Article: Pilgrimage

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

When to go on a pilgrimage

Pilgrims attending the ‘great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahāmastakābhiṣeka – of the Bāhubali statue at Shravana Belgola in 2006 are seen clearly from the platform above the image. The 1008 pots of different consecrated substances can also be viewed.

View from above Bāhubali statue
Image by Mehool Sanghrajka © Mehool Sanghrajka

Pilgrimages are forbidden, or at least not encouraged, during the rainy season, for practical as well as religious reasons. Some holy sites are closed during this season. In other cases, site management organisations do not provide any of the normal facilities during this period. There are, however, disagreements on this point concerning pilgrimage to Shatrunjaya (Luithle-Hardenberg, The Pilgrimage, 2010: 337).

Some of the major Jain festivals are occasions for large-scale pilgrimages when they are either connected or often linked with a specific sacred place. Examples include the:

More generally, on special occasions believers commonly undertake pilgrimages to a place that houses an image said to have special powers, instead of going to the local temple.

Organising a pilgrimage

A pilgrim prays at Mount Shatrunjaya, one of the most important Śvetāmbara holy sites. Kneeling on the ground, the white-clad monk holds his mouth-cloth near his face while he prays

Pilgrim prays at Mount Shatrunjaya
Image by Marina & Enrique © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nowadays the popular pilgrimage sites offer facilities to the thousands of religious visitors who journey there each year. Even so, arranging a pilgrimage is an important matter in religious life and a leading member of a lay community often does this. Bringing the official title of saṅgha-pati – 'lord of the community' – this prestigious position indicates considerable wealth and is a chance to earn religious merit.

In the past, a group of pilgrims would have had to cross dangerous places. It was customary for them to inform the local political authorities of their travel plans. In the Mughal period, they would issue formal edicts – farmāns – equal to official authorisation. This was a way the pilgrims could ensure some safety.

Rich and pious lay men, including kings or government ministers, often organised pilgrimages that involved huge crowds, along with servants and animals carrying food and water. Cloth paintings of sacred places – paṭas – often depict these pilgrimage processions in great detail. Departure was fixed for an auspicious day, with the planets in favourable positions. Stories of rich patrons organising pilgrimages, of journeys where hardships alternated with the satisfaction of witnessing miracles in shrines, are plentiful. A record of a 1935 pilgrimage from Ahmedabad to Shatrunjaya (Cort 1990: 290) provides the impressive numbers of:

  • 400 monks
  • 700 nuns
  • 15,000 laity
  • 1,300 bullock carts
  • 200 big tents
  • 900 small tents
  • 200 servants and cooks
  • 200 watchmen
  • 100 volunteers
  • a cost between 500,000 and 600,000 rupees.

Small pilgrimages last one day, but larger ones can last several days or weeks. In the past, organising a pilgrimage meant finding places to rest or stay overnight, where new pilgrims would join the group. Community networks were used so that along the way pilgrims could stay either with fellow Jains or in large halls or buildings known as sarāīs. Feasts were also organised on the journey.

Today, many of the prominent sacred places such as Shatrunjaya and Shravana Belgola provide modern accommodation and eating facilities for pilgrims. Here, pilgrims usually stay in rest-houses – dharma-śālās – which are organised partly by the managing trusts and by caste or regional organisations. Placed outside the holy site itself, dharma-śālās vary from the very simple, where pilgrims sleep in small cells, to the very luxurious, where the rooms have en-suite bathrooms. In places such as Palitana, these pilgrim hostels can be viewed as manifestations of local communities, and they reflect 'the divisions of the Śvetāmbara Jains according to local origin and to ascetic branches and sub-branches' (Luithle-Hardenberg, The Pilgrimage, 2010: 332). Pilgrims eat in refectories – bhojana-śālās – where they find purely vegetarian food conforming to the rules of Jain diet. The walls of the eating-hall are often adorned with portraits of the wealthy lay people who have donated money towards its establishment.

Elements of a pilgrimage

The steep path to the temples at Mount Shatrunjaya has around 4000 steps. Most visitors go on foot but those who are unable to climb so far can take a kind of palanquin – ḍolī – carried by two men, commonly called 'doli-wallahs'.

Steps to Shatrunjaya temples
Image by unknown © unknown

Before beginning their journey, pilgrims prepare by starting to live the mendicant lifestyle. Going on pilgrimage is the closest that most lay Jains come to the wandering life of monks and nuns, which is physically and mentally demanding. Mendicants are frequently found at pilgrimage destinations and may lead groups of pilgrims if they all travel on foot. Many Jain sacred places are located on top of hills where pilgrims are not allowed to stay overnight. Thus they usually complete the final stage of their journey in one day. The pilgrims climb up the sacred hill and tour the temples that make up the pilgrimage site. It is often a profoundly spiritual and emotional experience, increased by performing rites of worship in the holy place. Devotees also usually donate money to the management of the site, for upkeep of the temples and so on.

Jains who are planning to go on pilgrimage carry out mental preparation and special observances. These involve dietary restrictions, sleeping on the ground, meditating, abstaining from sexual relations and keeping to religious restraints. During the pilgrimage the followers aim to come as close as possible to mendicant life. They do not think any longer about the concerns of worldly life, for pilgrimage is a time to focus on religious discourse or teachings.

This is formalised in the so-called cha rī pālit among Śvetāmbaras from Gujarat, which emphasises six restrictions that people do not necessarily follow the rest of the time. The would-be pilgrims must:

  1. follow the strict dietary rules that only ascetics usually observe
  2. eat only once a day and not eat anything after sunset
  3. walk barefoot and not use any means of transportation
  4. sleep on the floor
  5. remain celibate
  6. perform the ritual of forgiveness by reasserting that all living beings are dear to them.

First, pilgrims arrive in the neighbouring village or town, where they stay and eat. Then they travel on foot up the hill, to reach the main temples. In some places, like Shravana Belgola, pilgrims have to walk barefoot, but even when this not a rule many people choose to do so. In places like Shatrunjaya, elderly or ill pilgrims can be carried up the steep hill in a ḍolī. This is a kind of individual seat on which the passenger sits cross-legged, which hangs from ropes attached to a bamboo pole carried between two men.

The ‘99fold’ – navanu – pilgrimage to Shatrunjaya (Luithle-Hardenberg 2010) is characterised by extreme asceticism and is an endurance challenge. Along with observing numerous restrictions, pilgrims who perform this have to complete the journey to the main temple on the top of the hill 108 times over two months.

Pilgrims frequently recite in a low voice or sing hymns along the way or when reaching the temples that are their destination. They often express their joy by spontaneously composing devotional poems.

A pilgrimage is complete when the devotee has visited all the sacred spots in a holy place and has had the 'sight' – darśana – of all the images there. In large pilgrimage centres like Mount Shatrunjaya there are several possible routes that allow the pilgrim to pass near each and every spot. A 'temple circuit' – caitya-paripāṭī – is a necessary part of pilgrimage. Modern guidebooks or publications of hymns provide lists of the temples to be covered, along with information about their location, the name of the main JinaJina image and so on.

Worship – pūjā – is performed in the same way it is in daily practice. However, special pūjā rites can also be organised for large group pilgrimages.

Mendicants are often seen at pilgrimage sites. For Mūrti-pūjak Jains, pilgrimage is a common activity. To some extent, the whole life of wandering – vihāra – of monks and nuns is a permanent pilgrimage, since holy places are where they often stop. They may also lead groups of laity on their pilgrimages in the rare cases where the whole journey is done on foot.

Pilgrims also make donations to the temple management.

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