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Ranakpur

I have seen some pretty unbelievable man-made structures in my life. Versailles. Ankor Wat. The Hagia Sophia. The Chrysler Building. So I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by human ingenuity and skill. But it still would never have occurred to me that you could make an entire giant structure – inside and out- out of marble.

Wide interior view of Ranakpur

But that is Ranakpur a Jain temple about two hours drive outside of Udaipur. And it is a work of art, a true example of man’s devotion to his god (or gods).

For a bit of context, its important to note that (according to our guide the day before) 95% of the marble in India comes from the environs of Udaipur. It explains why the Lake Palace and the City Palace are adorned throughout with beautiful white marble. But they have nothing on. Ranikpur.

One of the many, many marble sellers outside Udaipur

Just the drive is worth taking- you drive out of the city of lakes, drive past dozens and dozens of marble dealers (your first clue of what’s to come), and into a mountainous world that seems like a cross between the Scottish Highlands and Lord of the Rings. Rajasthan in the monsoon is very different to the desert most people associate with the region- it is a lush grouping of craggy mountains with monkeys and goat herders co-existing with the cars and motorbikes making their way along a road reminiscent of Amalfi’s perilous drives.

When you pull up to Ranakpur’s main temple you start to get the sense you’re seeing something unique. Every piece of the structure is marble- the steps you climb, the wall you lean against, the ceiling you walk under. And when you finally step into the entranceway you are greeted by an imposing labyrinth of a space, with 1,444 pillars holding it up- all are intricately carved top to bottom and no one pillar has the same design.

One of the ceiling designs in Ranakpur

The temple dates back to the 15th century and the same group of families have looked after it since that time. Our guide’s entire family had devoted their lives to its upkeep- he spent every morning cleaning and ‘feeding’ the temple with a bath of milk. Tourists are allowed to visit between noon and five every day, although certain areas are off limits to non-Jains.

A close of some of Ranakpur's columns

For those unfamiliar, Jainism is a religion focused primarily on non-violence. It has been explained to me as a cross between Hinduism and Buddhism (pardon the complete oversimplification). A Jain friend of mine and I joke that the Jains are like the Jews- small in number, powerful in business, but very focused on family and education. And like the Jews who often give significant contributions to Jewish causes, so have the Jains, across the centuries, donated funding for some extraordinary temples.

Everywhere you look in Ranakpur you see some new intricate design- on walls, on pillars, on statues and most especially on the ceiling. Some of the designs are so finely carved that they appear translucent.

Carving of a snake made from a single stone

When you walk out you’re supposed to look up and make a wish on one of the more staggering ceiling designs. Our guide insisted that there is a 100% success rate here. Perhaps that belief comes from 600 years of wishing to maintain the beauty if the temple. That wish certainly has stayed true.

Another interior view

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