Palitana, Gujarat, 2009.
Shatrunjaya is one of Jainism’s holiest pilgrim sites. A mind boggling array of 863 temples perched on a hilltop plateau high above the gulf of Cambay. Three thousand two hundred steps lead to the top.
We began to climb. Slowly but surely. Luckily there was plenty to distract us from our aching calf muscles and thirst. Donkeys being herded uphill, carrying paniers of water containers. Schoolkids in sunshine yellow shirts and navy blue shorts/skirts literally running uphill! Nuns dressed completely in white, carrying large wooden staffs, nimble and sure-footed, making their way downhill with alacrity . Pilgrims – young girls – dressed very curiously. Every inch of their bodies covered, face masks, leggings, knee-pads, long gloves covering their arms. And then there were the dholis. Pilgrims sitting cross-legged on ratan woven seats swinging from a pole carried by two bearers; or the more secure choice – a garden chair lashed between two poles carried by four bearers. They carried, stopped, rested, switched the pole to the other shoulder and in unison moved off again. Even carrying someone they made their way faster up than us. At regular intervals, the dholi wallahs accosted us – ‘dholi’? ‘sit down dholi’? But this was all about earning merit, so we soldiered on.
Near the top the path forked. The left hand path lead to the main entrance, Ram Pol. We took the turning to the right and all at once were completely alone. We wandered amongst the temples, gazing at countless statues of the Jain phrophet, beautiful painted ceilings and temple attendants dressed in bright – in your face- orange cloth. Gentler pastel colours on some of the buildings, white and indigo blue, caught and reflected the light. Winding alleyways and flights of steps up and down the hilltop connected the tonks (enclosures). We met only lizards, squirrels, and the occasional pilgrim. In this way we made our way over to the main temple.
The serenity of the site had made a great impression, but the buzz of activity, prayer and faith displayed in the main complex was really a sight to behold. In an inner courtyard, flower sellers vied with each other to sell blood crimson garlands of rose heads to the faithful. Inside men and women sat on the ground making offerings of rice, fruit and coins and reading prayer books. Men were dressed in what seemed to be togas. Both men and women wore face masks – to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects. (Jains believe in non-violence towards any living thing). Some families were involved in a special ceremony – no doubt to earn extra ‘merit’. At the sound of a bell, temple attendants dressed in baggy orange trousers and canary yellow shirts scurried forth and began an ascent of the stupa. Darting over the intricate carvings and marble statues they looked like ants treading a well worn path to the summit. They were followed more hesitantly by a toga clad priest and male members of the family who eventually clasped hands to form a human chain around the base of the stupa as one flag was lowered and their own was raised. Female members of the family, wearing tinsel and bauble streamers around their necks, looked on from a platform further down.
In the midst of all this devotion and effort we came across Ahmadsha. Presiding over a gaily coloured shrine, way out on a limb, far away from all the other temples, he seemed to be administering advice/solace/prayer to all who would listen. He invited us to sit down – ‘take some tea, take it easy, you are my guests’. So we did. There were five or six other blokes around – young and old – various family members. It was an amazingly peaceful spot, colourful, warm, the whole place exuded a good vibe. He told us it had been owned by his family for generations, and he lived there, occasionally visiting his wife and family in nearby Palitana. A curtained cubicle protruded from a white washed wall – emerald green and fuschia pink, it reminded me of a Punch and Judy kiosk. He showed us behind the curtain – green wooden shutters hid a coffin-shaped niche. He told us he laid inside to ‘feel the silence’ and ‘commune with god’. He suggested we try it. In fact he insisted. So in turn, we made out like we were bodies and lay in a pitch dark cupboard in a hole in the wall inside a Jain temple!!! I suspect it has more effect when you’ve smoked a bit of the ganga! They passed a pipe around between them ‘to relax just a little’ and offered to share. ‘Thanks’, we said ‘but no thanks’ and carried on sipping our chai from our saucer.
He asked us to stay for lunch. Why not, we thought. They were an affable bunch and they made us so welcome. Before eating, Ahmadsha lead us to a tap so we could wash our hands and face. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it to me so I could dry off. I swallowed hard and just did it, not wanting to offend. We sat on a piece of white cotton cloth in the shade and lunch was put in front of us. Thick chapati, potato curry, two stainless steel bowls of curd, and for desert a huge lump of jaggery and a few pieces of coconut. A feast – it was all delicious! Ahmadsha used the same handkerchief to waft the flies away from the food and everyone watched as we ate. I gave the thumbs up sign to the chapati maker and they all laughed at Jim trying to scoop up the curry with the chapati. After the meal, there was lots of good natured clowning around, taking of photos, and a conversation about cricket – before they got down to the serious business of sharing out the contents of the temple’s donation box amongst themselves. We had to laugh, they had such cheek!
Weighed down with curry, chapati and a thousand impressions we made our way back down hill.