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Among Jain Pilgrims

Palitana Temples

A row of chai and tiffin stalls heralded the beginning of the trek. The vendors here willing to put up with more competition and forgo the difficulties associated with setting up further along the route. Not that the distance is great, but it is a hard climb; a 600 metre ascent from the stalls, over two kilometres and more than three thousand steps.

Like many others, I had started at dawn to avoid the heat of the Gujarat day. Our destination was Shatrunjaya, a hilltop temple complex and one of Jainism's holiest sites. Pilgrims from all over India make their way here in order to pay homage to their Gods and so improve their lives’ quality and prospects. I am not a Jain so had my own reasons. India for me is a place of mystery and fascination. I wanted to understand it and its people better. With religion so predominant, that for me involves the observation of people at worship. And the architecture. As in other cultures the places of worship here represent the zenith of architectural endeavour and artistic expression. I understood the temples of Shatrunjaya to be exquisitely beautiful.

I suppose I am a child of my own culture; whereas austerity is a central theme of Jainism, I am of the ‘more is more’ school. I wanted not only the experience, but to capture it also. To bottle some of it and take it home with me. My own discomfort was therefore considerably amplified by my taking over 10 kgs of large format camera gear.

The walk took on the mantle of a penance. Or an offering. Certainly, over the 900 years of Shatrunjaya’s existence the technology and money required to construct a road must have co-existed at one time. What seems to have been lacking is the will. Perhaps the effort acquired in reaching the site has the effect of adding value to the experience. Human sweat as a libation.

A steady procession made the walk, each of us establishing our own rhythm over the steps. I was struck by the variety of those there; young, old, rich and poor. All equal before their Gods (the caste system has no place in Jainism), less so on the path leading to their temples. Those that could afford it opted for dooli swing chairs each carried by just two bearers. The build of these bearers was often in marked contrast to that of their passengers; four pencil-thin legs entrusted to deliver a frame liberally enfolded by fat. At intervals along the way these exhausted dooli wallahs could be seen attempting to recover themselves in the shade of a sympathetic tree while their passenger took refreshment, as if it were they who was expending the energy.

The usual lack of correlation between need and ability to pay could be observed. One obese woman was clearly suffering as she climbed with always the same foot landing on the next step. There it would wait patiently until joined by its counterpart, before setting off to explore the next. Her effort underlined the importance of her mission.

White-robed priests with shaven heads made their way up among the others; their role as temple guardians imbuing them with an air of equanimity and purpose. Young men charged up less in a hurry than of the desire to beat their contemporaries. Families made their way, children oscillating around the more measured approach of parents. It was a scene observed from the sides by some of India’s ubiquitous beggars, their comparative abundance serving as evidence that there is nothing like a religious pilgrimage to bolster largess.

The heat of the day had set in as I approached the temples. By this time my camera had seemingly doubled its weight as a reaction to the greater altitude. I hoped that its carriage was not to be in vain. Doubts that I may have had evaporated as I walked through the gate and into the complex. It covered a vast area and consisted of several very large temples surrounded by smaller ancillary temples. Beautifully proportioned buildings covered in elaborate figurative carvings. People swarmed in going about the business of worship. After checking in my footwear, I entered the grounds proper and spent some hours aimlessly wandering. I entered the large temples which were at times a crush of people. I walked on a roof from which I looked down into a sanctum full of worshipers in the throws of religious exultation. At other times I found myself alone in the quiet temples on the periphery and observed devotees make offerings or at prayer at one of these smaller ante-temples. I was cheered to see the obese woman; she had made it.

I got my photo. It was of a queue of women sitting in front of one of the large temples awaiting their turn to enter the inner sanctum. Now, years later, I see those women in a way I didn’t then. Then they were elements in a picture, now I see them as devotees seeking communion with their God. They are not sitting there in idle chat but each is withdrawn into her own world; eyes closed, hands clasped, beads clutched.

There is one exception.

From the edge of frame she looks at me and my camera. What does she see? Another westerner not content merely to experience but who must also acquire.


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