In this blog, we have often seen the importance of sacred geographies. Today, we look at the importance of pilgrimages in developing a larger identity – part of building a centripetal force.
Throughout its history, India has been a collection of many cultures and environments. This diversity is richness. When we focus only on the differences and use those to separate each other, the diversity becomes a centrifugal (dis-uniting) agent. When we focus on similarities and interconnections, while also recognizing the differences as important, the diversity can actually become a centripetal (uniting) agent.
In an earlier essay, I had talked about the idea of India not being new. It has existed for millennia. The modern political idea of India has certainly been shaped, not originated, by foreign rule.
Travel by ordinary people has been a major source of keeping the idea of India alive and active. Travel for trade is one example that tied places in India together. This quickly brings us to the geography concept of complementarity of places.
No place has everything that it needs. Nor can it produce all that it needs. Different places specialize in different things. Therefore, there are places that need things other places produce. This leads to trade. This trade brings not only goods and money, but also exchange (and enrichment) of ideas, institutions, and materials. These three – ideas, institutions, and materials – are the components of culture.
These trade links brought us vocabularies, helping our languages deal with culture and nature that may not be local to us. Thus, we learned about other places and understood how there are some fundamental things common to all of us and how there are local variations of these. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is cuisine. The many varieties of rasam, idlis, etc. give us a clue about variations and how these ideas have traveled and developed.
For millennia, people have gone on pilgrimages in India. Pilgrims often traveled with trade caravans for safety.
Trade caravans carried goods and money. They had a security system to protect these while traveling. Pilgrims could pay a fee and join these caravans and travel with security. Therefore, trade caravans added to the cohesive (“well-integrated”) idea of India both by trade and by facilitating pilgrim movement.
(The most fascinating portrayal of this that I have read is by Dr S L Bhyrappa in his historical novel Saartha (“Caravan”). This has also been translated into English and other Indian languages. This novel is set in the time of Shankaracharya (7th – 8th century CE).)
Even to this day, you can see busloads of pilgrims from (for example) Gujarat and Rajasthan visiting Rameshvaram. Language may seem a formidable barrier, but not that much. They are able to transact across the differences in language and achieve whatever goals they have for their pilgrimage.
This phenomenon is not new either.
If we need to study the ‘cohesive’ geography of India, we have to look at the epic traditions – particularly the Ramayana and Mahabharata – and the texts of older India.
In his important book Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India, my geographer-guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj has published two very important maps that show the places mentioned in connection with the fourteen-year exile of the hero of the Ramayanam epic (along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana). In another map, he shows the places that the five Pandavas visited during their fourteen-year exile as mentioned in the Mahabharatam. Both epics give a lot of geographical details of the places and their cultural significance, particularly as pilgrimage places.
Interestingly, in the popular imagination, there are hundreds of places throughout India where local people claim place-connections with either of the epics. For example, this is where Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana rested on their way towards the eastern coast. This is where Bhima slew this or that demon. And so on.
There were all manner of disputes among the royalties of various times as to who owned which territory. But these never really disturbed or destroyed the idea of India because of that wonderful geographical phenomenon: human circulation.
Muttusvami Dikshitar (1775-1835) is considered one of Karnataka sangita’s Trinity (i.e., three most influential personalities). He belonged to a genetic lineage of illustrious scholars of both sacred texts, as well as music and musicology.
In the course of his life, he traveled in many parts of southern India. He also spent several years in Varanasi with his spiritual guru.
Most of his travels were pilgrimages; or at least had a pilgrimage component to them. His compositions are in classical style and generally considered quite difficult to sing. If a musician is to be taken seriously, they must be able to sing his compositions well. Among other things.
In his compositions he engages with the geographies of many of the places he visited. This engagement varies from describing the physical geography of the places (natural site features), and the lore and practices at temples in these places (cultural site features). In his compositions, he notes that the local deities are instances of pan-Indian deities. For example, Minakshi in Madurai is an instance of Parvati; Ranganatha in Srirangam (Tiruchirapalli) is the same as Krishna and Rama (both are pan-Indian deities).
During his lifetime, there were many conflicts at the political level among the princely states of India and that other interloping entity: the British Raj. Nevertheless, people like Dikshitar traveled along with many others. The special feature of Dikshitar is that he composed songs in which we can see the geographical idea of India clearly integrated.
As I write this, I am working with a team of six young geographers (ages 13-17 years) developing a documentary film about the geographies of Dikshitar’s work. This will be aimed particularly at children such as yourselves who may or may not have heard of Dikshitar, who may or may not be interested in geography.
We hope to interest you in both.
Join us for the 6th International Geography Youth Summit, IGYS-2020,
24-26 July 2020, Bengaluru
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 14 January 2020
Featured image: Mural depicting Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar, Tiruvārūr, Tamil Nadu. [Photo: Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, TIGS]