Palitana, Guarat, India
The moon is high, as darkness still covers the sky in the early hours of the morning. Silence fills the hillside as hundreds of bodies move in rows toward the top. The Sadhvis (nun’s) white coverings glow off the reflection of the moon. The 3800 stone steps assist us on the 2.5-mile hike to the top, but are cold under the bare foot. With no light yet, I make my way toward the top like the rest going unnoticed as someone different, a tourist perhaps – in their heads. About fifteen minutes into the hike, sounds of drums break the silence as the first procession of the day has begun. I continue my efforts to toward the top.
Palitana. It is considered to be one of the holiest sites for Janas and every devout Jain makes it a life mission to complete this pilgrimage at least once in their life.
Even for one not of this faith can’t avoid the obvious, because at the top of this mountain is a spiritual place; a place of hope and gratitude and forgiveness and regret and love. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth and is near and dear to my heart.
As the sun breaks over the horizon I am left with a quarter of the journey as the colors of India start to pop out of the darkness. It is the first sign of warmth to this cold and windy morning. Soon people will start to notice they are not with someone who is the same as them.
My first trip to Palitana was in 2009 where I was pushed, pulled and yelled at; the trip I had looked forward to for two years was ruined by tears and sadness. Even with the privileged puja, arti and angeet didn’t make up for the way I was treated – not only by people at the bottom and top of the hillside and everywhere in-between, but also the people I was with. Religion is a funny thing. The color of your skin or where you have been born shouldn’t matter, and I am sure it doesn’t to any God who rules any religion; it somehow matters to the earthly being who practice it.
Rituals – intended to be a beautiful process to show respect and express faith and spirituality can bring out the worst in people as yelling and pushing and shoving are a frequent practice, not only here but seen in many temples. I have seen the worst in people at the top of this holy place and it is gut-wrenching to see a religion of such beauty with expression of peace and harmony be defamed by such behavior.
The second trip took to the top, I was told by someone traveling with me to, “sit on this step so we can keep our eye on you until it is time for arti,” as she walked off to continue to do her praying. The need to control a 34-yearold person who is there for the exact same reason is beyond my level of comprehension and will simply never understand. The experience of the second trip was not as the same of the first; I was “allowed” to travel to the top almost alone – with a guide who could not keep up with me. Then I was “allowed” to bath by myself and have fifteen minutes to myself at the main temple to do as I pleased. It was better, but not in my eyes a pilgrimage.
From the moment your feet touch the steps at the base of the hill, you can feel you are about to experience something special – the energy this place carries is outside the limits of comprehension. As I reached the summit, the cold air wisping over my body and into my lungs, my heart felt warm. This was my third trip to the holy site and I had done it alone (well, with a hire help who didn’t speak a word of English my mother-in-law insisted I have with me).
This time a day is reserved for just praying – no puja’s = no pushing. It was electrifying with the hum of prayers in the air. The main temple was candle-lite as the idol of Adinath covered in flowers and jewels glowed in the temple made in his honor. THIS is what makes this place so magnificent! Tears filled my eyes as I completed my prayers and the feeling of peace came over me.
At my own pace, on my own time, I took to walking every inch of the Shatrunjaya Hills as thousands of temples covered the area. As I made my way to an unassuming temple to have a moment of thought and prayer I found two Sadhvis finishing their prayers, one of age and the other had to be younger than I. They glanced at me and moved to my side as the elder motioned me to bow with them. As they finished they prayer they looked at me and asked where I was from and if it were my first time. Pleased with my answers, the younger Sadhvis asked me if I knew Navkar Mantra. With my answer being yes, (that is the first prayer you ever learn) they asked me to say it and after the first round they joined in with me. After we finished the elder spend the next ten minutes helping me recite a prayer I had never heard, but patiently took me through line by line.
Beaming with appeasement from both of them, they took my hand and smiled and said, “American Jain”. It was the very first time since I was taught, understood and accepted the Jain Religion I felt truly accepted.
The behaviors of others at the top of this magnificent place are no longer a matter to me, fore each to their own. I can only hope they find what they are looking for at temples of Shatrunjaya Hills in Palitana. A pilgrimage is a journey in search of spiritual significance and I am blessed for having the Sadhvis gave me that gift.
*Pictures were not taken by me, I did not travel with a camera for this special occasion.