The very fact that the ‘Dhoondhaka’ sect of the Jains came into existence as a reaction to idolatry proves that the Jains, by and large, were idol-worshippers till 16th century. However, the crusade against idolatory, spearheaded by Lonka Shah, met with great success and the iconoclasm-tide almost swayed the Jain masses, particularly in the North. It were the followers of Lonka Shah who ultimately organized themselves into a sect known as Sthanakvasis.
The history of undivided Punjab is helpless in providing any proof regarding the prevalence of idolatory here till the second half of the 19th century. But in a period spanning over just seven years the course of history was changed by the efforts of the most zealous propagator of idol-worshipping Acharya Srimad Vijyananda Suri, popularly known as Muni Atma nanda, and idolatory, despite strong opposition from the Poojyas, established its might in a number of towns in Punjab.
Muni Atma Nanda was originally initiated into the Sthanakvasi order but he soon snapped ties with it and got converted into moortipujak Swetambora order where he was elevated to the most coveted position of Acharya. It was his dream to establish Jain temples in Punjab, his home state, and to see Jain masses everywhere worshipping the idols of the 24 Trithankars. With this goal in mind, when the Acharya came to Punjab in 1889, he found that unprecedented enthusiasm of his devout followers was awaiting him.
With the Acharya as the only moving spirit behind the spurt of socio-religious activity, the devouts completed the construction of jain temples at Ludhiana and Malerkotla in 1890 and came to be known as the forerunners. The idols of 23rd Trithankara Parsvanatha were installed in these two temples with great pomp and show. In the Makerkotla temple, another idol of the 10th Trithankara Sheetalnatha was also added.
Three more temples emerged in other three towns of Punjab in 1891. These were Amritsar, Zira and Hoshiarpur. The Amritsar temple was built by Panna Lal where idols of Trithankara Sheetalnatha and the 18th Trithankara Arenatha were instituted by Gokul Bhai of Baroda who was specially invited to perform the installation ceremony. The year was marked by the completion of another temple at Zira, the birth-place of the Acharya. Radha Bai, a devotee of the Acharya had vowed to build the temple and had donated all her belongings for the purpose. The job of construction was entrusted to Lalu Ram, her mukhtar, who got the temple erected in three years time. Constructed by Mistri Sher Singh and his fellow workmen, the Zira temple has no match in architecture, designing and wood-carvings. It was again Gokul Bhai of Baroda who was invited to perform the exalted duty to install the idol of Trithankara Parsvanatha here.
The fateful year of 1891 witnessed the emergence of yet another temple at Hoshiarpur. The Hoshiarpur temple owes its existence to the munificence of Gujjar Mall, who for eight long years had brooded over his resolve of building a temple with golden dome on the pattern of Darbar Sahib. His dream was fulfilled in 1891 when Jethamal, a special invitee from Ahmedabad, performed the installation of the idols of Trithankaras Parsvanatha Vasupoojya and Vimalnatha in the 90 feet high temple of Hoshiarpur.
The Jain temples at Ambala, presently in Haryana, with the idol of Trithankara Parsvanatha installed, was thrown open to the devouts in 1895.
The year 1896 was marked with the construction of Jain temples in three more towns namely Sankhatra, Hem Nagar and Narowal are now in Pakistan and the temples which were built here with profound devotion and dedication have been reduced to debris with the rare idols helplessly watching the mighty wheel of the time trampling the age-old civilization in that part of the land. The fading migrated generation of the Jain idolators from these towns even today cherish the memories of the days when they had joined the various ceremonies held in connection with the installation of idols in these temples.
The temple built in Sankhatra had the distinction of witnessing the installation of the largest number of idols and had thus stolen a place of pride amongst the Jain temples of Punjab. Next to this was the Narowal temple with seven idols whereas the Hem Nagar temple could have only two.
Although the later generation of the rich Moortipoojak Jain community have added quite a few more temples to the lineage, the old grandeur, enthusiasm and fervor are no more to be found.