PALITANA:49,000 STEPS TO FREEDOM

The time has come to check out of our comfortable sanctuary in the City of God Hotel, and leave Dui. Early morning at the bus station just outside the city walls is the usual scene: a smoldering garbage fire; a skinny dirty puppy scratches his fleas; a sweeper raises a cloud of dust; the urine from a low broken wall; jangly Bollywood music from somebody’s cell phone.  An Indian bus stand is not an attractive place, and this is a tiny one at the end of the line, almost bucolic compared to a larger town. We are on our way to Palitana, and have to change buses in a place called Talaja. When our bus arrives we attack it with the aggressiveness we are accustomed to, and it is almost shocking that we burst in it unimpeded, and it is nearly empty. Not only that, but it is a relatively new bus, and the seats are in pretty good condition. This is a good thing because the road is not. We average under thirty kilometers an hour, dodging pot holes and overtaking ox-carts, on the 120 km to Talaja. There is a Palitana bus pulling out as soon as we get to Talaja, and this one is definitely left over from the old fleet. It’s a rivet-popping 40 km to Palitana, with a decibel- level so high it is impossible to talk to each other.

Palitana makes a convenient stop-over on the way back to Ahmedabad, but it also a well known Jain pilgrimage site.  The Jain religion was founded at almost the same time as the Buddhists, in the 6th century B.C.  Jains look to inspiration to a series of Tirthankaras, literally “stream-crossers” who lived exemplary lives and laid down a very detailed body of teachings and precepts. They are strictly vegetarian, and are so averse to the taking of life that some of the more dedicated still sweep the path in front of them, so as to not step on a bug, and wear face masks to avoid inhaling flies.  Many Jains belong to the merchant class, and are prominent in banking and the gem industry, so Jain temples are usually well taken care of. With so much money around, it’s not surprising that the base of Palitana hill is a circus of beggars and touts and “dhoolie” carriers descending on us, even before our auto rickshaw stops. A “dhoolie” is a seat suspended from a stout bamboo pole; basically a simple palaquin carried by two porters up the hill. The dhoolie guys are especially persistent, and keep soliciting as we climb. The staircase is broad and even and packed with people even though it isn’t a special festival or holiday. There are many families, obviously city raised, with digital video cameras and designer sunglasses, but there are also barefoot pilgrims clad in white cotton. There are no other foreigners. For the most part we keep our heads down and trudge, like everybody else. The descending dhoolies shout at you to make way, and a surprising number of young men and women are running down the stairs.

Near the top of the hill we stop for a rest, and spot an old section of trail off to the side. It might not be the original stair – this hill had temples two thousand years ago – but when we leave the commotion of the main trail to follow it we enter a different time.  The trail is paved with worn, uneven rocks, and there is no one else on it. Scrub acacia, cactus and thorns are slowly overgrowing it – in another hundred years it may be impassible. All alone, with bird-song replacing the din of garrulous groups of young men, it is possible to imagine what a pilgrim experience climbing this hill over the centuries.

The old section of trail doesn’t last long enough, and the final ascent is past big walls and through heavy gates. The reality was that a site this isolated had to have formidable defenses. There are literally hundreds of temples on the hill, but the main one is dedicated to the Tirthankara Adinath. Ropes and barriers channel the devotees into the shrine, which for them is the culmination of them climb. The brief second they are allowed in front of the idol is meaningless for me, and K. and I climb up the temple as far as we can get to get a view.  In fact we end up right on the temple spire, where stone work is going on.  Down below the courtyard is full of pilgrims, who gather after the visit to the shrine to eat, rest, pray or visit.

A fork in the path leads to another section of the hill, where the temples are less important and the crowds are far thinner. From here, after scampering up to the top of more temples, we get even better views. Going down we fall into step with a young man, Mukesh, accompanying his friend. Mukesh is fascinated that two people from a distant country would be on the Palitana hill. He is genuinely happy for us, that we would get the blessings for making the pilgrimage to the top. His friend, however, is on a much more serious quest. According to their beliefs, if the hill is climbed seven times in two days, without taking food or drinking water,  Mukti, or freedom, is obtained. The temple is only open 6:30am to 7:30pm and our round trip took three hours. That is why people are running down. That is why there are numerous white robed devotees, barely able to walk, supported on the shoulders of friends and family. For Mukesh’s friend, this is the last descent, and although he is obviously exhausted, he is doing well. It wouldn’t be hard to die of heat stroke undertaking such a grueling challenge and we have seen a number of people lying on the ground in obvious distress. After just one climb, our legs are screaming for days. It seems impossible to me that someone could do this seven times – that is 49,000 steps! But then the important thing, for more than physical conditioning, is to have faith.

 

 

AND ON TO CHITTOR

It is four straight days of bus travel from Palitano to Chittor, including New Year’s Eve spent in a little place near the Rajasthani /Gujarati border called Dungapur. There is no reason to go to Dungapur unless you are staying at the Udai Bilas Palace – actually a Maharaja’s hunting retreat converted into a hotel. We tried, but there was no room at the palace, so we had to settle for the seriously down-market option of a $10 place in town. Being New Year’s Eve,   the occasion demanded at least a token extravagance so we went back to the palace for drinks on their lawn by the pool, where the cost of two beers matched our room’s tariff. It was a pleasant evening, pretending to be privileged, rubbing shoulders with the other guests who would not be able to comprehend the place we were actually staying.

Our down-loaded guide book describes Chittor as “the greatest fort in Rajasthan”; and that is no small claim. It seems as we travel that every hill top in the state has been fortified, and is dripping with crumbing battlements. Chittor is impressive for its size – it is built on a flat top hill and the area enclosed by its walls is 28 sq. km.  Inside there are the obligatory atmospheric and photogenic ruined temples and palaces.  What it is most famous for, however, is the unaccountable fact that it was taken in battle so frequently, and the resulting “jauhar”.   In the Rajasthan of the middle ages, losing a battle didn’t merely mean raising a white flag and surrendering. When all hope seemed lost,  honour demanded the performance of “jauhar”. The warriors would all ride out to certain death, and the women would light a huge fire and throw themselves into it. The last time this happened was 1534, but after a string of defeats, I can see why they gave the custom up.

For a tour guide we have engaged Kailash, mainly because he has an auto rickshaw and the area is too large to cover on foot. When Kailash was a kid, nearly everyone lived inside the city walls, and he talks about growing up here with understandable nostalgia. In general I hate being saddled with any sort of guide, but Kailash does a good job of staying out of the way as we clamber about ruined and rebuilt temples, palaces and battlements. The most famous monument in Chittor is the Jayastambha a  “victory tower” (there were some) built in 1468, but my favorite part  is the great eastern gate, the “Surajpol” (Gate of the Sun). The modern town of Chittorgarh sprawls on the west side of the hill and we, like everybody else, entered the fort through what was once the “back door”. Surajpol is now a grand, deserted melancholy ruin.  The plain below, where so many battles were fought, is covered with fields (including, according to Kailash, opium poppies), and the great road up, once contested by the troops of the Mogul Emperor and suicidal Rajput warriors is now a rough track used by village women.

Stay tuned for more travels in India, and check out more photos by going to http://www.kebeandfast.com and click EXPLORE.

Your Foreign Devil Correspondent

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