You won’t make a glacier your bed through a freezing night unless you are a soldier on the Himalayan border or a pilgrim to the holy cave of Amarnath. In India, faith and spirituality surpass all other emotions and are often realised by people undertaking the most difficult pilgrimages. It’s also the ordinary devotee’s willingness to challenge nature, its vagaries and his own physical limitations for the sake of resolving karma. Sometimes, the spiritual journey ends on a tragic note. Ninety-eight pilgrims have died on the Amarnath Yatra this year—the long and arduous journey to the legendary Shiva shrine owing to ‘lack of medical facilities’. Last month, 36 pilgrims were killed on their way to Triveni in Nepal, the confluence of three holy rivers, to take a dip in the month of Shravan. Recently in Garhwal, it was about faith and nerves; around 1,000 pilgrims were stranded over the Chardham Yatra route owing to torrential rains and flash floods. A thin raincoat their only defence against the furious clouds; the fragile patch of the trek they are stranded on was the thin line between life and death and the sound of the raging, swelling, roaring Mandakini and Alaknanda the only celebration of faith and a baffling sense of adventure.
In India, where the tradition of pilgrimage is as old as the Ramayana, dangers do not discourage the devout from a seemingly disastrous journey to a sacred destination. Pilgrimage is man’s search for a miracle. People across religions believe that body is the temple of the soul. The ultimate aim is to seek blessings, and sometimes, even thanksgiving. It is a couple seeking a child after years of barrenness; a student seeking to succeed in an exam; someone affected by a deadly disease, or a young woman trying to save her marriage. The pilgrim travels through the wreaths of ancient, misty legend: a rock in a forest on which Lord Rama had stepped, a ghat where Draupadi bathed, or a tree under which Lord Krishna rested. In West Uttar Pradesh, in district Bijnor is Vidur Kuti, the cottage of Vidur, the spiritual friend, intellectual mirror and guru of the Kauravas. Interestingly, a crop of bathhua, a type of nutritious leafy green considered a favourite of Vidur, grows here on its own every winter. At the Lakhamandal Temple in Dehradun, pilgrims have “felt” a surge of inspiration after visiting the temple, which is believed to be the Lakshagraha, the house made of wax the Kauravas had built to destroy the Pandavas. At Pachmarhi are the sandstone caves where the Pandavas lived. The landscape of legend does not concern itself with the topography of the Ramayana or Mahabharata; in a way this is what unites India as a subcontinent of belief.
The destinations are boundless. Broadly speaking, the places of worship are divided into three sections—Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and Shakti. The rest fall into sub-sects of this holy trinity, such as the famous Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai and the 18 ashtavinayak shrines in Maharashtra or the lesser-known ones like Thiruvalanchuzhi temple near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, whose idol, Swetha Vinayakar is believed to be made from the surf of the milky ocean (Ksheera Sagaram). Millions of pilgrims flock every year to the Shiva temples of Kashi Viswanath in Benares, Kedarnath in Uttarakhand and Murudeshwar in Karnataka. There are numerous temples of Lord Shiva in India. Among them the most popular are the 12 Jyotirlinga temples and the five Pancha Bhoota Temples. The 500-year-old Sri Kalahasti temple is where those who astrologers have determined to be afflicted with the malefic influence of rahu-ketu get pujas done. There are 108 Vishna temples known as Divyadeshas that include Ayodhya, Naimisaranyam on the Gomti in Uttar Pradesh. Muktinath, one of the 15 Shakti Peeths is another popular pilgrimage shrine near Kathmandu, on the Kandaki river which is renowned for Salagrama stones. Devi temples such as Vaishno Devi, Naina Devi, Chamundi and Baglamukhi cast a potent spell over devotees; Kamakhya in Assam and Kalighat in Kolkata are centres of powerful occult beliefs.
The holy can also be eclectic to the point of being outre. Kollam in Kerala and the Jaunsar region in Garhwal is where Duryodhana is worshipped. In Jodhpur is the temple of Ravana, who was a great devotee of Shiva. Hence Dave Brahmins, who claim descent from Ravana, built this temple where daily puja is performed. On Dussehra—the death anniversary of Ravana—special pujas are performed here. At the Kaal Bhairava temple, dogs are fed since they are seen as his vehicles. Sambhalpur in Odisha is the site of a Mahatma Gandhi temple where special pujas are performed on Independence Day and Republic Day by dalit priests. In Manali, Himachal Pradesh, is the Hidimba temple where the demoness Hidimbi of the Mahabharata is worshipped. Nearby stands the temple of her son Ghatotkach.
The hard way to god
All roads that lead to God are not safe passages. Pilgrims to Mecca have died in stampedes. The Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is daunting, and unpredictable. Years ago, dancer Protima Bedi and several other pilgrims were killed in a landslide at Malpa on their way to Mansarovar. The Amarnath Yatra claims many lives almost every year. The Sant Tukaram Palkhi in Maharashtra and the sea of devotees at Shirdi reflect the undying belief in saints over bhajans.
Decades ago, the route to Sabarimala lay through forests infested with wild animals. Today when it is safer, pilgrims brave near stampede situations. In hilly Garhwal this year, the presence of woman kanwariyas covering miles on foot, snaking in and out of Haridwar through rain and curious onlookers was a whole new picture of endurance. Bhaderwah in Jammu and Kashmir, the melting pot of Dogra and Himachali culture and the hub of the Kailash Yatra is one of the toughest pilgrimages. People trek from Bhaderwah to Kailash Kumbh at heights of over 16,000 feet for three days to offer their prayers to Lord Shiva.
Strict rules and abstinence won’t keep the pilgrims away. A visit to the Nathdwara calls for a strict abstinence from non-vegetarian food, intoxicants and leather. A visit to Pashupatinath requires a promise from the devotee about his being a “true” Hindu. In Haridwar, often before a holy bath, the Panda may name your great grandfather after referring to his bulky ancient record books even before you know. It’s a surprise check on your religious background. Several Durga and Shiva temples in North India came with strong guidelines for women, their outfit, mannerisms and duties towards the husband over the pilgrimage.
Pilgrims through the ages
Uncertainty has always been the idiom of pilgrimage. Medieval historian Lord Sumpton’s seminal work Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion (1975) draws an accurate picture of ancient excursions. In the 11th and 12th century, during the time of the Crusades, the overland route through Europe to Jerusalem was one of the most dangerous for pilgrims. Sumption records an Englishman who travelled the route in 1102 describing how Arabs “lay hidden in caves and crevices, waiting day and night for people travelling in small groups or straggling behind their groups. At one moment they are everywhere, the next they are gone.” Yet the pilgrim progressed through the centuries. The Guide for Pilgrims to Santiago written in the 12th century described the dangers of pilgrimage: thick forests, mosquito-infested marshes, wild animals, impassable rivers and undrinkable water. It even gave advice on the best times pilgrims could travel. Over the years, conditions got better—you can take a helicopter to Vaishnodevi. Helicopters fly to Kedarnath, cutting out the 14-km uphill trek through the Mandakini valley. Chartered flights are available for Sabarimala pilgrims from Dubai; Tirumala has VIP darshans.
Pilgrimages are also history of a different kind. Many, like St. Denis and Saintes, became popular as part of the religious establishment marketing pilgrimage sites using tales of magic, mythology and miracles. The famous boat races of Kerala began at Thirukkuralappan temple— one Kerala’s most important Krishna temples.
The pilgrim’s need to distinguish himself from the rest of the world was expressed best by dressing separately. Kanwariyas wear saffron as they carry elaborate harnesses on their bare shoulders. Those travelling to Sabarimala practiced abstinence, grow beards, wear rudraksh malas and wear only black. Ancient pilgrims were inseparable from their staffs and scrips (satchel). The staff would be of strong wood, usually with a metal tip, which helped the pilgrim traverse difficult paths and was an instrument of self-defence.
Marketing with miracles
If pilgrims used austerity as their idiom, the houses of god used miracles as USPs; many dargahs and churches have flourished on tales of magic, mythology and miracles.
Shree Vaidyanatheshwara Swamy, a 1,000-year old Shiva temple is a spiritual refuge for cancer patients. Prayers offered to the Jyotiralinga, it is believed, lead to a speedy cure of many deadly diseases. People have noticed miracles happening over just a sprinkle of the holy waters and a touch of the holy stone in the temple. The Sri Kanipakam temple in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, and the Sri Advudayar temple in Erode see throngs seeking a cure for leprosy, infertility and heart diseases. The Srivilliputtur temple is visited by childless couples on a pilgrimage dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
At the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, where the sarovar, or the holy tank of nectar attracts millions every day, “miracles” happen every hour. Recently a woman from Sangrur claimed that her eyesight had returned after a “holy dip” at the Golden Temple. There is no end to accounts of the “surreal”, the “magical” experiences people have witnessed at the Bankey Bihari temple in Vrindavan where people have fainted or “turned blind” at the sight of a Raaslila and at the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, where the sick have been healed of the incurable by just a darshan.
Prenatal sex determination is an age-old miracle at Chimi Lakhang Temple in Bhutan. The priest “blesses” the couple by placing a wooden and bone phallus over the couple’s head, allowing them to pick from a stack of cards that would reveal the name and gender of their unborn child.
The pilgrimage industry
Unlike medieval times, when churches would compete for pilgrims, religious centres today see a surge in pilgrims who are increasingly aware. Today, websites offer the necessary details to plan a pilgrimage—from timing on rituals and darshan, to oxygen cylinders, restrooms, guesthouses, palanquins, and rail journeys.
People can get a sneak preview through videos on the Yatra, hotels around Vaishno Devi, restaurants and snacks served. Helicopter Yatra users in Kedarnath are increasing by the year. According to a Haridwar-based operator, 2,500 people have used the helicopters until the onset of Shravan, when the weather gets rough. The fare goes up every year–for a small sortie to Kedarnath from a village near it, each passenger pays `10,000. Tickets are sold out even before you plan the journey.
The Ganges, by far the world’s greatest pilgrimage site, has spawned an industry after itself, sacred merchandise going from bottled holy water to golden images. The Ganga Aarti, where people offer prayers to the river with oil lamps and flowers, is now a widely televised evening ritual, adding to a flurry of religious telecasts that are generating ad revenue.
Real estate developers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon too, offering flats, villas and service apartments in holy centres such as Haridwar, Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Varanasi, and Guruvayur. Retirement is getting closer to God.
The modern pilgrim
Today, pilgrimage is also a cushioned affair, unlike the Treta Yuga when it required a sinewy Sharavan Kumar to carry a set of blind parents in baskets hanging from his sturdy shoulder. Children are swiping their parents a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi with credit cards. Middle-aged mothers from Gurgaon are travelling to Gaurikund solo, redefining the symbolic segment of life called the Vanaprastha, riding a Volvo bus, leaving the nudging husbands to their gardening kits and golf karts.
The Indian pilgrim is returning to the rivers in style. Water sport and worship is being clubbed by babus at state tourism departments across the country to attract the maximum inflow of people. Talacauvery, the mouth of Cauvery receives pilgrims even during the off season in Coorg who take a flight of stairs into the mist and clouds after throwing a coin in the sacred Kund from where the river originates. Thanks to the flourishing homestay and plantation tour industry in the coffee town, Talacauvery serves be a sacred conclusion to a visit to Kodagu.
The 21st century pilgrim is wishing to be treated equally. He seeks a miracle with modernity. His tryst with God has not changed in nature, even if the nature of his life has changed. As he walks the inevitable path of everyday of karma, he hopes it will be easier than the ardous journeys of his forefathers. His prayers are being answered.
Badrinarayan Temple: Badrinath, Uttarakhand: Considered the most important Vishnu temple in India, it is believed to have been sanctified by Adi Shankara—the head priests are all from Namboodiri families of Kerala and are chosen by the royal families of Travancore and Garhwal. The idol is of black stone. Here Hindus make offerings to 42 generations of ancestors. Devotees bathe in the sulphur springs nearby before entering the temple to offer tulsi, sugar candy and dry fruits. When to Go: Open April to November. Festivals: Mata murti ka mela in September and the eight-day Badri Kesar festival in June at both Badrinath and Kedarnath.
Meenakshi Sundareswarar: Madurai, Tamil Nadu: This 1st century temple was reconstructed during the Nayak period, after its destruction by Malik Kafur, a general of Allaudin Khilji. The grandeur of the sculptures in the 1000-pillared hall tell epic stories. Festival: Saiva, Shakta, Skanda and Vaishnava traditions aspects the many festivals here, the main one being the 10-day Chittirai festival that ends with the temple chariot procession.
Jagannath Temple: Puri, Odisha. The wooden image of Krishna is believed to made from a log floating the ocean, as mentioned in the Rig Veda. The temple complex accommodates over 120 temples. It is one of the four peethas established by Shankaracharya, among Dwarka, Badrinath and Sringeri. Festival: The most important among the 24 festivals each year is Rath Yatra in June—July; a procession of three gigantic chariots bearing the images of Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra taken through Puri.
Mahakaleshwara Temple: Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh: The Shivling here is one of the jyotirlingas. Located near a lake, one of the five levels is located underground. Brass lamps light the way to the underground sanctum. The prasada offered here is unique in the sense it can be re-offered at other shrines. Festival: Mahashivratri.
Omkareshwar temple: Mortakka, Madhya Pradesh: This unique place of worship stands on Mandhata hill on an island on the banks of the Narmada river. The island’s shape resembles an Omkara. Festival: Karthik Poornima
Saptakoteshwar temple: Narve, Goa. The deity at this temple known as the Konkan Kasi is Kalbhairav. Nearby is a mysterious tunnel that has collapsed. During the birthday of Lord Siva, devotees bathe at the sacred tank Panchaganga Tirtha. Festival: Gokulashtami
Dharmasthala temple: Karnataka: 75 km from Mangalore, Lord Shiva is worshipped here as Manjunatha. The temple is run by a trust of a Jain family, and the priests are Madhvas. Regarded as the centre of righteousness, people come here to get out of court settlements in the name of God, and the temple trustee Veerendra Heggade represents Lord Siva in settling disputes. Thousands of pilgrims are offered food in the temple everyday. Festival: Lakshadeepa—the festival of lights is the annual festival of Dharmasthala held November-December
Naimisaranya: Uttar Pradesh: 75 km north of Lucknow, Naimisaranya—also known as Nimsar or Nimkhar—is located on the bank of the Gomti river. The hexagonal holy tank, Chakra Kund, is where Vishnu flung his discus at the demons, hence the name ‘chakra.’ Ritual: A dip in the Chakra Kund every new moon day is considered auspicious; if the new moon day is a Monday, taking a bath here and offering prasad to the presiding deity Lalitha is believed to wash away the sins of a lifetime. Festival: The parikrama fair starts here and ends at Misraka; crows are seen in large numbers here in the bright half of Phalguna month.
The Umananda : Guwahati, Assam: This temple crests the Bhasmachala Hill on the Urvasi island in the Brahmaputra river, the place where Siva is believed to have burnt Kama Deva, the lord of desires to ashes. Festival: Every full moon day—especially on Mondays—Lord Shiva is worshipped with pomp and show. Shiva Chaturdasi is celebrated with special fervour.
Guruvayoor Sree Krishna Temple: Guruvayoor, Kerala: Thousands of pilgrims visit this holy place where the image, believed to be originally worshipped by Brahma, was gifted to Vishnu; Krishna instructed Uddhava to seek Vayu’s and Guru’s help to find a safe haven for the image. Festival: Every full moon day—especially on Mondays—Lord Shiva is worshipped with pomp and show. Its is believed that pilgrims who come here are cured of diseases. Festival: Shiva Chaturdasi and the mandala ulsavam is celebrated for 41 days towards the end of each calendar year and concludes with an elephant race.
Ambika Shakti Peeth: Gujarat: It’s one of three main Shakti Peethas of Gujarat, and is situated south west of the Aravili hills. No image of Ambika—Shakti— as Siva’s consort— exists here, a yantra is worshipped instead. Lord Krishna is supposed to have got his tonsure as a child, so pilgrims believe it is lucky to shave their heads here. Devotees are expected to maintain celibacy before a pilgrimage to Ambika and newly married couples visiting here are believed to be blessed with happiness. Its also known for as a tantrik power centre. Festival: Bhadrapadi Purnima festival.
Yadagirigutta: Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh: The deity here is Narasimha, enshrined in a hillside cave 300 feet high on Yadagiri hill. Two rock formations on the wall of the cave are worshipped as Jwala Narasimha resembling a serpent and Yoga Narasimha respectively. Jwala Narasimha resembles a serpent, and the Yoga Narasimha shows Narasimha seated in meditation. At the temple entrance is a shrine to Hanuman. Devotees believe that worshipping for 40 uninterrupted days would cure incurable diseases.
Jwalamukhi: Palampur, Himachal Pradesh: Located south of the Kangra valley, and perched on the Kali Dhar ridge the deity here is Jwalamukhi, or Flaming Mouth. Legend goes that Sati’s tongue fell here; flames burn through fissures in ancient rock. Nearby is a pit containing bubbling hot water. No idol is worshipped here. Festival: Navratri in early April and mid-October.
Off the beaten holy path
Bullet Temple: Chottila, Rajasthan In India, even motorcycles can be gods. The deity and idol at the Bullet Temple on the Pali-Jodhpur highway is a 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullet and the offering is a clamour of horns and beer. The legend goes that Om Singh Rathore in 1991 was drunk and driving his mobike when he died in an accident. When the cops took the Bullet to the police station for evidence, the bike would mysteriously vanish and would be found at the site of Rathore’s death. After this happened many times, the bike was sold to someone from a distant village. But the next morning it appeared at its favorite spot; now its known as Bullet Baba. Horns being blown endlessly compete with devotional songs played constantly through loud speakers. Rathore’s garlanded photo is also worshipped.
Sahasrakshi Meru Temple: Devipuram, Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh: Nudity here is considered a form of purity and is revered and worshiped. Most of the deities placed here are sky-clad or nude. This implies that they are pure shaktis. Main festivals: Siva ratri, Guru Purnima, Dasara (Navaratri), Kartikamasam Timings: 9am-2pm 3pm-5pm
Karni Mata Temple : Deshnok, Rajasthan: This 15th century Rat Temple is situated in Deshnok, 30km from Bikaner. It is home to 20,000 rats which climb the on to the shoulders and heads of devotees which is considered a sign of blessing. The deity is Shri Karni Mata, believed to be a reincarnation of Durga. Best time to visit: November to February. How to reach: The temple is close to the railway station and bus terminal of Deshnok. Take auto rickshaws or walk.
Time: Navratra and Gangaur
Mannarasala temple: Haripad, Kerala This ancient shrine is the largest snake temple in Kerala and is situated in a forest glade and has over 30,000 idols of serpents placed along the paths and trees. Women seeking fertility come to worship here, and upon the birth of their child come to hold thanksgiving ceremonies. A special turmeric paste which is available at the temple is credited with curative powers. The sarpam pattu— the song of the serpents is a rare ritual done here once in 41 years. Festivals: Mahasivarathri. Ayilyam in September-October is celebrated as the birthday of Nagaraja, the king of serpents and the birthday of Anantha is celebrated in February-March.
Other faiths, other sites
Mecca: Hejaz, Saudi Arabia: It is Islam’s most sacred city being the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed and where the Quran was composed. It gets 13 million Muslims yearly. In the last months of the Islamic calendar, around two million pilgrims come here for the Haj. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca.
The Golden Temple: Known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib, around 50,000 pilgrims worship daily at this holiest shrine of Sikhs which is open to all faiths. It’s also the third most visited shrine in the world, built by Guru Arjan Singh who also finished the Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism. The Baisakhi festival is celebrated on April 13 as the founding day of the Khalsa, so is the martyrdom day of Guru Teg Bahadur and the birthday of Guru Nanak. The temple is lit up gloriously during Diwali.
Our Lady of Guadalupe: Virgin Mary’s shrine in Mexico City is the world’s second most visited Catholic church after Saint Peter’s, Vatican. The gable of the Virgin began sometime in the 16th century, when Mary appeared to a poor Indian named Juan Deigo as a young girl and asked him to build a shrine to her. She left him with a bunch of roses which fell at the feet of the bishop in the shape of the Virgin, and an image of herself on his tilma—a outer garment—which is still preserved in the church.
Lourdes: In this little town at the foothills of the Pyrenees, visions of the Virgin is said to have occurred in 1858 to a milliner’s daughter Bernadette Soubirous —later canonised—in a grotto eighteen times. Pilgrims believe water from the grotto can cure—the Roman Catholic Church has officially certified 68 healings as genuine miracles. 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860.
Lumbini: The birthplace of Buddha in Rupandehi, Nepal is one of the eight sites for the Buddhist pilgrims, the others being Bodhgaya—site of Buddha’s enlightenment, Sarnath—first turning of the Wheel of Dharma, Rajgir—second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, Shravasti—teachings in the Jetvana Grove, Sankashya—where Buddha descended from Tushita Heaven, Nalanda—site of the university and Kushinagar—where Buddha entered mahaparinirvana.
Jerusalem: It is a sacred city of three faiths—Jews, Muslims and Christians. Christians believe the Last Supper and the Crucifixion happened here. Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from here. Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem, that lies 8 km from Jerusalem has seen a rise in pilgrims over the years.