Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Accidental Pilgrim

I am a Hindu by birth, a Brahmo by marriage, I feel close to Islam and connected to Christianity yet I have never been religious, I believe in God and that for me is enough. I have lit a candle at a church, offered a chaddar at a mosque, I tied threads in a dargah and I have rung a bell at a temple, most of my experiences have been due circumstances or my curiosity to see the place.

My first experience was when I went to Jharkhand with a group of friends; the trip in itself will need another long post which I will write later. We decided to do some trekking and found the hill on which a famous Jain Pareshnath temple was situated to be an ideal location. Right below the hill was a Digambar Jain monastery where we had to stop to attend to nature calls. We turned beetroot red with embarrassment at the sight of near total nudity of the senior male residents. We kept our eyes strictly focused on the way to the wash rooms which were incredibly dirty) and once done marched out with our eyes focused towards our toes. The hill was about a 1366 Meters climb, the first half was a gentle slope with nicely laid out steps while the second half was a steep climb on a dirt trail which was somewhat non existent due to recent landslides. We came across a gurgling post monsoon stream flowing down which we gingerly crossed by stepping carefully on the stones in between. By the time we had climbed three fourths of the hill, our bodies were screaming with exhaustion but we could not give up so we literally dragged each other and ourselves up the remaining portion of the hill and by the time we reached the steps of the Pareshnath temple, we felt as if we had conquered Mt Everest.

There was a sense of achievement and purpose to our climb once we entered the temple which was very peaceful and quiet. While doing the customary parikrama, I was astonished to discover the height we had climbed. The sight of the lazy Barakar river flowing below was a wonderful sight to behold. We did not have the luxury to remain at the top for long as dusk was near and the hill was not safe after dark. There were dacoits as well as wild animals from adjoining forests to contend with so we descended as fast as we could and by the time we reached the bottom, we resembled the walking dead.

My affinity to Jain pilgrim spots did not end with this stint. Recently on a family vacation, we went to Shravanabelagola with some vague expectation that Bahubali would be visible without much effort. However this was not the case, Bahubali was situated atop Vindhyagiri hill which is about 436 Meters high with about 500 steps to climb. At noon in mid summer this was not a feat for the faint hearted or the easy going vacationer. Being the stubborn one in the family I said I would climb by foot while others opted for the doli which was a cane chair carried by 4 people. The climb was easy enough though it had me panting in between and I had to stop to recover my breath. It’s always a nice feeling to look down to see how much one has climbed. There was a serene looking square pond visible below which is actually the 'belagola' or pond. There is a shrine midway (also known as Odegal Basadi) which has 3 large statues of Jain Tirthankaras carved in black stone.

After crossing this shrine there are a few more (steeper) steps leading to the Gomateshwara shrine which I climbed easily enough - thanks to the midway rest. Nothing had prepared me for the awe inspiring statue of Bahubali or Gomateshwara which stands at 58.8 Meters, mysterious, peaceful and casting no shadows around it. Humans were just a speck of existence at his feet. The pillars around the temple have many beautiful carvings which are worth seeing.

Rest of my family had a rather adventurous journey up and down the steps on a cane chair. The 4 men literally ran up and covered the 500 steps in 15 minutes or so one way while for the average human it takes about 45 minutes one way. By the end of it one either has a sore bum or sore feet but what’s a little soreness in front of such magnificence which is centuries old?


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