Article: Jain holy places

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Mythical sacred places

Kailāśā Parvata or Mount Kailash is a mountain in the Himalayas often thought to be the earthly version of Mount Aṣṭāpada. Aṣṭāpada is the mythical place where the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, reached liberation. It is extremely holy

Mount Kailash
Image by reurinkjan © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Two places are considered holy by the Jains but are not part of ordinary geography.

  • Aṣṭāpada
  • Nandīśvara-dvīpa.

The former is the legendary mountain where the first Jina Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha reached liberation. It is often identified with Mount Kailāsa in the Himālayas.

The second cannot be located on maps of India either, since it belongs in the category of cosmography. According to traditional cosmological theories, it is a continent in the human world but inaccessible to humans. Considered a holy place because it is a centre of worship, Nandīśvara-dvīpa has 52 temples in which the gods worship the Jinas.

Since these two holy places are vital parts of Jain sacred geography, they are treated on a par with other sacred places in literary descriptions. From the 12th century onwards, they appear in the visual arts as three-dimensional models or sculpted on temple walls.

Holy places in writing and song

One of the holiest of Śvetāmbara pilgrimage sites, Mount Shatrunjaya has nearly a thousand temples. This temple-city outside the town of Palitana in Gujarat has a special connection with Ṛṣabha. The first Jina is worshipped in the main Adishvar Temple.

Temples at Mount Shatrunjaya
Image by JAINA © public domain

Like Jinas and religious teachers, a Jain sacred place draws homage, devotion and praise from believers. Writings about holy places are seldom neutral and purely descriptive, as guidebooks usually are. Even the numerous booklets about individual sacred places published today do not just describe the physical place. Descriptions usually narrate all the legendary events or signs that create the meaning and sanctity of a holy place.

Texts about holy places can be grouped in three main ways:

  • lists in verses
  • kalpas and māhātmyas
  • hymns of praise to sacred places or to a particular Jina image associated with a holy place.

Lists of holy places in longer poems are known as tīrtha-mālās – 'garland of sacred places'. They show the expansion of Jain sacred geography in the accumulation of names. Some refer to well-known places while others are no more than names, often difficult to identify and locate.

The second group of texts – kalpas and māhātmyas – may be in either prose or verse and is a skilful cross of descriptions and legends. The most famous kalpa is the Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa or Pieces on Various Sacred Places, written in the 14th century by Jinaprabha-sūri, a Śvetāmbara monk belonging to the Kharatara-gaccha. The holy places Jinaprabha treats are primarily in western and northern India, though there are also a few in south India. The text includes sometimes detailed topographical descriptions, legends of the origin of the holy places and lists of the mythical events that took place there. It also notes disturbances that affected sacred places and religious images in the author’s time. The ruler of India at the time of writing was the Muslim Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, whose 26-year reign was tumultuous and unsettled.

Māhātmyas celebrate the greatness of a holy place through associated legends, its various names and so on. Many of the māhātmyas are dedicated to Shatrunjaya, assuredly the paramount holy place for Śvetāmbaras.

The devotional songs referring to holy places either extol a place itself or the particular Jina image associated with it. The hymns are chanted on pilgrimages to these places or when models and paintings of the places are seen on daily visits to the temple.

Sacred places in visual art

This paṭa or cloth wall-hanging shows eight major pilgrimage centres and their associated events. In the centre is the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, in Pāvāpurī, where he was liberated. The other major Jinas are also represented, as are the pilgrims who visit.

Worlds of gods and saviours
Image by San Diego Museum of Art © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Holy places are thought of the proper destination of Jain pilgrimages. The most famous, especially those favoured by the Śvetāmbara sect, are a commonplace sight in many temples. They usually take the form of:

  • bas-reliefs or sculptures on temple walls
  • metal plaques or panels
  • cloth-hangings on temple walls called paṭas
  • mural paintings from all periods, including contemporary, in Śvetāmbara or Digambara temples.

Girnar, Shatrunjaya and Sammet Shikar are among those most frequently represented. But there are also paṭas featuring all sorts of holy places (Treasures of Jaina Bhaṇḍāras: 42).

The murals and cloth-hangings in particular are often detailed topographical maps showing all the sacred spots of a site, complete with captions. Still being created today by local artists, these pieces of art became more frequently made from the 17th century onwards.

One instance of relief carving is in a temple at Ranakpur, showing a combined representation of the temple-cities of Shatrunjaya and Girnar. It has stylised carvings of temples, standing Jinas, chariots and ponds. The peaceful atmosphere is symbolised by a snake and a peacock, which are normally natural enemies (Jain and Fischer 1978: plate XXXIb).

Depicting pilgrimage destinations is a way of guaranteeing the presence of these holy sites at all times and for all followers. On their regular visits to the local temple, worshippers perform a circumambulation. During this ritual walk around the sacred ground of the temple, they look at all the religious objects illustrated there. Mentally, they are transported to these sacred places by the sight of paintings or hangings of them (Jain and Fischer 1978: plate XXXIIa).

Importantly, the artworks are also surrogates for the physical journey of pilgrimage. All prescriptive texts consider this possibility for people who are ill, old or do not have the chance of taking a trip to distant places. In addition, pilgrimages are forbidden – or at least not encouraged – during the rainy season, for practical as well as religious reasons.

These paintings and hangings are also used during rituals or religious commemorations connected with these sacred places. Lay people sit in the temple hall and listen to the sermon of a mendicant, who shows the various holy spots linked to a given legend (Granoff, Victorious Ones: 276–281; Van Alphen: 128, figure 54 and pages 128 to 131; Hawon Ku 2007).

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