In Jainism a place of pilgrimage is called a tirtha (literally, a ford) because it helps the aspirant in crossing over the ocean of samsara which is full of pain and misery in order to attain spiritual liberation. There are hundreds of Jain pilgrimage places all over India. Here are some of the most popular in terms of their historic associations and their significance in terms of faith, devotion, art and architecture. Most of these places are in beautiful surroundings, often on hill tops, and are open to all.
In Rajasthan the temples at Ranakpur, surrounded by the Aravalli Hills, display temple art at its best. Construction began in 1389 and took some fifty years to complete. There are 1444 exquisitely carved marble columns which rank among the finest expressions of Jain sculptural art.
The other notable pilgrimage site in Rajasthan is the temple complex at Dilwara on Mount Abu. Built in the 11th century, these temples were badly damaged by Muslim invaders in 1311 and it took ten years to restore them to their former glory. Made from very hard, white marble, every wall, pillar, arch, ceiling and dome is beautifully carved. Dilwara is thought to be the most beautiful of all the Jain temples.
Girnar, near the old city of Junagadh, is on Mount Girnar. This is the place where it is believed Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara, attained liberation. His statue is in black marble. The main temple dates to the 12th century and is reached by climbing 3500 steps.
Palitana is a city of temples, situated on the Shatrunjaya Hills. It is believed that all the Tirthankaras (Jinas), except Neminatha, visited this place and countless saints and ascetics have attained supreme salvation here. Nearly 3200 steps must be climbed to reach the peak where there are over 800 temples. The main deity is Rishabhanatha (Adinath), the 1st Tirthankara who allegedly undertook this pilgrimage 99 times. Thousands of pilgrims visit here every year.
Pavapuri near Patna in Bihar, eastern Indian is an important site. It is here that Lord Mahavira, the last Tirthankara, both gave his last sermon and attained liberation on Diwali day. The temple is built in the middle of the lotus lake and every year thousands of pilgrims visit this place on the anniversary of the sermon.
Sammet Shikhar (Peak of Wisdom), Bihar
The other site in Bihar is Sammet Shikhar (Peak of Wisdom) which is considered to be the holiest of all the places as it is on these, the Parsvanath Hills, that 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras attained liberation. It is a very picturesque place to visit and the pilgrim has to walk and climb for about 18 miles.
The hills are about 4500 feet above sea level and include shrines that house the footprints of the 20 Tirthankaras. The main shrine on top of the Parsvanath Hills is dedicated to Parsvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara and is visible from a distance of 30-40 miles on a clear day. The only temple on these hills is the Jal Mandir, also dedicated to Parsvanatha.
Sravanabelagola, near Bangalore
In south India the holiest place for the Digambara Jains is Sravanabelagola near Bangalore. On top of Vindiyagiri (Indragiri) hill, which involves a climb of roughly 600 steps, is a statue of Bahubali, the son of the 1st Tirthankara, Rishabhanatha, carved from the living rock in 981. It is 58 feet high and is one of the biggest statues in the world.
Every twelve years the Mahamastakabhisheka ceremony (head-anointing) is performed, when the image is lustrated from head to foot with holy substances. Millions of visitors pay homage to this place during this period and the experience is one of sheer joy and devotion.