The plan was to head down to Diu for New Year’s Eve.
‘I met a few tourists this week. Everyone say they are going to Diu,’ so said Uday, a private tutor I met yesterday at Junagadh. ‘You will not find any accommodation but its alright. You can party the night and relax on the beach. There will be lots of people doing this and the police will allow it.’
Sounds interesting but I would rather have a good night’s sleep. Wasting the first day of the new year with a hangover was not something I was prepared to do. Time is precious and I have lots of places to cover. So I take a bus to Sonagadh where I change for a local transport to Palitana, an important place of Jain pilgrimage.
While hotels run by the Department of Tourism in Gujarat are reasonably priced, those in Madhya Pradesh are expensive. M.P. Tourism hotels are not for backpackers and generally for foreign tourists who are willing to pay. I have with me a pamphlet listing all the Toran group of hotels run by Gujarat Tourism. There is one at Palitana, named Hotel Sumeru. Last night too I stayed at their Hotel Girnar at Junagadh. I check into it a comfortable room. I walk quite a distance looking for a decent restaurant but I don’t find any in Palitana town. Finally I settle for pav bhaji at a roadside stall. Later at night I have a good dinner at my hotel.
I try to find a cyber cafe in town. All I find are computer classes in town. Adults and teenagers get familiar with the installed software. It doesn’t appear to be a tutoring class of any sort, only access to equipment and self-learning. There is no Internet connection. I give up yet another attempt to update my blog.
The streets do not seem to suggest this is New Year’s Eve. This must be the quietest New Year night ever in my entire life. There is a hushed silence in my room. There are no cheers from the streets. There are no firecrackers to be heard. I wonder if the people of Palitana are even aware of the occasion.
This morning I begin my tour of the temples. At quarter to eight I am already at the foot of the hill. Apparently there are over 800 temples on the high slopes of this Shatrunjaya Hill. With so many ancient temples on the hill, I decide to completely skip all temples at the base. It is rather difficult to believe the numbers but if you count every little shrine as a temple, there could well be over 800. Every generation that has passed by over centuries has contributed to temple building. Temple building continues to this day, similar to what I have seen at Sonagiri but on a much larger scale.
The path uphill is well-paved and hardly steep. There are plenty of landings and rest shelters along the way for rest. By comparison to the little hike I did at Mt. Girnar or the longer climb at Pavagadh, climbing at Palitana is rather easy. So early in the morning, I pass Jain monks and nuns dressed in white tunics coming down the hill. They must have started their walk in the early hours before sunrise.
To give me company, there are other pilgrims climbing their way up to the temples. Those who cannot climb are lifted in dolis. A doli is just a cane or rope-strung seat, sometimes cushioned for comfort, hung from the two ends of a stout bamboo stick and carried by two men. Each man holds a walking stick for additional support and relieve the strain on the knees. Young men carry such dolis with their loads but there are also able old men who should have retired at their age still struggling for a living. It’s no hard guess as to who requires such dolis – the old, the overweight, the lazy and the unfit. Village women accost pilgrims for carrying their luggage or their little children. As for the older kids, they run up and down the steps if their parents permit it.
The beauty of the walk uphill is that there are no vendors to harass me for purchases. There are no trinket shops along the way. There are no competitive drink stalls to quench my thirst. Water is dispensed freely at rest shelters. The entire path is clean and devoid of any litter. The only enterprising men and women are those offering to carry pilgrims and their luggage should they find the going tough.
‘How much is it to the top and back?’ I ask one of them out of curiosity.
‘How many people?’
‘Thousand rupees,’ comes back the quick reply. I know immediately that this is an exaggerated figure. He expects me to make an offer but I take to the steps and continue the climb. He follows me. I quicken my pace and he gets the message.
The hill is packed. There are temples at every turn, temples old and new. At times only inches separate one temple from another. In some cases, the chajjas of mantapas of adjacent temples are joined together for lack of space. The general layout is a sanctum crowned with a shikara. The sanctum is entered from a mandapa which opens on three sides to entrance porches. The mandapa is crowned either with a smooth dome or a vesara style pyramidal shikara. Interestingly, in most cases the edges of the pyramid are offset from the sides of the mandapa by 45 degrees. The entrance porches themselves are crowned in a manner similar to the mandapa. Many variations to this general scheme appear – three main shikaras instead of a single one above the sanctum; porches and mandapa rising to a second level; open mandapas instead of being closed with sculpted walls; porch arches being either plain or elaborately cusped.
Many times I am unable to make out the true beauty of the sculptures. They are no doubt artistically beautiful but they lack the beauty of grainy stone sculptures. I suspect many are either of cement moulding. Where stone sculptures exist, their beauty is hidden by a layer of plaster. At times, I see the plaster peeling off to reveal broken brickwork underneath. No doubt they were easier to sculpt but they require more maintenance for they do not last as long as stone.
The larger temples are set in a courtyard with a circumscribing pillared corridor. Little cells enshrined with beautiful Jain idols line this corridor. On the outside, each such shrine is crowned with a shikara over the sanctum and a dome over the corridor space. If each of these is taken to be a temple, yes, there could be well over 800 of them at Palitana.
How does one keep all the idols clean? There are certainly not enough Jain priests to clean them all often enough but here is a key difference between Hinduism and Jainism. The latter is a more personal religion. The privilege to approach and enter the sanctum is not with a few Brahmins by birth. In many of these shrines I could observe Jains offering their prayers. The devotee enters the shrine with a pot of water, a clean white cloth, an offering of flowers and turmeric paste. He or she covers the mouth as is their normal practice. The idol is washed with water. It is wiped dry with the clean cloth. Then it is anointed with turmeric at key points in a certain order – toes, knees, shoulders, heart center, head. Flowers are offered. A small oil lamp is lit and shown to the idol.
Common men dress as priests. Women wear no special dresses. They join long queues leading into the sanctum of the main temples on the hill. Each one does their individual prayer and offering. Others prefer to do the same from the crowded mandapa. Small oil lamps are lit where they stand. A mirror is shown to the idol and the reflection is fanned with a silver fan. Offerings are flowers, fruits and sweets but more commonly grains of rice, lumps of sugar and almonds still in their hard shells. I also observed rice grains arranged meticulously in certains patterns or symbols.
In the courtyard, men and women sit around chanting while someone leads the group with a harmonium. Three respected priests sit on a raised platform from where they offer their blessings. An old man in a wheelchair is carried to the priests for blessing. The place is crowded but there is no chaos. There is no pushing or elbowing through like I found in Puri. Everyone is busy with their rituals and prayers.
I take some time to admire the diverse range of sculptures while absorbing the atmosphere of the place. I climb to the higher slopes till I find an open view of the hills, the river the flows broadly, the green fields on the plains and the occasional bulbul that flies up to this height. The hill is strikingly marked by an array of shikaras, their pinnacles, flags, domes, fort-like ramparts and rounded towers. Steep rock faces drop in jagged sharpness to a great height.
I do not visit all the temples. I am hungry and I need to get back to the hotel for a proper lunch. As I leave the complex, someone stops me downhill.
‘How many more steps to the top?’ asks the man.
‘Not far from here. You will be there inside five minutes,’ I tell him.
‘I have been here before in summer. It was terrible. Today it is a lot easier,’ he says. A cold wind is blowing across the hill. It’s been steady all morning.
‘Where are you from?’ I ask him.
‘We are from Tamil Nadu,’ he points to his wife a little ahead of him. ‘Are you Tamil?’
‘Yes, from Bangalore.’
This is all the invitation he needed to start talking in Tamil. The last time I spoke to someone in Tamil was at an Internet center at Indore.
‘I didn’t know there are Jains in Tamil Nadu,’ I said.
‘There are many Jains in Tamil Nadu. We are from near Trichy.’
‘Are there any interesting Jain temples in Tamil Nadu?’
‘There are many new temples.’
India is so diverse that combinations are countless. Combine religion, language, culture and regional influences, you get India’s diversity. As I walked downhill it occurred to me that this man was more a Jain than Tamilian. We are first defined by religion and then by language. One defines who we are while the other is merely a tool for expression.