No photograph, however powerful, can capture the essence of Palitana. Because antiquity, myth and a sense of spirituality are what imbue this lonely hilltop with an intangible dimension, quite apart from the visual.
Of the 24 tirthankars (apostles) of Jainism, 22 are said to have attained spiritual awakening on the hill of Shatrunjay, a 2.3 kilometre climb from the quaint little town of Palitana which echoes to the rattle of horse drawn carts.
In Jainism, time is measured not by centuries or even millennia, but by eras, each being equivalent to 25,000 years. Palitana’s spiritual importance is several eras old, predating even the lifetime of Lord Adinath, the first of the 24 apostles. From then onwards, there was no more pre-eminent site in the world to build Jain temples; no more sacred spot for pilgrimage.
The 863 temples that cover the hilltop today are comparatively new — the oldest being 900 years old, and the newest, mere 150. But they are a link with the past which spans several hundreds of thousands of years.
Nobody lives on the hill of Shatrunjay. Indeed, there are no living quarters atop the hill. The faithful, the priest and the temple helpers, all make the arduous climb up the stone steps cut into the hillside, early each morning, an hour before daybreak to arrive at the top in time for the opening of the immense gates that lock out the outside world. At this time of the morning, low clouds commonly swirl around the top of tile hill, obscuring the spires of the temples, then parting suddenly to reveal ornately carved secrets.
The hilltop’s 863 temples, enclosed in a gigantic stone wall, fall into nine enclosures, each bearing the name of its principal benefactor. Not all enclosures are of the same size: the largest occupies the whole of the southern hill, while the smallest enclosure has two temples in it. The temples themselves differ vastly in size and importance. Some have sprawling circumambulatory corridors and soaring spires all made of marble. The tiniest temples are just large enough for one idol.
Spread over the temples are several tens of thousands of images of the tirthankars, each one identical to the other except for a tiny carved cognizance at the base of each statue. The tirthankars are literally those who point to the truth, after themselves crossing over to the path of enlightenment. Usually made of marble, the seated figures have prominent eyes fashioned out of mirror and black glass to emphasize the fact that they are all-seeing.
All through the day pilgrims, white-clad nuns and priests wearing yellow and red clothes throng the temples, paying homage, chanting hymns of praise, and ceremonially purifying the images. The silence is only broken by the occasional low-voiced chant and the flocks of pigeons that fly from perch to shady uphill, the temples are only visited by the devout, ensuring that the eternal silence remains undisturbed.
Palitana is 53 kilometres from Bhavnagar and is approachable from there by bus or taxi. Gujarat Tourism has a pleasant, inexpensive hotel in Palitana. Besides this there are two privately run hotels, and several dozen charitable institutions run lodgings primarily for pilgrims, which may also be open to people of other faiths. These range from the very spartan to fairly luxurious ones. Because of their nature, they cannot solicit money from those who stay in them, but it is in the general scheme of things that one makes discreet enquiries about how much donation is the norm, and hands it over to the office that adjoins each dharamshala as these institutions are called. The most spartan ones usually accept Rs. 30, and the most luxurious, ten times that. Meals (only vegetarian) can be had from the innumerable eating places that line the side of the road.
The climb up to the hill of Shatrunjay is 2.3 kilometres steeply uphill. It usually takes one and a half hours, and all but the very old or infirm do it on foot. Palanquins are available for the disabled and the lazy. Food and cigarettes are not allowed up the hill, the whole of which is considered sacred. Water is available all along the way as well as at the temples. Curd is sold at the entrance gate, as it has been for at least one century. The temples are open from 6 am to 6 pm. Most pilgrims try to arrive at the temples by 8 am to avoid the hottest part of the day. Even the fastest sight-seeing will not be less than two hours.