Rivers. Catchment areas. Sacred places, sacred journeys. Tirupati – local to international. Lunch and coffee time conversations with my guru. All add up to the perfect recipe for learning geography.

Social space

In the late 1980s, I studied in the PhD program at the Geography Department at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, USA. Among my teachers was my main guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, who is now Professor Emeritus; retired but as active a geographer as ever!

There were three of us: Dr Bhardwaj, Jonathan Durr (then an MA a student in the undergraduate program), and I. We had a lounge in our Department where we had our coffee/tea breaks (11-11:15 a.m. and 3-3:15 p.m.) and lunch breaks (12-1 p.m.).

Daily, during these breaks, we three invariably sat at the same table and chatted. The chats used to range

Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj delivering a lecture at GeoVidyaa Geography Centre, Army Public School, Bengaluru (file photo). (Click on the image to see a larger version)

Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj delivering a lecture at GeoVidyaa Geography Centre, Army Public School, Bengaluru (file photo). (Click on the image to see a larger version)

from the most hilarious stories to the most profoundly philosophical topics. In all this, of course, there was a lot of Geography!

I had only one formal course with Dr Bhardwaj. All the other geography I needed to learn, I learned during these conversations. They are among my most cherished memories. I still remember many things I learned during those sessions.

Today, I share one of the topics with you. I have to do this because I have to pass on to others (especially school students) what my guru taught me. It should not stay just in my mind.

Drainage basins

In studying rivers, you will probably have studied the concept of drainage basins or catchment areas. The whole catchment area is like a basin (hence the name) surrounded by higher-altitude areas (hills, mountains). The smaller bodies of water (rivulets, gullies, streams, etc.) are the higher levels. Generally, by the time you reach the lower levels, more and more small streams will have joined to form larger streams.

All these tributaries eventually reach the bottom (lowest height) where the main river (‘main channel’) flows. (For example: Kaveri river basin.)

This main river is the one that ultimately reaches the sea.

This is the physical geography aspect.

Another view

This physical geographic system can be used as a model (metaphor) to understand how places of pilgrimage (sacred places) are organized.

At one of our many lunch conversations, Dr Bhardwaj explained how this model would work, using the example of Tirupati.

Use the diagram here to follow along.

He started with the smallest shrine – the pūjā room of many households where there is some kind of picture or icon of Balaji (the presiding deity of Tirupati; a manifestation of Vishnu). This level is shown on the rim of the bowl in orange dots.

The metaphorical pilgrimage 'basin' as taught to me by Dr Bhardwaj. (Click on the image to see a larger version).

The metaphorical pilgrimage ‘basin’ as taught to me by Dr Bhardwaj. (Click on the image to see a larger version).

This shrine attracts only the members of that household. You won’t see thousands of people thronging there every day for darśanam and pūjā!

People from many households often visit nearby Balaji shrines (shown as red diamonds). These nearby shrines have regional attraction – they are like the points where the tributaries to the main river meet to form ever-larger streams until they merge with the main river.

Here, the numbers of people are larger, the shrine is larger, and the people come from a larger area than the household shrine.


Each level is at a certain “height” – I have used broken lines to show you what the contour lines might be. Recall that, in physical geography, a contour line connects all points of same height. Here, the “height” is used in a symbolic (metaphorical) sense. The height of the place of pilgrimage shows from how far and wide pilgrims come to that shrine. I have shown you this flow using curved arrows.

The River

At the ‘bottom’ of this pilgrimage ‘basin’ is Tirupati – the most important and the original shrine (blue star in the diagram). All other shrines are merely replicas of this main shrine! Ultimately, devotees of Balaji consider Tirupati as the most important Balaji shrine – nothing beats a pilgrimage to Tirupati. The other shrines are for a quick nearby visit.

Modern transportation and other technologies make it much easier to go on pilgrimage to Tirupati today. This was not the case even a century ago, when visiting Tirupati was an arduous task. Imagine how it was even earlier!

So, the main ‘channel’ here is Tirupati. – the river that takes us to the sea. As we move from the local shrine to the main shrine, notice how we symbolically become part of something larger and larger until, ‘in the sea’ of devotion, we entirely lose ourselves (at least we are supposed to).

Recall this line आकाशात् पतितं तोयं यथा गच्छति सागरं  | As the water from the skies goes towards the sea.

As Dr Bhardwaj taught me this model just using his hands to show how things work, I visualized a bowl on which this idea could be shown. Finally, after 28 years, I drew this diagram that was in mind for so long. (I used a bowl from my kitchen to make this picture. 🙂 )

Things you can do:

  1. Imagine how many other ‘levels’ you could add to this model for Balaji shrines.
  2. Apply this idea to other pilgrimages in Hinduism and other religions. You will likely find that there are organized levels of pilgrimage in many of them.
  3. If you have been on pilgrimage (any religion), how would you modify this geographical model? Share it with me using the contact us option on this site.

Correction: Jonathan Durr was an undergraduate student at the time, not an MA student. Thanks to him for this correction. 13 Sept. 2016


A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 15 September 2016.

Featured image, courtesy: By Vimalkalyan at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

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