The Dilwara temples, 3km northeast of Mount Abu, are some of the most beautiful Jain shrines in India. All five are made purely from marble, and the carving is breathtakingly intricate. Entrance to the temples is by guided tour only – you’ll have to wait until sufficient people have arrived to make up a group – though once inside it’s easy enough to break away and look around on your own.
The oldest temple, the Vimala Vasahi, named after the Gujarati minister who funded its construction in 1031, is dedicated to Adinath, the first tirthankara. Although the exterior is simple – as, indeed, are the exteriors of all the temples here – inside not one wall, column or ceiling is unadorned, a prodigious feat of artistry that took almost two thousand labourers and sculptors fourteen years to complete. There are 48 intricately carved pillars inside, eight of them supporting a domed ceiling arranged in eleven concentric circles alive with dancers, musicians, elephants and horses, while a sequence of 57 subsidiary shrines run around the edge of the enclosure. In front of the entrance to the temple the so-called “Elephant Cell” (added after the construction of the temple itself in 1147) contains ten impressively large stone pachyderms. A more modest pair of painted elephants, along with an unusual carving showing stacked-up tiers of tirthankaras, flanks the entrance to the diminutive Mahaveerswami Temple, built in 1582, which sits by the entrance to the Vimala Vasahi.
The Luna Vasahi Temple, second of Dilwara’s two great temples, was built in 1231, and is dedicated to Neminath, the 22nd tirthankara. It follows a similar plan to the Vimala Vasahi, with a central shrine fronted by a minutely carved dome and surrounded by a long sequence of shrines (a mere 48 this time). The carvings, however, are even more precise and detailed, especially so in the magnificently intricate dome covering the entrance hall.
The remaining two temples, both fifteenth-century, are less spectacular. The Bhimasah Pittalhar Temple houses a huge gilded image of the first tirthankara, Adinath, installed in 1468, which measures more than 2.5m high and weighs in at around 4.5 tons. The large three-storey Khartar Vasahi Temple (near the entrance to the temples) was built in 1458 and is consecrated to Parshvanath. The temple is topped by a high grey stone tower and boasts some intricate carving in places, though overall it’s only a pale shadow of the earlier temples.