Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Saturday, 9 January 2010

Faith and charity in Indian temple town

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Palitana, Gujarat


Inside an Indian Jain faith temple

Palitana is a sleepy town in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Perched high on a hill overlooking the town is a network of 1,500 exquisite temples.

For followers of the Jain faith this is a place of major significance.

It is the world's highest concentration of Jain temples - they are packed in dense clusters to enable barefoot pilgrims to move around easily.

Every year more than half a million Jain pilgrims (of approximately 10 million Jains worldwide) make the journey to the stone and marble shrines at Palitana.

Non-violence and compassion towards every living being is at the core of Jain belief.

And this year their spiritual quest in Palitana has manifested itself in a project which will help some of India's 20 million people with disabilities.

A group of Jains has set up a vast medical camp in the town for people with disabilities.

'Truly devout'

Our Jain faith teaches us to reach out to the under-privileged
Asha Mehta, Ratna Nidhi Charitable Trust

Jainism came out of ancient India and is therefore very similar to Hinduism in rituals and practices.

Like Hindus they believe that the journey to the temples is an essential part of the pilgrimage and that it is akin to ascending a path to salvation, which is why the temples are built on top of the mountain.

Many of the pilgrims to Palitana are from India but there are others from the UK, North America and East Africa.

"I'd heard about this place from my parents," says 19-year-old Manish Shah from Leicester in the UK, as he climbs up the mountain.

"It's amazing to actually be here and experience it for myself."

Many of the temples date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Jain temples in Palitana
Overlooking Palitana is a network of exquisite temples (Pics: Bhasker Solanki)

Getting up to the mountain is not that easy. It involves climbing up more than 3,000 steps cut into the side of the mountain.

The elderly or those who find it too difficult are taken up on special chairs carried by porters.

It can take about two hours to get all the way up to the top. Most Jains will do it at least once in their lifetime but the truly devout will do it 99 times.

"We believe that our God climbed up this mountain 99 times," a temple official tells me.

"It's incumbent upon good Jains to replicate it - over a 45-day period."

Palitana to Kabul

At the medical camp in Palitana town the spiritual becomes practical: doctors fit patients with artificial limbs and callipers. Some are given crutches and wheelchairs.

People with hearing problems are given special aids and taught how to use them.

Jain boys carry a small child up the hill
All Jains are expected to make the climb

Many of India's disabled live in poverty with little access to proper medical care.

The doctors are assisted by volunteers from all over the world.

"Our Jain faith teaches us to reach out to the under-privileged," says Asha Mehta of the Ratna Nidhi Charitable Trust, which organised the camp which is helping 25,000 people.

"Some years ago we realised that there were a lot of people in India who faced disabilities. So we decided to set up these camps.

"We've also set up similar camps in 11 African countries to help landmine victims," she adds.

The organisers have since visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, to help war victims and are planning a similar effort in Angola.

Philanthropy and faith

Jain idol
Jainism bears many similarities with Hindusim

Although they are small in number - and little-known worldwide- the Jains have historically been a wealthy trading community.

Most of the Indians engaged in the diamond trade in Antwerp, for instance, are Jains.

This has helped them quietly extend their influence first by patronising and bequeathing a rich architectural legacy and now by helping those in need.

"The essence of Jainism is to give up selfishness for selflessness," explains Acharya Shri Rajyashsuriji, Palitana's chief Jain monk.

It is a combination of philanthropy and faith that can deliver powerful results.

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