They’re building a Jain temple on the higher land above the little town of Amarkantak. Saying “a temple” is really a little misleading – it’s a huge, impressive structure, with an even taller tower close by. And these buildings are just part of a larger planned complex.
The Jain temple is just a few minutes’ walk from where we’re staying right now, and it’s a pleasant one. We meandered along a dirt road at the side of a huge stretch of open land, rimmed by forest at its edges. We could see the Jain temple beyond the open ground, its two towers just sticking up above the trees.
We walked along in the quiet, until we reached a row of shops: puja articles, tea, snacks, sugarcane juice and other items that visitors like. Even though it’s still a construction site, the big Jain temple draws plenty of visitors, especially on a Sunday.
As we approached the temple site, I was struck by the huge piles of stone lying around. I was especially impressed with the blocks of stone partly carved with representations of apsaras, dancers and other figures. It looks like the principal form of each is roughed in at a workshop, so that the final touches can be done once the figure has been placed on the building.
On the tallest tower, which stands separate from the main temple, the graceful finished carvings are surrounded by scaffolding, so it’s hard to get close to them. But the scaffolding itself is beautiful to look at, constructed of wavy logs that remind you they came from actual living trees, and bound by coarse rope.
The main temple is enormous, and so is the crane that’s lifting pieces into place. I’m not sure what’s the most impressive here – the tallest tower, the main temple, or the seriously modern equipment, brand-new on site.
The temple has been under construction since 2002, I’m told. Several more buildings are planned as part of the complex, so I suppose it could be another 20 years before the entire project is completed.
Watching the workmen cut and chisel stone, using both hand tools and machine-driven circular saws, brings to mind the building of Europe’s old cathedrals, or other great monuments – the pyramids, even. Except for the modern equipment and so the need for fewer laborers, the process is much the same: slowly, painstakingly building an enormous structure that takes decades to complete, and that is built for no practical purpose, but for ritual and the expression of a community’s values.
And it’s always good to meet the people who do the work.
As we walked around, Alan remarked on how interesting it is to look at a temple surrounded by rubble because it’s being constructed. Normally when we’re looking at temples surrounded by rubble, it’s because they’re crumbling away (and the stones are often carried away to be used in people’s houses or other buildings, so there aren’t many). “We’re looking at a temple that’s building up instead of falling down,” he said.
I noticed here, as I have before at Jain temples, how carefully architected and ornately decorated the temple is. It’s an interesting choice, considering how important austerity is in the Jain religion. The value of austerity manifests in a number of ways – for example, extreme fasting, abandonment of clothing (not for female ascetics, though), and generally renouncing all attachments. Yet the sculptures on this Jain temple are as sensual and sinuous as at any Hindu temple.
As I stand back and think about it, I realize it’s the same story in most religions or cultures – values expressed in the scriptures or other official documentation are contradicted by real-life actions. To anyone watching America for the past couple of years, of course, this paradox is completely familiar.