the long journey to the remote goal of enlightenment.

On this pronounced plinth, the temple is protected and appears larger and more monumental. The platforms are often much wider than the actual temple structures and thus provide space for the ritual ambulation – pradakṣiṇā – of the building to take place on the sacred level. This spaciousness also allows further shrines, surrounding the temple building, to be at the same level.

This feature became particularly evolved in the Jain temple architecture of north-western India during the medieval age. Lines of subsidiary shrines were interconnected to create protective walls surrounding the outer edge of the terraces. This helped to physically protect the temple structures and shield them from outside view.

Even rock-cut cave temples have platforms, at least at the front entrance.

The terraces are frequently very high, up to three or four metres tall. In many cases the platforms are tall enough to allow separate apartments or lower image-chambers to be created inside.

Compound walls

The compound wall surrounding a temple at Mudabidri in Karnataka. Known as prākāra, these walls are usually free-standing walls encircling the entire sacred temple area. Almost all Jain temples are enclosed by these high compound walls.

Walls of a temple compound
Image by Eric.Parker © CC BY-NC 2.0

Almost without exception, Jain temples are enclosed by high compound walls. Those that do not have walls now very likely had them in the past. Known as prākāra, these walls are usually free-standing detached compound walls, encircling the entire sacred temple area.

Certain types of temple have developed these walls to create defensive, strongly inward-looking buildings. The walls have been merged with the facades of the temples in the compound so there are no separate prākāras. This can happen with all types of temples, but is particularly common in havelī temples.

Beginnings of Jain temple structures

The Bhagavati temple at Chitral in Tamil Nadu consists of a cave temple with porch and a much later temple built on top of the rock. The original cave temple probably dates back to around the 1st century BCE and contains inscriptions and rock-cut Jinas.

Bhagavati cave temple
Image by Aviatorjk © CC BY-SA 3.0

Jain shrines are introduced in the Āgamas and inscriptions around the third century BCE mention Jain temples and statues but the oldest physical evidence of dedicated places of worship dates back to the first centuries CE.

The Jain Āgamas mention shrines dedicated to the siddhas, called siddhā-yatanas, and to śāśvata-caityas. These are eternal shrines in heavenly places, in which gods and goddesses pay homage to sacred representations of the Jinas. There are also textual references to places of Jain worship in connection with the life of Mahāvīra. The 24th Jina is said to have stayed in caityas or so-called vyantara-āyatana or yakṣa-āyatana shrines while a monk. According to Jain legend, Bharata, the oldest son of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, was the first human being to construct temples dedicated to the 24 Jinas on earth.

Jain inscriptions from as early as the third century BCE mention Jain statues and temples but do not describe them. The earliest available traces of Jain architecture are caves and stupas. Substantial structural remains of Jain temples survive from the first centuries CE, but complete temple buildings have been preserved from only about the seventh century CE. However, these complex remains indicate that earlier structures, which are now lost, must have existed and served as models for later brick and stone constructions.

Types of Jain temple

Figure of Neminātha or Lord Nemi, the 22nd Jina. The main Jina image in a shrine is often depicted as four separate yet identical statues. They face the cardinal directions, symbolising the universal reach of the Jina's message.

Four-faced statue of Neminātha
Image by liketearsintherain – tommy © CC BY-SA 2.0

Jain temple architecture falls into several distinct groups. Especially early Jain structures are often caves. In addition, there are Jain stupas and sacred pavilions housing statues and sanctified foot imprints – pādukās. Most Jain temples in India are made up of one or several shrines and one or a number of halls. This is the maṇḍapa-line type. These temples are highly varied in the vertical and horizontal layouts of shrine rooms. A well-known variant is the so-called ‘four-faced’ temple type, which houses a statue of a Jina made up of four figures. These figures sit or stand back to back and face the four cardinal directions. Locally, they are known as caturmukha temples.

From about the 15th century onwards, Jain temples were often designed around an open courtyard – havelī temples. The hall-type and domestic house temples are a later development. These have been adapted to modern life in cities and reflect changed patterns of pilgrimage. More unusual types of Jain temples are those in the form of tall towers – kīrtti-stambha mandirs – and mythological and cosmological temples, which are closely connected with the distinctive beliefs of the Jain religion. Many Jain families also have private shrines inside their homes.

A well-known characteristic of Jain religious buildings is the ‘temple-city’, in which a large number of separate temples or of walled temple compounds has been built close together. These big complexes can feature all of the different types of Jain temple.

Outside India, Jain temples tend to follow the same characteristic layouts as in India, which can be grouped into the types outlined above.


Jaina Temple Architecture in India: The Development of a Distinct Language in Space and Ritual
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Monographien zur Indischen Archäologie, Kunst und Philologie series; volume 19
Stiftung Ernst Waldschmidt, G+H Verlag; Berlin, Germany; 2009

Full details

‘Multi-shrined Complexes: The Ordering of Space in Jaina Temple Architecture in North-Western India’
Julia A. B. Hegewald
South Asian Studies
volume 17
Taylor & Francis; 2001

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