So you want to build a temple? That makes sense. So you want people to come to your temple? That makes sense too. So you find a hill towering 600m above the dry scrubland of the Gujarat peninsula and stick your temple right on the top in the most inaccessible point of all, and then you build a 3000-step staircase for your flock to climb? On the surface, that appears to make no sense at all, but if you look at the world through the eyes of the Jains, it all starts to fall into place.
Jains in India number about 4.5 million, which is relatively small when you consider that the religion originated here at about the same time as Buddhism (500 BC). But take a trip to Palitana and you'd never know that Jainism is one of India's minor religions, because the sheer scale of achievement on top of this hill is staggering.
If you think that intentionally building your temples in the middle of nowhere is a strange thing to do, then it would appear to be bordering on the insane to build a whole hilltop of 863 intricate temples in such a faraway place, but that's precisely what the Jains did at Palitana, where the Place of Victory stands atop a huge hill in the plains. They did a similar job again at Junagadh, also in Gujarat, where there are 10,000 steps and even more temples, but Palitana was on my way south from Bhavnagar to Diu, so I decided to see for myself what drove these people to create so many temples in such an inaccessible location.
These were my thoughts as I dumped my bags and took a rickshaw out to the base of the steps, and whatever I was thinking about the Jains and their amazing architectural extremes, it seems their gods1 may have been listening. From the second I stepped into the rickshaw to my arrival at the temple complex, I'm convinced they did everything in their power to dissuade me from getting there, though perhaps they were simply demonstrating their belief that you have to put in the effort to get close to enlightenment. Whatever, as I headed out towards the hill of temples, it felt as if they were in control rather than me...
No Pain, No Gain
It started with the rain, a severe tropical downpour that flooded the streets, shot sideways into the rickshaw cab and soaked me to the skin. It stopped as I arrived, but the stone steps leading up to the temples (which are too far away to be seen from the bottom) were like a skating rink. In an attempt not to offend the Jain religion I had left all my leather items behind, so I had no sun hat and no leather boots, just my umbrella and a pair of flimsy flip-flops. My flip-flops had absolutely no grip, especially on wet marble, which only helped to add to the fun.
Then the wind got up and decided to have a go. I barely managed to put down my umbrella in time as the few hardy trees lining the staircase bent double, clouds flew across the sky like impatient commuters on the motorway, and flicks of rain stung my eyes. Five minutes up the track and I had a throbbing headache from the wind battering my undefended ears.
As if these elemental displays weren't enough, just before the halfway mark I felt a familiar stirring in my lower gut: diarrhoea. It would turn out to be a mild bout, lasting for only the rest of that day, but I couldn't quite believe the timing: things were beginning to get worryingly difficult. I idly wondered what else the tirthankars would demand. Blood, perhaps?
They got blood soon after my guts had started jumping about. Turning to wave at a friendly family who were sitting on the side of the stairs taking a break, I managed to stub my big toe on a marble step. The hard stone ripped a sizable hole in the end of my toe, stinging enough to elicit the mad hopping effect more normally associated with painful bangs to the head, and when the throbbing had subsided to a bearable level I saw that it was pretty nasty: a flap of skin hung loosely over a round hole, and it really hurt... and this in flip-flops, too, where all manner of grot and grime could infect the wound. I vowed to go on: smiling through adversity is a good trait in every religion, and I decided to show the tirthankars that I was worthy.
On the way I passed plenty of other struggling pilgrims2, but they all seemed to be going downhill. Most sensible people make the ascent in the morning before the heat of the midday sun, but my schedule had seen me on a bus all morning, and I'd set off just after lunch. Those coming down, apart from saying, 'You too late, very hot,' all the time, were delightful, and most of them were only too happy to say hello and pass the time of day. One guy pressed Rs1.25 into my hand as he passed and said, 'For the temple, give to temple,' (which, of course, I did) and another waved me down for a rest and a pidgin chat. His English was as limited as his enthusiasm was unbounded.
'Nem?' he inquired.
'My name's Mark. What's yours?'
'Uh,' he grunted.
'Oh. Have you been visiting the temple?'
'So, is it worth the climb?'
'Um, I think I think I'll be going up, then.'
His fluency was comparatively good. Most of the kids greeted me with an enthusiastic 'Bye-bye', much as they'd done in Mandu, while one came out with the wonderful 'Hello-bye' and others struggled through to ask, 'Country name?' But the friendliness of the Gujarati Jains shone through, and eventually I reached the top, intrigued to see what it was these kind people were worshipping.
A Whole Hill of Temples
It was worth the struggle. Jain temples are smothered with carvings in much the same way as Hindu temples, but they're quite different on closer investigation. Hindu stone carvings of women are interesting, but the Jains make them so voluptuous they manage to convey the eroticism of Konark's Sun Temple without any need for biological diagrams. Stone people play ancient guitars while old kings grimace in beards, the prophets look passively happy (much like the Buddha) and the sheer impact of having so many temples crammed together in one place makes it a fascinating place to wander round, even for someone who has arguably overdosed on Indian temples.
The best part about Jain temples are the idols. Sitting in the lotus position and variously smiling enigmatically or meditating heavily, Jain idols look fairly Buddhist but have one very striking feature: their eyes are made of clear and black glass that catches any stray light, making the dark interiors of the temples glow with eerie pairs of lights suspended in the black. It's like something out of Scooby Doo, especially with all the bats that inhabit the dark recesses of every Indian temple. My lonely trek through the temples on the Place of Victory was really quite spooky at times.
However, the worst part about any temple is the ever-present charge-for-camera-and-shoes scam, and unfortunately Palitana is no exception. I have no objection to paying for entry into a temple, and I have no objection to paying someone to guard my shoes while I'm inside and barefoot, but at Palitana the people in charge of payment were such shifty characters that it felt wrong to hand over the money to them rather than into a locked donations box. I strolled up to pay for a ticket and you could tell they were going to try for more than just the Rs25 entrance fee: four fat men sat behind protective desks, exuding an attitude of 'I'm in charge and if I can't be bothered to let you in there's nothing you can do about it', and they instantly tried to squeeze things out of me.
'You smoke?' said the man with the shiniest moustache.
'No,' I said, knowing full well he was after a cigarette and knowing full well that even if I had some, which I didn't, he wasn't going to get one. 'Smoking is injurious to health,' I continued, quoting the Indian government health warning stamped on every packet. 'Do you smoke?'
'Yes,' he said.
'Then you will die young,' I said, smiling facetiously. 'Can I have a camera permit, please?'
'You have coins?' he tried.
'It's 25 rupees for the permit,' I said, 'and I'll give you one hundred. You give me 75 rupees change. No coins necessary. Here you go, 100 rupees.'
Seeing this, he uttered the war cry of every shop owner in India, irrespective of the status of their top pockets: 'No change.'
'Then I guess there is no money for you,' I said and turned for the door, which immediately produced the expected result and the expected change. 'Thanks,' I said. 'Where is the donations box?' I asked, and they produced it for me to put the kind pilgrim's coins in, grumbling at me as if it was a major effort to reach behind the desk for the box.
'Honestly,' I muttered to myself as I stomped out of the office, 'so much for a friendly welcome.' Though perhaps this criticism of the impious placated the Jain prophets because the sun broke through the clouds long enough for me to explore the main enclosure and get my money's worth. It was amazing.
Back Down Again
The scams weren't over for the day, though. Before long the clouds rolled back in and I rolled back down, reflecting that on a clear day you can see the sea from Palitana, but all I could see were puddles reflecting. It wasn't unpleasant though, and I took a slow horse cart back to the hotel for Rs20, handing over a pretty tatty Rs20 note at the end and wandering off.
'No good,' tapped a voice on my shoulder, and turning round I saw a young man holding out my battered Rs20 note; the old man who owned the tonga had obviously sent his young sidekick after me to get a better note. It's a common problem in India: notes become disgusting fairly quickly and hardly ever see the inside of a bank to get replaced, and if a note's particularly lacerated you'll have grave problems getting rid of it. Funnily enough you can have the most leprous note that nobody will accept, but put it inside a clear plastic sheath and staple it shut, and it's fine. My Rs20 note was having more problems holding itself together than Michael Jackson, but I wasn't in the mood for an argument, so I just said, 'OK then,' grabbed my note back with a smile, ducked under a horse's head and sauntered off into the bus station to check some bus times.
That worked. Seeing your hard-earned cash disappearing into the crowd is enough to motivate even the most relaxed rickshaw driver, and sure enough the man came running after me shouting, 'OK, OK, OK,' and accepted the money. It felt great to win for once, especially in a place like Palitana, which, the Place of Victory aside, is a depressing place that deserves no more mention in this travelogue.
I'll also gloss over the journey from Palitana to Diu because this is supposed to be a family show and unnecessary swearing simply isn't required. Unlike on the journey itself...
1 Actually, Jainism doesn't have deities, rather 24 prophets (known as tirthankars) who formulated a religious philosophy as opposed to a theistic system of belief. Jain temples may look quite similar to those of the Hindus, but the Jain religion is far closer to Buddhism. The statues of the tirthankars dotted round India are like huge standing Buddhas (but with more obvious bodily parts), while the temples are lively and as crammed with carvings as Hindu shrines. It's an interesting variation on the theme.
2 And plenty of pilgrims being carried down in pure comfort, sitting in dooli swing chairs lugged around by wiry men. Interestingly most of the people in doolis were fat, and I idly wondered whether the merit gained by a visit to the temples would be cancelled out if you paid someone else to carry you there and back. I rather hoped so, as I sweated my way up the marble slide.