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Jains protest over Shri Sammed Shikharji: The history of the issue and the implications of turning a religious site into a tourist spot

Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, New Delhi, Surat, and many other cities saw large crowds of Jains protesting against the Jharkhand government's decision to promote religious tourism at Parasnath Hills, claiming that it would tarnish the sanctity of Shri Sammed Shikharji, the place of salvation for 20 of the total 24 Tirthankars of the current cycle. 

Earlier yesterday, Jains across the country protested against the Jharkhand government’s decision to turn Parasnath Hill and Shri Sammed Shikharji pilgrim centre into tourist hubs and the vandalism attack faced by Jain temples on Palitana hill in Gujarat.

Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, New Delhi, Surat, and many other cities saw large crowds of Jains hitting the streets demanding the rollback of the Jharkhand government’s decision to promote religious tourism at Parasnath Hills that they claim would tarnish the sanctity of Shri Sammed Shikharji, one of the most hallowed Jain pilgrimage centres from where 20 of the total 24 Tirthankars attained salvation. 

As a part of the Tourism Policy launched this July, the Jharkhand government decided to promote religious tourism at Parasnath Hills, the region that nestles the revered Jain pilgrimage centre from where 20 of the total 24 Tirthankars attained salvation. Every year, thousands of Jains from across the world. undertake the 27 km long trek of climbing the hills to reach the summit that houses the salvation shrines of 20 Tirthankaras. Besides, the hills are also considered holy by the members of the Santhal tribe, who regard it as ‘Marang Buru’ and hold an annual festival here in mid-April.

However, since then, Jains have been protesting against the state government’s attempt to shorn off the religious character of the site and turn it into a tourism cash cow. The protests reached a crescendo on January 1, when thousands of Jains hit the streets demanding a rollback of the Jharkhand government’s decision. Notably, the Hindu rights organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), extended support to the protesting Jain community. In a statement issued by the VHP, it is stated that the organization is bound to protect the sanctity of the pilgrimage sites of India. The entire Parshwanath hill should be declared a holy site (teerth), and no tourist activities involving meat or drugs should be permitted.

“The Ministry of Pilgrimage should be established in Jharkhand immediately so that the development of Siddha Kshetra Parshwanath mountain and all other pilgrimage sites there is in accordance with the followers of the Jain faith. The relevant notifications should be amended as needed so that Siddha Parshwanath mountain and Tirtharaj Sammed peak are never turned into tourist destinations,” the VHP statement read.

Raghubar Das-led Jharkhand government issued the ‘Parasnath Hill Development Plan’ in 2015

With protests demanding the reversal of the Jharkhand government’s decision to declare Shri Sammed Shikharji a tourist spot intensifying, it is worth pondering over the provenance of the controversy. The issue dates back to 24 April 2015, when the then Jharkhand CM, Raghubar Das issued a ‘Parasthnath Hill Development Plan’ to develop tourism in Shikharji hills. 

As per the development plan envisioned by Raghubar Das’s government, a helipad akin to Vaishnodevi was to be constructed at the Shikharji hills, to help travellers reach the summit with little effort, given that it entailed walking about 25-30 kilometres on foot to complete the journey. The plan also included the construction of a Theme Park, Tourism Reception Centre, Car parking centre and Bus stand in Madhuban town, situated at the foot of the Parasnath Hills that cradle the Shri Sammed Shikarji pilgrimage centre. 

The state government had also planned to construct a Marang Buru Temple for the local tribes. 

But the government’s announcement then triggered protests from the Jain community, which demonstrated against the blatant attempt to commercialise one of their holiest pilgrim centres for boosting the state’s tourism revenues. The ‘Save Shikharji’ campaign was launched and Jains from across the country participated in it to create awareness about the Jharkhand government’s decision and garner support to stop Shri Sammed Shikharji from turning into a decadent tourist spot. 

After dragging its feet for over three years, the Raghubar Das government in August 2018 once again decided to pursue its project of transforming Shri Sammed Shikharji into a tourist attraction spot. As a token gesture to placate concerns among Jains, Das on 10 August 2018 banned the use of vehicles/motorcycles on the holy Parasnath hills. 

However, he reaffirmed his commitment to building the Marang Buru Temple for conserving the tribal culture within the stipulated time. He had also asked the Forest Department to clear all pending cases by 15 September 2018 and to issue clearances to all tourism-related projects by 10 October 2018.

Raghubar Das government declares Shri Sammed Shikharji a holy place and affirms commitment to maintaining the sanctity of the site

This once again set the ball rolling, prompting widespread protests from the Jain community, which asked the government to rescind its decision on turning the place where 20 out of 24 Jain Tirthankaras of the current cycle attained salvation into a tourism hub. On 22 October 2018, delegations of Jains, including the members of the ‘Save Shikharji’ campaign met with Raghubar Das and expressed their concerns over his government’s decision of altering the characteristics of Shri Sammed Shikharji. 

After rounds of meetings and deliberations, the ‘Parasnath Hill Development Plan’ was put in cold storage and the Jharkhand government issued an office memorandum accepting the hill as a holy place and affirmed its commitment to maintaining the sanctity of the site. 

However, in August 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, notified an area to an extent varying from zero kilometres to 25 kilometres (208.82 sq km) around the boundary of Parasnath Hill and Topchanchi Wildlife Sanctuaries, in Giridih and Dhanbad districts in the State of Jharkhand as the Parasnath and Topchanchi Wildlife Sanctuaries Eco-sensitive Zone. 

The declaration of areas in the vicinity of Parasnath Hills into an Eco-sensitive Zone did not mean that the place cannot be turned into a tourism hub. Instead, it acted as a regulation to limit the deleterious impact of developmental activities on a spiritually rich and ecologically diverse geography like the Parasnath Hills.

Parasnath Hills designated under Eco-sensitive Zone and its implications on Shri Sammed Shikharji

The National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) stipulated that state governments should declare land falling within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as eco-fragile zones or Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) under the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986. 

Though the 10-km rule is implemented as a general principle, the extent of its application can vary. Areas beyond 10 km can also be notified by the Union government as ESZs if they house larger ecologically important “sensitive corridors”. In Shri Sammed Shikharji’s case, the state government requested a range of 25 kilometres to be declared as ESZ for the development of tourism projects, with the aim of regulating certain activities around it so as to minimise the negative impacts of developmental activities affecting the fragile ecosystem encompassing the protected areas. 

The categorisation under ESZ meant activities such as commercial mining, sawmills, industries causing pollution (air, water, soil, noise etc), the establishment of major hydroelectric projects (HEP), commercial use of wood etc. would be prohibited in the area. Similarly, tourism activities like hot-air balloons, discharge of effluents or any solid waste or production of hazardous substances were also banned.

But, it allowed the felling of trees, construction of hotels and resorts, commercial use of natural water, erection of electrical cables, changes in the agricultural system, adoption of heavy technology, pesticides, and widening of roads among other things.

In essence, the declaration of ESZ did not stop a place from being turned into a tourist spot. Instead, it sought to minimise the impact of urbanisation and other developmental activities in the areas adjacent to protected areas declared as Eco-Sensitive Zones.

However, in December 2019, the Raghubar Das government lost the Jharkhand assembly elections, and Hemant Soren was sworn in as the chief minister. The Parasnath development plan, which was in abeyance for over two and a half years, was given a fresh lease of life earlier this year when the Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government decided to pursue the past government’s plan and turn the Parasnath Hills and Tirtharaj Sammed Shikharji into eco-tourism spots.

The impact of Jharkhand government’s decision: Jains raise alarm over irrevocable alteration of the religious character of Shikharji

Concerns of violation of religious sanctity of sacred places, and the possibility of vandalism attacks plague Jain devotees

The move to turn a religious site into a tourism hub could irredeemably alter the spiritual characteristics of the place and strip it of its divine significance, Jains fear. 

“It is a dangerous move because it sets a precedent for the governments to use religious sites for boosting their tourism revenue. The government exchequer is filled at the expense of the religious salience of a holy site,” said Kirti Vora, a member of the Anandji Kalyanji Trust, an esteemed body that looks after another sacred Jain pilgrimage centre in Palitana, Gujarat. 

“When a cultural site is thrown open to tourism, it not only results in the violation of its religious sanctity but also leads to the degeneration of the place and artefacts attached to it,” Vora said while highlighting the chronic vandalism of historical monuments caused by tourists. 

Mr Ashish Shah, a member of Parshvanath Mandir Trust in Ahmedabad, said turning a religious site into a tourism centre robs it of its spiritual significance and lowers its pre-eminence among the adherents. 

“Jains have spiritual feelings and sentiments attached to Shri Sammed Shikharji. If the place is turned into a tourism hub, those sentiments will eventually evaporate and cease to exist. Over time, the fact that place serves as the resting abode of 20 Tirthankars will lose its significance among Jains,” he added. 

Mr Shah also raised alarm bells that turning Sammed Shikharji into a tourist destination could result. He pointed out the recent vandalism attack on an ancient Jain shrine in the holy town of Palitana, where vandals had removed poles and tried to damage the footprints of Lord Adinath, the founder of the Ikshavaku dynasty and the first Jain Tirthankar in the current cycle of 24 Tirthankars. The footprints are regarded by some Jain devotees to be older than the Palitana itself.

“The attacks we have witnessed in recent days, especially in Palitana and other Jain temples across the country, there is little doubt what opening up Sammed Shikharji to tourists would do to the numerous temples hosted on its hills. Will the government provide security to each and every temple on the hills? And what’s the guarantee that such attacks would not take place on Shri Sammed Shikharji once it is commercialised as tourist hub?” Mr Shah questioned. 

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Jinit Jain
Jinit Jain
Writer. Learner. Cricket Enthusiast.

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