All together now, loudly: “Geo means Earth, graphy means study of; Geography means study of Earth.” I, too, grew up on that diet. It’s a very poor diet indeed!
Fortunately, my gurus soon disabused me of that and showed me how much more Geography is.
Dance, drama, Earth
Let us start with landscape. Very simply put, it means scenery. Scenery in turn comes to us from the Greek (skēne, booth where actors dressed), by way of Latin (scēna, background of the stage). Look at how we start off talking of Geography and end up dealing with languages, their regions, and theatre! This is the essential power of Geography – it helps us to see connections.
Earth is the stage on which the drama of life unfolds. Many animate (biotic, living) and inanimate (abiotic, non-living) things engage in a very complex choreography (from Greek; “dancing in unison according to written description”) that we call life.
From the Greek khoros (place), we get chorology (“study of the causal relations between geographical phenomena occurring within a particular region”). Thus, khoros links Geography (our original diet at the beginning of this article + chorology), dancing in unison, and we end up with landscape.
Thus the dance-drama on Earth is at the heart of Geography. The basic question is about a preposition: where? From there, we get the four questions of Geography. But prepositions are not the whole story.
Writing Sacred Geography
I’ll take one example today: Hindu sacred landscapes.
This religion we call “hinduism” has emerged from the combination of many folk traditions. The term folk refers to something that is very localized – restricted to a small area. Over time, more and more people, occupying larger and larger geographical areas adopted folk practices and created new practices. This is an example of how that important geography concept scale works.
If you examine the locations of Hindu sacred sites, you will find some patterns. For example, they are found in specific kinds of geographic locations: hill or mountain tops; on the shores of rivers, seas, or other bodies of water; in forests; in caves; and so on.
First, we read the natural landscape and see meanings in it. Next, we write on it and create a cultural landscape. Then others read what we have written, perhaps writing their own story … and so on through the centuries.
The hill or mountain reaches up towards the sky, where we normally locate heaven. Up is also the direction of growth and improvement (‘Come up in life’), of ascending to higher levels. Ascending is not easy – it requires resolve (sankalpa) and determined practice (sādhanā). Therefore, hill-top / mountain-top shrines were considered especially important pilgrimage places. What do you find when you reach the top? The Divine. (Now, of course, you can even helicopter yourself to some of these places!)
The river bank offered another lesson – change is eternal. In that change there is renewal. You never touch the same river twice – because the water you touched one moment has flowed on. The river also performs two functions:
- It irrigates (your throat, your fields, etc.) and
- It cleanses (it carries away your dirt; provides sanitation).
These are also read as symbolic of the process of purification – the good enters us and removes the dirt. A temple on the river bank was a symbol of this. You bathe in the river and then visit the temple.
The seashores offered another kind of lesson. The sea is the abode of mystery, and many life-sustaining things. Most importantly, it is deep. Whatever turmoil is on the surface (the roiling waves), there is a certain power in the depths. The deep currents are movements of great power and magnitude. In our spiritual quest we should go deep (within ourselves). The seashore temples were ‘written’ to remind us of this. You bathe in the sea, then visit the temple.
Deep forests were full of potential perils and rewards. There were many dangers there. To go through the forests, you had to be very aware of your surroundings and be well-prepared for the hardships of navigating through them. This was read as a lesson in how life is full of benefits and dangers. Forests were also away from the hustle and bustle of ‘daily life.’ They were ideal places to meditate on deeper truths. We have to learn to navigate forests with alertness and resolve. Temples deep in the forests reminded us of these.
However, with modern conveniences, a lot of these landscapes have become less difficult to access. These conveniences have given access to these places to a larger number of people. The journeys are easier. The landscape has changed – with these modern conveniences (jet travel, trains, road networks, etc.) we written a different story.
Pilgrimage is increasingly becoming tourism. Is this the new story in our sacred Geography?
Things you can do:
- Using your atlas, or talking to adults at home (especially grandparents), find out about the important sacred places of whichever religion you practice or are interested in.
- Try and locate these places on a paper map (blank maps of India and other countries are usually available at the local stationery shop) or on GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth. The Google tools are particularly useful because you can also see terrain (topography).
- Find out how these places are connected to each other – road, rail, etc. (One example is in the interactive map above.)
- Try to find photographs of these places that could help you visualize them in your own mind.
A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 28 July 2016
Images: courtesy, Wikimedia, unless otherwise attributed.
This post was update on 17 November 2020; the image “Islands along the Kaveri” was added.
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