Where have the pilgrims gone?

The Journey is an integral part of any pilgrimage, the manner in which it is conducted is crucial to the successful conclusion of the endeavour. An edited version of this article first appeared in the travel and culture magazine Terrascape, published from Delhi. Photos: Himanshu Joshi/Curun Singh

Pilgrims at Puri, outside Jagannath Temple

There is a scene in Mughal-e-Azam, the early 1960s blockbuster of a movie by K Asif, where Akbar and his queen, the mother of his first son Jahangir (wrongly identified by K Asif and also by Ashutosh Gowarikar as Jodha Bai) stumble through the hot sands of Rajasthan under the mid-summer day sun that seemed intent on drying up and burning everything in sight. The two are on a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was to fulfill a vow that Akbar had taken.

What I have to say in this piece can best be prefaced by narrating the story of that vow.

Akbar had been married for a while and to more than a couple of princesses, but had no son and wanted one rather desperately as an heir to the throne and to the empire that he was so assiduously building. So, when he got married one more time, and this time to the younger sister of  the Raja of Amer, a close friend and a senior commander of his army, Akbar decided to seek divine help and approached Sheikh Saleem Chishti, the renowned Sufi who lived near

Akbar and his new begum went to the Sufi saint and Akbar asked the saint to pray for a son for him. The Sufi saint said he would and Akbar took a vow that upon the fulfilling of this wish he and his begum would, as a gesture of thanksgiving, walk from Agra to Ajmer to the shrine of Moin-ud-Din Chishti, the founder of the Chishti Silsila in India, and make an offering at the shrine.

Some months later the begum gave birth to a son. Akbar named him Saleem and gave him the nickname Sheikhoo, both an expression of his deep gratitude towards Sheikh Saleem Chishti. He also conferred the title Mariam Zamani – Mariam (Mary) of the realm – upon the mother and both undertook this arduous journey, that I have referred to above.

Nizamuddin's Dargah, Delhi

According to legend that continues to have wide currency in Agra and Sikri, both Akbar and Mariam Zamani walked the 363 km, through the scalding hot sands of Rajasthan, bare foot! Even if they did not do it bare foot, walking 363 km or about 226 miles is a lot of walking since one cannot do more than 2.5 miles per hour or about 20 miles a day on a sustained basis. The royal couple would have had to walk almost  8 hours every day for 12 days to do the distance.

Every time someone talks of going to visit the Shrine of Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz (the benefactor of the Poor) Moin-ud-Din Chishti at Ajmer, I am reminded of this scene from Mughal-e-Azam and begin to think of the lengths to which people would go to fulfill a vow. And it is this practice of going on long and mostly trying and painful pilgrimages that I wish to dilate upon in this piece.

Followers of all religions all over the world have their pilgrimages and there are many pilgrimages that are venerated by more than one religious community. Many locations within the city of Jerusalem, for example, are venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and faithfulls of three Semitic religions travel long distances to visit these locations  . Closer home, across the various parts of the subcontinent, there are places that are venerated jointly by followers of different religions. Many of these denomination specific and denomination open locations are popular sites where pilgrims congregate after covering long distances. All manner of rituals and traditions are attached to many of these pilgrimages and make for an interesting study.

The pilgrimage to Sabrimala, the temple dedicated to Ayyappa, for example, lasts 40 days. The pilgrims, in their millions, cutting across the limits set by regional, religious and caste divides, congregate here every year. They stay off meat and alcohol for a month, sleep on the bare floor, survive on satvik food, travel to Sabrimala, circumambulate the mosque that houses the mausoleum of Vavar the pirate/saint friend of Ayyappa and seek his permission and blessings and those of the lord of the forest, before proceeding to climb the hill atop which sits the temple of Ayyappa.

Many pilgrimages, regardless of the community that is participating in the ritual, involve journeys. The journey to a specific location, the performance of a specific ritual and the return journey are all equally important parts of the enterprise. The journey, and the manner in which it is conducted, is crucial to the successful conclusion of the pilgrimage.

For example, those visiting the Amarnath cave in Kashmir were expected to walk the distance from Pahalgam to the cave, where the snow stalagmite is formed and is venerated as the presence of Shiva in the shape of the lingam. The time taken to cover the distance through the biting cold, the gasping for breath at each step, the light headedness caused by breathing in rarefied air, the aching muscles caused by straining sinews not accustomed to climbing steep slopes, were all part of the experience and were supposed to purify the soul and turn it into a receptacle that had qualified through this suffering to receive divine munificence.

There are other traditional pilgrimages, like the ones to Badrinath and Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kailash Mansarovar and to many other shrines, river sources, temples – almost all require a journey to be undertaken. Take the Kawar as another example. People used to take a vow that if such and such were to happen, they would travel to the Ganga come next monsoon, and bring back with them the water from the Ganga for washing the Shivling in their village temple.  If their wishes were fulfilled, they would sling two earthen pitchers on a bamboo splint, place it on their shoulder and take off for the nearest point at which the Ganga could be approached from their village. That point could be a 100 kilometres away or more, but you walked, and you walked bare foot.

The receptacle for the water is the Kawar and the carrier is also called the Kawar. Whoever heard of a Kawar setting off on a pilgrimage would give him their blessings and also a bottle to bring back the water of the Ganga. People kept Gangajal at home, for a few drops in the mouth of a dying relative ensured easy passage for the soul in the hereafter.

Pilgrims on the ghats of Ganga in Haridwar. Photo- Currun Singh

And So the Kawar walked, singly or in groups, mostly young – some old and middle aged also, but far fewer than the young and able bodied. The month of sawan of the Indian calendar was the time when the Kawar had to return and so the journey commenced at the time of the year when both the temperatures and humidity were high – a time of year not ideally suited to walking, and certainly not for barefoot walking. But that is how it was and since in matters of faith there is no why, you walked if you were so disposed.

The Kawars were received with much respect and awe by the people of the villages that they walked through. People vied with each other to feed the Kawars and to wash and bandage their feet, many had cracked and bleeding heels. The pitchers with their rope and bamboo splints were hung from tree branches or placed on high platforms because the Kawar was not to be placed on the ground. On their way back they returned the bottles people had given to them, now filled with the water of the Ganga and received blessings in return. The journey of the Kawar Ended when he reached his village temple to give the ritual bath to the Shivling.

There are other journeys like the ones the Sikhs perform while visiting various gurudwaras. The element of ritual is almost entirely missing from the journeys undertaken by the Sikhs, though a visit to some gurudwaras like Harmandir Saheb, Anandpur Saheb, Patna Saheb, Nanded Sahib and Hemkund Sahib is believed to be spiritually more rewarding. A visit to Nankana Saheb and Punja Saheb is valued highly, though it is not easy since both are now in Pakistan and the restricted access is regularly recalled in all major congregations of the Sikhs.

The Sikhs can and do visit these and other gurudwaras in any order. No specific hierarchy has been fixed, though of course, preference is granted to the Akal Takht, that is Harmandir Saheb, and other Takhts – Anandpur Saheb, Patna Saheb and Nanded Saheb. Once there, the devout takes part in seva, listens to prayers, helps look after devotees’ shoes, washes the floor, helps in serving food in the langar or in cooking or washing utensils.

There are also journeys conducted around a fixed location. These are called parikramas (Circumbulation). Devotees perform parikramas by covering fairly large distances on foot, walking barefoot or covering the distance with their bodies through a complex and tiring routine of placing a mark at the starting point, lying down with the feet at the starting point, placing a mark near their head, getting up and lying down again with the feet at the second mark, and so on till they return to the starting point. The distances that are normally covered could vary from 5 kos to 25 kos (1 kos=2.25 miles approx.) There are some who would even cover the entire distance by rolling on the ground. If there is a paved road, the parikrama becomes easy, though not very easy if it is high summer and you are constantly walking barefoot, or lying down and getting up to lie down again, or rolling on the searing hot bitumen-packed road. Think also of those who do it on uneven, meandering footpaths, filled with pebbles, thorns, dry bits of twigs and such like, because many of the shrines that people wish to go around are located at places where this icon of modern civilisation, the tarred road, has not yet reached.

These seemingly bizarre routines were and are, for the practitioners, a test not only of their physical endurance but also of the depths of their faith. The idea that you get closer to the divine through suffering finds echoes in almost all faiths and many of these journeys were perhaps designed to help endure some hardships. Some have had elements of hardship added in the process of their becoming ritualised. Take, for example, the journey undertaken by those who visit the Dargah of Sheikh Moin-ud-Din Chishti or Khwaja Gharib Nawaz as he is popularly known, on the occasion of his Urs.

The Urs marks the death anniversary of a Sufi saint. Urs is an Arabic term and refers to marriage – the aim of a Sufi  is for his soul to merge with the divine and so his passing away is marked as a day of the union of his soul with the maker. The devotees congregate at the shrine of the Sufi saint to celebrate this union of the mortal with the immortal.

Khwaja Gharib Nawaz introduced the Chishtiya Silsila of Sufis in India and it has become a practice to not approach him directly, but to go through his disciples. So those who wish to visit his shrine at Ajmer have to first visit Delhi and pay their respects at the shrine of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyaar Kaaki. In the days before India was partitioned, the devotees, after paying obeisance at the shrine of Khwaja Bakhtyaar Kaaki, travelled to Ajodhan, in what is now Pak Patan in the Pakistani part of the Punjab, to offer their respects to Baba Fareed Ganj-e-Shakar, the disciple and successor to Khwaja Bakhtyaar Kaaki.

The problems of travelling across the border have made the journey of the devotee a little less arduous, though perhaps a little less spiritually uplifting, if you ask the devotee. From Bakhtyaar Kaaki they travel to the shrine of Nasir-ud-Din Chiraagh-e-Dehli, disciple and successor to Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. If you ask a devotee why do they skip the most popular Sufi and go to his disciple, you will be told that it was the will of Nizam-ud-Din that if any one wishes to visit his mausoleum to pray for his soul, they should first visit the mausoleums of his disciples, Nasir-ud-Din Chiragh-e-Dehli and Yamin-ud-Din Khusrau. So this is what the devotees do before reaching the shrine of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya and then eventually set off for the shrine of Moin-ud-Din Chishti.

Imagine the plight of someone who lives in Ajmer and has vowed to visit the Dargah of the  sufi – s/he has to first travel to Delhi, crisscross the city, before returning to Ajmer to visit a shrine that sits across the road from her/his house.

Now, whether it was visiting a sufi saint, or doing a parikrama, walking barefoot through sole-searing roads to fetch Gangajal to the village Shivalaya or walking through burning sands for thanking Khwaja Garib Nawaz, plodding through snow to reach the Shivling at Amarnath or walking up to Badrinath and Kedarnath or visiting the gurudwaras spread through the length and breadth of the country, the pilgrim performed all these because of their deeply rooted faith. They did it because they believed that it was something that was expected of them; they did not want to be found wanting. All these journeys were undertaken at considerable risk and there were no overarching bodies and organisations that exhorted you to join this or that. You did it because your conviction moved you and not the propaganda of a fledgling organisation appealing to you in the name of identity.

It was because these pilgrimages were individual or at best a locality or village level initiatives  that there were no elaborate arrangements to receive and welcome the pilgrims and to feed them on the way. There were no ambulances on the standby and no medical camps organised by the state or quasi-state organisations.

It was because of this that only the devout and those who had faith ventured on these perilous journeys. And perhaps it was because of this that till about a decade ago, the beginning of these pilgrimages, except of course the Kumbh, attracted no media attention. The pilgrims did not ask the government to provide them food and shelter, did not ask for camping facilities, did not ask for land to be permanently kept aside for their once-a-year pilgrimage.

It is perhaps because all this is provided by the state and its agencies, that the really devout, the actual pilgrim – those who treated the suffering of the journey as a crucial part of the pilgrimage – is increasingly being sidelined and being replaced by those who want to be seen and heard, whose devotion needs to be announced to the whole world and the entire world is supposed to step aside with deference for these born-again seekers. Because, if the world does not give way before them, they will upturn everything, as they have been doing for the last few years at too many sites that have been considered sacred for too long.

It is because of this, “being there, done that” has become far more important than the journey. And that is why, those with new-found wealth and clout have now invented the Express Kawar, The kawars travel in a vehicle, the Walker travels in a tempo filled with a huge P.A.System blaring loud devotional music. The walking, bare foot or shod is a thing of the past. When the Kawar returns the traders, the shopkeepers, the small businesses all along the return path, run for cover, markets shut down for days and the writ of the Kawar runs large. The well heeled fly to Amar Nath, go through their ritual genuflections devoid of any faith, but going through the motions nevertheless. Because it is important to be seen. Having done ‘that’, they fly out and get down to the business of earning by any means for another year, or till the need to be seen in the shades of devotion, captures their limited imagination again.

4 thoughts on “Where have the pilgrims gone?”

  1. I grew up in Roorkee – the first urban halt after Haridwar where the Kawar (squeeze a N in the pronunciation before the W) began his journey in North India in the 1960s and 70s. Being in Delhi for the past 30 years has given continuity as a Kawar witness. Things began changing from early 1990s coinciding with 2 things – companies looking at various fora for advertising their wares and the ayodhyaisation of public display of religious fervour. Given the cyclical manner in which institutional support is provided to Kawars by way of day shelters, night halts, food, trucks to cart luggage, footwear (yes barefoot is out of fashion); suggests that institutional support is not spontaneous local initiatives but is part of a centralised plan. It is again coincidence that in my memory, the best ‘organised’ Kawar year was 2003. That year the ‘sponsors’ were right up to Mathura from Haridwar and well into Rajasthan also. The institutional support began declining from 2005 and this year there was virtually no ‘organised’ support. There is also the element of increased lumpenisation of Kawars. May be with return of Kawar to the pilgrimage of yore, the lumpen youth who flock to bask under the limelight will stay away. And peace will be restored to those who undertook pilgrimages for purely personal reasons.

  2. I liked this piece on religion. It is not often that one gets to read about ‘faith’ per se on Kafila. What I would like to add though is that this piece raises two important theological points, the first is our almost unholy obsession with speed in our present age, to use a theological term, we idolize speed, possibly because we are so locked into a modernization project. Perhaps pilgrimages offer us a space which opposes this logic then, though, as the author points out, even this is being subverted.

    On another note however, what I am concerned about is the need to torture the body in order to release the soul, that seems to be the logic of pilgrimages. I think that in a way this is a theological legitimization of suffering and what causes suffering. While on the one hand it upholds the notion that the suffering have a special knowledge/relationship with the divine and therefore if one has to draw close to the divine then one should, at least symbolically, suffer. On the other hand the same logic is twisted around to legitimize suffering and what causes it (read structural inequalities) by claiming divine justification for it.

  3. I love these non-political pieces by Mr. Hashmi on Kafila which touch upon historical and cultural aspects of the sub-continent. Looking forward to more such essays.

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