In Focus

Shrine

In the interiors of temples, Hindu deities and Jain images of Jinas, liberated beings worshipped for their spiritual author­ity, were installed in shrines such as this elaborate silver-faced example. If a Hindu image were installed in this shrine, it would have been placed on a plinth so that the shrine was at eye level in the temple’s inner sanctum. Known as the garbagriha, the womb house, this part of the temple is generally accessed only by the temple’s priests. It would have been their responsi­bility to make sure the image was washed, clothed, and even fed. While Jainism is similar in many respects to Hindu doc­trine, Jains reject the notion of a priestly caste. Thus, if this shrine originally had housed an image of a Jina, it would have been centrally placed on a plinth in a temple so that the image could be washed and decorated by devotees, as well as cir­cumambulated. Notably, the same style of shrine, with equivalent symbolism and iconography, could be used in the context of either Hinduism or Jainism.

The shrine bears an inscription in Gujarati that is somewhat difficult to deci­pher, but appears to discuss the price of the shrine’s parts. It seems to refer to the silver overlay on the shrine and may men­tion the weight of the silver used in its covering. Unfortunately the text sheds no light on whether this shrine was intended for a Hindu or a Jain temple.

This large wooden shrine covered with a hammered silver veneer is from the west­ern Indian state of Gujarat, although it is made in a style that is found universally across north India during the 18th and 19th centuries in both Hindu and Jain temples. Its base consists of a long dado of ornate foliage and birds ren­dered in repoussé relief. Above this two pairs of elephants ridden by turbaned mahouts (elephant drivers) flank the open­ing, which would have held the enshrined image. Elephants have long been consid­ered a royal perquisite in India and hence appropriate guardians for the image, who is considered as royalty in the temple. Tapering pillars support a central cusped arch. Around and near the arch are apsaras, celestial female images, who honor the image by playing musical instruments. The entire shrine is surmounted by a dome.

The style of the shrine may be described as pan–north Indian. The visual vocabu­lary of north India, by now common to both Hindu and Muslim architecture, has been used to create a sophisticated state­ment of urbanity. Arches, domes, and bulbous columns, as well as the exquisite floral detail initially associated with Indo-Islamic architecture, were adapted by all north Indian elites regardless of religious affiliation by the 16th and 17th centuries for their own homes and religious structures.

Excerpt from

Catherine Asher, "Durga Mahishasuramardini," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 114.