About 4 hours due south from Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, lies Bhavnagar, an old city to the west of the Gulf of Khambhat. The city was not of much interest to me, except as a stop on the way to perhaps the most sacred centre of pilgrimage for Jains, the temple complex of Palitana.
Built over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century CE, the complex has around 900 temples. The main temple can be reached by climbing some 3,700 steps up the Shatrunjaya Hills. You can read more about Palitana and the temple complex here and here.
When I announced my intention of climbing these steps to reach the temples at the top of the hill, I encountered tears from my 85-year-old mother, and stern words of advice from my ever-patient wife – I have, after all, seen 65 summers, am not in the best of shape, and am as stubborn as a mule. I ignored all the tears and words of advice, drove down to Bhavnagar, spent the night in a very nice hotel, woke up at 4.30 next morning and drove to Palitana. I had to wait a little while for the sun to cast away the darkness of dawn, and started my climb at 6.30 in the morning. It took me three and a half hours to reach the top – I climbed 20 steps, rested for a bit, and then climbed another 20 steps, and so on. It helped that the temple authorities had numbered every 20 steps, so I knew how far I had come, and how far I had to go – it was really encouraging that the numbers to climb kept falling, so I would get renewed confidence in my ability to reach the top.
When I’d climbed about 200 steps and looked down at the temples at the foot of the hill, the sunlight bathed everything in pale gold, like they’ve been cast fresh and new from the goldsmith’s furnace.
On the way up, there was a temple and its gate under construction, absolutely white and glowing in the bright sunlight.
There were not many tourists or devotees – I had been told that most Jains do not visit the temples at the time I’d chosen for my trip – but quite a few used chairs (slung between two rods) or dolis (a seat slung from one rod) carried by helpers, and a few were already showing signs of strain in their journey up the hill.
There were many places to rest for devotees and travelers – in the days of yore, water from wells dug in the hillside would slake the thirst of travelers. Nowadays, many philanthropists have set up little stalls where sweet well water is given to those who wanted a drink or fill up their water bottle.
Still a few hundred steps from the top, I turned a corner and saw the temples at the holy ground at the top of the hill. The steps encouraged me to climb on, and the fortress-like wall of the holy precinct told me that all would be well – I must just carry on.
Finally I reached a fork – I could get to the top by following any one of the two routes.
I chose the longer route – the one on the right which would take me to the “Naba Tunk” – the nine temple clusters. Maybe a hundred more steps, and I had reached the gate to the temple complex.
The temples looked freshly minted, shiny and pink. I was informed that broken stones, cornices, etc were not right for the temples – they were repaired, replaced, and always kept in good repair. All over the courtyards, there were stone and marble slabs which would be used to repair or replace broken areas of the complex.
From one side of the parapet, I looked upon an area where magnificent temples were being built. It looked like a wonderful and joyous toy village of temples.
The most important temples are those dedicated to Adinath, Kumarpal, Sampratiraja, and a few others. Beautifully carved, immaculately preserved, visited daily by devotees, these had been places of worship for more than 600 years. Photography is not permitted, so I satisfied myself by taking a picture of the top of one of the magnificent structures.
The journey downhill took me about an hour and a half. I remember noticing that there was very little dirt, discarded paper or plastic on the steps. There were no monkeys either,. which was surprising. The steps, as well as the temples themselves, were very peaceful and had a sense of calm and quietness that ,made me feel deeply contented.