Category Archives: Hindu Pilgrimages

Vrindavan (Vrndavana)

India is a country with a varied and rich mythology. Vrindavan (aka Vrndavana) is located in Northern India around fifteen kilometres from Mathura and is considered to be one of the seven holiest cities for Hindus (Haberman, 272). The city features many sacred land and water features such as the Yamuna River, sacred groves (vanas), ponds (kundas) and ghats (holy steps leading down to a river) (Luthy, 4). It is also referred to as Vrindavan or Vrindivana city. The name Vrindavan is derived from ‘Vrinda’ which is another name for the sacred tulsi (i.e. basil) plant. It is one of the most holy cities within the Hindu tradition and is commonly known as the “The City of Temples” with allegedly five thousand in total.

Major religious routes within the forests of Vrindavan were first established in the sixteenth century based on the Sanksrit text Vraj Bhakti Vilasa written by Narayan Bhatt (Shah, 41). Bhatt is responsible for mapping out a large portion of the religious sites that are worshipped to this day. Bhatt more specifically mapped out the place-names found within the Puranas onto the physical terrain where these sites are found (Ghosh, 193) Pilgrimages are religious and cultural phenomena that are important features the Hindu religion. In the Hindu religion, a pilgrimage is referred to as a tirtha yatra and is a liminal process that establishes participation in the spiritual realm (Singh &Haigh, 783). A pilgrimage has been defined as a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding (Barber, 1). Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, as a traditional religious or modern secular journey (Collins-Kreiner, 440). For example, the Krsna Balrama Madir Temple, established in 1975 by His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has now become Vrindavan’s most popular temple and has one of the highest standards of deity worship and cleanliness. It has become one of the most popular temples and Hare Krsna devotees can be found here throughout the year (Jacobsen, 143).

Vrindavan is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for devotees of Krsna as the city is well-known as the forested region where the deity Krsna grew up as a humble cowherd (go-pala). The city itself is said to be where Krsna spent his childhood and many say that he still resides within the city itself.  It is located in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. The area of Vrindavan is described in the Puranas as the childhood home of the deity Krsna. This mythologized place was located geographically when the Bengali Saint Caitanya travelled there to rediscover Krsna’s childhood home where he then experienced visions of the deity in the uninhabited forest (jangala) which is now modern day Vrindavan (Ghosh, 194). Caitanya and his followers began to construct temples in the holy city that can still be found today. For example, the Madan Mohan Temple is the oldest temple in Vrndavan today and is closely associated with Caitanya.

Mathura (just outside of Vrindavan) is a little town and a major place of pilgrimage on the banks of the Yamuna River. It attracts about a half of a million pilgrims each year, especially during major festivals such as Krsna Janmastami, Holi, and Radhastami. These journeys are made to sacred places as an act of religious devotion (Nash, 101). Pilgrimage sites are places that people consider sacred and maintain their sanctity by visiting them regularly and relating them into their religious framework (Eck, 8). In India more than one hundred million people visit around two thousand major pilgrimage sites annually (Shinde, 449). During ritualized pilgrimages individuals travel to a sacred place and perform rituals considered necessary to appease the sacred object in that place. These ritual acts of worship acts by pilgrims (individual and collective) of worship and rituals are regarded as part of their normal their religious duties (Shinde, 450). Pilgrimages are crucial in the Hindu religion in order for an individual to engage all of the senses when to experiencing the sacred sites Vrindavan has to offer. The believer “sees” the sacred sights (temples, churches, relics, icons, monuments), he/she “hears” the sacred sounds (church and temple bells, drum beats, chanting, singing, the call to prayer), “touches” the sacred artifacts (icons, deities, texts), “eats” special food (such as consecrated food); and “smells” specific aromas (incense, fresh flowers) (Eck, 9). All of these experiences vary depending on the individual’s participation in the religious culture developed around the pilgrimage site itself (Shinde, 451).

Although there are thousands of temples erected within Vrindavan there are a few that stand out. Since the establishment in the fifteenth century, Vrindavan has continued to be a center for devotional pilgrimages dedicated to the deity Krsna. Vrindavan is a place for pilgrims to visit Krsna temples, participate in worship and rituals, listen to narration of stories from the religious epics of Krsna, and perform poetry, art, dance, song, and drama dedicated to Krsna’s glory (Shinde, 452). For example, these everyday rituals involve dressing the idol in finery and darshan, communal singing of hymns, and food offerings to the deity depending on the temple of worship. Today you can find a live video stream of the Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Mandir which has now become one of the most popular and visited temples in the world.

Vrindavan is also a major site for Vaisnava groups. For example, widows (mostly from Bengal) have been congregating in Vrindavan for years to live out the rest of their lives. In India, social mores inhibit women from remarrying and they are shunned because they are viewed as inauspicious. Nilakantha Braja (The Blue-necked God) written by Assamese writer Indira Goswami highlights the plights of the widows who reside in the sacred city by depicting the despicable and undignified life and death experiences of these women. Known as the Radheyshamis (widows who sing devotional songs in temples for a pittance) these widows sing bhajans (hymns) in order to accumulate money to survive (Bhushan, 138). Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, jewelry, and even shave their heads if they are part of the more conservative Hindu traditions (Jamadar, Melkeri, & Holkar, 57). Although these women are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) they are still expected to mourn until their own deaths. Therefore, these women find refuge in Vrindavan where they lead miserable lives surviving by begging and singing hymns in praise of Gods (Pande, 209).

Today, the city of Vrindavan has become more of a tourist attraction than a pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages, themselves, are being transformed into mere sightseeing tours and can now be more accurately labeled as ‘religious tourism’ (Shinde, 184). Annually, Vrindavan receives more than six million visitors, who are no longer visiting strictly for religious reasons (Shinde, 448). Places that were once Hindu holy sites may be accessed with a simple search on Google where the best flight deals and top places to visit are a click away. However, some temples remain constant to modern Hindus such as the Banke-Bihari Temple which is considered to be the most popular shrine and is associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka. Another is Nidhi Van Temple where Krsna and Radha are said to come out after midnight and indulge in raas-leela (dance found in the Puranas) and then rest in the Rang Mahal Temple which is decorated daily for the two deities.

In conclusion, Vrindavan is gaining popularity due to its numerous temples. Construction and development are ongoing which includes temples, guest houses, and apartments. Simply wandering around Vrindavan allows one to see the vast beauty of the holy city and share vicariously in the myths of Krsna.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS

Barber, R. (1993) Pilgrimages. London: The Boydell Press.

Bhushan, Ravi. (2014) “Estranged Identity: The Problem of Hindu Widows in Indira Goswami’s Nilakantha Braja.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 5 #2:138-141.

Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research, 37(2): 440-456.

Eck, D. L. (1981) “Darsan: Seeing the divine image in India.” Chambersberg, PA: Anima Books: 8-9.

Ghosh, P. (2002) “Tales, tanks, and temples:the creation of a sacred center in seventeenth-century Bengal,” Asian Folklore, 61 #2:193-222.

Haberman, D. (1994) Journey through the Twelve Forests: An encounter with Krsna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luthy, T. (2016) “Few people know that Krishna was the first environmentalist”. Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, power and the environment.

Jacobsen, K. A. (2015) “Book review: Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, written by Ferdinando Sardella.” Numen, 62(1): 143-146.

Jamadar, C., Melkeri, S. P., & Holkar, A. (2015) “Quality of Life among Widows”. #1: 57-68.

Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E. J., & Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) “Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, Power and the Environment”. Routledge: #2.

Pande, Rekha (2015) “Widows Of Vrindavan-Feminisation Of Old Age In India.” Pakistan Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10: 209-223.

Shah, B. (2006) “The Pilgrimage of the Groves: Reconstructing the Meaning of a Sixteenth-Century Hindu Landscape”. Arnoldia: 39-41.

Shinde, K. A. (2015) “Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India.” Tourism Review, 70(3): 179-196.

Shinde, K. A. (2011) ““This is a religious environment”: Sacred space, environmental discourse, and environmental behavior at a Hindu pilgrimage site in India””. Space and Culture. 14: 448-463.

Shinde, K. A. (2008) “The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India.” PhD diss., Monash University: 449-451.

Shinde, K. A. (2007) “Case study 6: Visiting sacred sites in India: Religious tourism or pilgrimage.” Religious tourism and pilgrimage festivals management: An international perspective: 184-197.

Singh, R. P., & Haigh, M. J. (2015) “Hindu Pilgrimages: The Contemporary Scene.” The Changing World Religion Map: 783-801

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Banke-Bihari Temple

Bhagauata Purana

bhahjans

Chaintanya

dham

ghats

go-pala

Hare Krsna

Holi

jangala

Janmashtami

kundas

Krsna Balrama Madir Temple

Madan Mohan Temple

Mathura

Nimbarka

Nidhi Van

Nilakantha Braya

raas-leela

Radhahtami

Radheyshamis

Rang Mahal

sati

Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Madir Temple

Swami Haridas

tirtha yatra

tulsi

vaisnava

vanas

Vraj Bhakti Vilasa

Yamuna River

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.vrindavan-dham.com/vrindavana/ (Sri Vrindavan Dham, 2016).

http://daily.bhaskar.com/news/JM-a-secretive-place-in-vrindavan-where-radha-krishna-indulge-in-raas-leela-every-n-4874572-PHO.html?seq=5 (Daily Bhaskar, 2016).

http://hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/concepts/mathura.asp (Hindu Website, 2016).

http://www.stephen-knapp.com/vrindavana_the_holy_land_of_lord_krishna.htm (Vrindavana: The Holy Land of Lord Krsna, 2009).

http://www.krishna.com/vrindavan (Krishna.com, 2016).

 

Article written by: Lindsay Tymchyna (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sakta Pithas

The Sakta Pithas are places of worship, created to worship Hindu goddesses and or places of sacred capacity regarded as seats of the Devi (the Great Goddess). Sakti is known as the female principle of Hinduism and means ‘power’. Sakti is worshipped under many different names such as Durga, Ma, Devi and so on. These places of worship are spread throughout India, often with 51 places of worship in total, most of which are in Bengal or Assam (Payne 1). The 51 Pithas or places of worship are first described in the Mahapithanirupana or Pithanirnaya manuscript. (Sircar 3). Although it is not exactly evident when these manuscripts were composed, it is probable that they were prepared in the Medieval period (Sircar 4). However, it was not until later that works were prepared for Saktism to be greater studied and understood (Payne 15).

Related to these places of worship is an ancient myth depicting how these Pithas, or places of pilgrimage, came to be created. This myth involves the goddess Sati who is regarded as the wife of the great god Siva. There are many different legends and stories that go along with the naming and placing of these Pithas, as every author writing on the Sakta Pithas present different lists as to where the body parts fell. This myth is one that can be described as grim and violent, and thus has not received much attention as far as research goes. However, Saktism is a very important religious movement within Hinduism, and there are millions of Saktas or worshippers of Sakti throughout India (Payne 14).  With any religion, the origins of certain myths can vary making it complex to comprehend. In this article, we will examine the well-known myth of the Sakta Pithas, which tells how they came to be created. We shall also examine some of the legends of the Pithas in regards to their placement and names

One of the most ancient myths, which although not directly connected to the Pithas, provides a parallel symbolic motif. It tells a story of incest between a father, the creator god Prajapati and his daughter, the goddess Usas. The gods became disgusted with this act of incest and, requested Rudra to destroy Prajapati. Rudra thus pierced Prajapti with an arrow and Prajapati proceeded to fall to the ground, which is thereafter used in sacrificial rituals. Since Prajapati represents sacrifice his body could not simply be destroyed.  This version of the myth can be found in the Puranas or Tantras (Sircar 5).

Although the above is an ancient tale, with no direct connection to the Pithas, it grows from there into the well-known Daksa-Yajna Story approximately in the fourth century CE (Sircar 5). This tells of the mother goddess, in the form of Sati, who was a daughter of the “great king Daksa”. She took on this form of Sati in order to marry Siva (Courtright 39). After the couple was married, they went to live in Siva’s home at Mt. Kailasa. Following their marriage Sati’s father, Daksa Prajapati, hosted a sacrifice inviting all the gods but excluded his daughter Sati and his son in law, Siva. Dadhici, (Daksa’s priest), warned against the exclusion of Sati and Siva. He stated that without the ‘great God’, Siva, the ritual would be ineffective (Courtright, 39). However, Daksa believed that Siva was a terrible son in law and that he did not deserve to attend the ritual. Sati, enraged that she and her husband were not invited to her father’s sacrifice, decided to attend nonetheless. Upon attending the sacrifice, Sati was greatly mistreated by her father. Due to this mistreatment, Sati is said to have thrown herself into a fire feeling broken hearted and hurt. News of Sati’s death reached Siva, who furiously headed to the sacrifice and completely destroyed the scene. Some versions of the myth say that he beheaded Daksa. Others say that it was Virabhadra who destroyed the sacrificial ritual and beheaded Daksa (Courtright 41).

The further progression of this myth was added in the later part of the Medieval period, to justify the creation of the Pithas. It tells how Siva roamed around mad with despair carrying Sati’s body. Sati’s body was eventually cut piece by piece out of Siva’s hands; each piece was a different body part, which fell to the earth, thereby creating the holy sites of the Sakta Pithas. Some versions of the myth state that it was Brahman, Visnu and Sani that freed Siva from carrying Sati’s body, while others state that it was Visnu alone. As Sati’s body fell to the earth it spread Sakti or power across India. This spreading of Sati’s body, which not only created the Sakta Pithas, but which offers a mythic rationale for why the entire landscape of India is sacred, is the final portion of the myth.

Courtright suggests that there is a link regarding the creation of the Sakta Pithas and the ancient sacrificial ritual of sati practiced by widows upon the death of their husbands. However, different circumstances resulted in the immolation of Sati versus the sacrificial practice of sati performed by Hindu wives. Sati’s immolation was due to the harshness of a father towards a daughter and her husband while sati is a sacrifice performed by widows to accompany their husband after death (Courtright 37).

The locations where Sati’s body parts fell, or the Pithas, are often connected with linga, which represents Siva. Hindus believe that both worship of the linga and yoni should be held in the same high regard (Sircar 7). The locations, names and traditions of the Pithas differ throughout history. Many writers used a great deal of imagination when creating the lists of Pithas, so there is a great deal of variation amongst them (Sircar 32). However, many texts speak of the four Pithas also known as the Adi Pithas. The Adi Pithas are considered the major sites of Sakti worship, associated with the northern, southern, eastern and western regions of India (Sircar, 17). One early tradition, written about in the Catususpithatantra, indicates the four Adi Pithas as “Atmapitha, Parapitha, Yogapitha and Guhyapitha” (Sircar 11). Due to the fact that Saktism and the worship of Sakti and the Sakta Pithas are not strictly linked to Hinduism, and are also worshipped in Buddhism and Jainism, there are various names and traditions of the Sakti Pithas amongst these groups. The Hevajra Tantra, a Buddhist religious text, lists the Adi Pithas as “Jalandhara, Odiyana, Purnagiti and Kamarupa” (Sircar 12).

Popular writings about the Sakta Pithas speak of the Adi Pithas or the four Pithas and also state that there are a total of 51 Pithas. However, A section of the Kalika Purana contributes an account of seven Pithas as opposed to four: Devikuta, where the two feet of Sati fell, Uddiyana, where the two thighs fell, Kamagiri, where the pudendum muliebre fell, the eastern borders of Kamarupa, where the navel fell, Jalandhara, where the two breasts fell, Purnagiri, where the neck and shoulders fell and once again the borders of Kamarupa, where the head fell. The Rudrayamala, a Tantric text, mentions ten holy sites, rather than four. This tradition discusses sites in Kamarupa, Jalandhara, Purnagiri and Uddiyana, similarly to the Kalika Purana.  The Matysa Skanda and Padma Puranas list the large number of 108 Pithas in total. Such variations seem to derive from the writer’s fabrication and the imagination (Sircar 32). Although the list of names for the Sakta Pithas vary and are plentiful, the Kamarupa Pitha is commonly mentioned in many of the lists. Another commonality is a list of countries connected to a high level of Sakti worhip, namely: Gandahara, Uddiyana, Jalandhara and Kashmir (Sircar, 16). Two of the best-known temples that are widely acknowledged as Sakta Pithas by most worshippers today, are Kamakhya and Kalighat.

One of the oldest and most popular sites of goddess worship is Kamakhya temple, located at Guwahati, Assam. The legend of this site, as forwarded by the current temple management, tells of the king of Nepal approaching a sage known as Vatsayana. He was seeking advice on how to convert the popular ritual of human sacrifice to a more socially accepted rite of worship.  Vatsayana suggested the worship of a Tantric goddess named Tara in place of sacrificial rituals. The worship of Tara spread reaching to the Garo Hills where local tribes worshipped a fertility goddess named Kameke. As time went on the Tantric goddess Tara, and the fertility goddess Kameke were linked with the legend of the Sakta Pithas and began to be worshipped as Devi. This site is said to be where Sati would escape to spend time with Siva. It is also said to be the location where her yoni fell (kamakhyadham.com).

The Kalighat is an ancient site located in city of Calcutta (Kolkata), on the bank of the Hooghly river, and said to be where Sati’s toes and right foot fell. A well-known, newer temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, is now situated there. Legend has it that a devotee’s eye was caught by a ray of light while passing the Bhagirathi river. Upon moving toward the light the devotee found a human toe carved in stone. After discovering this stone foot the devotee immediately began praying to the mother goddess.  The temple was originally a small hut, constructed in the early 16th century. It was founded by Chowringee Natha, son to the king of Bengal. Kalighat was lavishly reconstructed in 1809 by the Chowdhrys family, transforming it from a small hut to a beautiful site. The government of Bengal has taken a great interest in this temple, as it has become a main tourist attraction (kalighattemple.com).

The Sakta Pithas have not been well studied; perhaps this is because scholars in the past have regarded the myth and the tradition of the Pithas negatively instead of attempting to understand their complex origins. However, these sites attract many pilgrims from far and wide, and will continue to serve as an important place of worship for centuries to come.

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Courtright, Paul (2011) “Searching for Sati.” Studying Hinduism in Practice. edited by Hillary Rodrigues. P.37-45. London: Routledge.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. London: Oxford University Press.

kalighat Kali Temple.” http://kalighattemple.com/legend.htm

Payne, Ernest (1997) The Saktas: The Introductive and Comparative Studies. New York: Dover Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books

Sircar,D.C. ( 2004) The Sakti Pithas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

The History of Kamakhya Temple Assam.” http://www.kamakhyadham.com/kamakhya-temple-history/

 

Related Topics For Further Investigation

Siva

Sakti

Saktism

Devi

Tantric

Rudra

yoga

Daksa-yajna-nasa

Puranas

Bhariva

Saivism

Kali

Durga

Pravati

Uma

Kumari

Gauri

Jainism

Buddhism

Kalika

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.rxiv.org/pdf/1503.0023v1.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakti_Peetha

http://www.shaktipeethas.org/travel-guide/topic11.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaktism

 

Article written by Sydney Cleland (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

Kanchipuram (City of a Thousand Temples)

The city of Kanchipuram is located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the banks of the Vegavathi River, thirty-one miles from the city of Madras (Schellinger 435). It is known as Siva Visnu Kanchi, or simply as Kanchi (Schellinger 435). In the Hindu culture, there are seven cities that are held as sacred, Kanchipuram being one of them. Although the city has earned the name “The City of a Thousand Temples,” it does not actually have a thousand temples located within the city. The city does however have a sizeable amount of religious sites and monuments that are used for worship. Centuries of Indian history can be seen when one travels to this holy city. Kanchipuram was established by the Pallava Dynasty and was named the capital of their empire (Schellinger 435).  After the reign of the Pallava Dynasty the history of this city is very vague. It was controlled by many other dynasties none of which lasted any substantial amount of years.

During the reign of Asoka (who was an adamant supporter of Buddhism and actively worked to spread the religion throughout India), the city fell under the control of his empire and had Buddhist stupas built within it. Records of various pilgrimages suggest that the Buddha himself may have visited Kanchipuram, which explains the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition within the city, however, there are many other reasons for the city’s popularity that are based on fact and not on religious speculation. The first king to rule over Kanchipuram was Sivaskandavarman, who ruled in the middle of the third century BCE (Schellinger 436). His status as the first king of Kanchipuram has been disputed, though there is a certain mythological story of how a man named Virakurcha married the daughter of a naga (a serpentine type creature) and became the first king of the Pallava Dynasty (Schellinger 435). This story is purely mythological but still raises the question about Sivaskandavarman really being the first king. During the Pallava Dynasty, temple building in India turned from using wood as a primary source for building temples, to stone, a material that is much stronger and adds greater strength to the structure – this is why the temples in Kanchipuram have withstood weathering for centuries (Schellinger 437). Education grew during the Pallava Dynasty, particularly in the religious studies of Buddhism and Hinduism; Kanchipuram now has several colleges affiliated with the University of Madras (Schellinger 438). Over the centuries temples dedicated to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have been constructed by the followers of these religions (Schellinger 436). The fame Kanchipuram has gained as a holy city is undoubtedly due to the fact that it has been the site for visits from great spiritual teachers and the many magnificent temples that have been constructed to various gods and goddesses. Another factor is the religious teachings and enhanced sense of spirituality that one gains from venturing into the city, which is a major factor in the pilgrimages that the people of India make to Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram has some of India’s most beautiful temples; one such temple is the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple. The emperor Rajasimha of the Pallava Dynasty is credited with commissioning the temples’ construction from 685 to 705 CE and dedicating it to the God Siva (Hudson 50), although there are other gods for whom the temple is also dedicated. It is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram and is famous for its architecture. An example of the famed architecture is one of the depictions of the god Siva carved into the temple as a begging ascetic on the south wall (Hudson 51), other carvings accompany this one and tell various stories that relate to Siva. This great temple was built in the 8th century by the architect Rajasimha and his son Mehendra (Dobbie 111), and is surrounded by smaller shrines. It is dedicated to the gods Visnu, Siva, Devi, Surya, Ganapathi and Kartikey, and its name means “Lord of the Cosmic Mountain” (Narasimha 96).  Another temple situated in the northern part of Kanchipuram is Ekambareswarar, which is the largest temple in the city and one of the main tourist attractions. It is dedicated to the god Siva; the temple is one of five major monuments built specifically to worship the god, each temple representing a different element (Ninan 132).  The legend behind this temple and one of the main reasons for its popularity is the story of Parvati. The legend states that Parvati, who was a companion of Siva, was praying underneath the temple’s mango tree, In order to test her faith and dedication, Siva set her on fire. Even while on fire, Parvati continued to pray and passed Siva’s test. She then constructed a Siva Linga (a mark used to worship Siva) out of sand to unite herself with Siva and the god came to be known as Ekambareswarar or “Lord of the Mango Trees” (Ayyar 71-72). There are many other legends pertaining to how this temple became one of the most revered places to worship Siva and a place of peace and spirituality but this is just one such example.

The Vaikuntha Perumal is the second imperial city built by Nandivarman II Pallavamalla, who was one of the emperors of the Pallava Dynasty (Hudson 52). It has many architectural marvels such as the massive vimana or towered sanctuary that rises above the temple and is said to be the place that the god of the temple dwells (Hudson 52). This structure has carvings depicting the establishment and history of the Pallava Dynasty, from its founding to the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal (Hudson 52). Inside, a huge carving of Visnu is depicted as a god king and is facing west. On the outside of the temple there are three other sculptures facing the remaining cardinal directions (Hudson 53).

Rituals and ceremonies are a part of daily life in Kanchipuram. Various temples, sometimes share the same rituals. For example, a ritual performed at the Ekamra temple is also performed at the Varadaraja temple. The ceremony features priests of the temple making offerings to Varadaraja five times a day (Hudson 58). Yet, before the offerings are made, the Brahmins (priests) must summon Visnu’s presence within the temple through the uttering of mantras (Hudson 58). This praying to Visnu essentially wakes up the god and sets into motion all other rituals that are to take place that day. Along with the daily rituals and ceremonies are festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals are conducted according to solstices and equinoxes. They are timed to coordinate with a day in the life of a god, where the winter solstice is the sunrise and the summer solstice is the sunset (Hudson 60). The year is also divided into different sections of months in which various festivals are to be performed. The beginning of the year, January, is a time to be thankful for the sun and a time to renew friendships (Hudson 61). The end of a year is called Margali and is from December to January and is the time of the year for meditation at the temples of Kanchipuram and reflection on the new knowledge one has gained throughout the year (Hudson 62).

Kanchipuram silk weavers are credited with producing the finest saris not just in South East Asia but also in the entire world. One factor that sets Kanchi saris above other saris is the silk that these garments are made from. Hand-woven, they are designed for auspiciousness. This means that the saris are meant to bring good fortune and happiness to the women who wear them and is directly related to the auspiciousness of events and persons the wearer may encounter (Kawlra 62); this quality of the saris gives them a religious appeal to their buyers. Also considered a part of the stages of life for women, various designs and patterns of the cloth can indicate the women’s different statuses – for instance, whether or not they are married (Kwalra 62). The makers of the clothing are called Padma Saliyars, and along with being skillfully trained in the art of weaving, they also have to have great knowledge of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. The weavers also conduct their lives and work with good practice so as to heighten their own auspiciousness and allow them to transfer this into their weaving (Kwalra 64). The weavers of raasi saris consult constellations in an effort to remain in accordance with the cosmos and avoid inauspiciousness. Failure to avoid weaving during certain times of the year is said to result in “bad luck” for anybody involved in its selling, weaving or even wearing (Kwalra 64). The shop that produces the saris is regarded as an auspicious shop and purchases made there have to follow an almost ritualistic transaction. This means that when a customer purchases from the shop the sari has to be exchanged in front of the shop deity and wrapped in white cloth to ensure purity and auspiciousness (Kwalra 65). This concept of auspiciousness is not a factual reason for the saris’ high value; a more concrete reason is likely the quality of the product and its importance in religious rituals and wedding ceremonies that take place within the city.

The city of Kanchipuram is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and spiritual cities in India. Its history is permeated in mythology and mysticism and can inspire a sense of wonder in the visitor or researcher. The large number of temples offers an interesting view into the Hindu religion and its practices. They have been the sites of many pilgrimages for the ascetic traveler and the aspiring scholar. Famous religious figures have been said to have traveled to the city and worshipped there. This has added to the fame of Kanchipuram, as well as its revered status as a “sacred city.” Depictions of various gods and the beautiful architecture of the city shed light on a not-so-distant Hindu past that has influenced many religious followers. The rituals and ceremonies that are daily occurrences in Kanchipuram give the city a sacred appeal to the outsider. Along with a very prominent religious appeal, some of the residents profit from the production of the city’s famed saris and offer potential auspiciousness for the person that owns one. Kanchipuram will undoubtedly remain a place where worship and spiritual teaching of the Hindu religion can occur and will hold its place as one of the most sacred cities in India.
References and Further Recommended Reading

Ayyar P.V. Jagadisa (1993) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Dobbie, Aline (2006) India: The Elephants Blessing. Cambridgeshire: Melrose Book Press Limited.

Gopal, Madan (1990) India through the ages. K.S. Gautam, (ed). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Hudson, D. Dennis, and Stratton Hawley John (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kawlra, Aarti (2005) Kanchipuram Sari: Design for Auspiciousness. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Narasimha Rao, P.V.L (2008) Kanchipuram: Land of Legends, Saints and Temples. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications.

Ninan, M.M. (2008) The Development of Hinduism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Padman, Kaimal (2005) Learning to See the Goddess Once Again: Male and Female in Balance at the Kailāsanāth Temple in Kāñcīpuram. Oxford University Press

Schellinger, Paul E (1996) International dictionary of historic places: Asia and Oceania. Singapore: Toppan Co.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Siva

Visnu

Asurya

5 sacred cities

Tamil Nadu

Ascetics

Auspiciousness

Inauspiciousness

Naga

Dharma

Cosmos

Siva Linga

Buddhism

Jainism

Sari

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.kanchi.tn.nic.in/

http://www.sudarshansilk.com

http://www.kanchi-project.sai.uni-heidelberg.de/

http://www.kanchi.nic.in/temples.htm

http://www.kanchikamakshi.com/

http://www.transindiatravels.com/tamil-nadu/kanchipuram/tourist-places-to-visit-in-kanchipuram

 

Article Written By: Josh Prefontaine (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

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:

Puja

Siva

Visnu

Good Death

Atma Hatya

Karma

Mukti/Mokti

Samsara

Dana

Household Shrines

Panentheism

Caste

Varna

Untouchables

Mahabharata

Dharma Shastras

Puranas

Atman

Rama

Varanasi

Vanaprastha

Samnyasin

Hardwar

Ganga River

Austerity

Auspiciousness

Mahatmyas

Merit

Rsi

Vedas

 

Related Websites

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/596892/tirtha

http://www.hinduism.co.za/tirtha.htm

http://www.tirthaguru.org/pilgrimage.htm

http://www.ometc.net/2010/02/what-is-the-meaning-of-tirtha.html

http://www.hindutirathyatra.com/

http://www.indianscriptures.com/vedic-lifestyle/beginners-guide/yatra-pilgrimage-in-hinduism

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/dharma/dharma_index.asp

http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/xeno.mahabsynop.htm

 

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

 

 

 

Kailasa Mountain (Significance and Pilgrimage)

Mount Kailasa is believed by Hindus to be the home of Siva and his wife Parvati. The mountain of Hindu lore is believed to have a number of sacred properties. Kailasa is said to be at the center of six mountain ranges, forming a lotus, and it is also said to be the source of four sacred rivers flowing into India (Bernbaum 8). Siva, the destroyer deity in the Hindu pantheon, is believed to be the ultimate ascetic. He is believed to sit atop Mount Kailasa in meditation, which allows him to dissolve the world of illusion and to observe all that is happening in the world.

In the mountains of Tibet there is a mountain that has come to bear the name Kailasa. This mountain is sacred to all of the religions in the area: Hindu, Buddhism, Bon and Jainism (Huber 128). To Hindus, this mountain is the fabled Kailasa. While it is not at the center of six mountain ranges, it is indeed the source of four rivers which flow through India. Hindus also believe that, in addition to being the source of a tributary of the Ganges, the Karnali, Kailasa is also the heavenly source of the Ganges itself. They believe that after touching earth at Kailasa the Ganges invisibly travels 140 miles through the locks of Siva’s hair to the physical source of the river (Bernbaum 8).

The Tibetan mountain, which is near the borders of India and Nepal, is a site of remarkable beauty. At 6,714m (22,028ft) above sea level the mountain is not the tallest in the Himalayas, although the lack of significant peaks around it makes it appear loftier than it is. The base of the mountain is very square, with four steep cliffs rising from the ground. Above these cliffs, the rock begins to taper and the mountain is noticeably stratified, giving the impression of stairs to its peak.

At the southern foot of the mountain are two large lakes. The easternmost is Manasarovar, which is round in shape and contains ice cold fresh water (Johnson 41). Hindus consider the waters of Manasarovar to be nearly as holy as Mount Kailasa itself, and scriptures hold that Brahma, one of the Hindu gods, provided Manasarovar to a group of Siva worshipers so that they could perform their required ablutions (Johnson 42). It is believed by Hindus that bathing in Manasarovar will cleanse away a lifetime of bad karma, and completely immersing oneself in the icy cold waters will ensure rebirth as a god (Johnson 48).

West of Manasarovar is Rakshastal, a lake which Hindus hold in much lower esteem. Rakshastal is said to have been created by the demon King Ravana during his own worship of Siva. Rakshastal’s waters are salty and do not support either fish or plant life. Pilgrims worshiping at Manasarovar are instructed to give only a glance in veneration toward Rakshastal, as the dark forces of the lake are too powerful for those who linger (Johnson 41).

Between Manasarovar and Rakshastal is a narrow channel, said to have been tunnelled by a golden fish. This channel, known as Ganga Chu, ebbs and flows with the water level in the lakes, and for most of the last century has been dry. Tibetans believe this to be a bad omen, and that when the holy waters of Manasarovar flow through the Ganga Chu to purify Rakshastal, the world is in harmony (Johnson 41).

Pilgrimage to Kailasa was once an extraordinarily difficult venture for Indian Hindus, and it was considered the greatest pilgrimage that could be made (Bernbaum 12). While some extreme ascetics still opt to make the entire journey on foot, through several high Himalayan passes, it is now much more common for pilgrims to fly to Tibetan or Nepalese cities such as Kathmandu, and take vehicles to the Tibetan town of Darchen, before setting off on foot for the last leg of the journey (Johnson 22).

Once pilgrims reach the foot of Mount Kailasa, they must decide how they will perform their circumambulation. Hindus and Buddhists traditionally circle the mountain in a clockwise direction, setting off to the west from the mountains south face. Jains and Bon Po will instead travel in a counter clockwise direction. Even with direction dictated by faith, the pilgrim must determine if they are healthy enough to make the 52km (32mile) journey in one day or three, or if they wish to prolong the experience by prostrating themselves every step of the way. The prostration circumambulation takes at least four weeks to complete. Most pilgrims will make the journey in three days, opting to spend each night in one of the temples along the well established path (Huber 131).

Recently, the pilgrimage to Kailasa has been established as a tourist industry by the Tibetans. Many tourist packages are available online, even from North America, most costing approximately 150,000 rupees or $2200 USD. These trips which range from 3 days to a month, will often include transit to Darchen, rental of Yaks, and a guided trip around the mountain.

In addition to the spiritual significance for Hindus, Mount Kailasa is also sacred to Buddhists, Jains and Bon Po. While the Bon religion was founded in the vicinity of Kailasa itself, Buddhists believe a story which tells of a yogi, Milarepa, who flew to the summit of the mountain in a race with a Bon priest. This is believed to be how Buddhism became the dominant religion of Tibet. Jains believe that the founder of their religion, Rshabhadeva, attained Nirvana atop Kailasa (Bernbaum 11).

The mountain is arguably one of the holiest sites on the planet, held sacred by more than half a billion people, and revered for its beauty by anyone who witnesses it, especially during sunset. The mountain forms a powerful landscape, spiritually and physically, and sets forth upon India some of the holiest waters in the subcontinent.

Resources

Bernbaum, Edwin (1990) Sacred Mountains of the World. Hong Kong: Toppan Printing Company (HK) Ltd.

Huber, Toni (1999) Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays. New Delhi: Indraprastha Press.

Johnson, Russel and Kerry Moran (1989) The Sacred Mountain of Tibet: on Pilgrimage to Kailas. Rochester: Park Street Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ganga/Ganges

Ganga Chu

Himalaya Mountains

Karnali

Manasarovar

Parvati

Pilgrimage

Rakshastal

Siva

Noteworthy Websites

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/tibet/mount-kailash

http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/mount_kailash

http://www.sacredsites.com/asia/tibet/mt_kailash.html

Article written by: Brandon Southgate (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sabarimalai Temple and Pilgrimage

Sabarimalai is a temple located in the mountains of South India, in the state of Kerala. It is dedicated to the deity Ayyappan, who is venerated widely throughout the South. Ayyappan is not mentioned in any of the puranic texts, and appears mostly in the myths and legends of Kerala. The first Sanskrit text to mention Ayyappan is the Bhutanathopakhyanam, which was written in the nineteenth century, and is the primary text of the cult (Sekar 15).

There are several differing stories of Sabarimalai’s origins, nearly all tied to Ayyappan. One such Ayyappan myth, of which there are many, it involves Ayyappan, although he is not yet revealed to be the deity, undertaking the impossible task of acquiring the milk of a tiger to save the life of the queen (Younger 18). When he succeeds, the king recognizes Ayyappan’s divinity and promises to build him a temple. Ayyappan shoots an arrow to indicate where the temple should be built, and it lands in the forest where Sabarimalai now stands. A separate story tells of how Parasurama, an avatara of Visnu, founded five shrines to Ayyappan (Sekar 19). The five shrines contain images of Ayyappan in several stages of life, the fourth of which is at Sabarimalai which depicts the deity in the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage of life. The fifth shrine has not been found, but it is believed by devotees to be on the summit of a nearby mountain, depicting Ayyappan as a sannyasin.

As alluded to above, it is possible that the myths involving Ayyappan are of South Indian origin, and it may be the case that Vedic references are built on a standing definition. Some scholars argue that versions of the story which portray Ayyappan as the son of Siva and Mohini may be a more recent creation, reflecting the southward movement of the The Vedas (Younger 22 and Thomas 20).

Sabarimalai is open to pilgrims only during the festival season, which runs for fifty one days though December and part of January (Younger 17). The pilgrimage is noteworthy for its popularity, drawing approximately ten million pilgrims each year (Younger 23). This popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while scholars are uncertain what caused the rise in pilgrims, having increased in the last fifty years (Younger 22-23).

The pilgrimage is important to the cultural identity of many South Indians, and the austere life lead by pilgrims is seen as similar to ancient forms of religious expression (Younger 18). Between forty five and sixty days prior to departing on the pilgrimage, pilgrims undertake numerous vows of austerity (Daniel 246-247). The list of injunctions is extensive and includes vows to refrain from intoxicating beverages, sexual activity, meat, eggs, and anger.

While Sabarimalai is important to the South Indian identity, it is by no means exclusive to those people. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the pilgrimage is its inclusiveness; the pilgrimage is open to all castes and faiths (Vaidyanathan 50). The tradition has loosely tied itself with both Islam and Buddhism. There is a mosque at Erumeli [the official starting place of the pilgrimage] dedicated to a figure named Vaver, who appears to provide assistance to Ayyappan in some stories (Thomas 14). Pilgrims are expected to circumambulate the mosque three times before visiting the temple to Ayyappan located in the same town. Some scholars have speculated at a possible link to Buddhism because Ayyappan is called simply ‘teacher’ by most pilgrims, which is one of the names of the Buddha (Younger 21). This universality of Sabarimalai is brought into question by its stance towards women.

No women of menstrual age are permitted on the pilgrimage (Younger 20). The reason typically given for this exclusion is that the pilgrimage is at essence a male initiation rite, testing the ability of a man to cope with the challenges of forest life. The exclusion of women is justified in the myth surrounding Ayyappan, who promises to wed the goddess Malikappurattamma the year that no pilgrims arrive to worship at Sabarimalai (Younger 20).. Malikappurattamma has a shrine on a nearby mountain, and during the festival her image is symbolically brought near Ayyappan’s shrine to witness the throngs of pilgrims standing between themIt is common for Hindu rituals and worship to be closed to menstruating women, but Sabarimalai’s exclusion of the entire age group is unusual and worthy of mention.

Despite the casteless nature of the pilgrimage, Ayyappan has historically been much more popular amongst the lower classes; Ayyappan is not worshipped as the chief deity in any Brahmin temples (Thomas 19). Some scholars credited the rise in the ritual’s popularity as stemming from anti-Brahmin sentiment; since the tradition is seen as natively South Indian, and the Brahmins are viewed as Northern migrants. This pilgrimage is seen by some as a way of asserting their independence from the caste system (Younger 23). Despite this undertone, the number of upper-caste pilgrims has increased steadily in recent years (Younger 24).

A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India
A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India

The pilgrimage begins with the vows of austerity mentioned above, which are taken in advance of the pilgrims departure. First time pilgrims are expected to find the participant in his region who has completed the pilgrimage the greatest number of times, and place himself under their care for the duration (Thomas 24-25). This senior pilgrim is to serve as a spiritual guide for the new devotee. This hierarchy is linguistically reinforced through the different modes of address used for pilgrims who have completed the pilgrimage more often. First and second time pilgrims are called kanni, those participating for a third time are called muthalperu, fourth are bharippu, and those on their fifth pilgrimage or more are addressed as ‘pazhama’ (Thomas 24).

When departing from their hometown, after an appropriate period of austerities, modern pilgrims have two options. The traditional method is to travel by foot to the town of Erumeli, stopping to worship at as many temples as possible along the way, and to begin the pilgrimage proper from there (Younger 19). For pilgrims looking for a less arduous journey, a road now extends to the town of Pampa at the foot of the mountain. Pilgrims are able to park their vehicles in Pampa and undertake a shorter eight kilometre trek up the mountain (Sekar 58). For pilgrims without their own means of transportation, the Kerala State Transport Corporation also runs a bus service to Pampa.

Along the route to the temple from Erumeli, pilgrims stop to hurl stones into a ravine, this is explained in a number of different ways. Some pilgrims understand it as symbolically throwing away a person’s sins, others as a reenactment of Ayyappan’s victory over the buffalo demoness Mahisi. Some scholars have also remarked on the similarity of this ritual to Muslim pilgrims stoning pillars in Mecca (Sekar 60). Pilgrims undertaking the last leg of the journey from Pampa first bathe in the river which the town is named for (Sekar 64). This bathing, as in one possible understanding of the ravine ritual, is intended to rid a person of their sins before proceeding to the temple.

After arriving at the temple, pilgrims smash ghee filled coconuts against the steps, before climbing those steps and entering into the temple itself (Younger 20). In the temple they witness priests pour ghee filled coconuts over the image of Ayyappan. Once the final act of the pilgrimage is complete, the pilgrims turn homewards, lingering only briefly once reaching the goal of their last several weeks (Younger 20).

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Daniel, E. Valentine (1984) Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Osella, Filippo and Osella, Caroline (2003) ‘Ayyappan saranam’: masculinity and the Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 9, 4. 729-756.

Sekar, Radhika (1992) The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Srikant, C. V. Manoj (1998) Sabarimala: Its Timeless Message. Payyanur: Integral Books.

Thomas, P. T. (1973) Sabarimalai and Its Sastha. Madras: Diocesan Press.

Vaidyanathan, K. R. (1978) Pilgrimage to Sabari. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Younger, Paul (2002) Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

RELATED TOPICS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Ayyappan

Bhutanathopakhyanam

Caste

Dravidian

Kerala

Liminality

Mahisi

Mohini

Pampa

Parasurama

Sabari

Vaver

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES RELATED TO THE TOPIC

http://www.ayyappan-ldc.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabarimala

http://www.sabarimala.org/

http://plerinageayappa.blogspot.com/

http://www.saranamayyappa.org/index.asp

http://www.sabarimala.org.in/

Article written by: Brian Paulson (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Pilgrimage

There are a large number of people that travel across India every year on pilgrimage in order to celebrate and develop new sense of spiritual awareness. There are specific pilgrimages for the devotees of Krsna and others who follow the god Rama. Each set of followers travel to distinct destinations that are specific to a particular deity. Other pilgrimages are done in order to visit sacred sights and temples, some for religious purposes and others for more leisurely reasons. These journeys can be done for reasons of celebration, while others have more profound and sacred motivations behind them. Pilgrimages can be undertaken alone as an solitary journey to find oneself reconnect with a special form of self-awareness. Other journeys, however, can be taken in groups as fun adventures. There are a remarkable number of differences found in pilgrimages within Hinduism.

The Sanskrit word for pilgrimage is yatra, and one undergoes this in a process of observance or vrata. Some who take on a pilgrimage will do so because of a motivation to travel and see other parts of India. For some, the practice has a more spiritual meaning. The idea of journeying may be an attempt to reach perhaps a temple or holy site in the hopes of receiving forgiveness. Others may decide to take on a pilgrimage in order to find a path of self awareness, and understanding. Whatever the reason may be behind the pilgrimage there are numerous options to any traveler. Another common type of traveler found on a Hindu pilgrim is a new married couple, perhaps using a pilgrimage as a honeymoon. Pilgrimages relating to new marriage can also be tied to traditions connected with goddesses that hope to bring fertility and prosperity. (“Village Daughter,” Sax, 498) Many who choose to go on a pilgrimage do so in the hopes of being able to travel from the reality found in everyday life to a more centered and holy place (an axis mundi). The ability to travel into this realm comes from crossing a tirthas or a crossing place. This crossing allows the traveler to be able to make the journey across reality to a holy place. Jean Rémy argues that, “Popular religion, particularly seen in the pilgrimage, is thus supposed to lend greater importance to the individual with his personal problems and at the same time to favour participation in collective undertakings.” (Remy, 41) Some pilgrimages brought about through tragedies such as a death, such as the sraddha ceremony for those who have died. (Bharati, 138) This ceremony is linked to the holy site of Gaya. Family members will carry the ashes of the deceased family member, which have been preserved till the pilgrimage, and deposite them in Gaya. (Bharati, 139) Other pilgrimages are more festivals in order for people to gather and celebrate. The Kumbha Mela is a festival that takes place every three years but is held in four different locations. Not every location is held in the same regard, which is made evident through the much larger gathering at Prayag (Allahabad). This location holds the festival every twelve years and millions travel there. Popular rituals for worshippers at this location are bathing in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The idea of bathing is to purify oneself and because of the belief that bathing in a holy place will allow the pilgrim to also become holy. (Sax, 54) A vast number of travelers visit this festival making it very popular.

Other popular pilgrimages are ones in which those devoted to a certain deity set out in a journey of worship. Individual deities have separate destinations for worship that travelers can visit. For Krsna-bhaktas a journey to Mathura or Dvaraka is a popular choice while Rama-bhaktas will journey to Ayodhya. A very popular holy site is the temple of Sri Venkatesvara that is dedicated to a form of Visnu. It attracts thousands of visitors each day and is a very wealthy temple. While some pilgrimages are marked by a journey to a natural landmark such as a river or a mountain other journeys take one to a manmade temple. The hopes of awakening self-awareness are apparent in some pilgrimages, and some devotees begin their journeys because of personal failure. Furthermore, it is obvious that some pilgrims set out clearly to honour and worship their own personal deity. Often times the option of pilgrimage is determined depending on location, as pilgrims are often restricted due to location, time, and the financial constraints of undertaking such a task. While there are many pilgrimages in West Bengal they are often restricted to those living in the region of Bengal because of the time needed to travel to the location. (Morinis, 12) In order to compensate for the amount of time needed to travel on a pilgrimage, some pilgrims take part in a shorter pilgrimage, often taking part in the journeys culmination. (Sax, 47) For some the practice of a pilgrimage can be the journey to a festival, a journey to a temple, holy site, or an attempt at spiritual awakening. Sādhus or holy men participate in pilgrimages in the Himalayas; there they challenge themselves by travelling barefoot on demanding paths. While some Hindus see pilgrimages as simply a chance to travel, while others regard pilgrimage as a difficult challenge in order to become stronger in personal faith.

It is impossible to make sweeping conclusions about pilgrimages in Hinduism due to the fact that they occur for such a multitude of reasons. However, due to the vast number of travels being undertaken by pilgrims they offer a fascinating study not only to those interested in studying Hinduism but also anthropology and geography. Part of what makes pilgrimages important is not only the importance to Hindus but also the fact that it is an ongoing journey which provides detailed information. (Rutherford, 143) One of the most important elements for a pilgrim is the idea of contemplation. One may be a follower of Krsna, Rama, or is simply looking for an adventure, yet a pilgrims claim to seek some sort of personal gain. That gain may be trying to find a deep understanding, a surreal realm, or an attempt to find balance in life. Hindu pilgrimages occur for many different reasons and therefore are fascinating for those reasons. Scholars are able to seek out numerous different questions when trying to understand this very diverse tradition. It is this diversity which so uniquely defines Hinduism.

Bibliography

Bharati, Agehananda. (Summer 1963). “Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition.” History of Religions 3, no. 1, z135-167.

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

Rémy, Jean. (1989). “Pilgrimage and Modernity.” Social Compass 36 no. 2: 139-143.

Rutherford, Ian. (2000). Theoria and Darśan: Pilgrimage and Vision in Greece and India.” The Classical Quarterly 50, no. 1, 133-146.

Sax, William S. (1991). Mountain Goddess. Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sax, William S. (August 1990). “Village Daughter, Village Goddess: Residence, Gender, and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage.” American Ethnologist 17, no. 3, 491-512.

Suggested Terms:

Yatra

Vrata

Gaya

Kumbha Melas

Prayag (Allahabad)

Ganga

Yamuna

Krsna-bhaktas

Rama-bhaktas

Mathura

Dvaraka

Ayodhya

Sri Venkatesvara

West Bengal

Vishnu

Suggested Websites

http://www.pilgrimage-india.com/hindu-pilgrimage/

http://www.colorado.edu/Conferences/pilgrimage/papers/Bhardwaj.html

http://www.pilgrimagetourinindia.com/hindu.htm


Written by Amanda Munroe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Pandharpur Pilgrimage

Pandharpur, often referred to as the city of the saints, is located 200 miles east of Bombay on the Deccan Plateau in Western India and is home to about 55, 000 people (Engblom 1). The city plays an important role within the Hinduism, especially in the last seven centuries (Engblom 1). Pandharpur is the location where the god Vithoba is worshipped. This worship takes place in the lunar month of Ashadh, which is the time period between the end of June and the beginning of July. Throughout the year small pilgrimages to Pandharpur take place, with the largest pilgrimage taking place in Ashadh. During this lunar month Pandharpur becomes home to five or six hundred thousand pilgrims who come from all over India as well as from other places throughout the world (Engblom 2). The site’s importance to the Hindu tradition is directly influenced by how many pilgrims go to it each year. Due to the popularity of the large Pandharpur Pilgrimage in Ashadh, as well as the smaller pilgrimages throughout the year Pandharpur has become the largest site for pilgrimage in Maharashtra (Engblom 1).

The city of Pandharpur is centered on the Vithoba temple, which has a central role in the pilgrimage. The temple is large, covers a vast area and its structure is very detailed. The style of the temple dates back to the 5th century BCE and some of the designs on the temple date back to the 13th century BCE. Containing many columns the temple has six different gates where each is an entrance into the temple. The navdev gate is located on the eastern side and is the main gate used by pilgrims to enter the temple (Deshpande 3). When pilgrims go through the entrance of the temple and become closer to Vithoba, they “dissolve their separateness from one and other, moving nearer towards the movement and place when and where they would be seeing god’s face with their own” (Ludwig 289).

Pilgrims embark on this fifteen day spiritual journey starting in Alandi, which is in the district of Pune, and make their way to Pandharpur (Karve 15). Pilgrims come from a variety of areas, including Pune, Junnar and Moglia (Zelliot 158). Travelling in small groups, individuals sleep in white canvas tents and eat their meals communally. Typically, females prepare the meals for the men as well as for themselves. During the pilgrimage some pilgrims choose to follow special dietary rituals at meal times in order to form a stronger connection with god, therefore they do not participate in the communal meal times.

Alandi, which is located outside of Pune, is the starting point for the pilgrimage. Alandi was chosen because it is the location where Dnyaneshwar, a philosopher and poet, died voluntarily at the age of twenty in front of hundreds of people. Dnyaneshwar composed songs about the meaning of the Bhagavad-Gita in Marathi and set out in search of God by entering into a Yogic path at a young age (Karve 15). He is an important symbol to the pilgrimage and for pilgrims, because during his quest for God Dnyaneshwar traveled to Pandharpur. To commemorate his journey, every year on the pilgrimage silver images of his feet are taken to Pandharpur by a palanquin.

On the pilgrimage the pilgrims travel through the hilly regions of Alandi, Poon, Saswad and enter the plateaus of eastern Maharashtra where the temple is located. Each group of pilgrims is accompanied by a dindi that sings different songs, and keeps different rhythms with their feet (Karve 15). A dindi is worshipping in groups where individuals creative talents, such as singing and dancing are expressed (Lele 121). The individuals who make up the groups travelling to Pandharpur are from different castes, but are mostly all Marathi speaking people who are able to sing the same verses (Zelliot 158). Even though everyone speaks a different dialect, the pilgrims sing the same verses and are thus able to express themselves in a standard language when forming a connection to Vithoba (Zelliot 159).

Waking up early in the mornings when on the pilgrimage is common; some groups wake up as early as 4:30 am in order to bath and continue the journey. According to the anthropologist Iravati Karve, when walking towards Pandharpur there are many professional beggars and poor people who are willing to eat whatever pilgrims are willing to donate (Karve 18). Giving food to beggars is a form of sacrifice that the pilgrims choose to partake in, and they believe that by performing such acts of charity, a stronger connection is formed with God. As pilgrims near the city of Pandharpur the pilgrimage swells in number as more pilgrims congregate and the different groups who have walked the fifteen day journey merge. Pilgrims of all the various castes come together, singing the same songs and verses. This is one of the most notable characteristics of the Pandharpur Pilgrimage for through the collective singing, the ideology that distinguishes and separates each caste is removed and commonalities between individuals are formed.

There are two distinct traditions of worship that take place at Pandharpur. The first is the pilgrimage that takes place accompanied with travel by road, singing and prayer in order to worship Vithoba. The second form of worship is an emotive approach that lovingly worships Vithoba (Engblom 8).

Once at the pilgrimage site there are various ritual services that are available. These include snana which is ritual bathing. The action of ritual bathing is believed to be the washing away of one’s sins. Tonsure and upanayana (the sacred thread ceremonies) are also available. If someone has died since the last pilgrimage, often their ashes will be brought to Pandharpur, where family members will spread them in the holy waters of the Bhima River (Engblom 10).

Individuals from any caste can enter the temple of Vithoba. Once individuals have entered the navdev gate many take part in the Pad-Sparsha-Darshan which is a ceremony where individuals can place their head at the feet of Vithoba (Religious Portal 1). It is claimed that placing one’s head at the feet of Heads Vithoba provides a direct connection between the god and devotee. This procedure of making physical contact with the feet of the divine is a particularly attractive feature of the Vithoba temple, and therefore draws a large number of Hindus as well as tourists (Pandharpur 1).

Bibliography

Deshpande, Mayur. “Pandharpur: Pilgrimage Place in Maharashtra”. Dec 2008. http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showthreaded&Number=202972&site_id=1#import)

Engblom Philllip C. and Mokashi, Digabar (1987) Palkhi, an Indian Pilgrimage. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Karve, Irawati. (1962) “On the Road: A Maharashtrian Pilgrimage.” Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Nov 1962), pp. 13-29.

Lele, Jayant (1981) Tradition and Modernity in Bhakti Movements. Canada: Queens University.

Ludwig, Theodore (1990) “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again.” History of Religions. Vol. 29, No. 3 (Feb 1990), pp. 289-291.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1988) The Experience of Hinduism-Essays on Religion in Maharashtra. New York: State University of New York Press.

Related Terms / Possible Topics for Future Students

Yatras

Yoga

Dnyaneshwar

Vithoba

The impact of Hindu pilgrimages on other cultures and religions

The history of Indian Pilgrimage

Other Related Websites

“On Pilgrimage: Transformative Journeys to Sacred Centers” http://onpilgrimage.com/_wsn/page2.html

“Pilgrimage India” http://www.pilgrimage-india.com/hindu-temples.html

“Pandharpur” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandharpur

“Pandharpur” http://www.solapur.gov.in/htmldocs/rpandharpur.pdf

“Pilgrim: Religion” http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761574362/Pilgrim_(religion).html

Vithoba Temple” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vithoba_temple,_Pandharpur

Written by Kim Morden (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Kumbha Mela

The Kumbha Mela is a pilgrimage festival in contemporary India, which attracts millions of Hindus to various sites to bathe in scarred waters. Hindus believe the Kumbha Mela (or Kumbh Mela) is a time when all forces of creation are collected into one vessel (Kumbha) and celebration (Mela) ensues. It has been estimated that up to 70 million people attended the last Kumbh Mela in Prayaga. The mythological beginnings of the Kumbh mela are a central focus of the pilgrimage and festival in contemporary India, though economic and political factors also influence the religious festival.

The Kumbh Mela has textual, mythical, and historical roots. It is believed that at the beginning of creation the gods were under a curse that made them weak. Brahma the creator god, advised them to churn the oceans in search of the nectar of immortality (amrta) from the primordial ocean of milk (Ksira sagara) and share the nectar equally. The gods sought help from the demons, and together churned the primordial ocean to bring up the nectar. However when the nectar was gathered up in the Kumbh (pot, vessel) the demons ran away with it, and the gods chased them. The battle for the nectar lasted twelve days and nights (the equivalent of twelve earth years). Drops of the nectar fell to earth during the battle in four locations Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik (Hebner, 1990:viii).

Historically the origins of the festival are difficult to identify. Rivers such as the Ganges have long been considered givers of life, often seen as bridges between the imortal heavens and mortal humans. Evidence exists of the Kumbh Mela dating back as far as the sixth century but its date of orgin is inconclusive. The Kumbha is mentioned in the Vedas although no specific reference to the event itself, as well in the Ramayana (see Rai Subhas chapter two) .

The Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years, rotating between the four sacred places completing a cycle every twelve years. The central focus is a tale of mythological life arising from the ocean. This life, once born, needed help to grow which was provided by both the Devas and Asuras. It is believed that bathing in these spots will cleanse your soul and help a person reach immortality.

The Kumbh Mela at Prayag (Allahabad) is the most holy of the four fairs, and takes place every twelfth year. Three sacred rivers converge at Allahabad: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythological Saraswati. The Ganges and the Yamuna both have physical origins in the Himalayan Mountains, while the Saraswati is a mythic river that does not exist in a physical form, but is said to join the Yamuna and the Ganges at Prayag. Bathing at any of the sites where the nectar was dropped is believed to have purifying effects. This place where the three rivers join is regarded as particularly beneficial. Purification is increased one hundred times, and when bathing during the Kumbh Mela purification is thought increased one thousand times. Bathing here is thought to be an act of great absolution of ones sins.

An ascetic smeared with ashes awaits the crucial bathing period at the Kumbha Mela in Nasik, India
An ascetic smeared with ashes awaits the crucial bathing period at the Kumbha Mela in Nasik, India

The Kumbh Mela begins on Makar Sankranti, an auspicious day when the moon and sun enters Capricorn and Jupiter enters Aries. Astrology plays a role in the festival as it is said that during this time the passage from earth to higher planets is open allowing earthly souls to enter the celestial world. According to Subhas Rai, the cosmic alignments associated with the festival are chosen so as to increase the efficacy of the pilgrims’ bathing. The combined power of river Ganges and the auspicious planetary positions creates a unique purifying power ( see Rai Subhas 1-2 )

During the Kumbha Mela, the Hindu Sastras ordain particular bathing norms to pilgrims. Observance of these rituals and baths are greatly eulogized are said to aid in the liberation from the cycle of life and death as well as earn praise from the gods. Akharas have exclusive rights to the most holy bathing areas, and the procession of royal baths are known as Shahi Snans. Akharas are sects or religious orders, however in the instance of the kumbh Akhara refers to the great congregation of sadhus, and members of mostly celibate religious communities. Each Akhara will have a large compound with many tents to hold thousands of members. The Akharas hold weapons and banners symbolizing royal authority, and are highly scripted. Before 1800 the bathing order reflected the individual’s status in relation to one another (Lochtefeld 103-126). Shanhi-Snan is the royal bath, in which members of various akharas are given priority access in a prearranged order for bathing. When Akharas are bathing ordinary pilgrims are not allowed to bathe. The procession of the Akharas is an elaborate ritual and one of the most colorful events of the Kumbh Mela. After the eulogies and first rights to bathe in the Ganges, the crowds of millions are allowed to walk in and perform the sacred ritual bath.

A temporary city is erected as a result of the crowds. Often during the Kumbh Mela tents are erected as hospitals for the pilgrims, offering free health care which is not offered in India normally. State governments have implemented sanitary arrangements, roads, and food shops. In the main festival area a wide variety of entertainment is available, and Indian culture and history is put on display. Images from the Ramayana and Mahabharata can be seen, traditional plays and songs are performed, and elaborate paintings are sold. The gathering of a vast amount of people provides an opportunity for merchants to capitalize on tourism and religious fervor.

The magnitude of the gathering also provides an opportunity to gain exposure and prestige for political organizations, activists and religious teachers. Economic and political pressures alter the tone of Kumbh Mela, Because of these pressures the Kumbh Mela at times becomes a stage for military power and government control, and a footing for economic and social change. In recent years the government has used the Mela to promote its own agenda such as family planning and environmental concerns, tourism and economic development. At times the festival also becomes a center in which a nationalistic identity is expressed through religious festival on an international stage (Lochtefeld 103-126).

The crowds of the festival can also have disastrous results when many families get separated, and children are often lost. Stories tell of families that were caring for a member of the family, such as an elderly person, who being a burden was left at the festival. Political tensions if high have sometimes boiled over with deadly results, and anxious rushes of pilgrims to the river have resulted in people being trampled. Despite these tragic stories we must keep in mind that the festival centers on purification and liberation. Although there are small pockets of tragedy and uprising the majority of the people come for a beautiful religious experience. Holy men are on every corner giving inspiration, people give of themselves to help strangers, and a culture is being celebrated through joyous festivities.

Bathing during the time of Kumbh mela is thought by Hindus to be of immeasurable significance. It also becomes a time in which people of different sects resolve their differences to bathe in holy waters, to resolve sins that all share in. Millions of people gather in the world’s largest pilgrimage during an astrologically auspicious time to absolve their sins. Mythology, literature and history become one as a culture and a religion is celebrated. Class and caste although carefully defined come together in a world renowned event. This can become a stage in which politics and economics is acted out, which in turn redefines the Kumbh mela.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Govind, Swarup (2003) Nashik Kumbha Mela : a spiritual sojourn. India Book House.

Ghosh, Ashim (2001) Kumbh Mela. Rupa & Co

Hebner, Jack (1990) Kumbha Mela: The world’s largest act of faith. Ganesh Editions

Lochtefeld, James G (Oct 2004) The construction of the kumbh mela. Vol.2 Issue 2, p103-126

Nandan, Jiwesh (2002) Mahakumbha: a spiritual journy. Rupa & co.

Rai, Subas. (1994) Kumbha Mela: History and religion, astronomy and cosmology Rupa & Co.

Related Topics

Vedas and astrology

Hindu caste system

Saraswati

Audio-visual

Maurizio Benazzo Nick Day (2004), Shortcut to Nirvana.

Nadeem Uddin (2001) Kumbh mela: Songs of the river.

Related Websites

Hebner, Jack and Osborn, David. (04/10/2006) Kumbha Mela the world’s most massive act of faith, http://www.archaeologyonline.net/artifacts/kumbha-mela.html

The experience of a life time begins here http://www.divinerevelation.org/KumbhMela.html

Brown, Doug Kumbh Mela 2001 http://www.asianart.com/exhibitions/dbrown/index.html

Written by Lori Van Sevenant (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.