Pilgrimage in Jainism



There are many places in India, which are of special importance to the Jains because of their associations with the holy persons in the past. Some of the places are where the enlightened ones left this world and achieved the final liberation, the places where the celebrated religious events occurred or the famous temples or image which draws the pilgrims. Pilgrimage to such places has long been popular. It is felt that there is a 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 one is at the very place trodden by the great figures of the earlier times and by the countless Jain pilgrims inspire the feelings of reverence.

The pilgrims who make their way to the sacred places may be the monks, nuns, solitary lay individuals, families or large organized groups. For some the journey may mean real hardship financially. Many wealthy 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 including four hundred monks and seven hundred nuns. Five hundred helpers, cooks and security people looked after them as they traveled at a slow pace, mostly by walking but some riding on the horseback or in the motor cars, to Girnara (where the twenty-second Tirthankara achieved moksa) and to the great collection of the temples at Satrunjaya. Thirteen hundred bullock carts, as well as the trucks transported the tents, cooking equipment and the pilgrims' baggage's. When they camped at the night the rows of tents, the lights, and the women performing religious dances and singing the songs, gave the camp the image of a small town. Nowadays, of course, some large groups of pilgrims travel by the modern transport. The discomfort may be less now a days but the pious intention is the same and it is still the practice for wealthy Jains to organize and finance them.

Most of the great pilgrimage sites are away from the population, almost always on the top of the hills or mountains and often in the surroundings of the natural beauty suitable for the devotion and the meditation. Most such places may have some accommodation mostly free of charge or with the nominal fees. The worshippers donate money for the upkeep of the pilgrimage sites.

The Jain temples throughout India are noted for their cleanliness and the sacred atmosphere. The worshipper enters the temple wearing the clean clothes. The shoes are removed at the door. Activities like sleeping, talking, running around, etc. are not allowed in the temple. The architecture, sculptures and carvings are splendid. The focus is on the image of the Tirthankara, seated or standing position, in the deep meditation with the eyes directed to the tip of the nose, with tranquil and solemn expression. The image is naked and often marked on the chest with diamond-shaped figures. The Swetambar frequently adorn the image with the jewels but in a Digambara shrine it is left unadorned. Each Tirthankara has a distinctive sign, a bull for Rishabh, a lion for Mahaveer and so on, which is depicted on the pedestal. The twenty-third Tirthankara, Paraswanath, is shown with a canopy of seven hooded snakes.

Of the great number of places of the Jain pilgrimage, one which is of unequalled sanctity is Mount Parswanatha, or Sametshikhara, in Bihar, for it is believed that here twenty of the twenty-four Tirthankara left their last earthly bodies and achieved the moksa. The mountain rises elegantly from the forested lower slopes to its rugged peak and the summit is covered with the temples. As they exist today the temples are all relatively modern. The finest one, on the Southeast, with its five fluted domes, contains an image in black marble of Parswanath, 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 pilgrims may go on to Pavapuri, also in Bihar. It is a place of great scenic beauty, particularly when the lotus flowers bloom in the large lake. There is a story that countless pilgrims taking up a pinch of dust to mark their foreheads formed the lake, over the many centuries. A temple stands at the place where Mahaveer is reputed to have achieved the moksa and another one at the site where his body was cremated. The latter is on an island in the lake, connected by a walkway to the shore. 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 anniversary day of Mahavira's nirvana, is celebrated here with the great ceremony.

In the ancient days Magadha State, modern Bihar, was the cradle of Jainism but now a days the Jain community is nowadays strongest in western India. Rajasthan and Gujarat are particularly rich in Jain temples and places of pilgrimage. It is recorded that seven hundreds years ago there were over three hundred temples in western India, two hundred of them in Gujarat alone. In Rajasthan, Jesalmir has long attracted scholars to its famous library of Jain manuscripts and thousands of religious books. Not only scholars, but also many other Jains make the pilgrimage to the splendid intricately carved temples of yellow stone. Rankpur is also in Rajasthan. The magnificent temple, or temple complex, dates back to the fifteenth century. It covers 40,000 square feet on a lofty base, surrounded, as is common with the Jain temples, by a high wall. Following a not-uncommon Jain style, the main sanctuary has four six-feet tall white marble statues of Risaabha, 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 in all different designs, provide unending vistas through the twenty-nine halls, interrupted by the 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 was almost 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 the pilgrims.

Undoubtedly the masterpieces of the Jain architecture, and almost unrivalled in India for the beauty and delicacy of the carving, are the magnificent Delwara temples on Mount Abu 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 it is said that they were paid according to the weight of marble dust removed. The transport alone for the blocks of the stone from far away must have been very laborious and expensive. There are two major temple complexes in Gujarat. One was built around 1030 A. D. By Vimala Shah, a wealthy merchant, and dedicated to the first Tirthankara: it was restored in 1322 A. D. The forty-eight pillars of the main hall are probably unequaled for their unique 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 A. D. By Tejapala, who with his brother Vastupala, prime minister of Gujarat, was responsible for more than fifty religious edifices, including foundations at Satrunjaya and Girnara. 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 the sea level make this site a remarkable showpiece as well as a place of deep religious significance.

Two places of pilgrimage in Gujarat, Girnara and Satrunjaya, are so rich in temples and shrines that they have been described as the temple cities. Girnara is the famous place where the Tirthankara Neminatha achieved moksa. Other famous temple at the top of Mount Girnara is over a thousand years old and an inscription shows 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.

Shatrunjaya is an ancient Jain place of pilgrimage as it was here that the first Tirthankara, Rishabha, as well as his chief follower are 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, they have been restored sixteen times, dating back into far antiquity. A new temple of Rishabhadev replaced the old one in the mid-twelfth century and Vastupala placed seven shrines in front of it in 1231. Some of the temples can trace their origins, if not their present form, back to the tenth century. Unfortunately Shatrunjaya suffered much destruction during the Muslim conquests in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the rebuilding took place after 1500. In 1582 the Emperor Akbar formally conveyed to the Jains the land which they occupied then. Some of the larger temples are truly magnificent with their high sugar-loaf shaped domes or spires, a typical feature of Jain temple architecture, while the smaller ones have often a simple and impressive intimacy. The temple construction has not ceased and a new temple complex constructed in the 1970s can bear the comparison with the earlier ones. Rich ornamentation and statuary around demonstrate the skill of the stone carvers. From the late seventeenth century Shatrunjaya became more and more important. As the pilgrims flocked here the guidebooks were written for them, detailing the routes by which the pious pilgrims 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. The strong worshipers may walk a twenty-four mile route. The special ceremonies are held on a number of dates through the year. Certain prayers, remembrances and rituals are laid down for the pilgrims. Great merit is achieved by the pilgrimage to Shatrunjaya, by fasting and worshipping there.

The places mentioned so far are all in the northern half of India but south India has its great pilgrimage places too. The most famous is Shravana Belgola, sixty-two miles from Mysore. Here on a hill 470 feet above the plains stands the colossal statue of Bahubali, fifty-seven feet high, twenty- six feet across the shoulders, cut from one solid rock around the year 980 A.D., with a surrounding cloister added in 1116. It is the biggest freestanding monolithic statue in the world. Bahubali, or Gommata, was the son of Rishabha, 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 things including the clothes, 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 statue is ritually bathed every day as a part of the worship. The statue at Shravana Belgola is so huge that this ritual can be carried out only to the feet of the statue. At certain intervals however, between every twelve and fifteen years, a great structure of scaffolding is erected and the huge statue is ceremonially showered with the pots of water mixed with sandalwood, coconut, sugar and milk. 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.

The pilgrimage to the sacred places is a part of the tradition practically for every religion in the world. The hardships of the journey discipline the body; the company of fellow pilgrims strengthens the religious faith. To pray and worship at a site made holy by the tradition or consecration or the worship of the generations of the faithful, to stand at the place where the great religious leaders and saints once stood, all these are inspiring and uplifting. The soul receives the merit and the mind receives the peace. The different people interpret a pilgrimage differently. Some simple people are content to lose themselves in the awe of the occasion and follow 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 accepting as literal truth. But a few indeed can undertake the journey to the sacred places and will come back untouched.

The pilgrimages and the temples are a living part of the Jain religion, not some moribund tradition of the past. In Leicester, England, a new temple was constructed first time in the Western hemishpere, with fully consecrated images of the Tirthankara. It has a splendid carved stone shrine inside the Jain Centre. This work was being made possible by the contributions of the Jains from all over the world, to provide a focus for the pilgrims who would come to pray before the three images of Shantinatha, Parashwanatha and Mahaveer, from Britain, Europe,India, and indeed from all the parts of the world.



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