Located in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, the stunningly beautiful Temples of Palitana are an important pilgrimage for the Jains. The temples, or derasars as they are called by Jains, can be accessed after a tiring hike on the Shatrunjay Hills and are a must visit for anyone who loves architecture and culture. These temples are actually a cluster of about 863 temples and they belong to both sects of Jainism - Digambar and Shwetambar.
As I steadily climbed up the temple top, a breathtaking view emerged - temples and temples perched on the hill top and bathed in the golden morning sunlight, with an ever expanding blue lake blurred by the mist still hanging in the air. I could barely hear the chants of prayer and its sound was magical, it was almost like floating in the air and witnessing the events below in slow motion. I even forgot to take pictures, and did that only as an afterthought. I too prayed from the top, some silent words, some half forgotten names, some got lost in the wind, some flowed around.
I didn't anticipate the day to start so beautifully. Last night as I reached the bus stand early, and the bus got delayed, I took this as an ominous sign. More bad luck followed when a jam packed bus drove in, I too pushed in, never really anticipating that I would spend five out of the next six hours standing and without any sleep. Finally when I got a seat at around two am, I decided to skip sleep as my destination was so close. I got down with four more people as the conductor called out PALITANA.
It was about three in the morning and I had no idea of what next. Two fairly young guys (who though I was also a college student) asked me about my destination in the town, and were surprised that I was planning to find one right then! Somehow we got chatting and they offered me a place to stay with them in a Dharamshala, where they had a room booked and enough space for three people. I said an enthusiastic 'yes', in a way happy to have met these two extremely good natured Jains, who were visiting the town for a holy pilgrimage.
Palitana is arguably the holiest pilgrimage center for all Jains. The first Tirthankar, Adinath, was born here. Its also the most expansive, and the most beautiful, this however is my own personal opinion. Palitana is the base town, and the temple complex is about a six kilometer (5000 steps) trek away on Shatrunjay hill. The complex is believed to house about 3500 Shwetambar Jain temples and one Digamber Jain temple. The temple construction is believed to have started about 900 years ago in the 11th Century AD. They are now maintained by various charitable trusts and personal donations.
I started my trek at six in the morning as my new found friends (Ravi and Abhay) slept after watching a movie which I caught a couple of hours' sleep. As the temple complex is so holy, no food or water is allowed there. Preferably eat and drink before you start the trek and you can take your next sip after climbing down only, or perhaps as you walk down after the paying your regards to the Gods. I had missed the dinner the previous night and it was too early to eat anything, so decided to immediately start walking. I regretted this later as I sat hungry in one of the last temples and was forced to come down earlier than I planned due to my thirst.
Sun was still not up and as I walked up witnessed the sunrise with the hills and lake after so many years, it was so beautiful. I had only a few more people walking, many prefer not walking and hence they are carried by others in different contraptions. This is not unusual for many temples in India, perched as they are on hill tops. Its a treacherous walk indeed, I was thoroughly tired and already in need of water by the time I saw the complex from afar. I was re-energised by its sight and carried on with a new found strength. I reached my destination after about two and half hours of walking.
One can go on and on about describing these temples, and many have done that already. I will not do that here, just sharing a few pictures, which do no justice to the unsurpassed beauty of the temples. The most popular set of temples lie in the Hathi pol, which also remain most populated with people almost through the day. Other temples are also equally stunning, and since they remain almost empty, one can spend hours being there absolutely alone.
I climbed most of these temples, and none of the people around took any offense, though none came up with me. To my surprise I saw no other tourist, I was the only one I could see with a camera. Most thought I was a foreigner, or at least an NRI and so answered my weird questions about Gods and their beliefs very patiently.
I walked around for about five hours, and often saw no one but the priests in the temple, who were ever so ready for a quick chat. To my surprise most priests in the Jain temples were actually Hindu Brahmins; I found it quite odd, but for them it was just a way of life. As one of them said, 'Its God after all', and I also vaguely understood.
I finally came down a little after noon, too tired, hungry and thirsty to explore the place anymore. I took gulps of warm bottled water as I walked down, completely worn out by the blazing sun and my empty stomach, yet my hunger gave me the energy to climb down to food and cold water.
Palitana became the first city in the world in 2014 to be legally vegetarian. This makes complete sense as it's a pilgrimage centre for Jains who are strictly vegetarian.
The easiest way to reach would be in your car, or using local transportation bus like I did. Located at a distance of about 200 km from Ahmadabad, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach by road. The closest active airport is Ahmedabad, though even Bhavnagar also has an airport.
Bhavnagar also has a railway station and that's also a convenient way to travel, provided you plan in advance and book your ticket.
Again this is easy. You can either find a Dharmashala (like I did) after reaching the town or book in advance. Both options work out great. There are plenty of places to pick from.
Gujarat Tourism also has a resort here called, Gujarat Hotel Sumeru, and this has some good reviews.