Why do so few people visit Gujarat, while Gujaratis are found traveling all over India—at every tourist site, temple or hill station? Perhaps because the state of Gujarat is out of the way, far from big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai? Unless you are a wildlife lover seeking one of the few Asian lions remaining in the Gir jungle, chances are you might never venture to Palitana, a town in Saurashtra, the pear-shaped knob of western Gujarat that extends into the Arabian Sea. The wonderful Jain temples at Palitana are not visited by many Western tourists, or by many non-Gujarati Indians for that matter.Near Palitana, on top of a mountain called Shatrunjaya (the place of victory), is India’s principal Jain pilgrimage site. Some 850 Jain temples, most built during the late 16th century, sit 3,500 feet above sea level. The temples are accessible by climbing 3,800 steps, which were built for Jain monks and pilgrims. The temples themselves, carved out of marble with chisel and hammer, were created to fulfill Jain religious obligations. Many Jain priests and nuns still fulfill their religious duties by going up and down these 3,800 steps every day! From the mountaintop, on a clear day, you can see as far as the Gulf of Cambay.
Returning to India with my family after 21 years, in the winter of 2002, I was warned to travel with caution due to the communal riots and the recent outbreak of the war on the Kashmiri border. My friend working in the American embassy informed me that more people were harmed in communal riots—particularly in Gujarat—than in the Kashmiri border war. The trouble was that Gujarat was our travel destination. I was going there to visit my relatives and to show my American husband and my children where I was born—a tiny village called Bhoringada in Saurashtra. To our delight, our travels in Gujarat turned out to be joyous and peaceful, in sharp contrast to the heavy traffic and hustle and bustle of Mumbai.
Our base in Gujarat was Bhavnagar, a princely old town a few hundred miles northwest of Mumbai. On our way from Bhavnagar to my village, we stopped to visit the spectacular Jain temples near Palitana. I had visited these temples a few times before, but I was immensely more impressed this time by sharing this experience with my family.
We rented a taxi in Bhavnagar and planned to leave for Palitana on the first auspicious day of 2003 at 4a.m. so that we could begin the climb before sunrise. However, the night before we had joined a New Year’s Eve party at Bhav Sinhji’s Palace (now a hotel) with fireworks, music, and dancing past midnight, so we didn’t start until 7a.m. the next morning, only to get stuck in horrendous early morning traffic. In the town of Palitana, we had a quick chai in the bazaar, and bought some nuts, dried fruit, and lots of bottled water for our climb.
In contrast to the serene mountains around us, the bazaar was dazzling, but we had to pull ourselves away, and finally started our climb at 10:00 a.m.
The foot of the stairs at Shatrunjaya bustles with vendors selling religious trinkets, fast food and bamboo walking sticks. The sticks proved to be very helpful on our 3,800-step climb! Every few hundred steps, we paused to rest and reminisce, tell stories, watch other colorful people climbing up and down, take photos, and marvel at the view. If you fear you may not be able to make the climb, there are always two strong men at every vista point offering to carry you up to the top in a “doli,” a seat on poles, for 400 rupees. Two such men followed me for over a hundred steps in the hope that I would give in and hire them!
We were well advised not to climb with a full stomach. After approximately 2,500 steps, we arrived at the main vista, a breathtaking view of towers and walls, and a place to picnic. We shared our dry fruits, nuts, and water, and took some pictures of the marvelous panoramic site. Shoes are not allowed beyond this point, so we took ours off at the designated area.
Once on top, I felt as victorious as the name Shatrunjaya implies. It was a clear day, and even at 1p.m. the breeze was cool. We put our walking sticks aside and explored the open compounds, wandering from one temple to another.
Built over a span of 900 years, their architecture and sculptural styles are very diverse. There are too many wonderful temples to visit, so we decided to focus on just a few on this trip.
For over two hours we roamed among the temples, admiring the architecture, stonework, sculptures, and carvings. It is a point of etiquette not to take photos of the inner sanctuaries of the temples, many of which are lined with marble tiles, and elaborately decorated with animals, birds, and human figures.
How many hours, months, and years must have been spent by artisans working by hand on each figure, using a simple chisel and hammer! One figure depicted a woman bending to take a thorn from the bottom of her foot. My brother, who has a background in anthropology and religion, explained that her action exemplified worldly pain, which Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, sought to conquer. Leaving interpretation aside, I simply allowed myself to take in the beauty of this marvelous place, the inspiring works of marble, the spires and balconies, the curves of the human figures, the stone-carved expressions on their faces, showing pain, pleasure, and karuna (empathy).
It is helpful to know a little about Jainism to appreciate the architecture, to understand the religious devotions that are still practiced, and to respect the required etiquette during your visit. The founder of Jainism, Mahavir, was born and taught his doctrines at about the same time as Buddha did in the sixth century B.C. Like Buddhism, Jainism was born out of a need to reform Hinduism, which had become stagnant and mechanical, divorced from its spiritual roots.
Mahavir taught that all beings in this universe have a soul to be respected. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, forms the basis of Jain belief and practice. Strict vegetarianism, followed by most Jain people, is carried to an extreme by the Jain priests. While climbing Shatrunjaya mountain, you will see these priests wearing masks over their mouths so as not to swallow any tiny bugs inadvertently.
Mahavir also taught that all miseries of life are brought about by the false manifestation of self, which causes bondage to desires. Only through crushing these desires can one attain the ultimate state of inner peace and harmony called nirvana.
Nirvana is attained by following a hermit-like lifestyle of asceticism, meditation, and righteous living. Mahavir taught that anyone can attain nirvana. However, only a minority of high priests seek this liberating knowledge, while the laity gain credit for being good Jains by following the basic rules of ahimsa. High priests go to the tops of mountains to find the true meaning of life, while laymen remain in society teaching by example. Good deeds such as building temples came to be recognized as a layman’s chief devotion, and a major work of piety. This is why there are so many Jain temples in India relative to the small Jain population.
The act of climbing a mountain to achieve higher knowledge is an ancient part of Hindu belief also, and is demonstrated by the many temples built along hills or mountains all over India. Jains have several hill locations for their holiest temples in India, and of these Shatrunjaya in Palitana is the most important. Other notable Jain temples are found on Mount Girnar in Gujarat, Mount Abu in Rajasthan, and also in Maharashtra. All Jain temples are magnificent works of architecture. However, the sheer number of temples on top of Shatrunjaya, each more beautiful, each reaching higher than the other, makes for an awesome spectacle.
How to Reach Palitana
Bhavnagar is the nearest city, some 50 kilometers from Palitana and easily accessible by air or train from Mumbai or Delhi via Ahmedabad. From Bhavnagar or Ahmedabad, you can take a bus to Palitana. The buses are quicker and run more frequently than the trains. Palitana has a train connection to Bhavnagar. Taxis from Bhavnagar to Palitana are a bit more expensive, and should be hired ahead of time so as to negotiate a good price. The roads between Bhavnagar and Palitana are very good.
+ Best Time to Visit
Between November and February, as in most places in Gujarat. However, I have been told that the mountaintop is always cool. It is advisable that you arrive in Palitana at midday or evening, spend the night in a hotel or dharmashala (free accommodations for pilgrims) and start the climb early morning, so that you can get down before the sun gets too hot.
Eat a light breakfast before the climb, and plan to have a good dinner after you come down. The temples open at 6:30 a.m., and close at dusk. Even the priests must come down at night and leave the temples entirely to the gods. The climb takes about three hours in all.
+ Temples to Visit
There are so many temples on top of Shatrunjaya that one cannot see them all in one visit. One of the most decorative temples is Adhishwara, ornately carved with a frieze of dragons along the walls. Among the highest temples is Chaumukh, a four-faced shrine housing a quadruple image of the apostle Adinath gazing in all four directions. Other notable temples are dedicated to Kumarpal, Vimal Shah and Sampriti Raj.
There is also a Muslim shrine near Adhishwara temple, where childless couples make offerings, hoping to be blessed with children.
In Palitana there are two museums of Jain art—Stapiya Kala Sangrah and the Sri Vishal Jain Kala Sansthan.
+ Bazaar at Palitana
Unlike the teachings of Mahavir, which advise us to refrain from worldly possessions, the colorful bazaar at the foot of the Shatrunjaya tempts one to acquire the best quality handcrafted textiles. Artisans bring their products here to sell to wholesalers, who deal with retail shops in the larger cities of Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, or even Mumbai. Shops in the bazaar are open to the public from early morning to late evening, with a long lunch break. Prices are as good as your ambition to bargain.
+ Places to Stay
There are no accommodations on the mountain Shatrunjaya, but there are a lot of dharmashalas in Palitana for Jain pilgrims only. Other accommodations are the Hotel Sumeru with a vegetarian restaurant, and Hotel Shravak near the bus stand.