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

“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!”

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.

Following other early risers, I 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 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.

Chanting Adinath-Adinath indeed helps me to establish a rhythm – energy, if you like – that 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.

Jainism in a Nutshell

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

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 had brought for this purpose. To properly complete the pilgrimage I follow a group of Jains on their rounds and puja (blessing) in the main temple.

The Jain Pilgrimage

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 that 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 fulfill the ultimate pilgrimage: walking up and down these steps 108 times (a holy number).

Practical Information about the Jain Pilgrimage

  • Palitana lies in India’s western state of Gujarat.
  • 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.

Additional Reading

Here are more stories about India.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here & here.

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