The temples on Palitana Hill are considered the most sacred pilgrimage place by the Jain community. Wikipedia says it’s the world’s largest temple complex. Every devout Jain aspires to climb to the top of the hill at least once in their lifetime.
The hill itself is not too daunting. Perhaps 90 minutes to climb. But we only had to make a single circuit. At this time of year, over a period of a month, devout Jains are invited to make 99 circuits – that’s about 3 ascents and descents a day. As we leisurely climbed at 9am the path was packed with people jogging up the steep steps and running down, aiming to get a couple of circuits before the it got too hot.
Most surprising was that the majority of the pilgrims were young women, apparently because this was a pilgrimage most easily achieved before you were married. Some men and women were dressed all in white, carrying no more than the bag of rice and salt they would need at the top, protection from the sun and a garden spray of water perfumed with rose petals. Many of the pilgrims were staying a month in the hostels of Palitana or various monasteries around the base of the hill. No-one is allowed on the hill after dark. Often this is part of a much wider pilgrimage to other temple complexes around Palitana, including ones that are still being built.
There are two parts of the hill separated by a dip. One very sacred and where silk and leather are banned. While a temple complex the obvious old remains were a wall and defensive towers. Shoes were checked-in and foreigners are directed to an office which dispenses a series of rules.
Temple buildings right and left. There was a purification area before the temple. Purity is of key importance, from the pure white robes of the pilgrims to the little face masks to prevent inpure breath on the idols of the tirthankars. More prestigious temples were built of marble and stone; others of stucco and cement. All seemed covered with carvings of dancing girls. There was a process of constant restoration; the age of the temple becoming irrelevant, though the site dates from the 11th century. Often it was easiest to restore the carvings with cement versions though in many places we could watch the masons at work.
Much chanting of the name Adinath, the first Jain enlightened tirthankar, who came here. The central temple was thick with people, trying to touch the sacred incense burner or the lantern, and looking at the idol through a mirror rather than directly. People sat with small trays ritually arranging five small mounds of the rice that they all carried in shimmery, brightly-coloured bags. The top mound was divided into shapes of the sun and moon, and the bottom mounds into a swastika. Separate queues of men and woman waited for blessings at the midday puja.
The temple authorities didn’t seem to have a problem with us climbing up above the domes of the temples and around the fortifications to get a better view of everything. We could climb above the crowds in the central temple and look down at the activity.
It got even livelier at the puja. The priest got onto the roof of Adinath’s temple and conducted a ceremony of the replacement of the flag by yellow-clad helpers. A cheer when the flag finally unfurled and the queues were let in for the blessings. Again we could observe this from above, from the balcony under the main dome.
There are two main sects of Jains. In the minority here are the naked Jains. We tracked down the single temple of these Digambara monks, but it was empty save a few of the posters of the beaming naked gurus that we’ve seen pasted up all over Gujarat.