On a Spiritual Sojourn in Rajasthan

On a Spiritual Sojourn in Rajasthan
Pushkar is home to one of the few Brahma temples in the world , Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Religion has played a pivotal role in shaping Rajasthan’s cultural identity. Embarking on a spiritual quest in the desert state can be a truly enriching experience

Karan Kaushik
September 20 , 2020
12 Min Read

“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life”, rightly professed the Buddha. Religion and spirituality, both beautifully intertwined, are indeed a way of life in Rajasthan. Religious beliefs have influenced the ideologies and lifestyles of every Rajasthani, thanks to the teachings of saints and sages that have trickled down through the ages propagating truth and knowledge.

There is immense scope in Rajasthan to fulfil this quest for spiritual awakening. At Ajmer’s Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah, the air is thick with not just the scent of roses and incense but also the fervour of prayer. Here’s a state that has temples like the Tanot Mata Mandir and many sacred lakes such as 'Tirtha Raj' or the king of pilgrimage sites, the Pushkar Lake. Associated with Lord Brahma, the latter is referred to in quite a few sacred Hindu treatise.

No other state in the country represents India’s Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb quite like Rajasthan. Here you will see practitioners of the Hindu-Muslim composite culture holding even folk deities such as Gogaji Veer and Baba Ramdeoji in deep reverence. Muslim Manihars or bangle-makers in the state are still invited to play a part in important rituals at Hindu weddings. It is they who place the bangles on the bride’s arm and ritually legitimise the wedding. The Pannigars, a Muslim community, produce the silver foil used in the worship of Hindu deities.

Devotees singing Krishna Bhajans in Pushkar

Religion has played a pivotal role in shaping Rajasthan’s cultural identity. Teej and Gangaur, its two most vibrant festivals, are celebrated with great pomp in the honour of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati.

Rajasthan has long been exposed to Sufi culture in its layered society, from the royal houses to its elite to ordinary people across the state. The annual Urs Festival at Ajmer has introduced Rajasthanis to the soulful beauty of qawwali performances.

The diversity of Rajasthan’s spiritual engagement has even found a voice in its many art forms. For instance, some tribal communities are known for their beautiful scroll paintings which depict regional gods and goddesses and the leelas of Lord Krishna.

Religion has even influenced the gastronomic habits of people here, to a great extent. For example, the Jain community is strictly vegetarian and will eat the last meal before the sun sets (so as to avoid inadvertently consuming any insects that might be flying around after dark). Then the arrival of Islam paved the way for Mughlai cuisine which has become a significant part of Rajasthan’s culinary traditions.

The Hindu faith is the most widespread in Rajasthan. It is usually practiced through the worship of Brahma, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu and other deities. Most Hindus of Rajasthan are Vaishnavites but they also worship Durga and her several incarnations.

Amongst the adivasis residing in Rajasthan, the Meena community is an ardent follower of Vedic spiritual mores with Bhainroon being the deity they revere. The Rajputs worship Surya, while the Gurjar community holds God Devnarayan dear.

The tenets of Arya Samaj, a type of reformed Hinduism stemming from the late 19th century, is also followed here.

Meerabai was an important figure during the Rajasthani Bhakti movement. The MeerabaiTemple in Chittaurgarh is dedicated to the queen, who is famed for having thrown herself into a romantic devotion to Krishna even after she was married.

Women reading religious scriptures in Pushkar

Pushkar is possibly the most important Hindu pilgrimage centre in Rajasthan. It represents the Hindu Trinity with all its attendant gods and goddesses, but Pushkar also has shrines that have special significance for different castes.

Legend has it that the Pushkar Lake was created by Brahma who combined the waters of the four places of pilgrimage sacrosanct to Hindus—Badrinath, Jagannath, Rameshwaram and Dwarka.

Pushkar is also home to one of the very few existing Brahma temples in the world. The four-faced icon of the lord accompanied by his bride Gayatri, and the silver turtle in front of the shrine’s entrance, were installed in 1809 when the temple was rebuilt.

The 8th century Eklingji shrine on the outskirts of Udaipur is dedicated to Eklingji, an avatar of Lord Shiva, who is also considered to be the real ruler of Mewar. The temple complex has 108 shrines and the sanctum sanctorum houses an imposing four-faced idol of Eklingji.

Rats at the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke

The temple of Srinathji at Nathdwara is among the most sacred places of worship for adherents of the Pushtimarg sect, many of whom travel from Gujarat to worship the famous idol of Lord Krishna here. The Karni Mata Temple at Deshnoke is known by the sobriquet of ‘Temple of Rats’. Tradition has it that if you step on one, even accidently and kill it, you will be struck by grave misfortunes — unless, of course, you choose to make up for it by presenting the temple a rat made of gold! These saintly rats are called kabas.

Of great significance to Rajasthanis is the  Khatushyam Ji Temple, where Barbarika, the son of Ghatodkacha, is worshipped in Lord Krishna’s form by the name of Shyam. Known as Haare ka Sahaara, Shyam Baba fulfils all wishes of his devotees, who come here with true intent.

Considered to be the most important temple in Jaipur, Moti Dungri is dedicated to the worship of Lord Ganesha. The large vermilion-coloured icon of Ganesha is said to have been 500-years-old when it was brought to Jaipur in 1761 CE.

Hardcore Hanuman devotees flock to the Salasar Balaji Temple in droves throughout the year. The icon of the monkey god here is probably the only in India which features a moustache and beard.

Even though the Jain faith was not a choice for their spiritual moorings, they gave it due respect. Jainism is, however, amongst the most followed religions in the state today. The wealthy merchants and trading class of the state are adherents of Jainism and believe that the universe wasn’t created by a deity. They also believe in reincarnation and eventual spiritual salvation by following the path of the Tirthankars, enlightened spiritual teachers and founders of the faith. The gloriously sculpted and enchantingly situated temples at Ranakpur are among the most visited Jain temples in the state. Chaturmukha Adinath Temple, the main temple at Ranakpur is a 15th century ode to Lord Adinath, the first of the Jain Tirthankaras. Marvel here at the translucence of the marble, the poise of the sculpted figures, the delicacy of the Kalpavalli (wish-fulfilling creeper) medallions, and at the immensity of the architect’s vision.

In Jaisalmer are seven beautiful Jain temples, delicately carved in yellow sandstone and built in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Parsvanath Temple, dedicated to the 22nd Tirthankara, is the largest of the lot and the most impressive. The main idol of the temple is said to have been brought here from Lodhurva, the earlier capital of the Bhatti Rajputs of Jaisalmer. In Mt Abu, the solitary hill station of Rajasthan, one is awe-struck at the carved splendour of the Delwara Jain Temples.

Village Delwara is home to a complex of five Jain temples. Of these, two of the earliest, the Vimal Vasahi(built in 1031) and the Luna Vasahi (1230) are notable for their glorious marble craft.

The Jain Temples in Jaisalmer

The breathtaking sculpture and carving of the pillars, arches, doorways, and even the ceiling give make these temples truly unique as an art form as well. The Pittahara Temple was made in the 14th century, dedicated to Lord Adinath. It contains a celebrated image of the lord, 41 inches high and made of panchdhaatu (an alloy of five metals), with a substantial proportion of gold.

The Chaumukha Temple was made in the 15th century and is dedicated to the 23rd Tirthankara Parshvanath. It has a lofty pinnacle, which sets it apart from the flat roofs and small domes of the other temples.

The Mahavira Temple is a small 18th century shrine dedicated to Lord Mahavira; on its ceilings, you can see some fading frescoes.

At Osian, in the remote reaches of the Thar Desert stands the Jain Mahavira Temple. In the sanctum is the idol of Lord Mahavira said to be made of cow’s milk and mud, with a coat of gold. The intricate stonework on the ceilings and the sculptures along the temple walls are magnificent. A notable point here is the presence of another temple of significance – the Sachayee Mata Mandir, the most important of the 16 Hindu temples here. Although the temple is dedicated to Sachayee Mata, the sculpture here depicts most gods of the Brahmanical pantheon. A lot of attention has been paid to detail.

In Bikaner, stands the noteworthy 16th century Bhandeshwar Jain Temple in Bikaner; of particular interest are its mirrors and gold-leafed paintings.

Islam is the third most followed religion in Rajasthan. Ajmer, Nagaur, Jhunjhunu and Fatehpur were administered by Sunni Muslim rulers and became Sufi centres of note. Several of Rajasthan’s Hindu rulers also patronised numerous tomb-shrines of Muslim mystics and martyrs. The rulers of Marwar, for example, would welcome Muslim saints, a tradition that’s still followed, as seen at the tomb of Ghulam Shah Qalandar in Mandore. Both the shrine and the mosque here have been renovated by Marwar’s Rathore rulers several times over the years.

When entering Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, you’ll see a small tomb-shrine which is still held sacred by both Hindus and Muslims, just as it was when it was first built for a warrior considered to beJodhpur’s guardian and protector. This shrine was raised to the martyred Muslim general Bure Khan who in the 19th century died defending Marwar during the battle between the arch enemies of the time–the two Hindu kingdoms Jaipur and Marwar.  During the Navratra festivities pilgrims going to the hilltop Devi Temple stop first at this shrine to make some offerings. At the Amber Fort, near Jaipur a mysterious Muslim mystic known as Gebi Pir is still worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike at his shrine here.

The Ajmer Dargah is the most important Muslim shrine in the state and draws people of all faiths from all corners of the world. The Dargah is dedicated to the revered Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, or Garib Nawaz as he is also known, who arrived in Ajmer in 1191 CE and settled here for the rest of his life. Among the first Sufi saints to come to India, he led an illustrious line of Chishti saints in India, including Nizamuddin Auliya and Salim Chishti.

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The dargah is a bewildering complex with many structures. The entrance gates to the dargah, overlooking the congested bazaar, were commissioned by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1915, while the drums set atop the gateway were a gift from Mughal Emperor Akbar after his successful campaign in Bengal. Other important landmarks here are the red sandstone Akbari Masjid (1571) and the Buland Darwaza, possibly built by Mahmud Khalji. The Mehfil Khana, a hall opened only for the Urs, and the Langar Khana, where porridge is cooked for the poor, lie on the way to the tomb. Of interest here too are the massive degs (cauldrons) used for cooking. These were gifted by the Mughal’s Akbar and Jahangir, to cook food, paid for by devotees, for mass distribution.

Another attraction in the dargah complex is the Sandali Masjid, built by Aurangzeb. It’s here that sandalwood for the tomb is prepared. To its left is the tiny Auliya Masjid, which marks the spot where the Khwaja first stayed after arriving in Ajmer. From here, a path leads to the dargah chamber. From the outside, the marble tomb is a soothing structure, with silver doors and a golden finial. The vast courtyards on both its sides are often full of qawwali gatherings. Also of interest here is Shah Jahan’s Jami Masjid (1638 CE), a building of white marble. Down a congested alley   to the left of  the dargah entrance lies the exquisitely carved 12th-century Adhai-Din-ka-Jhonpra, built by Sultan Qutub-uddin Aibak and completed by Iltutmish.

While a lot of focus in Ajmer is directed on the dargah, a unique site here is the stunning and incredibly ornate Golden Hall of Jain Nasiyan Temple, located near Ana Sagar. It is replete with gold models of the life of Tirthankara Adinath.

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