A highly revered destination for those who follow Jainism, Palitana is a small town located in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat in India. It is a major pilgrimage center for Jains and is home to many temples. Also called the ‘Jain Temple Town’, Palitana consists of as many as 823 temples dedicated to the 24 Tirthankaras or holy saints of the Jain community.
The town also serves the pilgrim trade around the Shatrunjaya Hill and is flooded with pilgrims and visitors during the Kartik Purnima festival.
Cultural Dynamics and Architecture
Most of the architecture of Palitana, built in the 11th century by the Solanki dynasty, was destroyed by Muslim invaders. The built structures that stand today were added in the 16th century and the temples destroyed during the invasion were reconstructed by the wealthy merchants of that region during that time.
The Palitana complex of temples is vast, consisting of both big and small shrines, the larger ones having marble halls with columns and towers, and plenty of openings, and the smaller ones being as small as 3 square feet, with representations of the specific emblems of the Tirthankaras.
The architecture of the Jain temple Palitana includes very rich and heavy ornamentation. The use of materials such as marble has been well thought through such that the sunlight which falls on the marble structure transforms its appearance as an ivory shield.
It is also believed that the temple town is an abode for the divine and for this reason, no one is allowed to stay overnight, including the priests. Some temples tend to remain closed during the four months of monsoon as well.
Jain Temple Palitana
The most prominent temple of Palitana is the Adishwar Temple. This Tirth Sthal for Jains is made out of marble, with intricately carved interiors. The structure is like a typical Hindu temple, with tall and heavy pillars and several openings on all sides of the structure.
The finely carved interiors are characterized by geometric lace designs, elaborately carved ceilings, and clustered forms of canopies. Also, the marble image of the deity is adorned with gold ornaments studded with precious jewels. It is considered to be a sculptural grandeur.
The approach to the temple is however difficult, with a flight of 3500 steps leading up to it. With the changing population, sling chairs have been made available for those who find it difficult to climb stairs.
However, even with these facilities made available, the code for climbing the stairs is very stringent—food cannot be eaten nor carried on the way. The descent should begin before it is evening, for no one can remain in the temple during the night.
Another prominent temple of Palitana is the Chaumukh temple or four-faced temple, built in 1618. Each of the four sides of the temple structure has openings such that the idols in the temple interior were visible from all four directions. Marble is used here as well, as a pedestal on which the idol of Adinath is placed.
Smaller temples mostly had square plans with towers and ornamentation in the form of carving. Many small shrines were dedicated to Saraswati, recognized as the supreme deity of knowledge in Jainism.
Social Dynamics: The Vegetarian City
Palitana is referred to as the world’s first fully vegetarian city. Since olden times, Palitana has been a site of salvation and nirvana for Jain saints and sages. To maintain its ‘purity’, around 200 Jain monks protested by going on a hunger strike until the government banned animal slaughter.
The town was declared as a meat-free zone. Even selling eggs and related jobs such as fishing, etc., are not allowed. However, dairy products are consumed by the people of Palitana, making the whole situation a little controversial.
The Conflict of Jain Monks: a Social Dilemma or a Political Squabble?
Palitana consists of a purely Jain community of mostly traders, businessmen, and priests. While the traders and businessmen have a relatively simple life, the priests conflict over the proper monastic practices of Jainism. This led them to split into two sects—the Svetambara and the Digambara.
While the Svetambara or white-robed sect believed that monks and nuns should be clad in white robes, the Digambara or sky-clad sect argued that a true monk, but not a nun, should be clad by the sky, that is, should be naked.
Demographics and Modernization
Palitana has a small population of approximately 2.5 lakh. However, during festivals such as Kartik Purnima, the town has to accommodate almost three times its population. This has led to the scattering of concrete and glass buildings in the form of hotels and overnight stays in the already complex town.
Palitana has an employment rate of 40% with most people engaged in temple activities, as priests or business activities, owning hotels. A very small part of the population is engaged in agricultural activities and cultivation. Rearing of animals is illegal and therefore, no one is engaged in any such occupation.
Due to the low employment rate, most of the population live in rural households (71%), while only 29% of households fall under the urban category. Housing in Palitana consists of simple structures with a shaded outdoor porch. Flat roofs or sloping roofs are used and the building material is mostly concrete.
A majority of the population falls under the age group of 10-30 years. With the increasing influence of modernization, many of the working-age are migrating out of Palitana to the neighboring cities like Bhavnagar, Vallabhipur, and Ahmedabad.
The closest airport for Palitana is located in Bhavnagar, 51 km away, making it easy to commute to other cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Ahmedabad. Road transport has also picked up over the years linking the town to the nearby cities and taluks.