Locating pilgrim's India through history, geography and mythology

"India: A Sacred Geography" offers a unique perspective on India, both as a complex religious culture and as a nation.


Susmita Debnath


India is a diverse nation. Be it in terms of religion, caste, language or sacred spaces, India has always depicted a “unity in diversity”. India is dotted with holy shrines from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. In India, pilgrimage is the most popular form of tourism, hence, it may be rightly called the “land of pilgrimage”. With the expansion in public transportation, there has been a vast increase in the number of visitors to these holy shrines. Pilgrimages are no longer a regional or transregional affair but a pan India affair.


Diana L Eck in her book "India : A Sacred Geography" explores the relationship between religious texts and practices. She possesses a strong command over religious texts as well as the oral folklores and myths. Here, she attempts to study the relationship between between cultural landscape and the faiths and beliefs prevalent. She gives a bird’s eye view of pilgrimage across the Indian subcontinent unlike her previous book ‘Banaras : City of Light’, where she discussed about the ritualistic traditions and myths prevalent in the ancient and sacred city of Banaras. There exists a strong connection between Hindu faith and the Indian land. By saying “...its rivers, mountains, hills and coastlands - no matter how precisely rendered, mapped or measured, are also charged with stories of gods and heroes. It is a resonant, sacred geography,” the author tries to establish a relation between geography and mythology. This intersection reveals how the people known as ‘Hindus’ have “mapped” their world into a place they called “Bharata”. Thus, the main theme of the book is that, ‘Hindu mythology is profusely linked to India’s geography’.


She propounds that mythology and geography together produce a “living landscape” in which mountains, rivers and hills are infused with the stories of gods and heroes. “Every place has its story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place…this landscape not only connects places to the lore of gods, heroes and saints, but it connects places to one another, through local, regional and transregional practices of pilgrimage” (p 5). Likewise, these places are inextricably tied to one another – not simply in the past, but in the present – through the local, regional and transregional practices of pilgrimage. India : A Sacred Geography tells the story of the “pilgrim’s India”. “The articulation of groups of four, five, seven, or twelve sites”, i.e, the Chardham yatra (Badrinath, Puri, Rameshwaram and Dwarka), the seven mokshadayaka sites (Kashi, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Ujjain and Dwarka) or the twelve jyotilingas and several Shakti pithas has been used by the author as an example to depict the “polycentricity, pluralism, and duplication of the cultually “living landscape”. She further observes that there is not one Kashi in Banaras, but there is a Uttarkashi, a Dakshin Kashi and a Guptkashi. Similarly, there is not one holy Ganga but seven including the Narmada, the Godavari and the Kaveri, each flowing with the same divinity and sacredness as the one flowing in Banaras.

Thousands of years ago when the term ‘nation-state’ was not yet popular, India was conceived as a geographical unit in the hearts and minds of the pilgrims. They thought of India as a storied landscape filled with special places that bear the traces of gods and the footprints of saints. No matter where one goes in India, one will find a landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes of Indian culture. It is from these networks of pilgrimage places that India’s very sense of region and nation has emerged. “The pilgrim’s India”, Eck writes, “reaches back many hundreds of years and brings to us an astonishing picture of land linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims." India's unification was accomplished by the wanderings of pilgrims - from Hinglaj Mata Temple (now in Baluchistan) to Dhakeshwari Temple (now in Bangladesh), from Sharika Devi's shrine near Srinagar in Kashmir to Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. Eck's book clearly depicts that India is shaped not by the modern notion of a nation-state, "but by the extensive and intricate interrelation of geography and mythology (around rivers, shores, mountains, forests) that has produced this vast landscape of tirthas". This is the astonishing and fascinating picture of a land linked for centuries “not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims”.


Jawaharlal Nehru said in his historic address at AICC's Madurai session in October 1961: "India has, for ages past, been a country of pilgrimages. All over the country, you find these ancient places, from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath, high up in the snowy Himalayas down to Kanyakumari in the south. What has drawn our people from the south to the north and from the north to the south in these great pilgrimages? It is the feeling of one country and one culture." This very idea of India has been depicted by Eck in her book when she writes, “Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, once described to me the first-ever yatra that women of sewa took, as soon as they were able to save just enough money to take the first trip of their hardworking lives. It was not a trip to Mumbai or any glossy tourist destination, but a tirthayatra by bus through Rajasthan to Krishna's Vrindavan, and its participants included both Hindu and Muslim women" (p 443).


"India: A Sacred Geography" offers a unique perspective on India, both as a complex religious culture and as a nation. The book explores the sacred places of India, taking the reader on an extraordinary spiritual journey through the beliefs and history of this rich and profound place, as well as, providing a basic introduction to Hindu religious ideas and how these ideas influence our understanding of the modern sense of ‘India’ as a nation. It presents to her readers a treasure of spiritual stories that make India unique. Her use of geography as the literary map to introduce the complex collection of religions, we call Hinduism, is a wonderful guide. Geography and legends have come together for a fresh perspective on the idea of India.


(Susmita Debnath is an Intern at Academics4Nation & Research Scholar at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack.)

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