Ranakpur, Dilwara, Palitana and the Dohli: "The Jains"



Gujarat, India

March 10, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Kem cho,

The green and yellow aluminum beach chair is lashed to a bamboo platform. The platform is then lashed to two long bamboo poles. Here in Palitana this litter, this contraption, is called a dholi.

I sit. Charged camera is at my side, binoculars strung from my neck, cap atop my head, my day-bag loaded with water and sunscreen. I give the signal. In the late morning sun, one on each end of a pole, the four young dholi bearers deftly hoist yours truly aloft for the two hour, four kilometer (2.5 mi) scenic ascent of 3572 steps. Three thousand. Five hundred. Seventy two. Steps. Six hundred meters. Up.

I'm going to Shatrunjaya.

"One of Jainism's holiest pilgrimage sites, Shatrunjaya (Place of Victory) is an incredible hill-top sea of eight hundred sixty-three (863) temples, built over 900 years on a plateau dedicated to the gods." *

Words alone did not motivate me visit this off-the-tourist-track mountain top. In my guidebook there is a two page photo spread. # Pointing up into a cloudless blue-gray sky, I count more than one hundred spires in only a small section of the mountain. The caption reads, "A view of Palitana's one thousand and eight (1008) Jain temples clustered on top of Shatrunjaya Hill." **

863 temples? 1008 temples? Who's counting? Palitana is the magnificent climax to my brief education in Jainism.
(One of my friends calls me "didactic"… at times. So why should I change now?)

Here is the Jainism entry in wikipedia.org:

Jains are a small but influential religious minority with at least 4.2 million practitioners in modern India and more in growing immigrant communities in the United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Far East and elsewhere. Jains continue to sustain the ancient Shraman or ascetic tradition.

Jainism is the only religion that while having no god is not atheistic. The notion of god is replaced by the notion of "the own nature of things"
Jainism has been a major cultural, philosophical, social and political force since the dawn of civilization in Asia, and its ancient influence has been traced beyond the borders of modern India into the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions. At various times, Jainism was found all over South Asia.

Jainism doesn't have a single founder. The truth is said to have been revealed at different times by a Tirthankara (a teacher who 'makes a ford' i.e., shows the way). A Tirthankara is considered omniscient, a role model, not a god.

Jains believe in non-violence.

Jains believe that every human is responsible for his/her actions and all living beings have an eternal soul. ***

Two weeks ago I found my first Jain temple by accident, as I strolled the streets and back alleys of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. I wandered into Chandraprabhu Temple, the first in "a maze-like, interconnecting series of seven beautiful yellow sandstone temples dating from the 12th to the 16th Centuries." *

I was overwhelmed at the astonishing beauty of this temple complex. Carvings cover every doorway and wall. The upper gallery contains 108 marble images. Sensual carvings drip from the ceilings and are layered along the floor and threshold. I was surrounded by artistic achievement of the highest order.

Magnificent marble Ranakpur was next. North of Udaipur, "in a remote, plunging wooded valley, Ranakpur is a complex in milk-white marble, a complicated series of 29 halls, supported by a forest of 1444 pillars (no two alike), the interior completely covered in intricate, knotted, carving." *

Ranakpur is a shock. I enter the main building and I am stunned. I select a new strategy. I stow my camera. I decide to walk, and to look, and to absorb, and to react. There will time later for the distraction of photography.

This large white Jain Temple is a masterpiece. "The corbelled ceilings are carved in concentric tiers. ….Dancers and deities are gracefully sculpted….The ceiling is so finely carved that the marble is translucent in places….Pillars are densely carved….Large medallions are carved with exquisite patterns of foliage, tendrils and flowers." ** Marble carvers were paid in gold according to the weight of the marble shavings they presented at the end of each day's work. The sculpture is embroidery in marble.

My next stop is Mt Abu and I am wondering how the Dilwara Jain Temples will compare to Ranakpur.

A group of five marble temples, The Dilwara temples are situated on a hill outside the nearby lakeside town. Here are the words from the Lonely Planet guidebook: "spectacular sight, outstanding temples, intricate and delicate carvings, breathtaking sculptural details, superb domed ceiling, ornate, glorious, magnificent, fascinating, exquisite." *

The words are the words. And the words will have to suffice. Photography is not allowed and that's fine. Again, I have the privilege to "Be There" and to admire these centuries-old monuments to human endeavor and devotion.

At the end of the day, on a terrace overlooking the lake, I relax at my lakeside hotel where I enjoy dinner conversation with foreign travelers and local businessmen. The sun sets, the moon rises, and the lake turns a deep dark blue.

And now, finally, my pilgrimage to Palitana. The porters carry me up the mountain to the promising sight of clusters of 16th Century Jain temples.

Men are carried up by a team of four bearers. Women and children are carried up on smaller litters with only two bearers, some of whom are also young women. And many, many pilgrims, women and men, the young and the not so young climb the three thousand five hundred steps to worship and to pray and to celebrate.

Just inside the entrance, all the bearers, dozens and dozens of men, the women porters in a separate section, a mass of them lounge and lie beside their dholis as they recover from the climb. "Gone with the Wind." The hospital scene on the streets of Atlanta.

The temple complex is crowded for this auspicious day. New statuary is being installed in the main temple, the temple dedicated to Adinath, the first Jain Tirthankara.

I look around. I am the only Westerner. Yet, I do not feel out of place. Quite the opposite. I am welcomed by the Jains, both priests and pilgrims. I am familiar with the Thirthankaras, the teachers, the marble images I have seen before. I feel at home.

And once again I am astonished. Temples and carvings and statues are everywhere.

Now who can hope to visit one thousand temples? Yet I did see many. Some are small, even tiny and I walk around them. Some are larger and I enter and discover lovely carvings. Many are huge and I climb the interior stairs to the terraces for views of the ornate and colorful spires and domes of other nearby temples. Most of the spires are stark white with gold trim. Others are grey or an earthy light brown. To the south and far below are the countryside vistas; in the distance, the Gulf of Cambay and the Arabian Sea.

I return to the Adinath Temple. Its ceilings, walls, and supporting brackets are covered with carvings of saints, dancers, musicians, and lotus blossoms. It appears the Jains are celebrating our rich life here in this world, the stimulating and rewarding life that surrounds us here on earth.

Around the temples and along the pathways and stairs, it's a joyous, colorful and crowded scene. Men are dressed in white. Women wear their most decorative, special clothing. Waves of cheerful and animated worshippers arrive and depart.

Needless to say, the ride down to Palitana is quicker than the ride up. My dholi men are a well-practiced and well-coordinated eight-legged team. They skip, jog, and trot in tandem as I bounce and glide and bounce and glide down the hundreds of steps. The two-person litters really fly. What a trip! What a "trip."

And it's not yet over. On the streets of Palitana is a boisterous marching band of celebrants. I reckon it's a wedding. I'm not invited but I invade with my camera and everyone smiles.

I am smiling too. This has been a treat of a day, so as a treat to myself, I treat myself to a treat of a dinner at a grand 19th Century palace, the Nilambagh Palace Hotel where the guidebook says "the ambience is regal, with chandeliers and gleaming silver." I chose the enormous outdoor garden restaurant; I leave that setting to your imagination.

The Jains don't leave anything to the imagination. Their religion, customs, iconography -- their world view -- are illustrated and carved with exacting precision and skill. In fact along the way in Gujarat I observed carvers working in a new temple. Now most of us can't carve a bar of soap without working ourselves into an incompetent lather, but these young men using basic hand tools are converting raw red sandstone into intricate and lifelike images.

Gujarat. As a traveler here I am almost alone. No other Western travelers I met in Rajasthan even mentioned this State. In fact, many experienced and knowledgeable Indian travelers have never been here. Pilgrims, yes. Travelers, no.

I know why I came to Gujarat. I wanted to see something different. And that I did.

Since this penultimate stop on my India journey was short and incomplete, I expect to return. I missed the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, the beach scene at Diu, and the exotic tribal villages in Kutch.

Am I devoted? Will I make a future pilgrimage to Junagadh and the Jain and Hindu Temples on holy Girnar Hill?

Palitana is a mere 3500 steps. Girnar Hill, 10,000!

Happy climbing,


* "India." Lonely Planet. 2005

** "India." Dorling Kindersley. 2005

*** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_words (Excerpted below):

"A picture is worth a thousand words is a proverb that refers to the idea that complex stories can be told with just a single still image, or that an image may be more influential than a substantial amount of text.

<blockquote>It also aptly characterizes the goals of visualization where large amounts of data must be absorbed quickly.

It is believed that the modern use of the phrase stems from an article by Fred R. Barnard in the advertising trade journal Printers' Ink, promoting the use of images in advertisements that appeared on the sides of streetcars. The December 8, 1921 issue carries an ad entitled, "One Look is Worth A Thousand Words."

Another ad by Barnard appears in the March 10, 1927 issue with the phrase "One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words," where it is labeled a Chinese proverb. The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases quotes Barnard as saying he called it "a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously." Soon after, the proverb would become popularly attributed to Confucius.

Despite this modern origin of the popular phrase, the sentiment has been expressed by earlier writers. For example the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote (in Fathers and Sons in 1862), "A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound."

The quote is sometimes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who said "Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours "or" A good sketch is better than a long speech". While this is sometimes translated today as "A picture is worth a thousand words," this translation may not predate the phrase's common use in English.


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