The Raghunath Temple in Jammu: A center of Architecture, Devotion and Learning
By: Arka Chakarborty
Proudly standing in the heart of the city of Jammu within the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is a temple complex that is still considered today as one of the largest temple complexes in northern India. Known as the Raghunath temple complex, this massive sacred space holds several temples, some samadhis, an erstwhile pathasala and a library that is still relevant to scholars across the world. Having served many roles during the height of its active years, this temple complex, founded in the nineteenth century, remains to be one of the most important sites to visit for anyone finding themselves in the Jammu city. As a religious site, the Raghunath temple is still active and attracts devotees from across the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
The early history of the Raghunath temple is blurred by a number of conflicting historical claims about its construction which are sometimes pierced by legends. To be sure, the Raghunath temple was in many ways a product of the spurt in temple-building activities experienced by the region of Jammu under the hill chieftains in the eighteenth century that continued into the nineteenth century. Popular legend even states that the first Raghunath temple was actually founded by one Raja Jagat Singh of Kullu who had apparently built the temple to atone for a his past wrongdoing.
The Dogras were also a family of hill-chiefs in Jammu who had grown especially powerful in the eighteenth century during the reign of Ranjit Dev, but later ad bowed to the rising power of Sukerchakia misl. They, however, once again became powerful in the region under the leadership of scions of the family like the brothers Gulab Singh, Suchet Singh and Dhiyan Singh under the suzerainty of Maharaja Ranjit Singh whose power had grown to encompass Punjab, Kashmir, parts of Jammu and well beyond these regions. Gulab Singh would later go on to become the first Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
At what point in his long and eventful career did Gulab Singh conceive of and start working on the establishment of the Raghunath temple is a murky territory as many have claimed widely different timelines for the temple’s foundation. While some claim that early works on the temple had begun as early as 1822 AD, others claim that the preliminary construction had started no earlier than 1835 AD. Mridu Rai, differing from majority opinion, claims that construction began as late as 1832 AD when Gulab Singh was already well-established as Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Scholars agree that Gulab Singh could not complete this task during his lifetime and construction of the temple was completed during the reign of his son and successor, maharaja Ranbir Singh. While most sources claim that the temple’s construction was completed in 1860 AD, Mridu Rai claims that it was completed by 1857 AD.
All the confusion regarding the foundation of the Rsghunath temple notwithstanding, the sheer scale and exquisite beauty of the temple complex make it clear that the founding monarchs of the temple complex intended this to be the crowning jewel of all their architectural achievements.
Sukhdev Singh Charak, in his Life and Times of Maharaja Ranbir Singh (1830-1885) (1985), has accurately described the architectural splendor of the complex. As one approaches the two-storeyed deodhi to the east which serves as the entrance to the temple complex flanked by a few temples and samadhis (one being that of Maharaja Ranbir Singh himself), one gains a clear sense of the scale of the project without even entering the compound. There are a number of temples within the temple complex dedicated to a far larger number of gods and goddesses (according to the Ain-i-Dharmarth, the number of deities to which these temples are dedicated amount to a mind-boggling 24 lakhs) which are placed in a planned way forming a square. The seven main temples of these are all topped by pyramidal shikharas (literally meaning ‘mountain-peaks’) which are commonly used in the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture. At the center of the square formed by the other temples sits the main temple which houses the presiding deity of the complex, Raghunathji. Raghunathji is a form of Lord Rama who is believed to have been the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu and was also the tutelary deity of the Dogra dynasty. The temple itself is a quadrangular structure surrounded by a verandah which serves as a circumambulatory passage. The mandapa of the temple is divided by four rectangular piers into three aisles and these piers also provide the base for the arches of the roof. The high walls of the temple which are decorated with false openings and band-like projections with flower-petal motifs end in chajja-like projections. Out of these rises the curvilinear shikhara. The shikhara has three ura-shringas (subsidiary peaks) on each side, one above the other, with each crowned by a small kalasha. The ura-shringas culminate in an amalka above which is placed a large kalasha topped by a parol.
The entrance to this main temple has two wall illustrations portraying Maharaja Ranbir Singh and Lord Hanuman. The interior of the temple boasts of many decorated niches and carvings. Some of the interior chambers house the four dhams (pilgrimage centers), with the symbol of the sun occupying a central position. The inner chambers also house several images from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Ram Leela and Krishna Leela. Three of the walls of the sanctum sanctorum or garbha-griha are gold-plated. The sanctum sanctorum houses the icons of the presiding deity Raghunathji along with his brother Lakshman and his consort Sita. These icons are supposed to have been brought from Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama.
Most of the six other major temples of the complex house other incarnations of Lord Vishnu such as the Kachhapa, the Matsya and the Narasimha as their presiding deities, with the only major exception being the temple dedicated to Surya (the sun god) containing several forms of the deity.
Ceremonies: Past and Present
The Raghunath temple served as the center of the ‘new Kashi’ the Dogra rulers were envisaging Jammu to be. Naturally, the temple complex had many elaborate rituals which exhibited both the glory of the deities and the connection of the royal house with the temple. Although every temple had its own set of rituals, the Raghunath temple itself held sway over the others and this was shown through daily rituals. Every evening, the priests of every temple in the complex gathered to first visit the four temples dedicated to the four Vedas one by one, picking up their respective priests in the process, to finally gather in the Raghunath temple for the evening aarti. This was an extremely important ritual and absenteeism was liable to be punished by expulsion. The daily rituals involving Raghunathji paralleled the daily routine of the Maharaja. Both held courts which were centers of administration and culture. The Maharaja would, as a rule, receive a thal (platter) of the naived (food offered to the gods) for Raghunathji before it was served to the priests. Today, many of the ceremonies of the Raghunath temple survive and continue. The daily aarti is still observed with due reverence and occasions like Ram Navami are observed with pomp and show. Raghunath temple has also become a destination for those who set out for the Amarnath tirthayatra.
A center of Knowledge
One of Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s great projects was his initiative to inaugurate a state-sponsored education system in Jammu and Kashmir. He seems to have experimented with many alternative education systems. One of these experiments was the pathashala system. These state-sponsored pathashalas, unlike the earlier and contemporary autonomous residence-based small institutions, were large and complex organizations, all connected by a common syllabus and examination system under the strict and direct supervision of the state. The Raghunath temple, along with Uttarbani and the Gadadharji temple at Jammu among others, was one center of such an institution. Although not the biggest of them all (that honor belonged to Uttarbani), the Raghunath temple pathashala was definitely the administrative center of the new system, with students selected to appear for their annual examinations from different pathashalas gathering in the Raghunath temple to sit for these exams under the supervision of an evaluation council that had a significant presence of Raghunath temple adhyapaks (professors). Education in this system was completely free, with the state bearing the financial burden of the students’ books, boarding, lodging and tuitions. The general syllabus included vyakarana (Grammar), the four Vedas, minansa, samkhya, yoga, mathematical sciences, natural sciences, demonstrative sciences, kavya etc. There were seven courses which the students had to pass in order to successfully graduate. They were subjected to weekly revisions, monthly internal exams, half-yearly exams distantly overseen by the council and annual exams held at the Raghunath temple complex. Students successful in all these exams were given monetary rewards. Students demonstrating outstanding merit in these exams were also given medals of different value according to the courses. There were five grades of adhyapakas who were drawn from across J&K, British India and other princely states and their salaries differed according to their grades and their ability to translate. In an unusually enlightened move for the time, the gates of these pathashalas were also thrown open for people considered to be of the shudra varna and can be interpreted as the state’s attempt to make education as inclusive as possible.
Scholars across the subcontinent, moreover, were drawn to the Raghunath temple to participate in the Mahataja’s efforts to collect, conserve and translate in a massive scale ancient and medieval manuscripts and books in order to establish a library that would supply knowledge to future scholars. Scholars and adhyapakas were engaged in collecting manuscripts and books from various corners of the subcontinent through purchasing, copying those not available for sale or through requesting donations which were often granted. Many of these texts were translated to make knowledge more accessible. Overcoming religious barriers in the realm of knowledge the maharaja engaged Muslim and Hindu intellectuals to translate texts written in Persian and Urdu into Sanskrit. Texts in Sanskrit were translated into Hindi and Dogri. This energetic collection, copying and translation of rare texts led to the establishment of a library in the Raghunath temple complex which contained no less than 6100 rare manuscripts and 3000 printed works, many of which are now not available anywhere else. Importantly, this library is perhaps the world’s largest repository of Sanskrit texts written in the Sharada script. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, many scholars have visited this library and have praised the Maharaja for his foresight and commitment to knowledge-gathering. The library is operational to this day and is one of the first institutions to embrace the digitization initiative.
The Raghunath temple complex has an eventful history, to say the least. Founded in the early or mid-nineteenth century, it demonstrates a commitment to produce grand architecture which is rarely matched by any edifice across the Union Territory. Housing an unusually large number of deities from the Hindu pantheon, the temple complex has an elaborately laid out rituals which once connected the person of the Maharaja to the presiding god but now maintains the relationship between the gods and all the devotees who flock the temple to seek their blessings. While the chatter of students that once enlivened the temple premises has now ceased, it remains to be a repository of knowledge for any who seek it, with the temple authorities even working towards making this knowledge globally available by digitizing the library’s books and manuscripts. The Raghunath temple complex has remained, therefore, undiminished throughout the centuries and continues to be at the heart of the cultural lives of the inhabitants of Jammu and Kashmir.