For many visitors, the highlight of a trip to Saurashtra is a climb up the holy hill of Shatrunjaya, India’s principal Jain pilgrimage site, just outside the dull town of PALITANA, 50km southwest of Bhavnagar. More than nine hundred temples crown this hill, said to be a chunk of the mighty Himalayas from where the Jains’ first tirthankara, Adinath, and his chief disciple gained enlightenment. While records show that the hill was a tirtha as far back as the fifth century, the existing temples date only from the sixteenth century, anything earlier having been lost in the Muslim raids of the 1500s and 1600s.
Climbing the wide steps up Shatrunjaya takes one to two hours, though, as with all hilltop pilgrimage centres, dholis (seats on poles held by four bearers) are available for those who can’t make it under their own steam. The views as you ascend are magnificent, and you should allow at least two more hours to see even a fraction of the temples.
The individual tuks (temple enclosures) are named after the merchants who funded them. Together they create a formidable city, laid over the two summits and fortified by thick walls. Each tuk comprises courtyards chequered in black-and-white marble and several temples whose walls are exquisitely and profusely carved with saints, birds, animals, buxom maidens, musicians and dancers. Many are two or even three storeys high, with balconies crowned by perfectly proportioned pavilions. The largest temple, dedicated to Adinath, in the Khartaravasi tuk on the northern ridge is usually full of masked Svetambara nuns and monks, dressed in white and carrying white fly-whisks. The southern ridge and the spectacular Adishvara temple in its western corner are reached by taking the right-hand fork at the top of the path. On a clear day the view from the summit takes in the Gulf of Cambay to the south, Bhavnagar to the north and Mount Girnar to the west.
The museum, 400m before the start of the steps at the bottom of the hill, displays a collection of Jain artefacts, labelled in Gujarati but well worth seeing.
A path leads along the ridge and down into the valley of Adipur, 13km away; it’s open for one day only, during the festival of Suth Tera (Feb/March), when up to fifty thousand pilgrims come to Shatrunjaya for this unique display of devotion.