an unexpected Jain pilgrimage

Through a fellow traveller who was on couch-surfing, we met a couple of Kolkatan university students. They were Jains and invited us to accompany them on a pilgrimage to Shikharji a pilgrimage town at some mountains near Giridih, some 600 or so km from Kolkata. Though a major Jain holy site, the town and temples were not listed in any guide-books and hence not known to any foreign tourists. It seemed too good an opportunity to pass up and as they were leaving that very weekend, it meant that having decided we didnt want to backtrack so early in our journey, we had to cut our stay in Kolkata short.

From what i’ve read on various on-line sites, Jainism has no founder but can trace its history through 24 tirthankars (humans who have achieved mokshe or liberation). The last tirthankar, Mahavir, was alive roughly around the same time as Buddha although there are differing opinions as to whether he was alive earlier or later. From the little I know, there seem to be quite a lot of similarities between Jainism and Buddhism – both emphasize non-violence, personal paths to mokshe independent of caste and from the little reading i have done, both have very detailed writings on the nature of thought and non-self. Jains are also much stricter vegetarians and do not consume eggs. In the pilgrim hostel in which we stayed and ate, nothing that grew under the soil was served for fear of killing the small insects that dwell there – so potatoes were a no-no.

The pilgrim hostel was huge with what seemed like hundreds of rooms. From the complex which had a one-time charge of 60 rupee for a room and all meals regardless of the length of time we stayed, it was obvious that the Jain society did not lack for money. Of course, most pilgrims donated more as they left (as we did) but we also witnessed a rite where pilgrims made bids to be the first to do ‘arti’, that is carry a tray on which a small oil fire burned. The bids we were told could run up into lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of rupee and during the busy season several artis could take place in one day. This is on top of the bequests and donations, the names of donors indicated on every structure from ceilings to walls to doors.

The Jain temples we went to were minimally decorated and predominantly white with white marble being the main material used for the interior. The images of the Jain tirtankars were also predominantly made of white marble with the open eyes vividly coloured and decorated with gemstones, designed such that they floated a few milimetres from the sockets so that they stood out in stark relief against the otherwise stark white body. The images with none of the usual signifiers of Buddhism were at once more human and less so than traditional Buddha images. Most of the temples had images of more than one tirtankar, one of them usually depicted in black sitting in lotus position under a crown of snakes.

Interestingly enough while Jainism is a distinct and seperate religion from Hinduism, there was also a Ganesh image in one of the Jain temples and the mountain itself has a protector and patron god who is not a Jain tirtankar, Bhomiyaji Maharaj. Bhomiyaji Maharaj had his own temple which while not as large as the other Jain temples, was still heavily attended and at which all pilgrims stopped before making the climb up the mountains and at which everyone gave thanks to after completing the trip. It was widely believed that without prayers and offerings to Bhomiyaji, one’s trip up the mountain would not succeed. The images for Bhomiyaji Maharaj were protrusions of a rock-like substance that had mystically protruded from the earth and around which the temple was built. Altars were constructed around the images and the images were rubbed with sandalwood oil, decorated with gold and painted with features to clearly show where human features should be discerned.

Entering the Jain and Bhomiyaji Maharaj temples made me realise how long it has been since i’ve encountered a completely new religion and its associated imagery. It made me remember the first time i went into a chinese temple when i was very young and how other-wordly the temple felt. The Jain temple and pilgrim precint certainly felt otherworldly, the almost androgynous marble tirthankar images sitting in lotus positions represented a rich belief system that i had no understanding of. The physical symbols used were not just limited to tirthankar images. I saw in a couple of temples representative trees (under which Mahavir gained enlightenment) and also concentric circles meant to represent the entire world and all its creatures, gods and humans. There were no images within the mountain temples, only carved stylised footprints around which the worshipers gathered. The reason for this, we were told, was that up in the temples being the actual sites at which the tirthankars achieved mokshe (or enlightenment), their presence still remained and hence there was no need for images, the tirthankars being actually present in some form still.

The trek to the temple mountains was long if not arduous – the path was concreted and had numerous parts lined with shady stalls selling masala lemonade and snacks. The round trip was around 27 kilometres and involved some steep climbs. We were told that successfully completing the trip and visiting each of the four main temples meant that one’s sins from the last seven lifes were completely washed away. Because of this, at parts, the path was packed with pilgrims of all ages, climbing cheerfully and welcoming each other at the temples with a phrase that translated roughly into “you’ve arrived.”

Those pilgrims who were too infirm, young or old to climb and who could afford it could hire bearers to carry them up the hill in chairs. The cost roughly worked out to 200 rupees per bearer – there was a choice between a two bearer seat which hung hammock style from a long staff in which one sat cross-legged and did not at all look comfortable or a far grander looking chair that required four bearers. The bearers were in the main much smaller and thinner than the pilgrims they bore and each carried metal shod walking sticks which hit the concrete in time as they pushed up along the path.

Those pilgrims who could not make the trip or afford the bearers could opt to walk through a replica of the mountains that could be found in a couple of temples at the town – although meant to be as spiritually efficacious as making the whole journey, i did not see anyone doing that and while walking along the path, i could see why not. After the pollution of Kolkata, it was great to walk through green mountain scrub, look out at the surrounding landscape and exert oneself.

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