During the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel has been greatly transformed and the global tourism industry adversely affected. One of the oldest and most reliable segments of the sector, religious tourism too has struggled to find strategies for weathering the virus. In India, several pilgrimage sites adapted to a virtual model – the Amarnath yatra in 2020 involved live telecasts, as did the Sivagiri matt in 2020 and organisers of the Char Dham yatra in 2021 facilitated e-visits on their website.

However, remote experiences of holy sites are not an entirely contemporary phenomenon. For centuries, depictions of religious journeys or places have allowed travellers to either participate in travel that they could not physically undertake or wished to relive through memory. Through the mediaeval and early modern period, there have been traditions of pilgrimage maps across many religions and in many parts of the world – from Jerusalem mappa mundis to Hajj certificates to Buddhist pilgrimage mandalas.

Many of these maps enable what Harvard University professor David J Roxburgh terms “pilgrimage by proxy”, allowing devotees a way to make the trip vicariously by gaze. In India, examples of depictions of religious journeys or places include Nathdwara picchvais, Mughal-era Hajj maps and Jain tirtha patas. In terms of extant material, historical lineage and what art historian Pratapaditya Pal termed their “compositional audacity”, Jain pilgrimage maps are among the most distinct representations of sacred geography in South Asian art.

Some of the most famous pilgrimage sites for Jains – both Svetambar and Digambar sects – are Shatrunjaya and Girnar in Gujarat, Sammeda in Bihar and Asthapada in Uttarakhand. In addition, Mount Abu in Rajasthan is revered by Svetambars alone. In her essay Jain Pilgrimage: In Memory and Celebration of the Jains, Yale University professor Phyllis Granoff points out that for Jains, pilgrimage is commemorative. It is a marking of the place where a Jina (Jain spiritual leader) dies so that the faithful can partake of its piety, perhaps even achieve a “virtuous death”, a belief shared by many Hindu sects. Granoff also states that, undertaken by both the laity and the clergy, pilgrimage “lends structure to the wanderings of monks and nuns, who are forbidden from living long in one place”. A reason for this could be the idea of non-attachment to the world that constitutes one of the core tenets of Jainism, one it has in common with other Indian religio-philosophical systems.

“...King Ama of Gujarat, after listening to [Svetambar monk] Bappabhattisuri praise Mount Girnar, made a vow that he would not eat again until he worshipped the Jina Neminatha there…When the king almost died on the way, Bappabhattisuri had…a goddess bring an image of Neminatha from the mountain for the king to worship so that he could eat again and regain his strength.”  

— Jain Pilgrimage: In Memory and Celebration of the Jains, Phyllis Granoff.

Cloth paintings depicting Jain pilgrimage sites, tirtha patas, are pseudo-topographic images that transported the viewer there, exemplifying an attitude towards seeing and imagining that prevailed in the mediaeval subcontinent. Granoff informs us about the ways in which a pilgrimage might take place without physical travel – patrons might donate a Jina from one place to another, temples at one site display wall images of others. This long-distance view, she contends, might be one way to comprehend the form and function of the Jain tirtha pata.

Seoul National University assistant professor Hawon Ku provides comprehensive details about tirtha patas in her dissertation Re-Formation of Jain Identity: The 19th-century Jain Pilgrimage Site of Shatrunjaya. According to her research, tirtha patas date back to the 15th century – with the majority being produced in Western India – and flourished from the 18th century onwards. In his article Painted Banners on Cloth: Vividha-tirtha-pata of Ahmedabad, Shridhar Andhare, former curator of paintings at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, noted that tirtha patas are usually square or rectangular in shape and follow a certain format: an iconic representation of the pilgrimage site in each corner and a seated Jina or a divine preaching hall in the centre. They are adorned with standard religious motifs and, occasionally, scenes from everyday life. Though also produced in a horizontal format, one interpretation of the later, vertically-oriented patas is that they might have some relation to the Jain concept of the universe. As described by Sorbonne Nouvelle University professor Nalini Balbir, the Jain cosmos comprises the lower level of hell (adho-lok), the realm of humans (madhya-lok) and the uppermost heavens (urdhvaloka). This directional logic is employed in the pata, as the narrative moves from the lower section of the earthly city upwards to the temples.

Over the course of 400 years, Shatrunjaya near Palitana emerged as the most important pilgrimage site. Ku surmises that this is due to its closeness to centres of wealth like Ahmedabad and Bombay, making the Shatrunjaya pata the most significant subgenre of the tirtha patas. The theological value of the site has been attributed to its association with the first Jina Rishabhadev or Adishvara, who gave his first sermon there. Art historians Kay Talwar and Kalyan Krishna, in their book Indian Pigment Paintings on Cloth, note that artists who made Shatrunjaya patas captured the inaccessibility of the site and the contours of Palitana in a manner that makes the pata distinct and identifiable. Ku points out three distinguishing characteristics of Shatrunjaya patas: “schematized hills and mountains”, the appearance of a peacock and snake, and the representation of the Pandavas who are said to have attained nirvana here. She goes on to trace how, between the 15th and the 19th century, there was a delineable transition: Shatrunjaya became the cynosure, the patas became bigger, there was a shift from formulaic symbols towards a more “topographically and architecturally accurate” language reflecting the changes in terrain and construction around the temple, and Palitana town gained prominence.

One of the reasons for these transformations, argues Ku in her article Representations of Ownership: The Nineteenth-Century Painted Maps of Shatrunjaya Gujarat, is connected to the use of large tirtha patas for public or shared viewing, especially during auspicious days (such as the period of Paryushan). In many South Asian religious practices, vision is fundamental to worship – in her landmark work Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, Harvard University professor Diana L. Eck theorises darshan as “a visual apprehension charged with religious meaning”. Seeing is thus literally believing, imbuing the image of the tirtha itself with the godly properties associated with the actual place. Granoff builds on the concept of darshan, in her article Mediaeval Jain Accounts of Mt. Girnar and Śatrunjaya: Visible and Invisible Sacred Realms, citing a number of mediaeval Jain texts and monastic hymns that emphasise the benefits of viewing the place of pilgrimage: “seeing the Jina is the primary goal of the pilgrimage”. Ku also references darshan in her exposition on the large, portable 19th century Shatrunjaya patas: “As objects of communal worship, the function of patas was to provide worshippers with a visual substitute for the pilgrimage site,” she writes.

Andhare explains in his essay Jain Monumental Painting that Jain philosophy posits that the inner and outer worlds are congruent; it envisions the human body as a metaphor for the cosmos. This is apparent in the figure of the lokapurush or Cosmic Man, divided into the three cosmological sections or loks. Therefore, a map featuring the route to a temple activates an internal, spiritual pilgrimage that rhymes with the external, material one. The meaning of the word tirtha is “crossing”, in this case a journey from worldly suffering to liberation. Jain cosmology affirms this understanding of movement across an expanse, undertaken by the eye in the case of the tirtha pata.

For the most part, scholar Susan Gole asserts in Indian Maps and Plans: From Earliest Times to the Advent of the European Survey, maps from mediaeval and early modern India neither approximate the topological layout of the land nor a precise planimetric view, and do not represent distance in terms of standardised scale. Though meant at least partially to be spatial representations, these maps in fact had many characteristics of painting. In her book The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century, New York University professor Dipti Khera historicises and discusses the role of bhava or affect, and bhavana or feeling, as a conceptual tool to understand the complex rendering of place in India’s artistic traditions. In the context of Udaipur painting and scribal culture, she writes, “‘bhava of a place’ was a meaningful category for historical communities…to denote the mood and feel of places, of seasons, of momentous spectacles and festivals…to refer to fleeting moments and the ephemeral sounds, sights, and scents that made places sensate.” With regard to premodern maps, a similar evocation of emotional experience through aesthetic choices and subjective knowledge distinguishes them from cartographic objects as we understand them today.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, philosopher Michel de Certeau differentiates between place and space, defining space as “practised place”, made up of a symbolic universe. He writes, “The first medieval maps included only a rectilinear marking out of itineraries (performative indications chiefly concerning pilgrimages)…describing not the route…but the ‘log’ of their journey on foot…”. This recalls Granoff’s description of the wanderings of pilgrim monks and nuns, constituting chapters in a travelogue performed rather than written. The tirtha patas do not necessarily provide hard data about the topology, urban planning or landmarks (though they may suggest them); it is the emotional and spiritual aspect of these journeys that is coaxed out through the strategies of pictorial narrative.

Specifically, tirtha patas present a stylised, darshanic version of the site, devoid of – or, as Ku observes of the colonial-era maps made during ownership disputes with Hindus over Shatrunjaya, selectively accommodating elements of – physical accuracy. The function of the tirtha pata, then, is affective rather than instrumental. That is, the map is designed not as a guide to the actual geography of Shatrunjaya but as a means of traversing that geography in one’s imagination. Just as the image of a deity becomes the way to effect communion with the divine by looking at a likeness, the image of the tirtha becomes a way of accomplishing the journey “by proxy”. Contemplating the pata can transport the viewer to the site of pilgrimage, as though they travelled there. The movement of the eye across the map becomes a metaphor for the movement of the devotee through the site via the painted figures who now enact the viewer’s role in the pata, depicted following the sanctified trajectory and performing rituals that would occur at the actual site. Thus, viewing the pata becomes an allegory for religious experience itself. This kind of mediation enables a mediaeval form of live telecast or livestream, similar to modern-day devotees watching footage of the pilgrimage on television or online, and participating in the shared spiritual activity.

Of course, with the advent of the internet and high-definition screens, one wonders what the contemporary relevance of these pilgrimage maps is. From a search online it appears that while local painters continue to make them, they are mainly commissioned by religious Jains for private darshan or bought for their decorative charm. A number of e-commerce websites sell kitschy patas in the modern style — with overtures to illusionism and linear perspective — and users share pictures on their accounts for aesthetic appreciation. In her dissertation, Ku included interviews with painters at Shatrunjaya pata workshops in Palitana, where works, once made with gouache, were now being made using oil paint, wood and stone. Though she couldn’t confirm if the workshops she consulted in the 2000s are still active, she did comment on the patas’ current status in an email interview. “I believe that the desire to represent sacred spaces within temples/ for worship remains the same,” she said. “The sacred spaces have expanded, from just Shatrunjaya to…other Jain tirthas, particularly more local pilgrimage spots that were not found in earlier examples…This could be probably due to the more widespread travel and/or rise of local identity by lay pilgrims.” Though the Jain tirtha patas’ utilitarian heyday seems to be past, they remain an enduring aspect of public darshan and community formation at temples. Besides this, simply as artefacts that give us insight into the relationships between and among religious identity, visual modes, memorialisation and spatial representation during the mediaeval and modern eras, tirtha patas remain invaluable.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.