Home > Off Beat E-Mail this page || Print this page
Gateway To Greater Heights
The doli bearer in Palitana

Despite the daunting proposition of climbing 3,000 steps to reach the renowned Palitana temples, the architectural grandeur and poetry of the marbles makes it worth the effort, unearths Monideepa Banerjee

For a long time, after leaving Ahmedabad in the morning, we drive along the cheese-smooth, asphalt stretch without a hurtling truck or a battered chhakra (the famous bullet-cum-tempo of the Saurashtra region). Even the ubiquitous camel cart that perfectly accentuates the dull brown landscape sprawling on both the sides is no where in sight. Then without warning a wide range of mountains emerge in the horizon along with the lime-green Shetrunjaya River that bestows fertility onto the barren flat lands.

The main shrine of Adinath

Pointing to a temple-encrusted peak in the distance, our driver reveals in excitement, “That’s Palitana, the gateway to greater heights.” Spread over nine hilltops, the Shetrunjaya enclosure contains about 108 large temples and 872 small shrines with approximately 7,000 images. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Rishabha (the first Jain Tirthankara) popularly called Adinath, who attained ‘nirvana’ or ‘moksha’ on this hill. No wonder, the village sees 6-7 lakh visitors every year. I take refuge in the Sumeru hotel of Gujarat Tourism, away from the crowded bazaar and cubbyhole shops that are the favourite haunts of pilgrims as the road is dotted with some 100 dharamshalas. In the evening, I hire a tonga and move around. The entire area has become a melting pot of sights and sounds. The run-down shops are churning out the most aromatic pav-bhajis and the loudest ‘meri sonia’ with equal gallantry and the gaily dressed crowds seem to relish both with equal fervour. Cows walk in sacred freedom as do the clusters of mosquitoes.

Pilgrims coming in a chhakra

The next morning greeted me in the form of a daunting proposition as I began my 3,000 step assault of Mount Shetrunjaya with a steady stream of followers amidst low chant and incantations wafting in the silent, mist shrouded air. The cold nip is refreshingly palpable and I manage to gain quite a height before sunrise. The joyous burst of sun rays make the valley below glow with happiness, but it also brings enough misery to the pilgrims. The initial enthusiasm begins to wane and each step becomes a painful effort. I rest a while with a group from Bhavnagar who have come here to pray for their physically impaired son, who casts me a shy smile from his perched up position in a doli. Waves upon waves of pilgrims scurry past me in a frenzied hurry to meet the Lord.

After two hours of painful clambering, I reach the top and look dazedly at the cluster of temples that seem to claw the sky in a devotional riot. My exhaustion evaporates and, with a fresh lease of energy, I explore the temple compound where thousands of devotees sit quietly in touching humility. Each temple bearing the trademark intricate carvings of Jain architecture and the unearthly luminosity of the silver studded eyes of the idols. The only way to distinguish one tirthankara from the other is their mount as a serpent means the idol is Parshavanathji and so on.

The impressive shrine of Adinath

From one such intricately designed shrine, I see the wavy contour of the town of Palitana snugly nestled in the crook of Shetrunjaya River at the southern edge of the hills. I look in astonishment at the serpentine succession of pilgrims that seem to grow with every passing second despite the heat. Inside, the low murmur of prayers suddenly spiral upwards as a group of school children join in. It is difficult to tour all the temples in one visit so I enjoy their sanctity sitting in a quiet corner.

The Adinath temple

The descent is not always easy as the angry sun scorches down on me from all sides, probably for not paying obeisance to all the Gods. Halfway down, I get rid of my hunger pangs with creamy curds served in clay pots by the Kathiawari women. Looking back at the steep rise, I couldn’t imagine how I completed the entire episode without any broken bones. A monumental achievement, I must say, as I never ever mastered the courage to climb a 100 steps that my dietician insists so regularly. Nevertheless, I must admit that the architectural grandeur of many of these striking Jain temples at Palitana has few parallels. Undoubtedly, worth the effort.

Fact File: The nearest airport is Bhavnagar. Palitana is 277 kms from Ahmedabad and well connected by rail and road links. Luxury buses run between Mumbai and Palitana daily. Gujarat Tourism runs the Sumeru lodge and the town has more than 100 neat and clean dharamshalas.