The time has come to check out of our comfortable sanctuary in the City of God Hotel, and leave Dui. Early morning at the bus station just outside the city walls is the usual scene: a smoldering garbage fire; a skinny dirty puppy scratches his fleas; a sweeper raises a cloud of dust; the urine from a low broken wall; jangly Bollywood music from somebody’s cell phone. An Indian bus stand is not an attractive place, and this is a tiny one at the end of the line, almost bucolic compared to a larger town. We are on our way to Palitana, and have to change buses in a place called Talaja. When our bus arrives we attack it with the aggressiveness we are accustomed to, and it is almost shocking that we burst in it unimpeded, and it is nearly empty. Not only that, but it is a relatively new bus, and the seats are in pretty good condition. This is a good thing because the road is not.
We average less than thirty kilometers an hour, dodging pot holes and overtaking ox-carts, on the 120 km to Talaja. There is a Palitana bus pulling out as soon as we get to Talaja, and this one is definitely left over from the old fleet. It’s a rivet-popping 40 km to Palitana, with a decibel- level so high it is impossible to talk to each other.
Palitana makes a convenient stop-over on the way back to Ahmedabad, but it also a well known Jain pilgrimage site. The Jain religion was founded at almost the same time as the Buddhists, in the sixth century BC. Jains look to inspiration to a series of Tirthankaras, literally “stream-crossers” who lived exemplary lives and laid down a very detailed body of teachings and precepts. They are strictly vegetarian, and are so averse to the taking of life that some of the more dedicated still sweep the path in front of them, so as to not step on a bug, and wear face masks to avoid inhaling flies. Many Jains belong to the merchant class, and are prominent in banking and the gem industry, so Jain temples are usually well taken care of.
With so much money around, it’s not surprising that the base of Palitana hill is a circus of beggars and touts and “dhoolie” carriers descending on us, even before our auto rickshaw stops. A “dhoolie” is a seat suspended from a stout bamboo pole; basically a simple palaquin carried by two porters up the hill. The dhoolie guys are especially persistent, and keep soliciting as we climb. The staircase is broad and even and packed with people even though it isn’t a special festival or holiday. There are no other foreigners.
Going down we fall into step with a young man, Mukesh, accompanying his friend. Mukesh is fascinated that two people from a distant country would be on the Palitana hill. He is genuinely happy for us, that we would get the blessings for making the pilgrimage to the top. His friend, however, is on a much more serious quest. According to their beliefs, if the hill is climbed seven times in two days, without taking food or drinking water, Mukti, or freedom, is obtained. The temple is only open 6:30am to 7:30pm and our round trip took three hours. That is why people are running down. That is why there are numerous white robed devotees, barely able to walk, supported on the shoulders of friends and family. For Mukesh’s friend, this is the last descent, and although he is obviously exhausted, he is doing well.
It wouldn’t be hard to die of heat stroke undertaking such a grueling challenge and we have seen a number of people lying on the ground in obvious distress. After just one climb, our legs are screaming for days. It seems impossible to me that someone could do this seven times – that is 49,000 steps! But then the important thing, for more than physical conditioning, is to have faith. Read more. images: www.shunya.net.