We were taken on 1/99th (yes, really) of a Jain pilgrimage in Palitana, Gujarat… and it was one of our most favorite experiences in India.
In the winter months, tens of thousands of Jain pilgrims flock to one of the holiest places in Jainism: Palitana, India. The small, religious town sits at the base of Girnar, a forested holy mountain in India’s Gujarat state. More than a thousand temples blanket the mountainside before spilling onto the flatlands below—it’s truly a temple town.
The pilgrims come in droves to climb and pray atop their holy mountain… though “climb” may be an understatement. For many, climbing once isn’t enough. They come to climb the 3.5 kilometer (2.2 mi) mountain path 99 times, a pilgrimage known as a 99-yatra.
At 5 A.M. sharp, we join a man named Z under a pitch-black sky to begin our own (singular) climb. A Jain who flew all the way from London for the pilgrimage, Z is bouncing with energy despite the ungodly hour. He grins, telling us he’s been in Palitana for almost a month, and this is his 88th ascent of his 99-yatra trip.
Typically, a pilgrim climbs the mountain three times a day, meaning Z only has four days left in his pilgrimage. We express our amazement at his accomplishment, but Z is quick to point out his nearby friend, who climbed the mountain seven times in one day… while fasting. No food, no water, only walking. Hardcore.
A puttering rickshaw ride through the darkness brings us to the foot of Girnar. The day (night?) is still young, but people are already congregating at a large temple at the foot of the mountain, hoping to begin their climb before the heat of the day sets in.
The pathway to the temple is lined with large signs, each explaining what can and cannot be brought onto the mountain.
Forbidden item number one: leather. Jains are like religious vegans—they’re strictly opposed to meat and anything made with animal products. Milk is the only exception.
Food and water also appear on the list. During the pilgrimage, most Jains eat only one meal a day early in the afternoon, though many fast beyond that as a sign of devotion. As for water, it’s believed there are more bacteria in water when it’s dark outside. Despite the verity of said belief, all pilgrims refrain from drinking water before sunrise (usually before 8:15), and after sunset.
Cameras are also prohibited, but this being India, a quick look reveals the rule is loosely enforced. Camera it is.
We enter the first temple, gingerly stepping through crowds of people praying on the ground. Z smiles apologetically, “Please wait one minute, my friends and I must pray.” As he and his friends kneel onto the floor and begin chanting softly, we take a seat on marble steps around the hall’s periphery, outsiders looking in.
Dumpling pilgrims are bundled up in layers of coats and blankets, plopped behind tiny square prayer tables. Piles of uncooked rice form swastikas and other holy symbols on the tables, decorated with little pieces of fruit as offerings. Trails of incense smoke drift lazily through the air, dancing around the breaths of pilgrims as they read prayers from books and printed cards.
Occasionally, someone stands and moves to the front of the hall, where an exposed stretch of rock shimmers with gold leaf. As a young woman presses a square of gold onto the shining surface, Z appears out of nowhere, breaking my reverie. “It’s the start of the mountain, the first hill,” he gestures at the rock, “They’re making an offering there to bless their climb.”
As the woman finishes making her offering, we, too, move away to begin our own ascent.
In the footsteps of tirthankaras
3,500 steps lay between us and the main temple atop the mountain. The number seems daunting, especially before the crack of dawn, but we quickly fall into a loping rhythm. The stone steps are spacious enough for four people across, and low enough for conversation to flow without much effort.
“People climb this mountain to follow in the steps of the first tirthankar, who visited this place 99 times,” Z says between breaths. “Tirthankaras are sort of like the teachers or leaders of Jainism. They’re people who reached enlightenment in their lifetimes, and escaped the cycle of life and rebirth, moksha.”
It sounds uncannily similar to Buddhism… or Hinduism. As we zigzag up the mountain trail, bells peal as people begin and end their prayers. Statues of tirthankaras in meditating lotus position line the paths. Intricate temple roofs climb towards the sky, indistinguishable from their Hindu counterparts to our foreign eyes.
When I point this out, Z laughs. “Yeah, totally man! Jainism is like a crazy mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism. This is India, after all.”
A world apart
Just as our calves begin to cry in resistance, we find ourselves at the end of our climb. Orange light streaks across the horizon under a midnight blue sky, a first hint at the coming sunrise. My breath catches as I see hundreds of temple silhouettes emerging from the darkness. It’s one thing to know there are a thousand plus temples atop a hill, but being among them evokes another feeling entirely.
The mountaintop is already a flurry of activity. Nimble youth head down the mountain to begin the next climb, skipping by hunched old women determinedly shuffling ahead, hands tightly gripping stout walking sticks. People kneel in prayer before one small temple on the mountain’s edge, murmuring softly. Every single angle of my vision is filled with white marble temples. Some are new or still under construction, others have clearly been guarding the mountain since the dawn of time.
Shoes are left at an entrance gate, and we walk into the heart of the temple complex. One temple, known as the Adinath temple, rises well above the rest. Z guides us in, following the flow of the crowds. Darkness envelops us, then our eyes adjust to the flickering lanterns lighting the scene.
The first tirthankar
Dozens of people are seated in prayer, all pointing towards the center of the temple chamber where a life-sized marble idol stands. The lanterns around it cast a divine glow onto its surface, glittering as they reflect off the idol’s eyes. The idol is regal with its gold coating and jeweled decorations, a fitting centerpiece to this majestic city of temples.
Z leans over to us. “That’s Rishabhdev, the first tirthankar. He found enlightenment in this very spot,” he whispers. “There are more than 8,000 idols in Palitana, but this is one of the oldest. It’s more than a thousand years old.”
The scene around us is equally ancient. Under the dim lamplight, there are no phones or cameras, no electricity. People in crisp dhotis and colorful saris sit behind wooden prayer tables covered in offerings, reading from crumbling books that might be several months old… or several centuries. Pilgrims at the front of the temple swish what look like flywhisks made of animal hair, and hold up mirrors to reflect light in ritual. The walls of the temple rise high into darkness above us, blackened by lantern flames over the centuries.
Much of India is developing at a rapid pace, but there are far more places caught in history, where ancient ritual has yet to give way to the modern day. Breathing in the incense-filled air, and watching over the chanting pilgrims, I realize Palitana is one such place.
As people begin jostling for better views of the idol, we slip back through the entrance to give them space, away from the ancient scene and back into the sunlight of the modern day.
Through the city of temples
We part ways in the shade of a holy tree in the temple’s courtyard. Z takes his leave to continue on with climbing, and we venture deeper into the maze of temples, bare feet padding softly on the cool marble floors.
The paths wander aimlessly up and around temples of all shapes and sizes. Some are creamy, some are white. Some are made of stone and traced with moss; others are painted smooth and adorned with colored glass.
Each temple is a moment in history, a mark on a timeline stretching back more than 900 years. Thanks to a flourishing community of Jain businessmen, new temples still are being added, and old ones are given the care they need.
I wonder what Palitana will look like in 20 years? 50? 100?
Old and new, the golden rays of sun warm all the temples. As the sun rises in the sky, more people emerge from the woodwork to bask in the daylight and rest their weary legs.
Gradually, the heat transitions from pleasant to uncomfortable, and our legs begin to wobble from the numerous stairs. It’s time to descend.
Sidestepping ever more pilgrims, rich Indians being carried up on bamboo seats, and the occasional middle-aged European, we traipse down the mountain and back through Palitana, reaching our pilgrim guesthouse just before our calves decide to secede from our legs.
Though it’s only 12 in the afternoon, its hallways are already filled with young adults finished with their three climbs for the day. As we slink into our room to rest bleary eyes and knackered legs (and finally drink some water), they’re chattering happily, buzzing with energy while passing the final hour before their only meal of the day.
And to think, tomorrow they’ll get up and do it all over again.
Practical tips for visiting Palitana
- Start your climb early, it can get hot up top very quickly!
- Leave your water bottle at home. You can buy water at the base of the mountain, and drink from well water after 8:15.
- You can take photos of the temple exteriors, but put your camera away once inside.
Many thanks to Ramesh and Prakash Sheth, who graciously hosted us in Palitana, and even more thanks to their grandaughter/niece Devanshi, who put us in contact with them in addition to connecting us with some of the last Patola artisans in India.