“Everything is so commercialized!”, I often complained along with many many others. Especially when it comes to pilgrimage. My guru, Dr Surinder Bhardwaj, is a well-known and well-respected expert on pilgrimage geography. He gently helped me understand that both are part of pilgrimage. The sacred and the secular always co-exist, he taught me. Pilgrimage and tourism are intertwined.

Personal experience

It has been said that ‘pilgrimage is an outward enactment of an inward journey.’ The physical journey that we undertake is a symbolic journey. The real journey is inward towards our own selves. The journey is to our ‘hearts’ – mystics (saints) of many cultures, many times, and many locations have long told us that the ‘heart’ is where the divine resides.

Thus the external physical aspects of pilgrimage are symbols that we use to map our inward journey to our own ‘hearts.’ In Indian tradition, environmental entities such as lakes, rivers, mountains, caves, groves, seas, etc. are imbued with sacredness. Every one of these is a symbol. If we learn how to use them, they can aid the inward journey.

Therefore, even in the midst of a mass movement of people on pilgrimage (e.g.: the Maharashtrian varkari, the Shabarimalai yātrā, the village religious fair) the pilgrimage is ultimately an intimately personal experience.

Sacred and secular

Along with the pilgrimage phenomenon, we see a lot of economic activities. These are essentially part of the process to provide goods and services for the pilgrims. They have probably existed for as long as pilgrimages have existed.

Beyond some point, we may feel that these economic activities are over-dominant and cutting into the pilgrimage experience. What that ‘some point’ is depends on our viewpoints.

Inns and outs

Yes, ‘inns.’ Inns (lodges, hotels) serve pilgrimage markets. They add value to their services by making it convenient for pilgrims to visit places of pilgrimage. The journey can be as spiritual as the individual pilgrim wants to make it!

This led me to collect a few maps and other artefacts about specific places of pilgrimage during travels a few years ago. I was particularly curious about those that inns provided.

So, here they are with a few observations about them. (I do not endorse any of the establishments in any way!)

The nine planets

Astrology (not astrononomy!) holds that the locations and movements of ‘the nine planets’ (navagraha; nava = nine, graha = planet) determine the course of individual human lives. Many people believe in this and accordingly undertake various rituals to ward off any ‘negative’ impacts of the planetary positions, and to invite the ‘positive’ impacts.

This is a strong and ancient pattern of belief. Of course, such things are written on the landscape. Even here, geography becomes inevitable! Look at Map 1.

Map 1.  Shrines to the navagrahas (nine planets) and others. Image ourtesy: Hotel Chilambu, Mayiladuthurai. (Click on the image to view a larger version of the map.)

First off, look at the advertisement aspect not just for the hotel, but also for the places listed on the map. For each of the navagrahas, there is a particular temple that the believing pilgrim may visit. These are named and the telephone numbers for those temples are also provided in the box on the left. The garaha for each place is noted next to the place name (in Tamizh). The map is more like a map of Bengaluru’s Metro. The distances are not shown to scale. The map shows the directions and gives the actual distances by road between places.

Yes, you guessed it! This also gives good business opportunities to taxi service providers. (You could also use the abundant public and private transport buses.) The navagraha shrines are also numbered in order from 1 to 9; from 1 to 7, they follow the days of the week, Sunday (Sun) to Saturday (Saturn).

Notice that the map also lists other places of pilgrimage, should a pilgrim be interested in visiting them. Also notice that the North is not pointing to where you are probably used to seeing it.

Round the hill

Arunāchala (in Samskrtam, aruna means ‘red’ , ‘fire’, as well as the name of the Sun-god’s charioteer, and achala = that which does not move, i.e., mountain or hill) is in Tiruvannāmalai, Tamil Nadu. It was here that the well-known and well-respected saint Sri Ramana Maharshi lived.


Tiruvannāmalai is the Tamizh name of the hill. Tiru திரு is an honorific meaning ‘holy’, the Tamizh equivalent of the Samskrtam Śrī; அண்ணா annā is a modified form of aruna but the meaning is still ‘fire’; மலை means hill; thus the Tamizh name திருவண்ணாமலை Tiruvannāmalai means The Holy Hill of Fire. Read the legend of the place here.]

He promoted the idea that circumambulating the hill is a very good pilgrimage exercise. To this day, many pilgrims do this barefoot and with a prayerful attitude.

A note on circumambulation.

We get this word from circum = around, in a circular way; ambulation = walking, moving; walking around. In Samskrtam, dakshinā (दक्षिणा)= right. Thus, pradakshinā (प्रदक्षिणा) is moving forward on a circular path  with the right side towards the centre – such a movement can only happen in a clockwise direction. Thus, pradakshinā = clockwise circumambulation.

If you circumambulate with your left side facing the centre, you can only move counter clockwise. Find an example of this!

On Map 2, you will see the important ‘way-side’ (or intermediate shrines listed). The hill itself is denoted using lines that show its sloping patterns. Notice the religious symbol used to point to the North. Finally, note the legend that helps you understand all the information that is provided on the map. On the other side of this map (not shown here) is information about the hotel providing it, and the dates of important festivals.

Map 2. The गिरिप्रदक्षिणा (clockwise circumabulation around the hill) route at the Tiruvannāmalai hill. Courtesy: Arunai Anantha Hotel, Tiruvannamalai.

What other interesting things do you observe in the maps?

Featured image: A view of Tiruvannāmalai. Source: https://goo.gl/6N4ntc [Last accessed on 11 August 2018]

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 27 June 2018.


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