Stairway To Heaven

David: When I invited our sons to travel with me in India, I sent each a copy of Lonely Planet. Figuring that it would help induce them to accept the invitation, I told them they could set the itinerary. There was only one exception. I insisted on visiting the Jain temple complex at Palitana, in the state of Gujarat. I had seen images of the complex, which consists of many hundreds of temples on a mountaintop, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing it in person.
Palitana Mountaintop
It turned out to be impossible to get to Palitana while the boys were still with me, but Lora and her Gujarat group were ending their tour there. So I slowly wended my way down from Rajasthan to meet them there after the last of the guys finally had to head home.

Jainism is an ancient religion that was a major faith in the Indian subcontinent until the growth of Hinduism and Islam. One of its highest precepts is to do no harm to any living thing. As a result, Jains are strict vegans. Many of them even avoid garlic, onions, potatoes and other root vegetables because small insects in the soil can be harmed when the plant is pulled out, and also because the roots continue to contain life. Many Jains even try to avoid going out at night because there is a greater risk of stepping on insects after dark. Some wear cloths over their mouths to avoid ingesting any flying insects and to keep harmful words from passing their lips.

This ingrained precept against harming living things seems (at least to me) at odds with the Jains having built the Palitana complex, one of their most important pilgrimage sites, on top of a mountain. Can you imagine the pain and suffering from climbing 3,750+ steps to the top of the mountain. By comparison, the Empire State Building has only 1,860 steps. Also, gravity is the law, not just a good idea, so whatever goes up must come down. Therefore, the 3,750+ steps must be descended later the same day because pilgrims and tourists must leave the site before dark.

As I was driving toward Palitana, I began to see many groups of women walking along the roadside in the same direction, all dressed in white. I assumed they were pilgrims, and they came in all ages, sizes, conditions and shapes. How, I wondered, could the elderly, infirm and crippled possibly make a climb to the top?

Two ways, it turns out. For the infirm and crippled pilgrims there were sedan chairs, flimsy plastic lawns chairs lashed to a couple of large bamboo poles shouldered by four strong men. The other way was for daughters and other young women to push their elders up the mountainside from behind.

Lora and I elected to climb, not ride, even knowing that we’d have to do it without the aid of a son (all of whom had already flown home) pushing us up the steps from behind. I began to worry about half way up when four young men carrying an empty sedan chair started walking alongside me. The closest one kept whispering in my ear: “Grandpa, you need to ride.” My concern was that these guys are probably better than me at predicting who won’t be able to make it to the top, and they were circling me like vultures. To convince them that I didn’t need their services, I took over one of the porter positions on a passing sedan chair that was carrying a woman in Lora’s group. “Grandpa” and Lora made to the top.

20140204-082859.jpg
Our calves screamed for days, but it was worth it. Photos of the climb, the temples and the descent are in Lora’s next posting.

One suggestion for any of you who might visit Palitana – carry some food or high-energy snacks. After climbing 3,750 steps, it’s easy to get templed-out on an empty stomach and your temple/step ratio will drop precipitously.

There are two other Jain temples I need to mention, both Rajasthan. One is in the village of Dilwara. The other is in Ranakpur.

Ranakpur is on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur. (More on our experiences in those cities in future postings.) The temple must cover at least 3-4 acres. It is a massive open interior structure varying from one to three levels in which more than 1,400 columns support the roof. The columns are intricately carved, and each is in some detail unique from all the others. Intricate carvings also cover other surfaces, including the interior surfaces of many domes high overhead. The effect was as overwhelming on my third visit, with Sam, as it was with Max in 1994 and Lora in 2010.
Ranakpur Exterior copy
Ranakpur 3-level interior
Ranakpur Interior columns
Dilwara interior dome
Ranakpur interior carving

Ranakpur dome carving
The Dilwara temples are at the Rajasthan hill station Mt. Abu, where I did an overnight on my way to meet up with Lora at Palitana. They are less than a tenth the size of Ranakpur. The carvings are comparable (as shown above), but because of Dilwara’s much smaller size, they feel breathtaking in their intimacy rather than overwhelming as at Ranakpur.

The StairMaster to Heaven or Living Proof that I Will Follow My Husband Anywhere

20140204-092806.jpg

Ever since I got to Petra (above) and David, laid low in Israel with a particularly nasty case of the eleventh plague, didn’t, I’ve had a bad case of traveler’s guilt. He was, after all, the one who had the passion to go there.  I was merely along for the ride – of course, until I saw it and felt a hundred times worse that I was there and he wasn’t. After hearing him wax rhapsodic about Palitana,

20140204-075457.jpg
I began to view his desire to go there as Petra – India style. Piece of cake, I figured. What’s 3,700+ stairs to someone who race-walked the Boston Marathon route? Our Gujarat group’s guides diplomatically singled out which of us they thought should (strongly) consider the palanquin option. I felt their placing me in the ‘good to climb’ group was all the incentive I needed to pass on the chair lift option. Anyway, there was no way I was going to pay four men to carry both me and a heavy bamboo seating arrangement up to the top of a mountain.

David gallantly rented walking poles, which I assumed could be also used for instruments of prodding lest I flag in my enthusiasm at any point in the ascent. And off we went.

Almost immediately I was encouraged by the sight of 1,000 pound four-legged pilgrims daintily making the journey along with us. If cows could do it how hard could it be? David seemed a little concerned when he realized there was a pair of wide-spread pointed horns about to pass alongside him.

20140203-114602.jpg

Apparently truly dedicated devotees make the round trip journey first thing in the morning before they go off to attend to the more secular aspect of their lives. We saw people of all ages flying past us in both directions. The younger members of our group along with those in Olympic fighting form (Patsy Chappell) took off at a quick clip. It didn’t take too long (1,000 steps +/-) for me to see that this wasn’t going to be any old walk in the park. I decided to pace myself to avoid crapping out with Nirvana in sight but not in hand.

There were folks carrying loads much more weighty than chocolate bars and bottles of water.

20140204-075733.jpg

20140204-075910.jpg

20140204-080002.jpg

“Are we there yet?” I thought, but didn’t ask after the first hour. Segments of every few hundred or so steps were broken by flat, shady ramps lined with benches. David must have been doing secret training for this ascent. Not only was he not winded, he was in ebullient spirits the entire way, in fact getting more energized the closer to the top we got. While I’d like to say it was contagious, I lagged behind, wishing I knew the Hindi for “Are we there yet?” so I could ask people on their way down. Finally the end was in sight.

20140204-080132.jpg
I trudged up the final run of stairs to find the others waiting for us. It was nice of them to say they’d only just arrived. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted to take any pictures of the temples. But trust me, it was quite magical. Hundreds of devotees chanting, making offerings, roses, marigolds, drums, and incense, brilliant colored saris and Jains in white robes. The view from the top was stunning in every direction.

Rested and fortified with chocolate we began the long march down. Halfway my calves began to cramp and my kneecaps began to quiver. My hips were grumbling. Any enlightenment I had attained by climbing up was soon replaced by the pain of descent. For days afterward my legs balked at the idea of any movement that involved even the most gentle downward slope. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t alone in my post-Palitana payback. Even Patsy admitted that her legs reminded her of the effort every time she had to walk downstairs.

Now that we’ve recovered I’m thinking that there’s always the Eiffel Tower. If you think to book ahead I understand a fine meal awaits there – and you can take pictures.