Cradled in a verdant valley in the valley in the Aravalli Hills, on the banks of the river Maghai, stands one of the five holiest places of the Jain faith, 15th century Ranakpur. Just 96 km from Udaipur, Ranakpur is renowned for its magnificent temples of dazzling white marble. The four-temple complex, far away from any town or village, is completely in harmony with the ascetic ideology of Jainism. There are none of the irritants that abound near most pilgrimage centers: no jostling crowds, no congested bazaars, no aggressive vendors, no badgering guides, no beggars just peace and serenity that are very conducive to worship.
An inscription in the temple reveals that it was built by Dharnaka, an affluent and reputed Jain merchant. Legend has it that he was inspired by a dream in which he saw a heavenly vehicle, prominently mentioned in Jain scriptures. He sought audience with Rana Kumbha, the ruler of Mewar, for land on which to translate his dream into a temple of unparalleled beauty. The ruler was delighted with the proposal and donated a large tract of land in the Aravalli foothills for the purpose. Construction began under Depa, a famous but reclusive architect, and creation of the marble marvel took all of 50 years. On completion, it was dedicated to Lord Adinath, the first of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras (saints).
The sheer magnitude, dimensions, and aesthetic grace of the main temple are awe-inspiring. The four-faced temple is open on all sides and soars three storeys into the sky. The sanctum sanctorum enshrines the four-faced image of Adinath, visible from all four sides. The temple structure sprawls over 48,000 square feet with its 29 halls, 86 chapels, five spires, 20 domes. It is supported on 444 graceful pillars, each carved differently from the others. The images of the 24 tirthankaras are carved on the porticoes around the shrine, with each mandap possessing a spire, adorned with little bells, on the top. With every gust of passing breeze, the temple corridors echo the tinkle of the bells.
The temple is embellished with carvings so fragile that they give a lace-like effect. In stark and compelling contrast to the joyful, delicate and elegant opulence of the interior, the external appearance of the temple complex is one of solidity and strength.
There are three other smaller temples, two of which are dedicated to the Jain saints, Parasvanath and Neminath. Both face the main temple. Their friezes of erotic carvings are reminiscent of the sculptured walls of Khajuraho. The fourth temple, the Surya Temple, is dedicated to the sun god. Its polygonal walls are embellished with carvings of warriors on horses and solar deities riding chariots.