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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Temples of Bikaner – Part 2: Bhanda Shaha (or Bhandasar) Jain Temple

At first glance, it appears to be just another Jain temple - Which goes to show how deceptive first appearances can be! Because the Bhandasar Jain temple is one of the most stunning temples I have ever seen!

If the outside is simple, the inside is exquisite. Every inch is covered with paintings, depicting the Jain Tirthankars, stories from Jain mythology, as well as fasts and vows undertaken by prominent Jains from the community.

A section of the pillars and ceilings, covered with paintings

One panel, for example, tells us of a vrat, or a vow taken by a merchant and his wife, to abstain from marital relations for a period. The panel shows them inside their house, though in a narrative style. On the left, they are shown seated in a chamber, taking the vow. In the central chamber, they are shown sleeping apart, and in the chamber on the right, they are offering worship to the Jain ascetic, having fulfilled their vow!

Painting depicting the vow of abstinence, as a narrative within a house

Another panel shows a rich man leaving aside his wealth and becoming an ascetic.

A merchant, taking the vow of renunciation, seen within his house

There are also stories from Jain mythology, such as this one depicting Rishabhnath, the first Tirthankar, leaving his kingdom to his hundred sons and renouncing the world.

Rishabhnath, the first Tirthankar, renouncing the world, and handing over his kingdom to his hundred sons. The sons are shown inside the fort, seated on thrones, while Rishabhnath is outside, having taken the vow, seen with other Jain monks and nuns

The panels also show popular Jain pilgrim places, in great detail, as if encouraging devotees to undertake pilgrimages to these sites. This panel, for instance, shows the Jain temple at Sujangadh, which is on the route to Jaipur.

The Jain Temple at Sujandgadh

Another panel depicts the Samavasarana – the assembly hall of a Jain Tirthankar. The Tirthankar sits in the centre, facing east. However, he is shown with three faces, as if he is looking in all directions. Around him are all those who have come to listen to his discourse, in peace. There are ascetics, who have renounced the world, lay men and women, animals, and even gods.

The Samvasarana panel. Notice the different levels, showing different people, animals and gods, around the Tirthankar. Also notice the two goddesses on the sides. 

On another level, are scenes from the life of Jain Saints, whose names would have been familiar to the local Jain community. A series of medallions depict scenes from the life of Jindutta Suri, one of the Jain Saints from Gujarat, identifying certain important incidents from his life, along with those of other saints as well. 

Events from the lives of Jain monks

A series of panels on the beams speak of the punishments of wrongdoing…
Punishments for wrong-doing

Another series depicts all the 24 Tirthankars, with their names…

Some of the Tirthankars, with their names

These stories, side by side, on the walls and ceiling, might be meant, to not just educate the visitors, especially those who come to worship, about Jain myths and legends, but also encourage them to take up vows, develop faith in the saints, understand the greatness of the Tirthankars, and eventually renounce the world, as is traditional in Jainism.

In the sanctum is a marble image of Sumatinath, the fifth Jain Tirthankar. Above him is a Sarvatobhadra image of the Tirthankar – four images, facing the cardinal directions, one on each side of a central column.

The Sancum, housing an image of Sumatinath, with a Chaumukha or Sarvatobhadra image above

Besides the paintings, the temple is also profusely carved, and it was interesting to see that, just as in the Hindu temples of the period, the outer walls of the central shrine have, in the eight directions, figures of the the Ashta Dikpalas!

Kubera - one of the Ashta Dikpalas,
identified by the elephant, which is his mount, and the mongoose skin purse, which is slung over his shoulder

The temple is believed to have been built by Bhandasa Oswal, one of the prominent Jain traders of Bikaner, even before the arrival of Rao Bika. According to the Rajasthan Tourism board, the temple construction was started in 1468 and completed in 1514.

However, it seems quite probable, that the Oswals would have been traders who would have arrived with Rao Bika, and settled in the new city he created. The proximity to the citadel built by Rao Bika also suggests that the new Jain community would have begun construction of a temple as soon as they arrived, with the blessings of their king.

The paintings are, of course, from a slightly later period, and are regularly renewed, which accounts for their brightness and clarity.

One of the lasting legends of the temple is that only pure ghee was used during the construction, instead of water! I have no idea if the legend is true or not, but ghee is indeed poured into the pit during the first puja before construction is begun. That the Oswals even then, were so rich as to fill the pit with ghee, is something to think about!


Timings: The Temple is open all day.

Tips: The priest is a fount of information, and if asked, explains the paintings and the stories they convey. If he is so-inclined, he also takes you upstairs, to the roof of the temple. There are two levels above the sanctum, each with a Sarvatobhadra image, and give you a magnificent view of the surroundings. 

Disclaimer: These posts are based on two trips to Bikaner – the first one, a personal trip, and the second, when I was invited by Narendra Bhawan. While the first was an enjoyable experience with my family, I barely spent a day here, and while it was enough to see the sights, it was too quick to leave an impression.

The second trip, which was on invitation from Narendra Bhawan, filled the gaps and added a context to all that I had seen before, which actually helped me write. While the experiences are courtesy Narendra Bhawan, the words are, needless to say, all my own! 


  1. Its quite a sight. So many pictures and story telling.

    1. Yes, Lata. Its quite a sight... so awe inspiring.... and there are so, so many more stories....

  2. Great work, i must say. Even i also plan sometimes to travel these best destinations of India and one of them is Rajasthan. Will surely explore one day. Great Pictures and Appreciate your efforts.

  3. Replies
    1. It is, Niranjan. More beautiful than it appears in my photographs

  4. I have been to Bhadashah temple twice, after a gap of almost 6-7 years. Surprising things is that non-jain residents of Bikaner are also not aware of this temple. While Lakshminath temple which is located just behind this temple enjoys a great following, this temple is overlooked. Lovely write up.


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