Article: Akṣaya-tṛtīyā

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Making a pilgrimage

Although the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā has been celebrated for centuries, practices involving pilgrimage and mass fast-breaking ceremonies have become more prominent in recent years. Increasingly, large numbers of fasters travel to the temples of Shatrunjaya and Hastinapur to break their fast.

Theoretically the fast-breaking ceremony – pāraṇā – that is the key moment of the festival is not connected with any special sacred place. It can be celebrated in any local Jain temple, preferably dedicated to Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, either in a sober manner or with great pomp if the tapasvīs belong to rich families.

However, the festival can also be the occasion of a pilgrimage undertaken to celebrate the fast-breaking ceremony in a famous place. Records show that some tapasvīs do not hesitate to travel long distances on foot, as if to push themselves to greater levels of asceticism.

Mount Shatrunjaya

Since the second part of the 20th century, the paramount place to complete the varṣītap fast has been considered Mount Shatrunjaya. The site is a famous pilgrimage destination for Jains because it is thought of as the best for gaining spiritual merit and destroying karmas. Its connections with the first Jina and his female attendant, Cakreśvarī, who is considered helpful to fasting women, make it a particularly significant site to break the fast.

In 1966 about 12,000 pilgrims gathered there to perform the fast-breaking ceremony, which involved about 1000 tapasvīs.

Hastinapur

A white-clad faster is ceremonially fed to break his fast. Fasting is a key part of Jain practice and is frequently undertaken during festivals or to fulfil a vow. Fasters gain great religious merit – puṇya – as do the relatives who help break their fasts

Breaking a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Since the late 1970s Hastinapur has become another well-known place to travel to for Akṣaya-tṛtīyā. In 1987 about 5,000 pilgrims came for 269 tapasvīs while the next year 6,500 pilgrims performed the ceremony for 400 tapasvīs. One of the reasons is that traditionally it is the place where the original alms-giving event occurred.

In the 1970s, the Jain press started advertising the festival in Hastinapur and encouraged people to go there for the annual fast-breaking. However, Hastinapur had no temple dedicated to the first Jina, which was a disadvantage for devotees who wished to complete the fast in such a temple.

Hastinapur started to become a popular destination for Akṣaya-tṛtīyā in 1978, when a small temple at the back of the main Śvetāmbara temple, which is dedicated to Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti, was inaugurated as a temple to the First Lord. It contains detailed images of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha and Śreyāṃsa, and thus depicts exactly the event the festival marks.

In 1985 to 1986 a temple especially dedicated to Ṛṣabha to commemorate his fast-breaking was built about two kilometres away from the city centre. It is called Pāraṇā-mandir or 'Fast-breaking Temple'. Since then the routine of the festival at Hastinapur has included a chariot procession – ratha-yātrā – from one temple to the other.

In Hastinapur, the festival takes place over a whole week, requiring a great deal of preparation. Attendance at the sermons and the daily yātrā processions increases as the days go on.

On the day of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, preparations for the fast-breaking ceremony start. Large quantities of sugar-cane are bought from local landowners and brought to the temple complex. The sugar-cane is crushed in the press owned by the temple and the juice poured into big earthenware pots.

The tapasvīs and their relatives start taking their seats on the cushions prepared for them in the ceremonial hall. Many are elegantly and richly dressed. The tapasvīs are garlanded with flowers. Bags of presents can be seen, which members of their family will offer to the temple to honour their own tapasvī.

A relative fetches sugar-cane juice in the small earthenware pot supplied by the temple administration. The tapasvīs are fed symbolically with a small amount by all their relatives present. The relatives rush to feed their heroic tapasvī, all wanting to touch the small vessel of juice at the same time. The tapasvīs are exhausted.

The next day tapasvīs start taking solid food again, in a special meal served in the temple eating-hall.

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