Article: Pilgrimage

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

As in other Indian religious traditions, ‘pilgrimage’ in Jainism is known as tīrtha-yātrā – 'going to a sacred place'. It is a Sanskrit term in common use even in modern Indian languages of north India. In earlier times, when travelling was done on foot, the word ‘pilgrimage’ was understood as meaning the complete journey. In today’s understanding, when most lay people use mechanical means of transportation, such as trains or cars, the yātrā is understood to imply only the part accomplished on foot. In many cases, when the main sacred centre is on top of a hill, climbing to the summit forms a key episode in the pilgrim’s progress.

Not all Jain sects perform pilgrimages. Only the sects that worship images and have temples undertake these spiritual journeys. A place normally becomes a destination for pilgrims because of its connection with a Jina. Sites associated with prominent religious teachers may also become pilgrimage attractions. Jain mendicants are permanent pilgrims and visits to holy places are part of their daily life. They may also keep specific vows on their journey to a certain site. Ascetics also encourage the laity to organise travel to distant places. In both the past and present, monks and nuns are often the driving forces behind the creation of new holy places and, consequently, new pilgrimages.

Pilgrimage may be mental or physical for Jains. Artworks in temples and homes provide the focus of concentration for mental journeys, which are quite common and gain a lot of karmic merit. Jains chiefly undertake pilgrimages for the spiritual benefits they bring. This is partly related to the normal lifestyle of ascetics that lay Jains adopt before and during pilgrimage. The physical discomforts of mendicant lifestyle are accompanied by meditation and a focus on religious teachings instead of everyday life. Going on pilgrimage is also an important method of strengthening faith and binding Jains together, as they share hardships along the way and the joy of reaching their destination.

Usually undertaken outside the rainy season, pilgrimages are commonly timed to finish on a holy day. Sites associated with certain Jinas, events or individuals often see great crowds of pilgrims on commemorative festivals.

Despite the longstanding significance of pilgrimage for Jains, it is difficult to determine when it became an institution. From the 14th century onwards, it becomes a prescribed religious activity in the handbooks of rules governing the lives of lay people – śrāvakācāra. There are numerous descriptions or reports from this period showing that pilgrimages were an important part of religious life, although they were not compulsory.

Pilgrimage destinations

One of the most sacred places in Jainism, Mount Sammeta – Sammeta Śikhara – is where 20 Jinas are believed to have gained liberation. The site's main temple, on the summit, is dedicated to Pārśvanatha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina. The site is holy to bot

Pilgrims at Mount Sammeta
Image by Deeeep – Deepak Mehta © CC BY-NC 2.0

Defined by the presence of temples and imagesmūrti – Jain holy places are the focus of pilgrimage mainly for Jains who believe in image-worship. Well-known examples include Mount Shatrunjaya and Shravana Belgola.

Holy sites are usually sanctified by events connected with a Jina or a leading religious figure. The 14th-century Śvetāmbara author Ratnaśekhara-sūri defines a pilgrimage – tīrtha-yātrā – 'as meaning the visiting of such places as Shatrunjaya and Raivata [= Girnar] where the atmosphere is hallowed by association with the birth, initiation, enlightenment, or nirvāṇa of tīrthaṅkaras' (Williams 1963: 235).

Jains of all sects are often willing to undertake a pilgrimage to the place where a Jain mendicant they think of as their special guru stays for a time. A mendicant is regarded as a 'moving tīrtha' – jangama-tīrtha.

Mental pilgrimage

This unusual paṭa or cloth wall-hanging of Mount Shatrunjaya depicts worldly life on the right, with green background, while the left-hand side shows Shatrunjaya. Mntal pilgrimage completed by meditating on a paṭa is considered equal to a physical journey

Paṭa of Mount Shatrunjaya
Image by Brooklyn Museum Collection © no known copyright

The concept of completing a mental pilgrimage is codified in Jainism and known as bhāva-yātrā. The pilgrims do not journey to the holy place physically. Instead, they are transported there mentally when they view cloth hangings – paṭas – on which the prominent tīrthas of sacred places such as Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Sammet Shikhar and others are depicted.

These pictures are displayed permanently in temples or brought out occasionally on special days for the benefit of all. Many Jains keep photographs, magnets or traditional paintings of these places in their homes as well.

This form of pilgrimage is a substitute for bodily pilgrimage, especially for people who cannot travel because of illness or physical condition. This kind of journey is also made during the rainy season, when pilgrimages are generally not undertaken. A mental pilgrimage is not necessarily considered less meritorious than the physical journey. On the contrary, Jain ascetics tend to consider it the highest form of pilgrimage.

Why go on a pilgrimage

There are a few main reasons Jain followers perform a pilgrimage.

Jain teachers and devotees alike give spiritual progress as the first reason. Karmic effects, positive or negative, are regarded as being more powerful in sacred places. In these places not only are sins removed more easily but merits are acquired more easily as well.

One important pilgrimage motivation is to have or take the darśana of the Jina image, meaning to see and worship it. The Jinas, who are at the centre of Jain sacred sites, are not worshipped to gain worldly benefits. Thus, in principle, Jains do not expect a miracle or improvement in their own lives after completing a pilgrimage to a Jain sacred place.

Sometimes Jains go on pilgrimage for other reasons. For example, Jains who want children often turn to family deities, who can intervene in affairs of the world because they are not liberated beings, yet have magical powers. They may undertake pilgrimages to their ancestral villages to visit deities associated with their family history.

In addition, curative powers are often attached to natural features in sacred places, such as trees and ponds. For instance, while visiting pilgrimage destinations, Jains may include stops at these natural features in the hope of curing infertility.

As a mostly group activity, a pilgrimage is also a period when the lay community’s cohesion is strengthened and faith refreshed. It is not compulsory but it is among favoured lay activities because it combines religious and recreational aspects.

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark

Related Manuscript Images - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.