Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mount Girnar: The House of Gods and Lions.


Gir National Park in Gujarat is home to many animals like lions, deer and peacocks.
  • IndiaIn January 2014, I traveled to Ahmedabad, India to preside over a conference on Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Trauma Care (TC). I led the U.S delegation and trained 100 surgeons in trauma care in Mumbai. After the successful seminar, along with my two nephews Hemant and Bharat, we took an eight-hour car ride to Junagadh to visit Mount Girnar for a pilgrimage to ancient Jain temples and also to visit the Gir National Park for a lion safari.

    We arrived at Junagadh at night and the next morning at 5 a.m., we rode 6 kilometers to reach Mount Girnar. We started on a two-mile long and steep climb of 9000 steps to reach various temples on the mountains. After two hours of climbing, covering 4000 steps, we reached the main Jain temple dedicated to 22nd Jain Tirthankara (God) Neminath (there are 24 Jain Tirthankaras.)
    There were hundreds of pilgrims there for worship — some climbed and some were carried in a chair, called “doly,” lifted by two men. This ancient temple has existed for thousands of years. Mount Girnar has a volcanic origin and has five peaks at 3600 feet above sea level. It has a large number of Jain and Hindu temples.
    The present magnificent main Jain temple of black granite stone was built during 1128 and 1159 A.D. The carvings and architecture of the entire temple are awesome. I could not fathom how such a massive structure with intricate sculptures was built on such a steep mountain and at such a height. The temple has a 61-inch-high black marble statue, in a sitting posture, of 22nd Jain Tirthankara Neminath, who lived around 3100 B.C. As per the Jain historians, the statue is thousands of years old. The temple has a large courtyard that is 139 meters long and 58 meters wide, with 70 cells containing all 24 Jain Tirthankaras’ marble idols for worship.

    Tirthankara Neminath was a prince in the Gujarat region and was known as Arishtanemi. On his wedding day, he saw a large number of wailing animals in a fenced area. On enquiry, he found out that these animals were going to be slaughtered for his wedding feast. Pained with the planned killings of the animals, Arishtanemi liberated the caged animals and abandoned his wedding. Later on, he left his kingdom and traveled to Mount Girnar to become a Jain monk. He prayed and meditated for 54 days on Mount Girnar and attained enlightenment.
    Afterwards, for many years he traveled all over India and preached Jainism. He taught the practice of non-violence, truth, detachment from worldly possessions and bodily pleasures, equanimity, respect for all religions and views, charity and compassion. After many years of travel and teaching, he returned to Mount Girnar where he attained nirvana, as his soul was liberated from all karmas. It is the karmas, both good and bad, which keep the soul in the painful cycle of life, death and rebirth. Jains believe that practicing the principles of Jainism allows one to shed all karmas and achieve a final liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
    After the climb, we had a traditional hot water bath and changed into worship attire. Jain worship is done by touching the idol of Tirthankara with saffron and sandalwood paste and offering flowers. When I touched the ancient statue of Neminath for puja (worship), I felt content and tranquil. After the worship, we prayed and meditated in the temple for blessings. Later on, we climbed to reach other temples for puja and prayers. It was amazing that after so much of steep climbing in the hot sun, there was minimal feeling of tiredness or exhaustion. The enthusiasm and energy excelled and we completed the pilgrimage. While descending, I contemplated life, living and its final destination. In the practice of Jainism, an annual pilgrimage to ancient Jain temples is a necessity for salvation. It was with the sense of divinity, elation and achievement that we reached the base and enjoyed a freshly prepared delicious late lunch.
    The next morning, we left Junagadh at 7 a.m. and reached the Sasan lion safari area by 8 a.m. Sasan is an entry portal of the national park and sanctuary. The forest covers an area of 19,393 square kilometers. The terrain of mountains and forests is mainly of volcanic origin. The large Shetrunji River runs in its midst. This forest has some 300 water points and is home to 36 species of mammals, 300 species of birds and 37 species of reptiles. The main carnivorous animals are lions, leopards, jungle cats, hyenas, jackals and mongoose, while the herbivores are deer, sambars, antelopes and wild boars. The reptiles in the forest include crocodiles, lizards, pythons, cobras and tortoises. There are also many varieties of small and large birds like eagles, woodpeckers, peacocks and parakeets.

    We started the safari at 9 a.m. with eight jeeps, each with its own guide. It was an adventurous ride that lasted four hours.  We saw two large male lions, one resting and the other yawning with a wide, open mouth. Within a few feet of the lions, our jeeps halted and we took lots of photographs. The lions didn’t bother to look at us at all. Nobody in any of the jeeps had any arms for protection. We saw a number of beautiful spotted deer moving in groups right in the vicinity of the lions. We also saw lots of antelopes, sambar deer, peacocks and other rare birds and animals from quite up close.
    The tour was a photographer’s paradise. The animals in their natural habitat looked comfortable despite the presence of the jeeps and tourists. In the jungle, we saw many settlements of a tribe called Maldharis. The Maldharis have been living in the area for many centuries, raising livestock. The fearless Maldharis live and move around the forest with ease and just carry a long stick for their protection. In the nearby Junagadh zoo, which was established in 1863, there is a lion breeding center. The center has bred some 180 lions in captivity.

    The Mount Girnar area showed us, the tourists, a completely peaceful coexistence of trees, birds, animals, humans and yes, gods (in their temples). The philosophy of “live and let live” is very much alive and flourishing in these mountains and forests. The Gujarat government must be complimented for availing multiple tourist facilities to worship gods and also to enjoy the forest’s flora, fauna and animals in their natural habitat. The authorities’ conservation and animal care efforts are praiseworthy. The Gujarat government has built a large modern facility for tourists to stay in as well as forest activities at Sasan. Over 100,000 tourists visit the area annually. I wish many more tourists would visit and take advantage of the facilities and enjoy the thrilling visit.
    About the Writer:
    Navin C. Shah
    M.D., M.S., F.A.C.S., F.I.C.S., F.A.C.I.P.
    Diplomat of the American Board of Urology
    Diplomat of the American Board of Quality Assurance

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