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The original pilgrimage

A young girl wanted to go to Shirdi with her friends, unaccompanied by any adults. "We girls just want to have some fun," she told her father. Not wanting to appear 'uncool', the father agreed, hoping the more traditional mother would stop her. To his surprise, she did not.


Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

"How could I say no?" explained the mother, "She said she felt Sai Baba was calling her." Till date, the parents are unsure about the real reason for their daughter's trip. Was it a spiritual calling? Or just an excuse for fun? So it is with any Indian pilgrimage. The reason for the trip is a bit of both, or perhaps neither.

The young girl perhaps would never have heard of Shirdi and Sai Baba had it not been for the film Amar Akbar Anthony starring Amitabh Bachchan, made in the 1970s, that made the Sufi saint a household name. Pilgrimages are a recurring theme in Bollywood because the producers, sensitive to the pulse of the masses, have realised the crucial role pilgrimage plays in the lives of most Indians.

Little wonder then that when a superstar gets arrested for aiding terrorist activities, or in a scam, he ensures the media follows him when he travels to each and every pilgrim shrine of repute in India. That is how he garners the sympathy of the masses. That is how he also ensures divine intervention for his judicial problems. Sincerity and strategy have always been part of the great Indian pilgrimage.

The idea of travelling to a sacred place is not unique to India. What we find in India is a cultural expression of that universal practice. Hindus refer to a holy place as a 'tirtha' which means a ford, the shallow part of a water body that can easily be crossed.

Perhaps it referred to the river Ganga, the most sacred river in India, possibly the oldest Hindu pilgrimage, believed to have descended from the heavens to help man conquer death and cope with life: when ashes of the dead were scattered in its waters, it offered the option of another life, and when the living bathed in its waters it held the promise of release from the wheel of rebirths.

Perhaps the earliest pilgrimage was the 'yatra' or journey made by people to this river to scatter the ashes of their ancestors. Or it was the final journey to be taken after completing all worldly duties. The river in a sense bridged the land of the dead and the land of the living. It provided the spiritual bridge that prevented man from sinking and drowning in the material.

Since then, all such places where there seemed a connection between the transcendental and the mundane, became tirthas, a pilgrimage to which one was encouraged to take. We do not realise that it is the pilgrim routes of India that created the notion of India in the first place -- rivers and lakes and mountain springs connected through various trails identified by wandering monks who were forbidden to stay in one place for too long -- a rigid rule that helped them experience detachment and indifference to all things worldly.

Hermits travelled all the time except during Chatur-maas or four months of the rainy season when they were sequestered in a monastery or in the house of a charitable patron. The average householder accompanied them sometimes, to some places, until gradually the pathways of hermits became networks for traders and now, tourists. 

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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