Temples are always placed as high up as possible, the theory being that they are closer to the gods I guess, and possibly the painful climb weeds out the faint of heart, leaving only true believers to reach the top. We have climbed a lot of stairs to temples in our travels. However Palitana might be our biggest challenge yet, with 3400 steps to reach the top.
The impossibly beautiful mountain top Jain temple complex that is Palitana has been on the present site for 1000 years, with new temples continually being added there are over 900 temples in all. It is a very holy site for Jains especially, but the stairs are crowded with all manner of folk.
Jain pilgrims do the climb barefoot, swathed in white cloaks over toga like garments, carrying large staffs. They recite prayers as they tell over their strings of wooden beads and sing hymns as they climb. Once they have reached the top and done their pujas, they run as fast as possible down the steps, no mean feat as we found the descent as bad as the ascent.
We left our hotel shorty after 5 am to reach the bottom of the steps just after 6. We began our climb in the dark, lighted by the almost full moon. The bottom steps were chaotic as people started their climb, and the carriers of “dholis” vied for customers. There are three types of people carriers. The first is a small square woven seat on which you sit cross legged. It is suspended from a single pole carried fore and aft by two men. No way either of us could sit like that for two hours. The second is a folding lawn chair, suspended on each corner by ropes attached to two poles with four men carrying.
The last type is the baby carrier, similar to the old fashioned car beds we had for infants before car seats, suspended from a single pole carried by two women with the pole balanced atop their heads! Since the parents of these children cannot keep up with these sprightly women, the women also entertain the babies at their rest stops.
In retrospect, we should have hired a dholi — we have climbed lots of steps in our time but never have we been carried up. The price seemed fairly steep, though we never bargained to establish one, and they say it goes by weight, but I think that is apocryphal because the fight for customers was so intense, those guys would have taken anyone. The four person dholis were generally hired by extremely fat, and extremely grouchy looking pilgrims — clearly wealth does not make for happiness! The two person ones were generally carrying smaller elderly pilgrims who can apparently sit in the lotus position for hours. Some large cheapskates had hired the small ones and were squashed under the bar looking horribly uncomfortable. Anyway we never seriously considered being carried, though later when the pain in our legs took 4 days to subside, we wondered at the wisdom of our decision.
We started off quickly, trying to escape the melee of pushing and shoving dholi purveyors, but though the stairs were always full of people, we did outdistance the worst of the crush and then began to pace ourselves as the fatigue set in. After about an hour we watched the sun rise, with the moon setting behind us.
It was never dull, we had lots of interesting sights to distract us, the assembled throngs were a varied lot, and very interested in our ascent as we seemed to be the only foreigners in sight. Several young people who spoke English came over to offer their assistance should we be confused by anything. (It was impossible to go wrong, the steps went on and on and on, and up and up and up…) One young woman told us her whole family was doing the climb, more than 30 of them, to celebrate an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. I hope they had clubbed together for a dholi as an anniversary gift!
Unbelievably there was nowhere to buy water and no toilets on the way. There were buckets of water here and there, and many people drank from them, but obviously not us. Luckily we had packed water to be on the safe side, but tried to pace ourselves to avoid needing to use a non-existent toilet. It took us nearly 3 hours to reach the top, though our guidebook thinks 1 1/2 to 2 should be adequate. Maybe 15 years ago when we were in India before…
Finally our goal was close. Incredibly beautiful white spires rose from the top of the mountain, with small flags fluttering on the tops — like a sort of Disney vision of Camelot really. The fortified castle wall gave a clue as to why these temples have withstood waves of invaders. We allowed ourselves to be convinced to enter from a path that had 100 additional steps but would yield a view of 180 images according to an enthusiastic young man who accosted us. Well if you’ve seen one Jain image you’ve basically seen them all — they look like slim Buddhas with very eerie glittering eyes, always white marble except when they’re black marble, and anointed with daubs of gold on their heads, ears, chests, etc. The life of the originator of Jainism is an exact parallel with that of Buddha, one major difference being that he sported a neatly trimmed black beard throughout his progress from riches to the ascetic life. However that grouping of temples was quite peaceful with not so many pilgrims having chosen the 100 extra steps.
We wandered around the complex for over 2 hours, there are so many “tunks” or enclosures with one main temple at the centre and several subsidiary temples around the sides that you could be up there all day. The whole complex is arranged over several hillsides, so we were up and down stairs and through gates, lost most of the time, but enjoying the vistas and the religious rites.
Finally entering the largest one, the Adinath, we were amidst a crush of Jain adherents, garbed in fabulously embroidered silk saris (the women) or cloth of gold dhoti-like pants with gold silk shawls tied over their bare shoulders (the men). Now the reason why many of the dholis were carrying up large bags became apparent. People climbed in their ordinary clothes, but when they reached this temple, they entered a large building with lockers and changing rooms where they changed into all their finery complete with (for both sexes) satin handbags. Jains wear face masks to prevent sucking in bugs (and thereby killing them) and the true pilgrims wield whisks to sweep the path in front. No animal products can be worn, including watch straps — it goes without saying at this point that photos are not allowed.
There were a number of puja ceremonies taking place in a variety of side temples, well attended by the devotees, but the one in the main temple was clearly the premiere event. Different coloured tickets were handed out designating the time at which you needed to join the queue behind a formidable brass fence — one side for men, the other for women as usual. People with the correct ticket were allowed in in batches, very unusually well organized but still a busy scene. When entering the puja space, the adherents pulled their bandit like face masks up over their noses, and the women raised the ends of their saris to cover their hair. What happened inside we do not know, as we were not about to wait hours in line, but I think it involved the usual smoke and fire.
At this point we realized how tired we were, and started the descent. Dholis were still trying to cajole us to be carried, but foolishly we did not agree. The descent was much more painful than the ascent. By the time we reached 100 steps from the bottom I was seriously unsure of whether I would make it. But make it we did, found our taxi and let him whisk us the 90 minute return journey. What had been a relatively tranquil and quick journey in the dark was the usual traffic chaos and blaring horns on the return. We got back about 10 hours after we left, and still had not had a chance to pee. Amazing how convenient dehydration can be in a situation like that!