Pious Citizen Geography

A journey

My guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, is a specialist in sacred geographies. My upbringing with Karnātaka sangītam; with the sacred lore in Samskrtam, Tamizh, Kannada, Telugu; and the syncretism that I spoke of in my previous column was the result of many cultural influences by many gurus. My parents, uncles, school teachers, and so on.

This upbringing gave me a personal focus, yes, but it stayed separate from me during my years of study. When I came into contact with Dr Bhardwaj in 1986 upon joining the PhD program at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, I found that these things all had a natural home in geography. The many conversations with him that I have mentioned in an earlier column made this a very lovely journey without end. Thus was born my interest in personalizing geography as a professional, as a citizen at various scales, and as a rasika (an enjoyer of arts).

He helped me see that geography is integral to one’s identity far beyond “I am from Bengaluru”, “I am a Kannadiga/Tamilian/…” and so on. As my young student, Vaaman (11 years old) recently remarked to me: “I used to think geography was just mountains, rivers, and stuff … but I feel that it is part of me, not outside of me.” Profound words from one so young. This is exactly what I have felt in my journey with Dr Bhardwaj and others of his ilk who have inspired me.

To the last person, they are all Citizen Geographers.

In recent years, I have been revisiting the fundamentals of what I learned from Dr Bhardwaj. I see all manner of avenues of thought opening up in me. This, ultimately, is the boon (vara) that a guru gives a student.

Pious vows

One thing that has always fascinated me in religious practice is the act of taking a vow. In Kannada, we call it harakay, in Tamizh we call it vayndudhal.

Many people undertake religious vows in fulfillment of certain things they wish for. For example: a vow to make a pilgrimage to a certain shrine if this or that prayer is fulfilled. Or to make certain kinds of offerings.

These are votive acts. Votive, dictionary.com tells me, is something offered, given, dedicated, etc., in accordance with a vow: a votive offering; performed, undertaken, etc., in consequence of a vow.

Items being sold for votive offerings at Velankanni basilica, Velankanni, Tamil Nadu. (Source: Alamy images - http://bit.ly/2fnKDx1 )

Garlands being sold for votive offerings at Velankanni basilica, Velankanni, Tamil Nadu. (Source: Alamy images – http://bit.ly/2fnKDx1 )

Folk lore is full of tales of vows taken, struggles endured in fulfilling them, and the eventual fulfillment bringing peace and joy to the person.

Folk lore is a very powerful force in connecting us to the place we live in. Vows take aspects of this lore (e.g.: this particular deity in this particular place will bless you with this or that specific boon if you take a vow to do this or that action), and lead us to act out a sacred and symbolic journey. The physical part of this journey is geographical (we travel, visit shrines, etc.) and the sacred part of it is the spiritual journey (we chant, sing, worship, meditate, etc.).

Pilgrimages to several dargahs, to the basilica of Velankanni (Our Lady of Health; on the Tamil Nadu coast), to

Votive offerings at an Ayyanar shrine in Tamil Nadu. Source: The Hindu (http://bit.ly/2fnUUJv)

Votive offerings at an Ayyanar shrine in Tamil Nadu. Source: The Hindu (http://bit.ly/2fnUUJv)

Tirupati, to Śabarimala (in Kerala), etc. are often undertaken as part of pious vows. At these shrines, many pilgrims make votive offerings. It is this belief system that gives us shrines such as that of “visa Balaji” that I mentioned in an earlier column.

Regardless of whether we, ourselves, believe in pious vows is quite beside the point. Many people do and, as geographers, we must recognize its existence and try to understand it. Piety is a real force in many people’s lives and in society at large. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Therefore, it is geographical, too. We can see it “written” on the landscape – the places of pilgrimage with all their details are evidence of this. If it is geographical, it is mappable, too.

I wonder …

Can votive prayers make for the practice of Citizen Geography, make for a better spiritual connection with the environment? Could there be a way of encouraging those who do believe in votive prayers to undertake vows that are different? Could there be alternatives to placing certain kinds of offerings at various shrines, performing rites at shrines, and so on? Could we look at our geography, where we live, as itself sacred? Could we see that that geography is not apart from us, but within us and is a part of who we are? And that we have the power to shape it by acts of Citizen Geography?

Could the votive acts include, for example:

  • planting (an ecologically appropriate) tree
  • helping to clean up our neighborhood (notice: “helping to”, not us doing all this by ourselves)
  • helping to improve the education of children
  • practising non-pollution wherever we can
  • following traffic rules (this is a geographical act of a very strong nature)

Is it time for us as Citizen Geographers to explore an alternative path which leads us to see the sacred in our geography differently? What do you think? Let me know at geo@tigs.in

Featured image, courtesy: The Hindu (http://bit.ly/2fnUUJv)

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 24 November 2016

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