North India  |  Sculpture of Rajasthan

Sculpture of Rajasthan

Just as Rajasthan is known for the fine quality of its paintings, there is no escaping the overwhelming presence of its great body of sculpture. One of the most profuse forms of decorative art in Rajasthan, particularly in the medieval period, it was lavished on palaces and forts, in temples and step wells, and even in the havelies or townhouses of the merchants and traders.

For all that, the tools at the command of the mason or sculptor were basic and crude, and included the tanki or punch, the pahuri or chisel, the hatora or hammer, and the barma or borer. Using these simple elements, and following the texts designed especially for his use (Shilpashastra and Manasara), the mason was able to achieve the perfect jharokha or arch or pillar. Not surprisingly, the texts are exhaustive on detail. A pedestal, for example, is expected to have 24 parts; the height, width and dia of every shaft, arch or building detail is strictly enjoined. But within these formal limitations, the individual expression of creativity is permitted.

There are two ways to examine the issue of the sculptor's art- as in architectural embellishment, and as standalone work. It is important to remember that stand alone art had little use in Rajasthan, and figures were carved either for enshrining in temples, or sculpture was part of the great design of architecture.


Religious icons are almost always carved from marble and the Makrana marble mines, close to Jaipur, have supplied the marble for these for centuries together. Even today, for most shrines in India, images continue to be carved in Jaipur where religious iconography has developed into a fine art.
But Jaipur is merely a centre for creating marble images. For sheer detail, there is nothing to beat the excessive marble sculpturing developed by the Jains at their temples. Most Jain temples have large statues of their tirthankaras enshrined in the sanctum. However, in the temples of Dilwara and Ranakpur, these have found a fluid expression that remains without a parallel in India.

The Jain community is a small one, but it found patrons in the Rajput kingdoms where, besides trading activities, the Jains were able to serve in the courts as capable administrators and ministers. They were often also moneylenders to the maharajas. In turn, the royal families showed their gratitude in permitting the Jains to build temples to their faith. Their faith too, though peopled by divinities, does not believe in the the concept of a supreme creator. Their 24 tirthankaras are the embodiment of guru-hood, though the term means someone who helps you journey from one life to another through a cycle of rebiths. The tirthankaras are depicted either in the seated yoga posture, or in a rigid, immobile manner intended to show the 'dismissing' of the body.


Jain temple architecture is characterised by its profusion of sculpturing. The stone is moulded, chiselled, scooped out, and developed so that each grain becomes a part of the grand design of the temple. Nor is the work limited to a similar repetition: pillars can be carved differently so there is no one that is similar to another in no one that is similar to another; each of these is alive with images of gods and goddesses, musicians and dancers, and
there are architectural embellishments of such amazing fluidity that it is impossible to disassociate architecture from sculpture. It is all the more astonishing because where the sculptural art can only be described as excessive, the Jain faith is characterized by a rigid austerity.

The best examples of Jain temples in Rajasthan are at Mount Abu and Ranakpur. Mount Abu's Dilwara temples contain four principal shrines and are housed together. Dated between the 11th and 12th centuries, the temples must have used all their administrative skills given that just one, the Vimala Vasahi, took 14 years to build, and used the labours of 1,200 labours and 1,500 stone masons.

Ranakpur consists of a fortified complex of temples that arose in Mewar, when Rana Kumbha gave the land in a grant to the Jains. Located 100 km from Udaipur, the temples are among the most beautiful raised by the Jains in the country. At the heart of the complex is the temple of Adinath, one of the largest, most extensive, and characterised by its excess and profusion of sculpture. The Temple is an awesome 40,000 sq ft, and has 29 halls supported by 1444 pillars, Not one of these pillars is like any other, a remarkable feat, and each is entirely sculptured with arabesques, motifs, and statues carved almost in the round. In the centre is the sanctum with the four-faced image, while above it rises the principal spire supported by four others, each surrounded by cupolas. The architecture is characterised by a high plinth and boundary walls with turrents. The temples consist of columned courts, a vast central hall, and a maze of pillars that divides into paths leading to other courtyards.


The Jains also provided the basis for the flowering of still more sculptured architecture, this time in the desert citadel of Jaisalmer, where their havelis remain unparalleled. The Jain were a prominent force in the politics of the court of Jaisalmer, and were certainly rich enough to order themselves residences more handsome even than the king's palace. Instead of marble, their choice of stone for their residences was sandstone. Of the many havelis in Jaisalmer,
three are outstanding- Nathmalji ki Haveli, Patwon ki Haveli and Salim Singh's Haveli. Built in the 18th and 19ht centuries, these mansions use every known architectural device to create buildings rich with the stone masin's expressions, so that each is like a textbook on the subject. Fluted columns, balconies, arches, domes, jharokhas, eaves, brackets, cupolas, every little bit is carved, each differently. The motifs are geometrical and floral, and in a departure from the Jain temples, there is no statuary.

The masons were Muslims, workers journeying to India from West Asia before they were persuaded to break they were persuaded to break journey and set camp in Jaisalmer. It is not impossible to believe that the persuasion may not have been unduly gentle. In any case, they developed a body of sculpted rchitecture that, because of Jaisalmer's isolation, was not repeated elsewhere. Two stone mason brothers, in fact, proved so adept at their task that their names, Hathu and Lalla, are still recorded in the annals of Indian art. While statuary as a part of architecture, and geometrical and floral expressions, found a reflection in all part of Rajasthan, the sculptors of Barmer, another region deep in the heart of the desert, found creative expression in their rich arabesques on the red sandstone found locally. Barmer developed, and continues to remain, one of the prime centers for sandstone carving in the state.