1920 Jain temple artefacts go under the hammer

The temple's Trust members decided that the temple should be rebuilt in the same location to accommodate its ever-growing devotees. Artefacts are being auctioned today at ITC Windsor.

It isn’t often that one hears of a temple selling off its artefacts. Auction house Bid & Hammer announced recently that were going to auction items from one of Bangalore’s oldest Jain temples. The auction, enticingly titled the “Mystery of Chickpet”, will see items from the 90-year-old Shri Adinath Swetamber Jain temple in Chickpet being put on the block.

The auction, to be held in the ITC Windsor on March 10th, will see some lavish treasures going under the hammer, such as several silver double doors each with elaborate repoussé (or relief) work, a viewing grill and two Dvarapalakas; a set of six teak pillars in a colonial style; a white Makrana marble archway; 24 teakwood Apsaras; some intricately hand-carved teakwood ceiling panels; and two silver-covered wooden doors, one decorated with images of the goddess Lakshmi, the other with dvarapalakas.

The temple demolition and auction have both caused murmurs of protest, even within the community. Pic: Venkatesan Perumal.

Bid & Hammer is also selling other items of related interest at the same auction, including original antiquarian prints, wooden scultpures and traditional paintings. A preview of the items was held between February 27th and March 5th.

The unusual auction – the first of its kind in India, according to Maher Dadha, Chairman and Managing Director, Bid & Hammer – came about because the Adinath temple needed to be expanded to accommodate its ever-growing flock of devotees.

Founded in 1920, this is the oldest Swetamber Jain temple in Bangalore. The temple was built largely of wood and had undergone additions and renovations over the years.The Temple Trust members had been mulling over the idea of either expanding or rebuilding the temple over the last 10-15 years.

According to Trust president, Uttam Chand Bhandari, the structure had become weak over the years. He claims that repairs over the last 3-4 years had not been effective. The last straw was when a chajja (an eave, supported by decorative brackets) collapsed and fell onto the road a couple of yeras ago. “Luckily, there was nobody on the road because it was raining or else it would have been a tragedy,” he says.

The Trust decided that the temple should be demolished and rebuilt in the same location as a larger structure, using land that the Trust had acquired. A scrap dealer was appointed to carry away all the now unwanted items from the old temple. But the younger generation of the community suggested that instead of a scrap dealer, the temple could sell its artefacts through Dadha of Bid & Hammer, who also belongs to the same community. Accordingly, in 2009, the temple authorities approached Dadha and the “Mystery of Chickpet” was born.

The items to be auctioned are those of art, historical or architectural interest, according to Dadha, and range in price from Rs 7,500 to Rs 42 lakhs. Bid & Hammer has waived its auctioneer’s commission on the sale of artefacts from the temple, which form about 80 per cent of the 139 lots on sale. The funds raised by the auction will be supplemented by funds from donors to build the new temple. The deities themselves are not on sale. They are still housed in a portion of the temple that has not been demolished and will be installed in the new temple once it is ready.

Couldn’t the items being sold also be accommodated in the new structure? The new temple will be of marble, explains Bhandari, and so could not accommodate items from the old wooden structure. There are also issues of scale and proportion, adds Dadha. “For example, the old pillars are 10 feet high, but the new larger temple will probably have pillars twice the size.”

The entrance to the temple. Pic: Venkatesan Perumal.

The temple demolition and auction have both caused murmurs of protest, even within the community. According to BP Gandhi, an advocate and a former member of the temple trust, when talk of demolishing the temple came up in 1998, he and a few other trustees had resisted the idea: “The temple is 90 years old! That is why we protested.” Gandhi also says the decision to demolish the temple and sell the artefacts was not carried out in a transparent manner so that most people were not aware about it until they read about it in the newspapers.

He is also unhappy with the idea of selling temple artefacts. “It is not proper for religious artefacts to be auctioned,” he says, suggesting that they could instead have been housed in a museum in the new temple, an idea echoed by conservation architect, Pankaj Modi, who says the items could well have been part of a museum on the history of Jainism, especially coming as they do from Bangalore’s oldest Swetamber temple. Bhandari dismisses the idea of a museum citing lack of space in the new structure.

Modi also strongly feels that “the way they [the trustees] have gone about selling their heritage only reflects their insensitivity towards it.”  The trustees themselves see it quite differently. “With the auction, we are sure the artefacts won’t be abused or treated disrespectfully, and will instead go to art lovers,” says Bhandari.

Tejshvi Jain, art historian and assistant curator, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, feels much the same way. Although she was “shocked” when she first heard about it – “I did not hear it being discussed in the community gatherings” – she is also relieved that at least the artefacts are not being sold as scrap or being melted down. As for the artefacts themselves, “only some are good, most of it I feel lacks a certain ‘aesthetic quality’ ”, she concludes.   

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