From Ka’aba to Amarnath, people have been embarking on religious sojourns and recording pilgrimages for centuries. People from India, coming from diverse religious backgrounds, visit numerous shrines each year such as Vaishno Devi, Hemkunt Sahib, Hajj, Sabarimala, Mani Mahesh, Pandharpur, among others. Prof B.N. Goswamy, drawing from the writings of travellers such as Ibn Battuta and Benjamin, discusses the importance of various sacred pilgrimages. (Photo Courtesy: The Tribune)
The departure from daily life is part of all pilgrimages. Along the way, the journey may lead past lesser shrines and sacred landscapes. The visit to the central shrine, the final goal of the journey, culminates in an intense spiritual experience. Reliquaries and souvenirs may help to hold on to this moment and transfer its power back into everyday life;…but it is the memory that survives and sustains.
— From Pilgrimage: the Sacred Journey
This, one might say, is the season of pilgrimages, yatra, ziyarat, in our land—Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Hemkunt Sahib, Hajj, Sabarimala, Mani Mahesh, Pandharpur, among others—and that brought to mind an exhibition on the theme of pilgrimage that was organised some years ago at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford by the Inter-Faith organisation there. Not exactly a catalogue of the show, but a fine book, edited by Ruth Barnes and Crispin Branfoot, came out at that time to coincide with it. Pilgrimage, the Sacred Journey is how its title ran, and its fundamental aim was defined as 'to draw together people from different backgrounds and religious beliefs, so that they can enjoy and share each other’s cultural heritage.…' The message was especially addressed to multicultural societies—like ours, I might add—and it was simply this: 'If we do not grow together, we will wither separately.'
Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century traveller who covered close to 75,000 miles in the course of his travels, set off from his native Morocco in 1325, originally only to make the Hajj (In pic: Pilgrims at the Ka'aba in Mecca; Courtesy: The Tribune)
The fact that there is strong opposition to pilgrimage, ‘elements of which are found in most of the religions of the world’, was duly taken into account in the book, but no long debate was entered into. The matter was closed with the statement that pilgrimage, as an institution, has survived for millennia, and is all too real. 'Despite its critics', the editors wrote, 'be they ascetic renouncers of the worldly ways or puritan interpreters of texts, pilgrimage survives as an important, even as a defining, aspect of religious awareness and identification'. The exhibition then was structured around five themes: Departure; The Journey, Sacred Space, the Central Shrine, and, finally, Return. All that is much too detailed to be gone into, but here it is at least possible to draw attention to some travellers of the past, who went as pilgrims to sacred locations, and to try and see things with their eyes. What they wrote varies naturally, in tone and content, but it is never without interest.
Benjamin, a Jewish rabbi, coming from a small Spanish town, made between 1166 and 1171 an extensive tour of the old world. He travelled across southern Europe to Constantinople, went on to Cyprus and the Near East, then through Iraq and Iran to India and China, returning by way of Aden and Ethiopia to Egypt, before returning to Spain via Sicily. Any place that had connections with his faith he was deeply interested in, and recorded what he saw, or at least believed that he saw. In and around Jerusalem, thus, he wrote: 'From the Mount of Olives, one can see the Sea of Sodom, and at a short distance from it is the Pillar of Salt into which Lot’s wife was turned: the sheep lick it continually, but afterwards it regains its original shape'. In Iraq, at the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, ‘of blessed memory’, he wrote with a sense of great wonder: '…they bring forth a scroll of the Law written on parchment by Ezekiel the Prophet, and read from it on the Day of Atonement. A lamp burns day and night over the sepulchre of Ezekiel; the light thereof has been kept burning from the day he lighted it himself, and they continually renew the wick thereof, and replenish the oil until the present day.'
In the Mahabharata, which has a section devoted to tirthas—literally meaning fords, or sites of pilgrimage—sage Pulastya goes into extraordinary detail about the merits that accrue from going on pilgrimages (In pic: A pilgrimage map of Kashi, 20th century; Courtesy: The Tribune)
Ibn Battuta, that astonishing explorer and observer of the 14th century—it has been computed by someone that he covered close to 75,000 miles in the course of his travels—set off from his native Morocco in 1325, originally only to make the Hajj, even though he ended up, later, in countless countries and at sacred sites without number. As a part of the Hajj pilgrimage, he headed naturally to the twin holy cities of Medina and Mecca, the objectives of all Muslim pilgrims. 'That same evening', he wrote in his diary upon reaching Medina, 'we entered the holy sanctuary and reached the illustrious mosque, halting in salutation at the Gate of Peace; then we prayed in the illustrious "garden" between the tomb of the Prophet and the noble pulpit, and reverently touched the fragment that remains of the palm-trunk against which the Prophet stood when he preached.'
William Wey, an Englishman, born in 1407, undertook at least three pilgrimages, to Compostella, to Rome and Jerusalem, and to Jerusalem again four years later. In his book, Itineraries, he recorded these journeys, and wrote extensively of his experiences. We learn that he was particularly anxious to see and, preferably, touch physical features which were evidence of Christ’s time on earth: imprints made by Christ’s hands, for instance, his feet and tears, and stones coloured by His blood, he wrote.
In the Mahabharata, which has a section devoted to tirthas—literally meaning fords, or sites of pilgrimage—there is a long exchange between Bhishma and sage Pulastya, which begins with the patriarch asking the sage: 'I have, blessed lord, a doubt concerning the Law that derives from the sacred fords; and this I should like to hear explained by you, with respect to each one of them'. At this, the great sage goes into extraordinary detail about the merits that accrue from going on pilgrimages, and then names the sites one after the other.
This is the way this Oxford book proceeds, without prejudice, without casting any doubts or raising questions. It is in essence a record of the faith that countless people in the past had in the uplifting, fulfilling role that pilgrimages played in their lives. And then, of course, there are images—a whole lot of them—of places and people and sacred objects. Through them ‘We gaze upon Sacred Traces’, as the Buddhist saying goes.
This article has been republished as part of an ongoing series Art N Soul from The Tribune.