Pilgrimage and Sacred Places

There are many places in India which are of special importance to Jains because of associations with holy persons of the past. Some are the places where the enlightened ones left this world and achieved final liberation, some are places where celebrated religious events occurred, at others a famous temple (often many temples) or image draws the pilgrims. Pilgrimage to such places has long been popular. It is felt that there is great merit in visiting them: in earlier times (and often even today) the hardship of the journey was a form of austerity teaching endurance and control of the body. The religious atmosphere and the knowledge that here one is at the very place trodden by the great figures of earlier times and by countless Jain pilgrims inspire feelings of awe and reverence.

The pilgrims who make their way to the sacred places may be monks or nuns who travel, sometimes over long distances, on foot (the likelihood of crushing small creatures beneath the wheels, or otherwise harming them, means that monks and nuns must not travel by car or other conveyance), or solitary lay individuals, or families or large organized groups. For some the journey may mean real hardship and often well-to-do people undertake the praiseworthy task of helping others to go on pilgrimage. Sometimes a wealthy Jain will organize a major pilgrim ‘caravan’. A pilgrimage led by a prominent businessman of Ahmedabad some fifty years ago involved nearly 15,000 people with four hundred monks and seven hundred nuns. Five hundred helpers, cooks and watchmen looked after them as they traveled by slow stages, mostly walking but some riding on horseback or in a hundred motor cars, to Girnar (where the twenty-second Tirthankara achieved moksa) and to the great collection of temples at Satrunjaya. Thirteen hundred bullock carts, as well as lorries, transported tents, cooking equipment and the pilgrims’ baggage. When they camped at night the rows of tents, the bustle and lights, the women performing religious dances and songs, gave the impression of a small town. Nowadays, of course, some large groups of pilgrims travel by modern transport (the discomfort may be less but the pious intention is the same and it is still the practice for wealthy Jains to organize and finance them) but large assemblies of pilgrims, a thousand or more at a time, still make the sacred journey on foot, as do lone individuals as well.

Most of the great pilgrimage sites are distant from the centers of population, almost always on the tops of hills or mountains, and often in surroundings of natural beauty conducive to devotion and meditation.

Jain temples throughout India are noted for their cleanliness and sacred atmosphere. The worshiper enters in a state of reverence with mind and spirit prepared, and with clothes and person clean. Shoes are removed, outside impediment like sticks and umbrellas are left behind. No worldly activities take place within the temple, no sleeping or sitting in casual conversation. The architecture and carving are often equal to any that India, a land of splendid sculpture and temple architecture, can show. The focus is on the image of the Tirthankara, represented seated or standing, in deep meditation with the eyes directed to the tip of the nose, the expression solemn but tranquil. The image is naked, or wearing at most a single cloth, indicating renunciation of worldly things, but is often marked on the breast with a diamond-shaped figure. The Svetambara frequently adorn the image with jewels but in a Digambara shrine it will be left unadorned. A richly carved surround will set off the simple figure, perhaps with elephants, other animal, bird or human figures and celestial attendants. Each Tirthankara has a distinctive sign, a bull for Rsabha, a lion for Mahavira and so on, which is depicted on the pedestal. The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsva, is shown with a canopy of seven hooded snakes. In a place frequented by pilgrims simple hostel accommodation will be provided free of charge, though it is customary for worshipers to leave a gift of money for the temple upkeep, according to their means.

Of the great number of places of Jain pilgrimage, one which is of unequaled sanctity is Mount Parsvanatha, or Sametsikhara, in Bihar, for it is believed that here no fewer than twenty of the twenty-four Tirthankara left their last earthly bodies and achieved moksa. The mountain rises handsomely from forested lower slopes to its rugged peak and the summit is covered with temples. As they exist today the temples are all relatively modern, the finest one, on the south-east, with its five fluted domes, contains an image in black marble of Parsva, the twenty-third Tirthankara, dated 1765 on its base. Large numbers of pilgrims come to this place, the most pious, after visiting every shrine, conclude their pilgrimage by walking the thirty-mile circuit of the base of the hill

From Sametsikhara the pilgrim may well go on to Pavapuri, also in Bihar. It is a place of great scenic beauty, particularly when the lotus flowers are in bloom on the large lake. The lake, so the story goes, was formed over many centuries by countless pilgrims taking up a pinch of dust to mark their foreheads. For this is holy ground, a temple stands at the place where Mahavira is reputed to have achieved moksa, and another at the site where his body was cremated. The latter is on an island in the lake, .connected by a causeway with the shore, and the gleaming structure, reflected in the lotus-strewn waters, is a splendid sight. Both temples have been considerably renovated over the years. The festival of Diwali, the annual remembrance of Mahavira’s nirvana, is, of course, celebrated here with great ceremony.

If the ancient Magadha state, modern Bihar, was the cradle of Jainism, the community is nowadays strongest in western India. Rajasthan and Gujarat are particularly rich in Jain temples and places of pilgrimage. Seven hundred years ago it is recorded that there were over three hundred temples in western India, two hundred of them in Gujarat.

In Rajasthan, Jesalmir has long attracted scholars to its famous library of Jain manuscripts and many thousands of religious books. Not only scholars, but also many other Jains make the pilgrimage to the splendid intricately carved temples of yellow stone. Ranakpur is also in Rajasthan. The magnificent temple, or temple complex, dates from the fifteenth century. It covers 40,000 square feet on a lofty base, surrounded, as is common with Jain temples, by a high wall. Following a not-uncommon Jain style, the main sanctuary has four six-foot white marble statues of Rsabha, the first Tirthankara, facing the four directions, so the complex plan of the temple provides four approaches. Innumerable pillars, said to be 1444, richly carved and all different, provide unending vistas through the twenty-nine halls, interrupted by open courts. In the thirteenth century A.D. the Jain king of Gujarat, Kumarapala, founded a temple at Taranga. After his successor reacted against Jainism the temple came to be largely destroyed but it was renovated much later in the reign of the Mogul emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. It is picturesquely situated on the top of a hill with a difficult approach testing the endurance of pilgrims.

Undoubtedly the masterpieces of Jain architecture, and almost unrivaled in India for beauty and delicacy of carving, are the magnificent Delwara temples on Mountabu in Rajasthan. The carving of the white marble is so delicate that it is almost translucent: the masons scraped away the marble rather than chiseled it and are said to have been paid according to the weight of marble dust removed. The transport alone of the blocks of stone from far away must have been very laborious and expensive. There are two major temple complexes. One was built around 1030 A.D. by Vimala Shah, a wealthy merchant, and dedicated to the first Tirthankara: it was restored in 1322. The forty-eight pillars of the main hall are probably unequaled anywhere for their decoration; the dome of eleven rings, alternate ones of which are decorated with human and animal figures, is impressive. The later temple, dedicated to the Tirthankara Neminatha, is the larger, 155 feet long. It was founded around 1230 by Tejapala, who with his brother Vastupala, prime minister to the regent of Gujarat, was responsible for more than fifty religious edifices, including foundations at Satrunjaya and Girnar. Each temple complex stands in a rectangular walled area decorated with statues in niches around the circumference. Not only the temples but also the splendid panoramic view from 4000 feet above sea level make this site a remarkable showpiece as well as a place of deep religious significance.

Two places of pilgrimage in Gujarat, Girnar and Satrunjaya, are so rich in temples and shrines that they have been described as temple cities. Girnar is celebrated as the place where the Tirthankara Neminatha achieved moksa. One famous temple at the top of Mount Girnar is over a thousand years old: an inscription is to be found there recording that it was repaired in 1278 A.D. The temple is in a rectangular courtyard surrounded by some seventy Tirthankara images. This is the largest temple but there are many others, including one founded by Vastupala in 1231 A.D. and dedicated to the nineteenth Tirthankara, Mallinatha.

Satrunjaya is an ancient Jain place of pilgrimage as it was here that the first Tirthankara, Rsabha, as well as his chief follower, is said to have reached moksa. Many hundreds of temples and smaller shrines are contained within the nine walled enclosures. Although most of them are modern, dating for the great part from the nineteenth century, there is a long history to the site and traditional accounts speak of sixteen restorations going back into far antiquity. A new temple of Rsabha replaced the old one in the mid-twelfth century and seven shrines were placed in front of it in 1231 by Vastupala. Some of the temples can trace their origins, if not their present form, back to the tenth century. Unfortunately Satrunjaya suffered much destruction during the Muslim conquests in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but rebuilding took place after 1500 and in 1582 the Emperor Akbar formally conveyed to the Jains the land which they occupied here. Some of the larger temples are truly magnificent with their high sugar loaf shaped domes or spires, a typical feature of Jain temple architecture, whilst the smaller ones have often a simple and impressive intimacy. Temple building has not ceased and a new temple complex constructed in the 1970s can bear comparison with the earlier ones. Rich ornamentation and statuary abound and demonstrate the skill of the stone carvers. From the late seventeenth century Satrunjaya became more and more important. As pilgrims flocked here guide books were written for them, detailing the routes by which the pious pilgrim may visit and pray before the many images. On a certain date every year pilgrims to the number of nearly 20,000 undertake a twelve- mile round trip: the hardship is great but the bliss experienced makes it well worthwhile. For the very hardy a twenty-four mile route can be walked. Special ceremonies are held on a number of dates in the year. Certain prayers, remembrances and rituals are laid down for the pilgrim. Great merit is achieved by the pilgrimage to Satrunjaya, by fasting and worshiping there (or even by the attempt to get there if one does not reach it), greater merit, it is said, than at many of the other great places of Jain pilgrimage.

The places which we have mentioned are all in the northern half of India but south India has its great pilgrimage centers as well. The most famous is Sravana Belgola, sixty- two miles from Mysore. Here on a hill 470 feet above the plain, and reached by nearly five hundred steps, stands the colossal statue of Bahubali, fifty-seven feet high, twenty- six feet across the shoulders, cut from solid rock around the year 980 A.D., with a surrounding cloister added in 1116. It is the biggest free-standing monolithic statue in the world. Bahubali, or Gommata, was the son of Rsabha, the first Tirthankara. It is said that he stood so deep in meditation that the climbing plants grew over him. The statue represents him nude, evidence of total renunciation of worldly goods, with his limbs entwined by creepers. There are other statues of Bahubali in south India but this is by far the largest and it is a major center of pilgrimage for Jains from north as well as south India. In a Jain temple the consecrated image is ritually bathed every day as part of the worship paid to it. The statue at Sravana Belgola is so huge that this ritual can be carried out only on the feet of the image. At certain intervals however, of between twelve and fifteen years, a great structure of scaffolding is erected and the image is ceremonially showered from pots of water mixed with sandalwood, coconut and sugar. Half a million people attended the ceremony when it was held in 1967. When it was held again in 1981 it had a special significance as marking the thousandth anniversary of the consecration of the statue.

Pilgrimage to sacred places is part of the tradition of practically every religion in the world. The hardships of the journey discipline the body, the company of fellow pilgrims strengthens religious faith. To pray and worship at a site made holy by tradition or consecration or the worship of generations of the faithful, to stand at the place where great religious leaders and saints once stood, all these are inspiring and uplifting. The soul receives merit, the mind receives peace. By different people a pilgrimage will be interpreted differently. Some simple people are content to lose themselves in the awe of the occasion, to follow without taxing thought the rituals and prayers. Others may wish to take a more intellectual view, to dismiss the more miraculous legends, or at least to see them as pious and educative stories, rather than as literal truth. But few indeed can undertake a journey to the sacred places and come away unmoved.

Pilgrimages and temples are a living part of Jain religion, not some moribund tradition of the past. In Leicester, in England, a new temple is being constructed with, for the first time in the Western world, fully consecrated images of the Tirthankara. They will be housed in a splendid carved stone shrine inside the Jain Center. This work is being made possible by the contributions of Jains from all over the world, to provide a focus for pilgrims who will come to pray before the three images of Shantinatha, Parsva and Mahavira, from Britain, from Europe, from India, and indeed from all parts of the world.

Jainism Explained
by Paul Marett