The 39 (hundred) Steps

The Jain pilgrimage site near Palitana occupies the heart of Gujarat in western India. Jains have built clusters of temples at five hill locations, and Shatrunjaya Hill the most important among them. The sacred hill crescendos in a terrace of wonderful temples. In all 863 intricately and exquisitely carved shrines and temples climb in marble brilliance to the top of the hill. They rival each other for beauty and magnificence, as their patrons and builders intended, presenting an awe-inspiring spectacle to devoted pilgrims and other visitors. Over the impressive span of more than 900 years, each generation of penitents and pilgrims made its contribution to the collection of shrines that embody Shatrunjaya. The 2000-foot climb to Shatrunjaya is best made on foot – for reasons both sacred and aesthetic. There are 3900 steps, but it’s not as daunting as it sounds.

Our ascent proved to be one of those wonderful days that can never be planned – just experienced.

Our driver dropped us off at dawn, just outside the shrine’s perimeter. Serendipitously, this was the culmination of Duvali week, so thousands of pilgrims and Indian tourists were making the same trek. Dooliewallahs caught our scent as potential fares and converged to offer to carry us to the top, expecting easy conquests. We told them no, but their vocabulary lacked that word. We walked thru the bazaar and started up the first of many sets of stairs. The dooliewallahs escorted the 4 of us, expecting us to succumb inevitably. We looked in the first temple as we passed, packed with adherents, chanting, praying, and making music.

A spiritual thrumming lifted us along as we began the long steady plod upwards. The steps were labeled with the elevation and the distance traveled so far, but I didn’t point that out to the others till after we’d reached the top. The dooliewallahs were confident we’d fade, and their prices began to edge upwards, but only one of our party eventually opted for a chair. The 84-year-old senior of our group was determined to see the top on her own power, and she attracted many approving comments as we slowly ascended.

The entire way, distractions abounded

– men and women carrying loads to the top – firewood, food, water. Families walking along, everyone extremely friendly and curious, and we got to know many people as we met, talked, rested, then continued upwards, only to meet at the next resting place up the hill and offer further encouragement. A beautiful morning emerged, colors crisping as we moved heavenward in gently warming air. We easily consumed our bottles of water and shared the snacks we were carrying.  

Got to the main gate about 10:30 We found fresh water being distributed from large urns. It was labeled as distilled, which seemed unlikely, but we’d already been drinking local water when domestic tourists did, so we figured it was better than dehydration. It took a while to register as foreigners had each to sign a book, and then we had to find the special office that sold camera chits to let us take pictures. We could easily have spent hours wandering about but ended up just being there about one hour.

Each temple had a guardian or two whose main purpose seemed to be to check camera permits and collect baksheesh for doing so. One more enterprising guy gave us a description of some of the other things we could see, and then led us through several beautifully carved temples. None were as large as the Abu or Ranakpur temples, but the cumulative effect of all these dedications trumped those others.

Our guide took us up onto the roof of one of the main temples by way of an airy stairway, with high narrow steps and no railings. The view was stunning in all directions. He’d have taken us around for the rest of the day, but we realized we still had a long drive, so reluctantly began our descent.

Only 2 paths ascend the mountain,

and we descended the one that came out nearby our hotel, which was steeper. Turned out, it was relentless – few breaks in the stairways, unlike our ascent which had several long flat spots. If we’d gone that way we’d also have missed most of the company, since many fewer people used this back way. About halfway down, we were passed by a herd of donkeys, still in their bright magenta Divali paint, and I took a picture of them passing Audrey & Jeannie. The herder, at the rear of the small herd, immediately began berating me loudly for taking the picture, but when she got closer, she agreed to pose with her array of silver jewelry, in return for 10R. Mr. Singh was waiting for us at a tea house, and we quickly returned to the hotel.

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