Joining a Jain Pilgrimage to Gujarat’s Palitana Temples, India

Jain's Main Place of Pilgrimage in Gujarat: Palitana (©Coen Wubbels)

There’s an ongoing process of constructing and renovating temples at the Jain temple complex of Palitana (©Coen Wubbels).

“Don’t wear leather items like shoes or a belt.”
“Wear clean and ironed clothes. Adinath will see this and you will receive more energy for walking.”
“Chant ‘Adinath-Adinath‘ at every step, which will give more energy too.”
“Don’t bring food – take just a bottle of water if you really have to. The only food you are allowed to carry to the top is rice and coconut, to offer in the temples.”
“Oh, and don’t forget to greet the other pilgrims with Jai Jinendrah!

The Pilgrimage: Climbing 3,500 Steps

I get up at six, before the sun hits the horizon, and rehearse all the well-meant instructions I got last night from Jain pilgrims. I feel privileged to be allowed to go on this religious pilgrimage and don’t want to accidentally insult people or bring (spiritual) harm by doing something stupid.

Dholi Carriers at Gujarat's Palitana Temple Complex, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Dholi carriers carry people up the 3,500 steps to the temple complex (©Coen Wubbels)

I follow other early risers to find my way to the sacred Shatrunjaya Hills (Place of Victory) and start climbing. Dholi carriers overtake me with ease, never mind the fact that these lean men carry (generally overweight) pilgrims in a kind of sling-chair: a swaying piece of cloth attached to a pole which rests on the shoulders of two dholi carriers. The fare is related to the pilgrim’s weight.

I discover that chanting Adinath-Adinath helps establishing a rhythm (energy, if you like), which proves extremely helpful. After all, I have to climb 3,500 wide, stone steps to reach the Jain temples atop this hill. Apart from turning around every once in a while to admire the rising sun that turns the world orange, I walk up in one go.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to learn what Jainism is all about.
  • You love temples and/or intricate architecture, for which these marble Jain temples are known.
  • You want to do something few other non-Jains have done.
  • On the bucket list for anybody who enjoys religious pilgrimages, and/or is a temple and architecture buff. Note that women can’t enter temples during menstruation.

Jainism in a Nutshell

Gujarat's Jain Temples of Palitana, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Hiking up the 3,500 steps to the Jain temples (©Coen Wubbels).

Jains originated in India around 500 B.C. and split away from Hinduism, although other sources claim Jainism has always existed. It doesn’t have a god but spiritual leaders (like Buddha in Buddhism) called Tirthankaras, of whom the main figure is Lord Adinath. Contrary to Hindu gods, whose images can be recognized by symbols and colors, the Jain Tirthankara are all depicted in the same way and there are thousands of them in and around the temples I’m about to visit.

One of the key elements of Jainism is their belief in non-violence towards all living beings. This has led to extremes, with monks and nuns sweeping the floor in front of them to avoid stepping on insects. You will still see sadhus in Jain temples wearing a mask to prevent inhaling insects.

Most remarkable, I find, is how this principle of non-violence is reflected in the Jain diet. A true Jain doesn’t eat anything that kills life. They are vegetarians, obviously, but their philosophy also includes not eating root vegetables such as onions, potatoes and carrots: plants that are killed in order to be harvested. Yet, as I learned from experience, the Jain diet is a nutritious one, and tasty as well.

The Jain Temples of Palitana

Detailed Carving of the Jain Temple Complex at Palitana, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Stunning carvings characterize all temples of Palitana (©Coen Wubbels).

The top of the Shatrunjaya Hill is dotted with more than 800 temples, constructed over a period of 900 years. Even today construction is an ongoing process. I lose myself in a fantastic maze of alleys leading to the most intricately and exquisitely carved temples. There are 9 clusters of temples, grouped together inside high walls with towers on each corner. Along the walls are galleries with niches for Tirthankaras, some of which are decorated with precious stones – even diamonds. The Jain community is a rich one.

In each temple are small tables on which devotees place their offerings and I emulate pilgrims by putting grains of rice in a counter clockwise swastika (not to be confused with the clockwise swastika of the Nazis), next to which I put the coconut and coins I brought for this purpose. In order to properly complete the pilgrimage I follow a group of Jains on their rounds and puja (blessing) in the main temple.

Surprisingly, the descent seems more difficult than the ascent. By respecting the Jain rituals I had not put on my leather sandals but some cheap canvas beachwear. While I’m being overtaken by pilgrims easily running down barefoot, I regularly stop to massage my calves, which grow stiffer with each step. On my way up, I had been in excellent spirits. Going down, I can no longer imagine how, at the height of the pilgrimage season, some Jains fulfil the ultimate pilgrimage: walking up and down these steps 108 times (a holy number).

Practicalities

  • Palitana lies in India’s western state of Gujarat. The nearby bigger city is Bhavnagar (about 55 kms), which can be reached by plane, bus or train from Delhi. To travel from Bhavnagar to Palitana, take a bus or train.
  • If you want to avoid crowds, don’t go to Palitana during the Kartik month of the Hindu calendar, which is the most auspicious time of the year for this yatra.
  • Best time to visit: October-February (dry season but not yet too hot).
  • It’s prohibited to spend the night atop the hill. Descent has to start before sunset.