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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Palitana

The temples of Palitana
The 863 Jain temples of Palitana are perched on the top of a 600m-high hill in the middle of absolutely nowhere

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.

The steps up to the top of Palitana
The slippery steps that lead to the summit, which can be seen on the right

No Pain, No Gain

A statue of a Jain tirthankar
The all-seeing eyes of one of the Jain tirthankars at Palitana

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 now 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.

Three tirthankar statues
Palitana's tirthankars are carved from the smoothest marble
A temple at Palitana
The detail of Palitana's temples is astounding

A Whole Hill of Temples

A row of tirthankar statues
Statues of tirthankars line every nook and cranny at Palitana

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 through their beards and 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 like me, who has arguably overdosed on Indian temples.

A Jain statue of a woman
Jainism's rock women are, in my humble opinion, the best... and evidently the most supple, too
Temples and trees at Palitana
Palitana is very peaceful

Back Down Again

Carved figures on a temple wall
There are thousands of figures carved into the walls of Palitana's 863 temples

The scams weren't over for the day, though. Before long the clouds rolled back in and I rolled back down; on a clear day you might be able to see the sea from Palitana, but all I could see were puddles. 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.

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.