This week: five and six. Places and circuits. Hierophany, cosmology, the elements, hills, hillocks, sea-sides, trains. And of course, tying all these together: geography!

In an earlier column, I had talked about how some places come to be considered sacred.

To recap: certain places are recognized as power centres and become associated with specific acts (rituals, customs), structures (shrines), and lore (sthhala-purāna). As long as people believe these places to be holy and perform various acts, these places are considered sacred. Travel to such places is considered ‘an outward enactment of an inward journey’ – physical action that is a metaphor for an individual’s spiritual search. Such travel is called pilgrimage.

On our geographic space, we make changes to depict our beliefs, thoughts, experiences, etc. You can think of this as writing on the landscape. Through this, we create cultural landscapes. Look around you and you will probably be able to make out different kinds of cultural landscapes that you inhabit in your daily life. Examples: economic landscape (shops, ATMs, paid services); landscapes of kinship (homes); landscapes of joy (places that make you happy); landscapes of fear (places that make you afraid), and so on.

Sacred experiences are the primary ingredients of sacred landscapes. Every time you visit a shrine, you are recalling a sacred experience at that place (this is called hierophany; hiero = sacred, phany = appearance) of someone in the past. May be your own. May be one you have heard about. This is one of our ways of connecting with a larger humanity and history – through geography.

When places are organized using a particular common feature, we call it thematic organization. Here are two thematically organized sets of sacred places.


Many cultures in human history have recognized five elements as the bases (singular: basis) of the cosmos (universe): Earth (prthivī), ether (ākāśa), fire (agni), water (āpah), and air (vāyu). In many ancient cultures, these elements were revered and worshiped. Such worship may seem superstitious to some. However, it has its own beauty; it is an expression of human effort to understand the system of which we are all part. It also creates a sense of awe, fear, and of intimacy (think of expressions such as Mother Earth).

In southern India, there are five shrines (kshetra – a Samskrtam geographical term: region, sacred site, place) all dedicated to forms of Śiva (śiva – Samskrtam, auspicious). Early in our cultural history, lore (purāna in Samskrtam) arose ascribing the power of each element to a form of Shiva.

Since there are five elements (pancha five; bhūta element), the shrines are called the pancha-bhūta-linga-kshetras (see table below). The linga is a symbol of Shiva.

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The faithful often go on pilgrimages visiting each of these shrines in turn. Geographers call this circuit pilgrimage.

Many poets and saints have sung about the divine in these places. The place is itself sacred because that form of the divine is present there. One of my favorite examples of such expression is Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar (1775-1835) who went on pilgrimages to several of these shrines where he composed songs specifically set in those places.

What is the symbolism of these places and pilgrimages to them? The pilgrim’s quest is to connect with the divine power that expresses itself through these five elements. Connection with that divine is connection with one’s own self. This connection makes us part of something much larger than our small bodies and minds. This can elevate us to a more spiritual life that is benevolent to life, Earth, and our selves – geography is, ultimately, about finding these benevolent connections. In its ultimate meaning, pilgrimage is “an outward enactment of an inward journey” – i.e., the outward enactment is full of symbolic actions.

Here is a map of the Five and the Six


When I was a child, I had a lot of older people who told me many interesting stories from the purānas. Among them were stories of the younger son of Śiva, called variously as Kumāra (young boy), Shanmukha (he who has six faces), and so on. His stories quickly became one of my favorites because he was strong, sometimes rash, threw tantrums, became leader of the army of gods, etc.

Among the many shrines dedicated to Kumāra, six are considered to be the most important: Tiruthani, Svāmimalai, Pazhani, Pazhamudirchōlai, Tirupparankundram, and Tiruchchendūr. There are some interesting geographical terms from the Tamil language in these names: sōlai (forest), malai (hill), kundram (hillock), and ūr (settlement, place, town, village). In fact, Kumara, also known as Murugan in Tamil is considered the patron deity of mountains (kurinji – mountainous region).

Again, many people go on circuit pilgrimage to The Six.

Other dimensions

Pilgrimage also supports economies (travel, lodging, material purchases, etc.), social organization (kinship building by shared pilgrimage experience), and fun! Whether you believe in a particular faith or not, traveling to places and learning the many dimensions of their geographies is always an enriching experience. The Indian Railways are an amazing way to geographic exploration. They offer many packages for thematic pilgrimage. (Link opens in a new tab/window)

Where are you going for your next holiday?

Things you can do:

  1. Choose a religion and try to find a set of thematically organized shrines of that religion. Plot them on a map (Google maps are one possibility; explore others).
  2. What geographically interesting points do you notice about Five and Six that I have talked about here?
  3. Speculate on why the Five and Six are located in those places. The lore about them will give you one set of answers. Are there any other geographical connections that you can see?
  4. Consider the pilgrimage packages that Indian Railways offer. What are the common elements (themes) that tie the places within each package?
  5. Watch an interview with my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, specialist in the geography of pilgrimages talking about sacred places and geography.

(A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 08 October 2015)


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