Jain World
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Mahavira's Teachings
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Jainism In Indian History
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Doctrines of Jainism: Part 1
  Doctrines of Jainism: Part 2
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 1
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 2
  Daily Practices and Recitations
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  Pilgrimage and Sacred Places
  Jainism and Other Religions

Pilgrimage and Sacred Places


Paul Marett

SATRUNJAYA is an ancient Jain place of pilgrimage as it was here that the first Tirthankara, Rsabha, as well as his chief follower, is said to have reached moksa. Many hundreds of temples and smaller shrines are contained within the nine walled enclosures. Although most of them are modern, dating for the great part from the nineteenth century, there is a long history to the site and traditional accounts speak of sixteen restorations going back into far antiquity. A new temple of Rsabha replaced the old one in the mid-twelfth century and seven shrines were placed in front of it in 1231 by Vastupala. Some of the temples can trace their origins, if not their present form, back to the tenth century. Unfortunately Satrunjaya suffered much destruction during the Muslim conquests in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but rebuilding took place after 1500 and in 1582 the Emperor Akbar formally conveyed to the Jains the land which they occupied here. Some of the larger temples are truly magnificent with their high sugar loaf shaped domes or spires, a typical feature of Jain temple architecture, whilst the smaller ones have often a simple and impressive intimacy. Temple building has not ceased and a new temple complex constructed in the 1970s can bear comparison with the earlier ones. Rich ornamentation and statuary abound and demonstrate the skill of the stone carvers. From the late seventeenth century Satrunjaya became more and more important. As pilgrims flocked here guide books were written for them, detailing the routes by which the pious pilgrim may visit and pray before the many images. On a certain date every year pilgrims to the number of nearly 20,000 undertake a twelve- mile round trip: the hardship is great but the bliss experienced makes it well worthwhile. For the very hardy a twenty-four mile route can be walked. Special ceremonies are held on a number of dates in the year. Certain prayers, remembrances and rituals are laid down for the pilgrim. Great merit is achieved by the pilgrimage to Satrunjaya, by fasting and worshipping there (or even by the attempt to get there if one does not reach it), greater merit, it is said, than at many of the other great places of Jain pilgrimage.

The places which we have mentioned are all in the northern half of India but south India has its great pilgrimage centers as well. The most famous is SRAVANA BELGOLA, sixty- two miles from Mysore. Here on a hill 470 feet above the plain, and reached by nearly five hundred steps, stands the colossal statue of Bahubali, fifty-seven feet high, twenty- six feet across the shoulders, cut from solid rock around the year 980 A.D., with a surrounding cloister added in 1116. It is the biggest free-standing monolithic statue in the world. Bahubali, or Gommata, was the son of Rsabha, the first Tirthankara. It is said that he stood so deep in meditation that the climbing plants grew over him. The statue represents him nude, evidence of total renunciation of worldly goods, with his limbs entwined by creepers. There are other statues of Bahubali in south India but this is by far the largest and it is a major center of pilgrimage for Jains from north as well as south India. In a Jain temple the consecrated image is ritually bathed every day as part of the worship paid to it. The statue at Sravana Belgola is so huge that this ritual can be carried out only on the feet of the image. At certain intervals however, of between twelve and fifteen years, a great structure of scaffolding is erected and the image is ceremonially showered from pots of water mixed with sandalwood, coconut and sugar. Half a million people attended the ceremony when it was held in 1967. When it was held again in 1981 it had a special significance as marking the thousandth anniversary of the consecration of the statue.

Pilgrimage to sacred places is part of the tradition of practically every religion in the world. The hardships of the journey discipline the body, the company of fellow pilgrims strengthens religious faith. To pray and worship at a site made holy by tradition or consecration or the worship of generations of the faithful, to stand at the place where great religious leaders and saints once stood, all these are inspiring and uplifting. The soul receives merit, the mind receives peace. By different people a pilgrimage will be interpreted differently. Some simple people are content to lose themselves in the awe of the occasion, to follow without taxing thought the rituals and prayers. Others may wish to take a more intellectual view, to dismiss the more miraculous legends, or at least to see them as pious and educative stories, rather than as literal truth. But few indeed can undertake a journey to the sacred places and come away unmoved.

Pilgrimages and temples are a living part of Jain religion, not some moribund tradition of the past. In Leicester, in England, a new temple is being constructed with, for the first time in the Western world, fully consecrated images of the Tirthankara. They will be housed in a splendid carved stone shrine inside the Jain Center. This work is being made possible by the contributions of Jains from all over the world, to provide a focus for pilgrims who will come to pray before the three images of Shantinatha, Parsva and Mahavira, from Britain, from Europe, from India, and indeed from all parts of the world.