For the past few weeks, the Jain community across India has been on the roads, peacefully protesting the Jharkhand government’s move to declare the sacred Tirtha (revered pilgrimage site) Shri Sammed Shikharji as a ‘tourist centre’.
The other matter of concern for the community has been the recent incident of vandalism at one of the shrines of Shatrunjaya Maha Tirth (Giriraj) in Palitana, Gujarat.
Participating in the “Save Shikharji” and “Save Giriraj” movements, lakhs of Jains have taken to the streets in Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and other parts of the country marching in peaceful rallies and silent processions.
On Tuesday (3 January), Sugyeyasagar Maharaj, a Jain Muni passed away in Jaipur after undertaking a fast-unto-death against the Soren-led Jharkhand government’s decision.
“A priest passed away fasting, protesting for the cause. The government of India and Jharkhand government is working at snail’s pace, if it continues then the public anger will spread,” said Rajasthan Jain Sabha president Subhash Jain.
Why Are Sammed Shikharji And Shatrunjay Mahatirth So Sacred For The Jains?
Sammed Shikharji is situated on Parasnath Hill, which is the highest peak in Jharkhand. The place is considered the most sacred and important pilgrimage by all the sects of the Jain community.
In fact, the hill derives its name Parasnath from Lord Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. The significance of Sammed Shikharji can be deduced from the fact that 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras attained moksha on this hill.
Jain pilgrims undertake a 27 km (sometimes as long as 57 km) long trail as a parikrama (circumambulation) of Shikharji. As per the tradition, Sammed Shikharji (Jharkhand), Ashtapad (Mount Kailash), Girnar (Gujarat), Dilwara (Mount Abu), and Shatrunjaya (Gujarat) are collectively known as Shwetambara Pancha Tirth or five principal pilgrimages.
Though the present structure of temples was renovated by Jagat Seth in 1768, the references to the Tirtha can be found in Jnaatradharmakatha, one of the twelve canonical texts of Jains called Agamas, composed by Sudharmaswami in the 5-6th century BCE.
On the other hand, more than 1,000 temples in Palitana located on Shatrunjaya hills in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat are collectively referred to as Shatrunjaya Maha Tirth or ‘Giriraj’.
Alongside Shikharji, it is the holiest pilgrimage site for the Jains who believe that it is on these hills that Rishabhadeva, the first Tirthankara delivered his first sermon. Shatrunjaya hills, just like Shikharji, are mentioned in the canonical texts of Jainism.
What Is The Issue At Shikharji?
The Union Environment Ministry had declared the area around Sammed Shikharji as an “eco-sensitive” zone (ECZ) to preserve the ecologically sensitive Parasnath hill.
However, the Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government has declared to develop it as a tourist centre, by notifying it as an “eco-tourist” spot.
This is what has irked the Jains who contend that this will rob their sacred site of its religious sanctity. The community believes that while it is open to preserving the area as an ecologically sensitive zone, it is against developing it as a tourist place.
Among other apprehensions like commercialisation, the main concern being raised is that the move will lead to the proliferation of meat, alcohol, and obscene entertainment at the holy site.
Despite being banned in the area, there have already been complaints made by the community regarding the miscreants selling meat and alcohol around the pilgrimage site. Therefore, Jains want the hill area to be declared a “place of worship” to protect its holiness.
Community leaders, Jain Acharyas, and Gurus belonging to all the sects (Digambar and Shvetambar being two major umbrellas) have come together and made several representations to various officials and political leaders including those in the state as well as the centre.
In the same line, a letter was written to the chief secretary, government of Jharkhand with a request to declare Sammed Shikharji as a holy place. The community is also organising and drafting petitions to send to Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the issue.
Jharkhand Governor Ramesh Bais has also written to Bhupendra Yadav, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change to allow Sammed Shikharji, to remain a pilgrimage site. He stressed that the matter is related to the sentiments of the Jain community and therefore the subject should be reconsidered.
Bais also noted that while the Union Environment Ministry had declared it an ‘eco-sensitive zone’, the Jharkhand government has declared it a tourist place. He said that there have been complaints about the menace of alcohol and meat in the area, which is the most prominent Tirtha for the Jains. The community believes that this will disturb the sanctity of the place.
Who Said What?
Muni Pramaan Sagar Maharaj, a prominent Jain guru, said “the protests are happening because of a notification issued by the government. Initially, it (Parasnath Hills) was declared as an ‘eco-sensitive zone’ and now the matter of ‘eco-tourism’ has come up. Now people believe that declaring it a tourist centre will disturb the sanctity of the area.
"Instead of declaring it as a tourist site,” he appealed that, “the place should be declared a ‘place of worship’ like Kashi Vishwanath and Vaishno Devi.”
Further, he stressed that the community was positive that the demand of the Jains will be acknowledged.
Sanjay Jain, president of the Vishwa Jain Sangathan, has taken to fast-unto-death in Delhi. According to him, the entire episode is a conspiracy to take away the entire Parasnath Hill from Jains by misrepresenting Sammed Shikharji as merely a part of it.
While the community wants the hill to be preserved as an eco-sensitive zone, the reservation is with respect to developing it as a ‘tourist centre’. Instead, the government must promptly declare it as a ‘place of worship’.
“What is the guarantee that tomorrow Vaishno Devi and Amarnath will not be converted to a tourist spot on the same lines? Meat is already being sold there,” said Ruchi Jain who has also vowed to fast unto death alongside Sanjay Jain.
Shanta Jain, a pilgrim at Shikharji, said “as there is Mecca for Muslims, Vaishno Devi for Hindus, similarly there is a Shikharji for Jains.”
Anil Kumar, secretary of Sri Digambar Jain Samaj in Mysuru, said that is a holy place for the community. But the Jharkhand government has declared it a tourist place which will allow the tourists to visit the holy place for fun and entertainment and will disturb the holiness of the place.
“We appeal to the government to withdraw its decision immediately and to ensure that the environment of the holy place is not disturbed by tourists,” said Kumar.
Meanwhile, National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has written to the Jharkhand government’s chief secretary regarding denotifying Parasnath Parvatraj as an eco-tourism centre and declaring it as a holy place. Further, it has decided to hear the matter on 17 January.
Coming out in support of Jains, Member of Parliament from Ranchi and BJP leader, Sanjay Seth demanded that CM Hemant Soren withdraw the Jharkhand government’s decision.
Citing the religious and cultural significance of Shri Sammed Shikharji, he said it is not appropriate to declare it as a tourist spot as it could affect the purity and sanctity of the Tirtha.
Jharkhand’s Minister of State for Tourism Hafizul Hasan has said that the faith of Jain society will be taken care of and that the state government is trying to find a solution.
Further, he added that a meeting between Hemant Soren and a delegation of the Jain community will be arranged soon.
As regards Palitana’s Shatrunjaya Maha Tirth, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, a BJP Minister in the Maharashtra government said, “we are protesting against the vandalisation of the temple in Palitana and Jharkhand government's decision. The Gujarat government has taken action but we want strict action against them. Today more than 5 lakh people are on the streets.”
Jains in Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Mysuru, Udupi, Kolkata, Moodbidri, Saidapur, Indore, Bhopal, Jabalpur, Ujjain, Narmadapuram, Gwalior, Sagar, Khandwa, Kota, and other cities have organised peaceful protests and huge rallies under the ‘Save Shikharji’ and ‘Save Giriraj’ movement.
The representatives even handed over a letter to the President of India after a rally at India Gate.
Why Is The Movement Politically Important?
Jains, a community largely involved in business and trading, have traditionally been BJP voters. Apart from the metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, Jains have a strong presence in Gujarat and its cities like Ahmedabad and Surat where Prime Minister Modi enjoys huge popularity amongst the community.
The incumbent Home Minister of Gujarat, Harsh Sanghvi and former Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani also come from the Jain community.
With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and later the assembly elections in Jharkhand, where BJP is seeking a comeback, the movement becomes politically significant.
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