The Skyclad Jain Monks
During our four-month trip in India this year, my husband and I stopped in Khajuraho to visit the Erotic Temples. While there, we heard of a small village, Kundalpur, where hundreds of Jain Monks gather in a two-day festival to celebrate fifty women becoming Jain mothers.
We left with a local Jain couple and their family to take part in the festival. Kundalpur turned out to be a very enriching and deeply spiritual experience. It changed our perception of Indian religions forever.
Kajuraho temples are not to be missed. They spread through the entire town. You need to rent a bicycle or a rickshaw to visit those that are far away. You can spend hours admiring the detailed carvings, which portray day-to-day activities. However, their worldwide fame derives from the carvings depicting sexual human acts.
Despite the aggressive touts, Kajuraho can be a laid back place. There isnâ€™t really much else to do 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 asked my husband.
â€œThey are the Naked Monks.â€ He said.
Iâ€™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 is it inappropriate, but it is against the law.
Mike and I became curious about the Naked Jain Monks. Back at the hotel, we asked where we could go to see these monks. We were told to talk to the Jain family who owned The Jain Hotel next door. The family turned out to be very friendly. The father insisted we go to Kundalpur with his son and daughter-in-law for the festival.
After a few hours of calculating our budget, we decided 2,000 rupees, a mere $50.00, wasnâ€™t so bad to go by car to Kundalpur, even though $50.00 is a week’s budget in the backpacking world.
The following day, we 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, turned into a five-hour trip. The road was terrible. The driver went at twenty kilometers per hour for a good portion of the time.
Along the way, I had the opportunity to ask the Jain couple questions about their religion, Indian costumes and Indian cooking recipes. They are enlightened gurus who preach how to live a proper life. Gurus are well respected and are considered saints who know all the answers.
We arrived at Kundalpur around three oâ€™clock in the afternoon. We were shocked to see hundreds of cars parked in the fields nearby. There was hardly any place left.
Kundalpur is a religious pilgrimage destination, formed exclusively of Jain temples built on the surrounding hills. It is believed to be the birthplace of the 24th and last enlightened Jain, Lord Mahavira. The place has a divine and peaceful feeling to it. 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 embraced the Jain mother positions. They swore celibacy and renounced possessions. The ceremony took place in a huge tent, filled with thousands of Jain followers. Being the only foreigners, Mike and I attracted a lot of attention. It was nearly impossible to sneak into the front seats and watch the ceremony, but the people made a huge effort to let us pass through to watch up-close.
We sat on the ground and were told to be quiet. I couldnâ€™t understand the language, but as I watched closely, I noticed that the Jain Mothers were wearing white saris and the part of the sari covering their heads had blood spots. The Jain Monks and Mothers had shaved heads. We were later told that they use their own hands to pull their hair out.
There were probably about eighty Naked Jain Monks sitting on benches. To the left, fifty sat down on the stage. Their guru was on a big wooden chair at the right end of the stage. He spoke through a microphone with each Jain Mother who would 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 her position.
After an hour of watching and taking pictures, we went to eat thalis and vegetable pakorasM at the food stands. Afterwards, we walked inside the main temple to get a room. The Jain couple spoke to the Indian man in charge of distributing the rooms. He told us there were no free rooms. 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 VIPs and we should be treated as such. After a long wait, the Jain couple succeeded in obtaining the key to a room in the temple. The room was nothing great, but it provided shelter for the four of us, two beds and a toilet.
We spent the next couple of hours visiting a few temples. We climbed to the top of the hill to see the Bade Baba statue, which represents Lord Adinath, the first Jain to reach enlightenment.
At six oâ€™clock we stepped into the cafeteria. A free dinner was served to hundreds of people. Everyone rushed to get the food, pushing each other in the way. We were told they would soon stop serving due to the templeâ€™s religious costumes. The food was delicious – chapatti with channa masala and thalis. We placed the dishes in big bins 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 wasnâ€™t able to sleep very well. The room was so hot, there were many mosquitoes and a lot of noise coming from the yard outside where people were sleeping under the moonlight.
In Kundalpur, prayers are performed before sunrise. That is when everybody starts climbing the stairs to the first temple in the sequence. There are approximately sixty Jain temples.
Everybody brings prasad, offering, normally rice and fruits. The Jains walk inside the temple, give prasad to the gods and say prayers. Then they continue to the next temple and so on. Indians continuously stared at us foreigners: later, they started talking to us, asking our names and where we came from.
Around noontime, we arrived back where we started – at the main temple in the valley. We saw the Naked Jain Monks sitting 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 post religious questions. Mike and I engaged in conversations with a couple of Monks who spoke good English. We were so surprised to find out that most of the Skyclad Monks give up a prosperous life, renounce all possessions and enter a celibate life. The Jain Monks held well-paid positions, such as engineers, accountants, stockbrokers, etc. We also found out the Jain Mothers were highly educated as well.
Not being able to find happiness and peace of mind through hard work and success, the Jain Monks and Mothers aspire to a life where they find the answers they are looking for.
â€œAre you happy leaving your life in this manner?â€ I asked one of them.
â€œYes and with each moment my happiness increases more,â€ he said.
My husband had less philosophical questions.
â€œDonâ€™t you ever get cold?â€ or â€œDonâ€™t you ever want to eat ice-cream?â€
The Skyclad Monks spend their entire life moving around in India, mainly in small towns. They never wear clothes, they never use transportation, and they walk around naked from town to town. Their mission is to preach the Jain religion and help those 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 so they don’t 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 clothes also because they are not supposed to have links with regular daily life. They renounce their possessions to embrace a strictly religious life.
I was stunned to learn why 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 sign of being blessed.
The Monks and the Mothers eat once a day, at noon, and are only serrved by 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 make a choice, they retreat to a quiet place to begin the feeding ceremony. The Monks will only eat standing up. They extend their hands for small portions.
Digambara is a strictly vegetarian sect. The products they avoid besides meat are eggs, dairy, garlic and onions.
Since we are a different religion, our place was not among the Jains, but the Indian people treated Mike and I with 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 experience and we were 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.
Check out the author’s website at hwww.neo-hippy.com.