Article: Jain holy places

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

In principle Jain holy places are sacred for all the Jains. In practice, some places are definitely of more importance to Śvetāmbaras than to Digambaras and vice versa, and these are managed by institutions affiliated to one sect or the other. History and contemporary information provide evidence of competition and quarrels between the sects over the management of individual sites. This is because a sacred place is an expression of a community’s presence and therefore a political issue.

A sacred place is known as a tīrtha. This Sanskrit word, used in modern languages as well, originally meant a ford across a river or a flight of steps used to descend into water. It then came to mean a holy place because of the purifying character of water. In Hinduism many sacred places are connected with water and rivers. Jains, however, reject any definition of purity as an external thing, linked to water or bathing. So they have redefined the concept of a holy place, as they have done with many other Indian notions. Instead, Jains highlight the spiritual meaning of the word – a tīrtha is any place that has become holy because of its association with Jinas or Jain values. The tops of hills or mountains are often holy places to Jains and therefore frequently pilgrimage destinations. The main attraction of these places is sometimes a unique statue, more often a temple or, in many cases, clusters of temples. Several prominent Jain tīrthas, such as Mount Śatruñjaya – more commonly known as Shatrunjaya or Mount Shatrunjaya – have so many temples they are effectively temple-cities.

A Jain mendicant is often said to be a 'moving tirth' – jangama-tīrtha. This is the only type of tīrtha that has real value for those Jains who are against the worship of images, such as the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin.

The importance of individual holy places has varied over history. Some ancient sacred places are still popular today and have usually been renovated and developed. Others were once vibrant with religious activity but are now protected archaeological sites, visited by followers and tourists alike. Though they are still sacred in the minds of Jains, this sanctity is now separate from active worship. In medieval times totally new tīrthas emerged in the religious landscape. Today others are becoming prominent and completely new ones are being created, especially outside India in countries where the Jain diaspora has settled.

Why is a place holy?

Here swathed in the mist of early morning, Mount Girnar is one of the most celebrated temple-cities of the Jains. Sacred to both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains, Girnar is a major pilgrimage site, attracting thousands to the temples on its peaks.

Mount Girnar in the mist
Image by Dhwani Bhatt © CC BY-SA 3.0

Jains often distinguish between two kinds of sacred places:

  • where someone reached final liberationsiddha-kṣetra
  • where any remarkable event took place – atiśaya-kṣetra.

The concept of siddha-kṣetra is crucial in Jain thought in defining a holy place. However, material items such as relics or remains of any kind are not important in thinking of a place as holy in Jain belief and practice. This attitude is in tune with the definition of liberated beings – siddhas – as pure souls.

A remarkable event – atiśaya-kṣetra – that causes Jains to hold a place sacred could be a miracle or the presence of any guardian deity or powerful image.

Holy places vary in size from small isolated spots to the large temple-cities built on mountains. Probably the best-known Jain temple-cities are those of Shatrunjaya and Girnar.

Sacred places are infused with multiple meanings and memories of mythical events. The sanctity is translated into various forms, including footprints, temples and images. But it also resides in elements of the landscape, with specific ponds, stones and trees often seen as holy. They are connected to certain episodes that are transmitted in oral and written form. In this way, some holy places such as Shatrunjaya are ascribed almost supernatural powers, including the power to cure illness. A pilgrimage is complete when it involves a tour of all the sacred spots found in a holy place.

The Jinas

This manuscript painting is of the 20 Jinas between Ṛṣabha, the first one, and Nemi, the 22nd. Omniscient and in the lotus meditation pose, they have bumps on their heads, signifying wisdom. Their jewellery and open eyes are typical of Śvetāmbara images.

Twenty Jinas
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Considering the central importance of the Jinas in Jainism – as the ultimate source of knowledge, teachings and behaviour – it is not surprising that most holy places are closely associated with them. Most are locations where events in the Jinas' lives occurred. The traditional dates of these events given in scriptures form the basis of the religious calendar and festivals. Even today Jains are well aware of such links with the past.

Before reaching omniscience, the Jinas were part of the cycle of rebirths. All of their lives show a similar pattern. In the standard account of their lives, of which Hemacandra's 12th-century work can be considered representative, there is a set of five events. These 'auspicious events' – pañca-kalyāṇakas – are at the centre of worship:

  • conception – cyavana
  • birth – janma
  • initiation into monastic lifedīkṣā
  • enlightenment – kevala-jñāna
  • final liberation – nirvāṇa or mokṣa.

Any place connected with any of these events is potentially holy. The foremost sites, however, are those where the Jinas were born and those where they reached liberation. Sites where more than one such event took place are traditionally called kalyāṇa-kṣetras – 'places of auspicious events'.

Sacred places and events in the lives of the 24 Jinas

Holy place

Jina

Auspicious event

Aṣṭāpada, legendary mountain

Ṛṣabha

liberation

Ayodhyā

Ajita and Ananta

birth

Banaras

Supārśva and Pārśva

birth

Bhadrilapura

Śītala

birth

Candrānana

Candraprabha

birth

Campā = modern Bhagalpur, Bihar

Vāsupūjya

birth and liberation

Girnār, Gujarat

Nemi

renunciation, omniscience and liberation

Hastināpura or Hastinapur, Uttar Pradesh

Śānti, Kunthu and Ara

birth

Kākandī

Suvidhi

birth

Kāmpilya

Vimala

birth

Kauśalya

Sumati

birth

Kauśambī

Padmaprabha

birth

Kuṇḍapura (see Brekke 2003)

Mahāvīra

birth

Mithilā

Malli and Nami

birth

Pāvāpurī, Bihar

Mahāvīra

liberation

Rājagṛha = modern Rajgir, Bihar

Munisuvrata

birth

Ratnapura

Dharma

birth

Sammet Shikhar, Jharkhand

20 Jinas

liberation

Siṃhapura

Śreyāṃsa

birth

Soriyanagara

Nemi

birth

Śrāvasti

Sambhava

birth

Vinītā

Abhinandana

birth

Several names in this list are also where one Jina or another received proper alms for the first time after a long fast – Ayodhyā, Śrāvastī, Hastināpura, Mithilā and Rājagṛha. More generally, they owe their sanctity to their association with several events, all recorded in specialised works.

Other mythical figures

Places where holy figures of the Jain tradition have attained final liberation are also potential sacred sites.

Mount Shatrunjaya in Gujarat is also called Puṇḍarīka Mountain because it is said that Puṇḍarīka, the first chief disciple of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, attained liberation there.

This is also where Rāma, Sītā, the Pāṇḍava brothers and their mother Kuntī were emancipated from the cycle of rebirth.

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