The Skyclad Jain Monks in Kundalpur
During our four months trip in India this year, my husband and I stopped in Khajuraho to visit the Erotic Temples. There, we heard of a small village Kundalpur, where hundreds of Jain Monks will gather in a two-day festival to celebrate fifty women becoming Jain mothers. We left Khajuraho together with a local Jain couple and their family car for Kundalpur to take part in the festival. Kundalpur turned out to be a very enriching and deeply spiritual experience which changed our perception on Indian religions forever.
Kajuraho temples are really something you wouldn’t want to miss. The temples spread the entire town and you need to rent a bicycle or a rickshaw to visit the ones who are far away. You can spend hours admiring the detailed carvings, which portray day to day activities in the human life. However their world wide fame derived from the carvings depicting sexual human acts.
Despite the aggressive touts, Kajuraho can be a laid back place. There isn’t really much else to do there aside from visiting the temples and eating good food. Somebody who has been in India for a while learns to appreciate quiet places such as Khajuraho.
Among the group of temples, there is one which is a Jain temple where we were told that a Skyclad Jain monk just left the place a few days earlier. Not knowing what a Skyclad Jain Monk is exactly, I have asked my husband.
‘These are the Naked Monks.’ He said.
I’ve heard about nudist beaches in the West before, but I know that outside those beaches, no one is allowed to walk around naked. Not only it is inappropriate, but it is against the law.
Mike and I became curious to find out more about the Naked Jain Monks. Back at the hotel, we asked where we can go see the Skyclad Monks. We were told to go talk to the Jain family which owned ‘The Jain Hotel next door. The family turned out to be very friendly and the father insisted for us to go to Kundalpur with his son and his daughter-in-law to see the Jain Monks festival.
After a few hours of calculating our budget, we decided 2000 rupees, a mere 50$, wasn’t so bad to go by car to Kundalpur, even though 50$ is a week budget in the backpacking world.
Next day, we left our hotel room early and joined the Jain couple in a two-day excursion to the Jain temples that sheltered the Skyclad Monks.
What was supposed to be a two hour car journey, it turned into a five hour trip. The road was in terribly bad condition and the driver would go at twenty km an hour for a good portion of the journey. During this time, I had the opportunity to ask the Jain couple questions on their religion, on Indian costumes and on Indian cooking recipes. The Jains have enlightened gurus, who preach about the religion and how to live a proper life. The gurus are well respected and are considered to be saints who know all the answers.
We arrived at Kundalpur around three o’clock in the afternoon and were shocked to see hundreds of cars parked in the fields nearby. There was hardly any place left to park the car.
Kundalpur is a religious pilgrimage destination, formed exclusively of Jain temples built on the surrounding hills. Kundalpur is believed to be the birthplace of the 24-th and last enlightened Jain, Lord Mahavira. The place has a very divine and peaceful feeling. The white temples are connected through paths which Jains pilgrims follow to go from one temple to another.
Immediately after we arrived, we joined the ceremony where fifty women will embrace the Jain mother positions. They will swear celibacy and will renounce their possessions.
The ceremony took place in a huge tent, filled up by thousands of Jain followers. Being the only foreigners there, Mike and I immediately attracted a lot of attention. It was nearly impossible to sneak into the front seats and watch the ceremony, but the Indian people made a huge effort to let us pass through hundreds of people to watch the ceremony up-close.
We all sat on the bare ground and were told to be quiet. I couldn’t understand the language, but as I watched closely I’ve noticed the Jain Mothers to wear white saris and the part of the sari covering their heads had blood spots. The Jain Monks and Mothers have shaved heads. We were later told that they use their own hands to pull the hair out.
There were probably about eighty Naked Jain Monks sitting down on benches. To the left, fifty Jain Mothers sat down on the stage. Their guru sat in a big wooden chair at the right end of the stage. He spoke through a microphone with each Jain Mother who will be called to approach another microphone positioned not far from him. They would engage in a conversation. The crowd listened carefully and laughed from time to time. The guru must have had a great sense of humor. I believe this was the time when each Jain Mother fully embraced their position.
After an hour of watching and taking lots of pictures, we decided it was time to eat. I had to go to the toilet and walked towards the row of metal toilets set up away from the tent. The toilets were totally repugnant so I decided to wait until we got a room.
We went to eat outside at the food stands: thalis and vegetable pakoras. After we ate, we walked inside the main temple to try to get a room. The Jain couple spoke to the Indian man in charge of distributing the rooms. He told us there was no free room and everybody else was waiting in line to rent mattresses to sleep outside in the temple yard. The Jain couple insisted my husband and I were VIP and we should be treated as such. After a long wait, the Jain couple succeeded to obtain the key to a room in the temple. The room was nothing great, but it provided shelter for the four us: two beds and a toilet.
We spent the next couple of hours visiting a couple of temples. We climbed to the top of the hill to see the Bade Baba statue, which represents Lord Adinath, the first Jain to reach enlightment. The top of the hill is in continuous construction since a new temple for the statue is currently being build.
At six o’clock we stepped into the cafeteria. They served free dinner to hundreds of people and we all rushed to get the food, pushing each other in the way. We were told they will soon stop serving dinner, due to the temple’s religious costumes. The food was delicious: chapatti with channa masala and thalis. We placed the dishes in big bins placed on the floor.
After dinner, we went back to the room to sleep. We were going to wake up early to take part in the praying temple circuit. I wasn’t able to sleep very well in the night: the room was very hot, there were many mosquitoes and there was a lot of noise coming from the yard outside where hundreds of people were sleeping under the moonlight.
In Kundalpur, the prayers are performed early morning, before sunrise. That is when everybody starts climbing the stairs to the first temple in the sequence and follows the path to the remaining ones. There are approximately sixty Jain temples in Kundalpur.
Everybody brings prasad (offering), which is normally rice and fruits. The Jains walk inside the temple, give prasad to Gods and say the prayers. Then continue to the next temple and so on.
Being the only foreigners, the Indians would continuously stare at us. They later started talking to us, asking our name and where do we come from.
Around noon time, we arrived back where we started: at the main temple in the valley. There, we saw the Naked Jain Monks sitting down inside a large open air room around their guru. The Jain Mothers surrounded the Naked Monks. They formed a beautiful circle of naked brown skin men and women in white saris. We later learned that this was the time when each Mother adopted a new name given by the Jain Guru.
At the end of the ceremony, the monks were free to move around inside the main temple. At this point they returned to their rooms, where they received Jain people to ask them for advice or just religious questions. Mike and I engaged in conversations with a couple of Monks who spoke perfectly good English. We were so surprised to find out that most of the Skyclad Monks gave up a prosperous life to renounce all their possessions and join a celibate life. The Jain Monks held well-paid positions previously, such as engineers, accountants, stock-brokers, etc. We also found out the Jain Mothers were highly educated women as well who gave up their careers to join the life of Monks.
Not being able to find happiness and peace of mind through hard work and success, the Jain Monks and Mothers aspired for a religious life where they found the answers they were looking for.
‘Are you happy leaving your life in this manner?’ I asked one of them.
‘Yes and with each moment my happiness increases more.’ He said.
My husband asked less philosophical questions:
‘Don’t you ever get cold?’ or ‘Don’t you ever want to eat ice-cream?’
The Skyclad Monks spend their entire life moving around in India, mainly in the small towns. They never wear closes, they never take any transportation vehicle, and they only walk around naked from town to town. Their mission is to preach Jain religion to the public and to help the ones in need. They always carry a pinchi, a small broom and a kamandalu, a water pot. The broom is made out of peacock feathers and is used to wipe the ground wherever they will seat not to kill any small animals or insects that happen to be in the way.
Digambara is the name of the Skyclad Monks sect. They never wear any clothes because they are not supposed to have any links with the regular daily life. They renounced all their possessions to embrace a strictly religious life. On the other hand, the Jain Mothers will only wear white saris.
I was also stunned to learn that the Monks and Mothers refer to themselves as Saints. The Jain Indians respect their Saints and always bow to them. They are never supposed to be in the way of a Monk or a Mother walking by and they are never to touch them. They can only touch their feet when they are allowed, a signed of being blessed.
My husband and I also witnessed the way they eat their food. The Monks and the Mothers would only eat once a day, at noon and only to be served by the Jain followers. At lunchtime, the Jain families arrange themselves in groups and entice the Monks and the Mothers to choose them as food providers. When the Monk or the Mother made their choice, they retreat to a quiet place to begin the feeding ceremony. The Monks will only eat standing up and hand out their hands to have small portions of food placed in their hands, which they bring to their mouth to chew and swallow.
Digambara is a strictly vegetarian sect and can only eat certain foods. The products they avoid beside meat are: eggs, dairy, garlic, onion and others.
Since we are a different religion, our place was not among the Jains, but the Indian people treated Mike and me with a lot of respect and at times with too much attention. Our stay in Kundalpur turned out to be overwhelming and we were thankful to have learnt so much about the Jain religion in only two days. Our wish to see the Skyclad Monks came true.
Back in Khajuraho, my husband and I were too flabbergasted to care to chat with other foreigners. We realized we cherished a very special experienced among the Jain Monks and we were very thankful to the Jain couple who brought us to Kundalpur. There is no other way to get to Kundalpur and be received in the temple unless you are accompanied by a Jain follower.
By Anne-Marie Manuela Pop