Scaling the Shatrunjaya hill

The only reason to stop at Bhavnagar is to visit the small town of Palitana, which is about 50km SW. In Palitana is Shatrunjaya hill, atop which are some of Jainism’s most important temples. LP and the internet told us that since there aren’t many places to stay in Palitana, Bhavnagar would be our best bet. So we left Ahmedabad yesterday (Monday) morning and took a 10:30am Volvo bus, run by Tanna Travels, to Bhavnagar.

The bus dropped us off somewhere in Bhavnagar around 2:30pm. From there we took an auto to our hotel, which was close to Bhavnagar’s State Transport station. We had called several hotels in the area, before coming. But, surprisingly, they were all booked. So the only one available (which we immediately booked over the phone) was Hotel Mausam and we soon found out why (see review).

Today morning we took a State Transport bus (we are getting quite good at this ) at 7am and got to Palitana by 8:45am. From the bus station, we took an auto to the base of Shatrunjaya hill. En route we noticed that the town was quite clean and had a nice rural feel to it. At the base of the hill, we bought a permit for our camera – it cost us Rs.100. We were told that there weren’t many restroom facilities atop the hill so we stopped by the ones at the base, which were surprisingly well-kept and clean. We armed ourselves with some water and biscuits and started the long climb to the top. There are no cable-cars here so the only option is on foot. However, there are ‘doli’ (palanquin) carriers who will carry you to the top on a sling-type contraption, on which you have to sit cross-legged, for Rs.300. The sling is attached to a pole, which is carried by 2 people. The other option is a tad more expensive. Here the patron can sit comfortably in a chair, which is hoisted on 2 poles and carried by 4 people – it costs about Rs.1000. If I had known how hard this climb would be on my poor knees, I may have opted for at least option #1 … but I was a little ashamed … after all I hope to do a couple of Himalayan treks some day. But after this day, I know for a fact I’m definitely in no shape for that … not yet at least!

The climb was strenuous to say the least. It’s not steep but it climbs steadily and in the heat of the morning sun, it totally wears down the legs. Thankfully, builders and donors of the temple had built small, shaded rest stops at various levels of the climb for people like us. At each stop there was a person providing water out of a huge earthen pot. It’s free but a donation of a few rupees can be made. We sat at almost each stop and tried to regain our breath and strength. Astonishingly there were many elderly devotees who didn’t seem to find the climb as troublesome as us. I guess their devotion makes light of such physical exertion. Moreover, we city-bred, non-exercising, computer nerds don’t have the leg muscles that are required for such stuff. Anyways … LP had said that it would be a 1 and a 1/2 hour  climb – Madhu and I took 2 and 1/2 hours – you can imagine how much we ‘rested’ in between!

But all the pain of climbing was totally worth it, once we entered the temple complex. There are supposed to be over 1000 temples here, built over 900 years, all carved out of marble. The main temple is dedicated to the 1st Tirthankar of Jainism, Adinath and is the most spectacular of the lot. We spent nearly 3 hours wandering the place. Most devotees were crowded around the main temple so many of the smaller temples on the side were secluded and quiet. We wandered thru them and loved the ambience.

We realized that at most temple sites, we are usually harassed by either flower or coconut vendors, or by the temple pujaris themselves, trying to get us to sign up for expensive poojas. But here nobody bothered us – it was just beautiful. Everybody out there seemed completely engrossed in their devotion. Men who had climbed up the hill in regular clothes had changed into simple, off-white dhotis and veshtis. Women were dressed in traditional saris or salwar suits. The place was abuzz with the sound of the crowd plus the clanging of bells and the chanting of prayers, but it did not feel noisy at all. Madhu and I sat for a while watching all this. My mom would have loved this place – she is very religious and loves visiting temples – this would have been paradise for her .

We chatted with a security guard there and learnt that there are about 200 guards stationed within the temple complex. They are paid for by the trust that runs the temples. He claimed that during the festival season the crowds are huge and there’s no place to stand, forget sit. At those times, security is heightened as it’s easier to vandalize and steal from the statues, which have silver or gold stuff donated by devotees. He also mentioned that every evening, the temples have bidding, of sorts, for various items that are needed to conduct the daily pooja rituals – like ghee, milk and water. Since it’s such a huge complex with over 2700 idols to worship, the bills are high. But the devotees, who belong to one of India’s richest communities, donate in crores – so I doubt there’s a dearth of anything.

At around 2:45pm, when the sun was still blazing and we were already exhausted from the entire temple wandering, we started the descent down. But not before having some refreshing curd, which was being sold in little clay pots outside the entrance of the temples (food and water consumption is not allowed within). The curd is mixed with some coarse salt and was absolutely creamy and yummy. When we started the walk down we thought it shouldn’t take us more than an hour to get to the base. But we were so wrong! It took us a full 2 hours. And it was mainly because of my weak knees . Half way down the hill, they stared hurting real bad. So I had to take each step carefully and slowly – it would feel better after a 5-minute break at the rest stops. But the slow descent and frequent stops slowed us down considerably.

When we reached the bottom, we were sooo relieved . We stopped at a street-side restaurant and quenched our thirst and hunger. I had a ‘Jain Bhel’, which was absolutely yummy! After this we took an auto back to Palitana Bus Station. So far, we’ve been really lucky with the timing of buses for our day trips – we’ve never had to wait long. But today our timing sucked. It was almost 5:30pm by the time we got to the bus station and by then it was packed with school children who were returning home. We never got a chance to get into 2 buses that were headed to Bhavnagar because they were completely filled by the kids . The bus that we finally got into was at 7pm and it dropped us off at Bhavnagar at around 8:45pm. It had been a long and tiring day … my knees and calves attest to it. But it was fun and adventuresome! Tomorrow we plan to head to Diu and relax for a couple of days – we’ve had enough of the temple-hopping and strenuous trips – got to kickback a little…

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