It was 30 years, said our tiny, barefooted guide, since any Europeans had climbed this holy hill. He checked our footwear, for no leather is allowed to taint this giant, forested mass rising 4,500ft from the plains of Bihar in eastern India.

Ganesha, the guide, was an ancient Brahmin, with strands of wild grey hair smudging his deep- red tilak, the caste-mark painted on his forehead. He looked doubtfully at the older and rounder members of our party. It was a long way to the top.

Foreign visitors might be rare, but every day (except in the monsoon season) hundreds of Indians make the ascent of Parasnath Hill. It is one of the holiest of places for the millions of people who call themselves Jains: followers of the Jinas, those who have overcome the world's misery.

Ours, too, was a holy journey. Hindu, Baha'i and Christian, we had come together as 12 pilgrims to travel across India visiting holy sites of different world faiths. From the tombs of the Sufi saints in New Delhi and Lord Krishna's paradise in nearby Mathura, we had reached Parasnath via the Great Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, also in Bihar, under which the Buddha received enlightenment.

Only in the rainy season is Parasnath deserted, less because its steep paths become impassably muddy than because of its billions of beetles and mosquitoes: the Jain philosophy's respect for all life means that even treading on an insect must be strenuously avoided.

In every Jain temple throughout India there is a stylised painting of Parasnath. It is instantly recognisable, even if you can't read the Sanskrit texts around it. For 24 temples, dedicated to the 24 Jain saints, occupy its several summits. A pilgrim with stamina and devotion should visit all of them.

But you can do it even without the stamina. Old, overweight, or lazy pilgrims are catered for: in half the time it would take you to walk, you can be conveyed to the top in a crude form of sedan chair. Two men sling a thick bamboo pole over their shoulders, suspending a cane tray. Sitting cross- legged on the tray, swaying and creaking up the hill, you can attain the view and the spiritual merit of pilgrimage without the exertion.

We, however, walked, climbing steadily for three hours through what the Indian Ordnance Survey nicely describes as 'dense mixed jungle'. Occasionally, the vegetation thinned, offering views of rolling green. But before long there was nothing to see: the silent jungle seemed to have swallowed the rest of the world. No wonder the Jain saints came here to attain enlightenment.

As we climbed, Ganesha told a story. It was a favourite Jain story, good for the climber to meditate on, he said. It was the tale of the Man in the Well.

'A man encountered a wild elephant. His only escape was down a well at the foot of a tree. Leaping into it, the man clutched a clump of reeds and, halfway down, managed to check his fall by wedging them across the width of the well.

'His position was precarious. At the bottom of the well a giant snake waited with open jaws. Meanwhile, two mice gnawed at the roots of the meagre reeds. Above, the angry elephant charged at the tree and dislodged a honeycomb, which fell down the well and on to the man's head. Bees flew about and stung him. But a single drop of honey rolled down his face and on to his tongue.

'Immediately, nothing had any importance save that he should taste another drop of honey . . .'

That, said Ganesha with relish, is the extent of the world's fleeting pleasures and the reality of its misery.

We reached the first temple, which was surrounded by a narrow moat. Its ornate, squat towers made a clean silhouette against the intense blue sky. Having removed our shoes as a necessary sign of respect, we ran across the scorching hot courtyard into the temple's pitch-dark interior.

Lining the walls of the simple building, 23 white marble images slowly became visible. We could dimly make out a single black one, larger than the others. Jain images are as austere as the faith they represent. All are unclothed figures in the same lotus-type position, their determined looks indicating how, by their own efforts, they have overcome the world.

The Jains believe in an endlessly recycling universe. There is no god to control or direct its ceaseless ebb and flow. Individual human beings create their own destinies and strive endlessly to be free of them. The importance of the 24 great persons, whose proper title is Tirthankaras, is that they have freed themselves, and shown mankind the way.

Mahavira, the last Tirthankara and the founder of Jainism, was a contemporary of the Buddha. It is suggested that the Buddha came to his doctrine of the Middle Way ('moderation in all things') in reaction to Mahavira's asceticism.

But this temple was only a staging post; not the most important place on the mountain. The highest summit, crowned with a single temple, is approached up a few hundred marble steps. This temple is dedicated to Lord Parasnath, the last Tirthankara before Mahavira. It is built over a tiny cave where he is said to have meditated and reached enlightenment.

We entered the cave, touched its rough roof and cold floor and looked out through its tiny door over the endless forest. Then we offered up a few rice grains with proper solemnity. These offerings were sacred to the memory of a man who lived more than three millennia ago. This was, we reflected, as long before Christ as we are after William the Conqueror.

Air India flies daily from Heathrow to Calcutta via New Delhi; a fare of pounds 499 is available from Bridge the World (071-911 0900). The climb up Parasnath Hill begins from the small town of Madhuban, 186 miles from Calcutta and a day's journey by hire car on the Grand Trunk Road.

(Photograph omitted)