All cultural practice occurs in geographic space. Thus, culture is very spatial. If it is spatial, it can be mapped.
Among the many cultural acts that we perform, pilgrimage is one of the very powerful acts. Pilgrimage is often described as “an outward enactment of an inward journey.” The inward journey is spiritual. The outward journey is a metaphor. So, the actions that we perform when we go on pilgrimage, denote some kind of spiritual or religious idea.
Pilgrimage is, by definition, a spiritual/religious exercise. Like all journeys, it has three basic components – origin, intermediate place(s), and destination. The destination is usually a place that we consider holy. I asked my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj (Geographer, Kent State University, USA), “What makes a place a pilgrimage place?” He told me that some places in the world are said to be ‘power centres’ – i.e., places that have special powers. Some people are able to identify these places as such and proclaim it to be so. To the extent that others agree and show their agreement by worshiping at these places, the places are considered holy.
In the minds of people, holy places are associated with stories that are called ‘place legends’ (sthala-puraana). Every holy place has a sthala-puraana. This story is reinforced by repeated telling from person to person, generation to generation, and often written down in some form. Sometimes these stories are performed.
Shanmukha (or Subrahmanya or Muruga) got peeved with his parents (Parvati and Shiva) over something and in his anger, declared that he would become a mendicant. Thus, he wore a mere loin-cloth and went stood atop a hill. This is the famous temple of Shanmukha on the Palani hill in Tamil Nadu.
A ship carrying Portuguese sailors got caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal. The captain prayed to the Virgin Mary for protection. They reached shore safely and the natives welcomed and helped them. In gratitude, he built a basilica (temple) for Her. This is the basilica in Velankanni, Tamil Nadu. (There are two other stories also associated with this shrine.)
These stories become part of the place legend over long periods of time. Pilgrims consider these places holy by believing in these legends at some level or other. Most commonly, each holy place attracts adherents one religion. However, there are places which attract pilgrims of other religions also. Such places have ‘single-religion shrines’ that attract ‘multi-religion pilgrims.’ These places are very interesting. Here, we see the power of legends that can appeal to diverse people and bring them to a common place with a common purpose, even if only for a brief while.
At these places, the differences among the religions of the pilgrims are kept aside and the commonalities are expressed.
Dargahs are excellent examples of this. A dargah is “a Sufi Islamic shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure, often a Sufi saint or dervish.” In Bangalore, the Tawakkal Mastan Vali dargah in Cotton Petey is a famous example of such a shrine. Pilgrims from diverse religions worship there. The Hindu karaga festival procession makes a stop at this dargah where there is a celebratory welcome offered to the karaga. Not long ago, when my geography guru visited Bangalore, I took him on a local field trip that included this dargah and another such place – quite an enlightening experience.
Likewise, Velankanni attracts pilgrims from different religions. The worship there is a mix of Hindu and Christian elements. Sabarimalai (Kerala) and Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh) are also examples of such places where confluence of religious pilgrims occurs.
We see this much more in the case of recent religious personalities whose places attract people of diverse faiths. Examples include Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sai Baba, Amma, and many others.
In all cases, for the period of the pilgrimage activities, differences are set aside, common goals are emphasized.
At the outset, I said pilgrimage is an outward act of an inward journey. This common worship is an outward act of addressing similar concerns (the inward journey) – peace, prosperity, love, etc.
Becoming conscious of these geographies, can help us overcome a lot of that which divides us and emphasize what we share. For it is in sharing that peace and concord lie.
The alternative is very harmful, as we see every day in the news and around us.
What you can do:
- Find out the place-legend of holy places in your area. See if these stories are connected to historical personalities also or deal only with mythological personalities.
- Identify shrines that belong to one religion but to which pilgrims from other religions also go. If you can, visit these shrines and observe:
- Most common age groups of the pilgrims.
- Which religion they seem to belong to (sometimes, you can tell by customs of dress and body ornaments) .
- What kind of worship happens at these places?
- What are the place-legends of these places?
- Conduct a simple survey among pilgrims to find out how far they have traveled to come to this place, how often they visit, and the kinds of worship they perform there.
- Identify the nearest holy site to you. This is more complex than you think and the answer may well surprise you!
- Email me your observations. I would love to hear from you.
(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, on 10 July 2014)