A STUDY OF THE JAIN TEMPLE OF AJITNATH AT TARANGA: Multiplicity of Meaning in a Temple Form

-by Vatsal Shah (Architect & Interior Designer)

[Synopsis of the undergraduate Thesis submitted in final year, Diploma in Architecture in 1998. This Thesis won two gold-medals. One from School of Architecture, CEPT, Ahmedabad, and another from Gujarat Institute of Civil Engineers and Architects.]

INTRODUCTION             The Ajitnath Temple at Taranga (A.D. 1152-74) is an example of Maru-Gurjara Style of architecture which developed in Western India in the 11th century. The style largely patronized by the Solanki rulers in Gujarat has some of the most famous surviving monuments like the temples at Abu, Kumbharia, Shatrunjaya and Girnar. Temples at Girnar, Shatrunjaya and Taranga are the only large scale ventures, of the Solanki period. Some of the unique features of the Ajitnath Temple, which were instrumental in its selection for this study are as follows: The temple belongs to  the peak of architectural development during the Solanki period and is a highly evolved one possessing all the elements expected of in an Indian temple. The temple form reaches a certain amount of complexity and refinement. It stands out as the loftiest temple amongst its contemporaries. It being over 800 years old forms an important example historically, moreover it is in an excellent state of preservation due to various restorations carried out during different periods in time. A gracefulness is seen in its form and proportions which helps in its overall effect, giving it a sense of presence. Secondly it is built into a natural landscape, which provides an additional aspect to the study. An unique feature of this temple is the use of wood in the structure of the temple, which seems to have been preserved for over 800 years. The use of timber in the structure  is  experimentative. It gives an opportunity to study a structure not found in any other temple of Gujarat. In spite of all the above mentioned unique characteristics, no one has attempted to make a systematic architectural study of the Taranga Temple. Thus the study of the Taranga Temple has been attempted, to fulfill the much wanted need for such a study.

The aim of the thesis was to understand an Indian temple fully in all its multiplicity of meanings. The Indian temple unlike other works of architecture is a collage of ideas and intentions fused together over a period of time. Any attempt to just study it from one view-point fails. There is no single concept which overrules the rest in an Indian temple. The aim of this thesis is to get a unified in-depth picture of the different architectural aspects involved in the making of an Indian temple. The Ajitnath Temple at Taranga is studied in its multiplicity of interpretations. A difficulty was found in analyzing it with the framework of analysis usually set up to study present day architecture based on criteria like, the basic idea, axis, volumetric distribution, functional distribution and inter-relationships, plan organization, structural system, response to the climate, and so on. This set format was not applicable, because different parameters existed for an Indian temple, which were far more complex. Here a need was felt to evolve a separate set of criteria which can tackle the complex nature of a temple. An alternative set of analytical aspects has been attempted here which consists of more holistic aspects of analysis like, ‘conceptualizing the sacred’ or ‘a dynamic complexity’ or ‘a play of scales’. Each of these criteria analyze the temple from different viewpoints and help in understanding the temple completely. This brought out the numerousness of interpretations imbibed in the form of a temple.


            The methodology involved various stages. Firstly, the particular case-study was selected after a reconnaissance survey of many other temples. A selective bibliography was made of various books and theses on Indian temple architecture. Information was also sought from books of art histories, archeology and articles. Discussions with art historians were also conducted to know more about the Maru-Gurjara architecture. Site visits were conducted, and exploration of the surrounding areas was also done. A criteria of analysis was developed after referring various texts on Indian architecture. A complete redrawing of the measure-drawings was done, after further developing them and checking them on site. After this an attempt was made to derive various other inter-relationships and inferences from the drawings and site-visits.

The Study

            The study is directed to get a unified in-depth picture of the various architectural aspects involved in the making of an Indian temple, with the Ajitnath Temple at Taranga as an example. The numerousness of interpretations: i.e. multiplicity of meanings, existing in the temple form are brought out in this study.

CHAPTER 1  Multiplicity and Jain Tradition: The Literal and the Philosophical

            An understanding of the term ‘multiplicity’ is established by studying the concept as existing in the Indian tradition and philosophy. This chapter shows the multiplicity seen in Jain tradition in the pantheon of gods, religious symbols, religious texts, philosophies like ‘anekanta-vada’, places of pilgrimage, and in various forms of architectural elements as well as ornamental motifs.

CHAPTER 2 Ajitnath Temple at Taranga: Historical and Architectural Background

            This chapter starts with locating the Ajitnath Temple at Taranga in its historical context, tracing the origins and development of Maru-Gurjara style, to which the temple belongs. It introduces the site location, topography, geographical features, climate, archeological remains on site and the story of its construction. It also identifies the architectural elements of the Taranga Temple and familiarizes the reader with them. The chapter ends with an attempted criteria of analysis of the temple, where each parameter attempts to give a different meaning to the temple, thus emphasizing the plurality of meanings.

CHAPTER 3 Ajitnath Temple at Taranga- Multiplicity of Meaning

            This chapter analyses the temple using a criteria consisting of various aspects. Each aspect attempts to give a distinct meaning to the temple, thus emphasizing its manifold nature. This criteria discusses topics like, the social context, attitude to landscape, the notion of the sacred, a play of scales, a dynamic complexity in form, ornamentation as elaboration of form, materials, structure and technological limitations. The chapter ends showing the underlying unity in the temple, between all this multiplicity. It also talks about the need for an intuitive vision to grasp the meaning of temple architecture.

Conclusions: Multiplicity of Interpretations

            There is no singularly prominent idea or concept which over-rules the rest or is emphasized the most. A temple is like a collage of ideas and concepts. This multiplicity is not a plurality of ideas where all the ideas or concepts are in opposition, contradiction or negation of each other. Rather they strive towards a unity. They are different aspects of one reality. This multiplicity provides a vibrant character to the temple. Some of the various inferences that can be derived are as follows:

Response to site and surrounding natural landscape: The temple is set in a scenic natural landscape, isolated from any major cities. The nature of the site has been conserved, and all building activity is done in harmony with the surroundings. Certain universal notions like building in the center are seen. The surrounding hills not only form a protective grove, but also help to create a backdrop to the temple.

Dynamic complexity in form as opposed to platonic form: The plan of the mulaprasada is made into a complex stepped diamond shape by the rotation of a square connecting the karna offsets. A repetition of profile of the larger form, in other elements and details, is used to create complexity. An accentuation of some horizontal and vertical lines through deeper or shallow moulding layers in the mandovara is also observed. Numerousity is used as a means to achieve denseness and complexity, seen in the sculptural figures. The poses of the figures are dynamic; the lines accentuated by the limbs, form a dynamic geometric composition.

Conceptualizing the sacred: Various notions of rendering a space sacred are seen at Taranga. Firstly, the building of the temple centrally in the site and the use of a mandala for its plan layout as well as in proportioning the building. Secondly, at every stage of entry into the temple, the temple creates a break in the homogeneity of surrounding space to create something that is sacred. This is done with help of the jagati, pitha, threshold and altar on which the idol is placed.

A Play of Scales: The garbhagriha shows the use of an 8 x 8 = 64 square grid. The smallest unit of this grid ‘p’, equal to one-fourth the width of the garbhagriha, i.e. 1.4m is used to proportion the entire temple, from its overall dimensions to dimensions of columns, walls and other elements. The curve of the shikhar ‘rekha’ comes close to the Chaturguna Sutra curve. The height of the shikhar is also seen to be higher than the one prescribed by the Vastushastras. The proportions of the Taranga Temple give it a sense of monumentality as well as a gracefulness rarely seen in other temples. The curve of the shikhar appears to be very fluent, converging inside subtly as it goes up.

Ornamentation as an elaboration of form: The ornamentation at Taranga shows richness both in its skillful execution as well as its abundance of content. Ornamentation helps to elaborate and articulate the form of the temple. Besides it symbolic religious meaning, ornamentation also helps to create optical effects in the temple. Various lines seem to be running across the surface of the temple because of the deep and shallow bands of repetitive ornamentation. Ornamental patterns like the jalaka lattice on the shikhar give a texture of light and shade to its surface. The entire form of the temple is sculptural. The Taranga Temple is like an ‘ornament constructed’. This is when the ornamental quality of the building takes precedence over both the structure and the program. Its sole purpose is aesthetic; to challenge human perception and thus alter the state of awareness of the human mind.

Material, Structure and Technical Limitations: The tenet of ‘truthfulness of structure’, is quiet foreign to Indian architecture. This is seen at Taranga, in the concealed first floor, which has no functional utility. The structure of the samvarana is hidden by a dome covering the gudhamandapa, thus it is never seen by the people visiting the temple. Similarly the garbhagriha is also covered with a dome and doesn’t expose the structure of the shikhar. The emphasis here being on achieving the form and space, rather than exposing the structure.         The structure of the Taranga temple consists of a combination of load-bearing walls and post and beam system. The stresses transferred are all compressive stresses, as such a system cannot take any tension. Corbelling has also been used in corbelled domes and arches and in the shikhar. The exterior wall is buttressed with the various rathas (offsets) of the plan.

            Timber: The use of timber as a structural material is a unique feature of the Taranga temple. Such a composite structure is not found in any other temple contemporary of Taranga in Gujarat. Inferring from the conditions on site, it seems that this wood was used during the original construction of the temple. Various skills used in the construction of the temple and all over the site at Taranga talks volumes of the high level of skill and knowledge that may have existed at that time.

An Underlying Unity: Despite of all the numerousness of interpretations, the temple form itself, tries to integrate its multifarious personality into a unified whole. The attempts of the temple in doing this are seen in its creation of centers, notion of symmetry and articulation of the various elements into a monolithic form.

            To conclude, one could say that, it is an integrated view of all the different aspects that gives a correct picture of the Indian temple. The simultaneous acceptance of all the different aspects of a temple form gives rise to a holistic image that is supported and generated by the power of the intuitive mind. Here one could quote the old story of the six blind men, who each laid hands on a different part of the elephant and tried to describe the whole animal. The man who caught the ear thought that the creature resembled a winnowing fan, the holder of the leg imagined that he was clinging to a big round pillar, and so on. It was he who saw the whole that perceived that each had only a portion of the truth. Thus, one who perceives the temple with all its multiplicity of interpretations, is the one who grasps the meaning of the Indian temple.

(photo courtesy: the author)

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