Category Archives: 3. The Forest Dweller

Tirthas (Pilgrimage Sites)

The Vedic word tirtha, stemming from ter and tarate, means “ford, steps to a river, place of pilgrimage” (Saraswati 2). In time, the meaning of tirtha has spread to refer to all holy sites and items considered holy. To be considered a tirtha, there will likely be a special natural characteristic of the geography, it will be associated with deities, or it will have been a place where holy sages, yogis and rsis spent time. Thus, a tirtha can refer to a body of water, speech, ritual, trees, time periods, places gods inhabit, and many more important things considered holy by Hindu devotees. Bodies of water are especially considered holy; they represent purity, a characteristic considered essential to Hindu puja and yajna. In the Puranas, tirtha-yatra (pilgrimage) to these holy mountains and bodies of water have become very important to Hindus. Tirtha-yatra is considered action toward absolution of wrongdoing and an attempt to create merit through karma (action) (Saraswati 3). Through these definitions, it is clear that a tirtha can represent many things considered important to a Hindu devotee.

It is important to note that tirthas are often considered to have different levels of importance and, thus, unequal merit amounts. Since the Hindu tradition does not have one main holy site, certain places of pilgrimage have been ordered in importance by multiple sources, such as the Mahabharata or the Puranas. These rankings are based on beliefs that more important tirthas will lead a Hindu to a higher level of purity (Jacobsen 122 and Saraswati 6). Some sites, like the Ganga River, are even considered to erase sin or bad karma accumulated over the entirety of a lifetime. This near-hierarchical labeling is seen as important because Hindu devotees wish to visit the sites with the greatest dharmic benefit. Because many tirthas claim to offer higher redemption or purity, it is argued that Hindus will take the tirtha-yatra most beneficial to their dharmic journey (Jacobsen 124). Rating the various tirthas does not necessarily mean to show actual hierarchy of the most important sites. They do, however, highlight the most popular tirthas, showing their sociological and cultural significance to the Hindu tradition. Misrikh, for example, is considered by some to be one of the most important tirthas. The Mahatmyas say that all waters of every tirtha is present at Misrikh, so it is likened to being purified by all tirthas at once (Jacobsen 56). However, others may believe the Ganga river is more powerful in its purifying abilities.

Going on pilgrimage can be seen as a stronger and alternative form of worship to Hindu deities. Pilgrimage to a tirtha is often based on a physical, geographical site. These tirthas are often physical locations where Hindus believe gods and other important persons have come from, and thus are manifest. Historical religious relevance is the main reason for this tradition and it often leads to strong devotion. Several authorities on Hindu tirtha-yatra have classified and analysed present-day tirthas, and have come up with a useful system to observe which sites are considered sociologically, religiously and most culturally relevant to devotees of the tradition. Of the 142 tirthas studied, just under 60% were water associated [see Bhardwaj 87: referring to river banks, river sources, confluences of rivers or coasts]. This emphasizes the importance of proximity to running water as an important characteristic of a holy place in connection to the significance of ritual purity of the soul and a strong connection with bathing (Bhardwaj 88).

Hindu devotees and pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters at Pura Tirta Empul on the island of Bali (Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia)
Hindu devotees and pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters at Pura Tirta Empul on the island of Bali (Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia)

Tirtha-yatra is considered to be more challenging than visiting a local tirtha or temple, even though travelling methods and transportation have improved with new technology. Hindus believe that participating in a tirtha-yatra with long distances and difficulty allows the pilgrim to reap all the benefits the holy place may offer. Exposure to hardship and austerity are believed to enable the earning of merit and the removal in impurity (Nordin 414). This also influences rankings of the tirthas. The Brahma Purana states that the Ganga River is thought to have come from Visnu, the Saravati River stems from Brahma, and the Narmada River comes from Siva. Bathing in any of these rivers is believed to create huge amounts of merit and relieve the Hindu devotee of all sin (Saraswati 5). Yet a Hindu who lives close to the Ganga River does not have to make great effort to visit this site. Thus, it may be seen as more desirable to travel to a different tirtha that is further away. Simply visiting the Ganga would be easy for this Hindu and thus he may not gain the extra dharmic auspiciousness that tirtha-yatra claims to offer (Jacobsen 21). Anthropologist Victor Turner discusses tirtha-yatra as a spiritually transitional rite of passage for Hindus. Turner’s suggests that devotees psychologically and spiritually prime themselves and change during a tirtha-yatra. By embarking on a pilgrimage, a devotee enters a phase that can be considered a “liminal state” different from daily life. Turner claims that this liminal state allows the “liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, [and] volition.” (Weber 527) Thus, when a pilgrim enters this “liminal state,” he is considered to be in a phase of fluctuation. Turner argues that this “liminal state” allows a pilgrim to cross over from his ordinary life and experience deeper spirituality and achieve holiness or purity. After ending the pilgrimage and exiting the “liminal stage,” the pilgrim is considered to have experienced “cultural creativity” and become something new.

Other important tirthas include mountains and forests. The Himalayas have become one of the supreme mountain tirthas. Sanctuaries like Badarinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath on the Himalayas are sought out by many of these pilgrims (Eck 335). They also involve a difficult journey, which is often associated with more merit. Forests, too, have come to represent some of the most symbolic tirthas: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of the most important epics in Hinduism, have introduced the forests that heroes like Rama and the Pandavas were exiled to. Because these heroes are widely known in Hindu culture, forest tirtha-yatra is often pursued, especially by those in the vanaprastha and samnyasin stages of life when this activity is encouraged. Furthermore, certain religiously significant cities have become tirthas. Among them are Ayodhya, the capital of Rama; Varanasi, the city of Siva on the Ganga; and Dvaraka, the capital of Krshna within Western India (Eck 335). This sacred geography of India is extremely important to Hindu culture: through tirtha-yatra to these holy places, Hindus are able to physically engage in their religious history. [For more information on specific associations between Hindu gods and geography, see Eck 323-344].

While tirtha-yatra is often based on a geographically significant site, the intention is for a visitation to a tirtha to be considered a spiritual “crossing over” by the devotee: these holy places represent characteristics in the Mahabharata and the Puranas that are idealized in order to lead one to become a more dharmic being. It is suggested that Hindu devotees who bathe in earthly tirthas and spiritual tirthas receive “the supreme goal” of greater purity or even enlightenment (Eck 341). Thus, a Hindu devotee does not only physically engage in a tirtha: he aims to spiritually cross over samsara and illusion and draw himself closer to mukti through his pilgrimage.

The tirtha-yatra also functions to reconnect Hindu devotees to the greater tradition they are immersed in. The Mahabharata considers going on pilgrimage to be superior even to sacrifice (Bhardwaj 29). In the first and second dialogues in the Mahabharata over 330 places are mentioned as holy sites intended as tirtha-yatra. Furthermore, a clockwise tour of the India, starting at Pushkara and ending in Prayaga (modern Allahabad) is suggested in this text in order to fully experience the full religious journey (Bhardwaj 43). A long tirtha-yatra is also suggested to give a Hindu devotee a full idea of the vastness of India’s holy land and thus allow an essence of connection and uniformity between devotees. Attending Hindu festivals also allows a devotee to connect with his peers within the tradition. The Allahabad Kumbh Mela is one festival that occurs every twelve years and connects millions of devotees together, encouraging them to engage in tirtha-yatra. This festival stems from the sagar manthan (ocean-churning) story present in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas, and has become a part of orthodox Hindu tradition (MacLean 875).

Interaction between Hindu devotees and a tirtha is especially meaningful as it is one of the only forms of worship that allows the Hindu to interact with their religious traditions outside of gender and caste. Because pilgrimage can be less expensive than elaborate upper-varna rituals, tirthas are more accessible to lower varnas, untouchables, women, widows and those with illness. The village of Mehandipur near the capital of Rajasthan in India is a tirtha site known especially for attracting those with illness (Dwyer 5). Often these ill devotees have sought medical and traditional healing practices already. Thus, those at Mehandipur are often visiting as a last attempt to find healing, but also to erase bad karma. The hope is that the auspiciousness of the tirtha will lead to a supernatural cure (Dwyer 6). Generally, in India, mixing of caste is strictly taboo: it is believed to reduce purity of higher castes and thus interfere with important yajna rituals. For the lower varnas or the untouchable caste, social mobility is not possible (Bhardwaj 151). However, it is suggested that several sacred Hindu tirthas allow social and religious mobility: caste distinction fades away while on tirtha-yatra, especially in regards to necessities. For example, while on tirtha-yatra, food generally cannot be refused by anyone, even if it comes from a member of a lower caste. Food handling, an issue of purity that is usually regulated in the caste system, has its taboos erased and ends up providing a basis of equality for the lower castes, which, in the secular world is typically denied (Bhardwaj 151-152).

While visiting a tirtha, many Hindus participate in different puja or yajna practices in attempts to gain merit. Vows, prayers, holy baths, dana (gift giving), and other worship done at a household shrine is often acceptable (Saraswati 28). Furthermore, certain acts can be done by devotees at certain tirthas to gain that particular god’s attention. For example, worship to Siva can be done at the Ganga River, using the river’s water, milk, honey, or bhanga (Saraswati 29). Analysis on 142 tirthas shows that an estimated 36% of these holy sites focus on chief worship of Siva, while 29% focus on Visnu [see Bhardwaj 90: further breakdown and analysis]. Chief worship of deities is suggested to be a cause of attracting pilgrims to particular tirthas.

Because tirtha-yatra is not guaranteed to be a safe journey, ideas of “good death” are focused upon as further motivation for going on pilgrimage. Hindu pilgrims prepare themselves for possibly dangerous encounters. A pilgrimage may also be done to induce death, or commemorate a recent death (Nordin 403-404). The hardship and effort associated with tirtha-yatra, combined with the absolution of sin is believed to offer the assurance of a “good death” and thus a path to mukti (Nordin 408). The idea of a transfer of divine energy and removal of pollution or evil propagates the belief in supernatural deities capable of this (Nordin 414). “Good death” while on pilgrimage is believed to be a reward for a Hindu believer: 70% of pilgrims studied by Nordin believed death while on pilgrimage was auspicious and beneficial to the self (Nordin 418) and it is a common idea that this “good death” will put a devotee at the feet of Siva or Visnu (Nordin 420).

Some pilgrims desire these “good death” outcomes so greately that their deaths arguably verge on suicide. A portion of pilgrims put themselves in danger purposefully while at a tirtha and believe their fate will be decided by Siva (Nordin 425). Yet by placing themselves in physical illness or subjecting themselves to illness, their actions could be explained as actions toward suicide (atma hatya), which is believed to be a sin as explained through the Dharma Shastras and other Hindu dharma (Nordin 426). Furthermore, 61% of pilgrims studied by Nordin believed ritual suicide while on tirthayatra is a sin (Nordin 418). The difference between “good death” and the sin of suicide is thus very slight but simply perpetuated by hopes of the creation of good karma.

Works Referenced and Further Recommended Reading

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. p 29-152.

Dwyer, Graham (1998) “The Phenomenology of Supernatural Malaise: Attribution, Vulnerability and the Patterns of Affliction at a Hindu Pilgrimage Centre in Rajasthan.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, Vol. 42, No. 2, p 5-6. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Eck, Diana L. (1981) “India’s ‘Tirthas’: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography.” History of Religions, Vol. 20, No. 4. p 323-344.

Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (trans.) (1896) The Mahabharata Book 13: Anusasana Parva. p. CIII. Calcutta: Bharata Press.

Jacobsen, Knut A. (2013) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: Salvific Space. New York: Routledge. p 21-124.

Lannoy, Richard (2000/2001) “Benares as Tirtha.” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4. p 6-17. New Delhi: India International Centre.

MacLean, Kama (2003) “Making the Colonial State Work for You: The Modern Beginnings of the Ancient Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 3. p 875. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.

Messerschmidt, Donald A. (1981) “Hindu Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 22, No. 5. p 571-572. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Morinis, Alan E. (1984) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nordin, Andreas (2009) “Good-death Beliefs and Cognition in Himalayan Pilgrimage.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 21, No. 4. p 403-426. Boston: BRILL.

Saraswati, Baidyanath (1985) Traditions of Tirthas in India: The anthropology of Hindu pilgrimage, Varanasi: NK Bose Memorial Foundation. p 2-29.

Weber, Donald (1995) “From Limen to Border: A Meditation on the Legacy of Victor Turner for American Cultural Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3. p 525-528. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press


Related Topics for Further Investigation:




Good Death

Atma Hatya





Household Shrines






Dharma Shastras








Ganga River








Related Websites


Article written by: Kate Kovacs (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.