Palitana: The Jain Temple Town



There are few temple complexes that compare to it. Palitana, in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, is a full city with as many as 823 temples of different sizes, dedicated to the 24 Tirthankaras or holy saints of the Jain community. Built over the hill Shatrunjaya, Jains believe that 23 of the holy Tirthankaras actually visited this hill. No wonder then, that this is the biggest pilgrimage site for the Jains- their Vatican.


Palitana is a full city with as many as 823 temples dedicated to the 24 Tirthankaras

Built over different centuries, the temples of Palitana are not just a lesson in history and architecture, as they are beautifully carved, they are also a tribute to a religion that has thrived for more than 2500 years in small pockets across peninsular India. Jains believe that Adinath sanctified the mountain of Shatrunjaya by selecting it as the site of his first sermon. Adinath, the first of the Tirthankaras or Jinas- enlightened ones - who have been liberated from the cycle of birth and death, is said to have lived 8,400,000 years ago. According to the Jain philosophy which has a unique concept of time, in each era or ardha kalpa (one kalpa consists of 4.32 billion years) 24 Tirthankaras are manifested on Earth after which the cycle continues and another set of 24 Tirthankaras come into being.

Emperor Shah Jahan with his three sons 
Emperor Shah Jahan with his three sons |Wikimedia Commons 

Historically speaking, the earlier temples of Palitana were built under the Royal patronage of King Kumarapala of the Solanki dynasty in the 11th century CE. Sadly most of these were destroyed by the invading Muslim rulers in the 13th century CE. Historians speculate that the temples were destroyed and ravaged by the invading armies of Allaudin Khilji, however no records of this event are available. The temples that stand tall today were added later in the sixteenth century and the older temples were reconstructed by wealthy merchant of the region.


Historians speculate that the temples were destroyed by the invading armies of Allaudin Khilji

In 1656 CE, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan's son Murad Baksh (the then Governor of Gujarat) granted Palitana villages to the prominent Jain merchant Shantidas Jhaveri, a Svetambara Jain and an influential merchant and money lender in the period. Earlier, Emperor Akbar had issued an edict granting special status to Shatrunjaya, protecting the area and thus allowing Jain tradition to flourish uninhibited. Subsequently all taxes were also exempted and the temple town prospered.

Palitana in 1860
Palitana in 1860|Wikimedia Commons 

The Palitana complex of temples is vast. There are an estimated 824 shrines, big and small dedicated to the Tirthankaras Many of them are grouped together in enclosures and each group has a main temple and many lesser ones around it. The larger temples have considerable marble halls with columns and towers, and plenty of openings, though many of the temples are very small buildings of about 3 square feet with representations of the specific emblems of the Tirthankaras.

Adishwara temple 
Adishwara temple |Wikimedia Commons 

The main temple on top of the hill the Adishwara temple is that of Adinath, the first Tirthankara and is most noteworthy in terms of its ornate designs and the marble image of the deity is bedecked with gold ornaments studded with precious jewels. There are over 3500 steps going up to it.  The sculptural grandeur of this temple makes it one of the finest temples in India.

Chaumukha temple 
Chaumukha temple |Wikimedia Commons 

The other famous Jain temple here is Chaumukha or the four faced temple It is the biggest of its group and was built in 1618. The Chaumukha temple is a four sided buildings with doors so that the idols in the temple would be visible from all four directions. The image of Adinath looking out in four directions rests on a white marble pedestal. The Vimal Shah temple is a square structure with towers. Saraswati is recognized as supreme deity of knowledge and wisdom in Jainism as well and in Palitana there is a small shrine dedicated to her. The other stand outs are Narsingh Kesharji temple, and the Samavasaran temple, with 108 life-sketches in sculpture, are also notable.

As the temple-city of Palitana was built to be an abode for the divine, no one is allowed to stay overnight, including the priests. The temple remains closed during the four months of monsoon.

Fortification outside a cluster of temples, Palitana
Fortification outside a cluster of temples, Palitana|Wikimedia Commons 

Interestingly while there are hundreds of temples in the Palitana complex across 9 major clusters, there is only one temple for the worshipers of the more orthodox Digambara sect known as the Sri Digambara Jain Sidd Kshetra. Palitana is mostly a worship place for the Svetambara sect of the Jains. The region of Gujarat and Rajasthan has a majority of Svetambara Jains. This has a lot to do with how Jainism spread.

Rock cut caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri hills
Rock cut caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri hills|LHI Team 

By the 2th century BCE Jainism spread as groups of monks along with the traders and merchants branched out to spread the faith in different parts of the Indian subcontinent along the trade routes.


The region of Gujarat and Rajasthan has a majority of Svetambara Jains

Jainism spread first from the route of Pataliputra in Bihar to Odisha in the east; Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the South. An inscription of the famous King Kharavela (157 BCE) found in the Hathigumpha cave in Udayagiri in Bhubaneswar, Odisha states that King Kharavela erected a statue of the first Jina Adinatha, and has also got cave dwellings carved for the monks in the 1st century BCE . Another group of monks migrated westwards and subsequently settled in Gujarat. The rock cut caves of this period found near Junagarh confirm the settlement of an active Jain community in this region.

Nuns of Svetambara sect worshiping at Palitana
Nuns of Svetambara sect worshiping at Palitana|Wikimedia Commons 

By the 5th century CE, there was conflict between the followers of Jainism over the proper monastic practices and they split into two sects the Svetambara (White-Robed) sect arguing that monks and nuns should wear white robes and the Digambara (Sky-Clad) sect claiming that a true monk (but not a nun) should be naked. By the medieval period, Jainism has left a striking mark in the western part of the country, particularly in Gujarat and Rajasthan under royal patronage. The royal dynasties such as the Kadambas, the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas and the provincial Rajput rulers patronized Jainism. The hill of Shatrunjaya in Palitana bears testimony to that heritage.

The Palitana temple complex is a snap shot of the Jain faith and its many dimensions. It is one of the holiest places of the affluent Jain community of mostly traders and businessmen who have ensured that Palitana represents their collective prosperity.

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