Article: Jain holy places

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Religious teachers

Sacred footprints in Bhadrabāhu’s Cave on Candra-giri at the pilgrimage site of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. These footprints – caraṇa – are considered to be those of the 3rd-century sage Bhadrabāhu, who fasted to death at Shravana Belgola

Bhadrabāhu’s sacred footprints
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC BY-SA 2.5

A place that is traditionally associated with the birth or liberation of a religious teacher is also considered holy and often develops into a pilgrimage site. There are examples of this phenomenon for both teachers in the distant past and more recent ones. Their presence takes material form in items such as footprints – pādukāshrines or memorials of any kind.

Ponnur Hill, in Tamil Nadu, is the place where the early Digambara teacher and author Kundakunda is said to have reached liberation. Footprints have been carved in the rock and are worshipped.

Several Jain temples are found in Ladnun in Rajasthan. It has become a specially sacred place for Terāpanthin Jains in the 20th century because it is the birthplace of Ācārya Tulsī, eighth leader of the sect, who was chief monk for over 60 years.

About 20 kilometres from Delhi is the 'Vallabh Smarak' or Memorial to Ācārya Vijayavallabha-sūri. It has become a sacred place, and a temple enclosure has been built there.

Jina images

Several holy places are associated with the local image of a Jina. This link is often clear in their names, such as Sankheshwar-Parshvanath, Phalodi-Parshvanath and Jiravala-Parshvanath, which are all connected to the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

Such images are considered holy because of their miraculous powers and the often extraordinary circumstances in which they were discovered or, rather, rediscovered. The stories of rediscovery underline that the statues had been there for a long time but were buried in the ground, at the foot of a tree and so on. The idol's presence was revealed through the dream of a follower, the spontaneous lactation of a cow or other such phenomenon. When the image was found, it was ritually installed and became the focus of a holy place where the whole community came to worship. This type of account is found especially among the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak Jains. An example is Jinaprabha-sūri's collection, Vividhatīrtha-kalpa, which dates back to the 14th century. These tales may refer indirectly to historical events or, at least, the adventures of old Jina statues that survived the Muslim destruction of religious images during the medieval period.

Local gods

Replica image of Nākoḍā Bhairava in Prakrit Bharati Academy in Jaipur, Rajasthan. This figure is decorated with flower offerings. Nākoḍā Bhairava is a very popular protective god in the Śvetāmbara Pārśvanātha temple in Nākoḍā, Rajasthan.

Nākoḍā Bhairava
Image by Knut Aukland © Knut Aukland

Some of the Jain holy places are considered sacred because of their association with figures that are neither Jinas nor religious teachers. Strictly speaking, Jains do not worship deities. Jinas are neither gods nor able to interfere in worldly affairs because they have attained liberation – believers honour their examples in worship. However, offerings are frequently made to the Jinas' spiritual attendants, the yakṣa and yakṣī, who can play a part in human lives. Many Jains also make offerings to Hindu gods such as Gaṇeśa or Śrī. The increasingly popularity of Jain pilgrimages to places that are not associated with Jain religious tradition is awakening the interest of anthropologists as it shows original combinations of mainstream Jainism and other trends.

There are two good examples of this phenomenon. For centuries Nākoḍā in Rajasthan has been associated with a black idol of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, which was rediscovered and established in the temple in the 15th century. Over time the popularity of this site faded until it was revived through the efforts of a Jain nun at the beginning of the 20th century. It has now regained some of its former eminence thanks to its focus on the cult of the Nākoḍā Bhairava. This is a local image of Bhairava, who is a manifestation of Śiva. Recent ethnography shows that pilgrimage to Nākoḍā tends to be concentrated on this deity rather than on the Jina directly.

Similarly, Mahuḍī in Gujarat is a Jain tīrtha entirely dedicated to a god of a peculiar kind. Ghaṇṭākarṇ Mahāvīr is a 'muscular, moustachioed male deity worshiped by Jains as a fellow Jain who can assist them within the worldly realm of wellbeing' (Cort 2001: 165).

Visitors to such holy places form less homogeneous groups than pilgrims to traditional Jain tīrthas. The visitors may not be religious or even Jain at all. This is probably because these cults are essentially about worldly values. Jain pilgrimage sites of long standing usually focus on spiritual improvement.

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