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It’s a splendiferous post-monsoon morning in Junagadh, a small town (and former princely kingdom) in Gujarat, a state in northwest India. About a day by train from Mumbai, Junagadh is known for the ancient rock inscriptions, carved at the behest of Emperor Ashoka (273-236 B.C.E.), whose 14 edicts promulgate religious tolerance, vegetarianism, and nonviolence. I have turned my back on Junagadh’s blaring traffic and polluted air to stand at the first of 4,000 stairs leading to the top of Girnar, one of the five sacred mountains of the Jain faith. The Jain prophet Mahavira founded the religion during the 6th century B.C.E. An elder contemporary of the Buddha, Mahavira deserted an elite background and became an ascetic at age 30. Jainism, the world’s oldest but least-known belief system, is labyrinthine in its complexity. While sharing many beliefs and iconography with Buddhism and Hinduism, Jain cosmology is unique. The Shvetambara Jainism found in Gujarat evolved within a Hindu religious environment but under largely Muslim rule. All of the world’s 4 to 5 million Jains revere Girnar, a striking mountain that rises 3,740 feet above the surrounding flatlands. Legend maintains that a giant traveling south dropped a fragment of the Himalayas here. The more prosaic truth is that Girnar is the cone of an extinct volcano. Five of the 16 local temples are Jain and they are dedicated to the prophets Adinath, Parshvanath, Rishabhadeva, and Neminath. I begin climbing the steps, leaving a sleeping sadhu and several small, orange-painted Shaivite shrines in my wake. Being a lazy Westerner, I’m climbing after 8 in the morning, so most Jains are already descending. Some pilgrims have hired dilivalas (bearers) to carry them up and down the steps in a sling suspended by ropes attached to bamboo poles. Monkeys frolic on the steps while hawks circle overhead. I stop to purchase a cup of buttermilk from a vendor who pours it from his enormous, cool, clay vessel, just as Indians have done for thousands of years.
Several hours and quite a bit of huffing and puffing later, I arrive at the formidable fortress of Deva Kota. I enter the first gate and find an ancient temple complex to the right. Its stunning carvings of energetic revelers are as alive as on the day they were carved 1,200 years ago (although a few heads have been defaced by Muslim attacks). A guard swiftly directs me to the main office where I’m instructed to place my forbidden leather items in a locker. I pay a photography permit fee, and am ushered into the cool, dark, mazelike marble corridors. A Jain temple is a representation of a samavasavanas, the celestial assembly hall where a jina delivers his final sermon following enlightenment. A jina (also known as a tirthankara or “fordmaker,” because he leaves a path for others to follow) is a liberated soul freed from his material body. Jains believe that each of the 24 jina actually walked the earth, although only Rishabha, the first jina, is mentioned in the Gita. A series of interlocking temples harbor alcoves containing imposing alabaster statues of the Jain fordmasters seated in lotus position, their blank, otherworldly eyes mirroring their enlightened status. I recognize Rishabha, whose long, loose hair hangs over his shoulders, and Parsva, whose color is blue and whose emblematic canopy of cobras rises above his head. Wreaths of asopalav leaves hang above alcoves and doorways; carved alabaster elephants stand guard, and swastikas (the holiest symbol of Jainism) are carved into the black-and-gray marble floors. These idols are the property of the Shvetambara (white clad) sect. (Other sects consider these idols heresy. The Digambars, the naked “sky clad” believers, openly scorn them.) Entering one temple, I encounter a man seated cross-legged before a table covered with a pattern of rice grains. A pilgrim from Kolkata, he is well-dressed and fluent in English. I introduce myself and explain that I am headed to Palitana and its sacred mountain. “You can stay in our home,” Mr. Kumar offers graciously. “You will be comfortable there.” He returns to his bhav puja (meditation after worship), and I proceed through the largely deserted corridors. Emerging above the temple complex, the shining mosaic roofs of the Jain temples are wondrous to behold. Thousands of steps lead to other shrines with breathtaking views, but there is nothing that rivals the majesty of the Jain temples. Further up, I sit under one temple building to rest and find myself nearly splattered with orange puja water discarded from a large vat above. A lucky escape! A few nights later, I arrive in Palitana, gateway to Shatrunjaya, another of the Jains’ five sacred mountains. I take a sputtering ricksha down Taleti Road, but the driver drops me at the wrong place. The dharamsala’s office makes a call on my behalf and I’m brought to the house where I’ll be staying. This family-run foundation provides food and lodging for Jain pilgrims. On the balcony, balls of dung await famished birds (but hopefully not the rodents that the compassionate Jains are legendary for feeding).
Jains maintain that “our religion is the most strict.” Jains are prohibited from dining before sunrise and after dark because the cooking might draw bugs into the flames. To avoid consuming insects, water is filtered before drinking. Jains are teetotalers because the fermentation process kills life forms. Jains believe that trees and vegetables have souls and are able to experience pleasure and pain. Accordingly, certain legumes, vegetables, and (even) honey are shunned. These dietary restrictions stem from the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), which forms an integral part of Jain philosophy. Mahavira taught that “there is no quality of soul more subtle than nonviolence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.” Every being has a soul, and that soul may transmigrate to a higher level as a reward for a life well-lived. Consequently, an insect might someday become a human (or vice versa). The next morning, I awaken early to find that a crowd of white-clad pilgrims has already gathered downstairs. The group, largely composed of pious older women bearing the traditional round red-painted food pots of the Jain pilgrim, have come for the free food that the foundation offers. I have my bland Jain breakfast of lentils, rice, and a papad (fried wafer) and head out, passing a veritable Jain Disneyland of gaudy marble temples guarded by giant carved elephants. The road is bracketed by beggars and chauffeurs waiting for their owners by shiny, luxury automobiles. After a 20-minute walk, I come to the temples marking the entrance to Shatrunjaya (the hill “which conquers enemies”), home to the largest Jain temple complex in India. Legend has it that wild animals have turned to fasting and nonviolence under Shatrunjaya’s spell. Smaller than Girnar (a mere 3,500 steps lead to its summit), Mount Shatrunjaya is believed to have been renovated 16 times (it was despoiled by the Turks in 1313 C.E.) so most of the temples are only a couple of hundred years old. One prophecy maintains that 16 fordmakers will preach here in some distant future. Barat Kumar emerges from his office to greet me. An affable, portly, mustached man, he fills out my photography permit (“forty only” rupees). The rules dictate that there shall be no “video shoting” or “tapping” and that “Photography of the idols is STRICTLY PROHIBITED.”
Passing alongside the main temple, I proceed up the hill where a number of Jains are descending. A young mother in the company of her husband and children stops to point upward and tells me that I am “lucky” because of the beauty that awaits me. Leaving my shoes behind, I enter a shrine that holds the remains of a morning puja. The marble carvings are amazing as is the silver work on the doors. Statues of Kshekrapal “guardian of the place” watch over the majestic buildings and the long rows of shrines containing the jivas. Adinatha temple (1156 C.E.) rises on the right. Adinatha, the first Tirthankar, is believed to have attained enlightenment here. I come across a group of Indian tribal women from Rajasthan doing the hard work of carrying rocks on their heads to help build a new temple. Jains do not build their own temples nor do they guard them. As I walk through the complex, Hindu guards take a break from their afternoon siesta and follow to make sure I take no picture of the idols. According to the Shvetambara scriptures, Maruvedi, the mother of Rishabha, was the first to attain nirvana. The most recent enlightened one has been Sri Jambu Swami who obtained nirvana in 403 B.C.E., a date coinciding with the end of a Jain era known as the Fourth Kala. If you are seeking enlightenment, take a deep breath and consider this sobering note: Since Sri Jambu Swami’s time, the gates of enlightenment have been shut and no other humans have obtained liberation. Harry S. Pariser is a San Francisco-based author. He is the publisher of Manatee Press ( For an extended version of this article and more photos, go to