Uttarakhand is almost two decades old. During this period, there have been more losses than gains. Let us, for a moment, consider the state’s immense potential for tourism development. Today, we are gloating over the fact that despite a major disaster in 2013, a record number of people are visiting sacred sites like Kedarnath. Even though these visitors are pilgrims, travelling on shoestring budgets, we tend to add their numbers to the data of tourist arrivals. The mountains have attracted pilgrims from times immemorial, but can they bear the burden of hundreds and thousands of these modern visitors who generate a huge carbon footprint but contribute nothing to local economies?
During the Mahabharata War, the Pandavas committed fratricide; and to make up for this sin, undertook a pilgrimage to Kashi. Lord Vishweshwara was away in the Himalayas. On learning of this, the Pandavas left Kashi. They reached the Himalayas via Haridwar.
They saw Lord Shankara from a distance. But Shankara hid from them, since he did not wish to absolve them of their violent acts during the battle. Then, the eldest brother, Dharmaraj Yudhishthira, said:
“Oh, Lord, you have hidden yourself from our sight because we have sinned. But we will seek you out somehow. Only after we take your darshan, would our sins be washed away. This place, where you have hidden yourself will be known as Guptkashi and shall become a famous shrine.”
From Guptkashi (Rudraprayag), the Pandavas continued to walk until they reached Gaurikund in the Himalayan valleys.
They wandered there in search of Lord Shankara. While doing so, Nakul and Sahadev found a buffalo that was unique to look at. Then, Bheema went after the buffalo with his mace. The buffalo was clever, and Bheema could not catch him. But Bheema managed to hit the buffalo with his mace. The buffalo had its face hidden in a crevice in the earth. Bheema started to pull it by its tail. In this tug-of-war, the face of the buffalo went straight to Nepal. The face is Doleshwar Mahadev in Sipadol, Bhaktapur, Nepal.
Of course, Shiva himself had taken the form of a buffalo to conceal himself from the seekers.
On the hind part of Mahesha, a Jyotirlingam appeared and Shiva appeared from this light. On getting a darshan of Lord Shankara, the Pandavas were absolved of their sins. To gain Mahisharupa, Shankara and Bheema fought with maces. Bheema was struck with remorse. He started to massage Lord Shankara’s body with clarified butter. In memory of this event, even today, this pyramidal Jyotirlingam is massaged with ghee, clarified butter, made out of cow’s milk. Ganga waters and Bel leaves are offered in obeisance. The Lord told the Pandavas,
“From now on, I will remain here as a pyramidal Jyotirlingam. By taking a darshan of Kedarnath, devotees would attain piety.”
Since the times of Mahabharata, pilgrims have been trudging across the vast landscapes of the Char-Dham region, essentially along the upper course of the Ganga, looking for answers to life’s perplexing questions. Transformational travel that pilgrimage ought to be, and always was, is about a change in thinking and behaviour through travel.
While thinking of pilgrimage, especially in remote regions like the Himalayas, where existence is tough and living mostly subsistence, it is essential to focus on host community perspectives of transformational travel.
In the Himalayas, pilgrimage grew organically through the pilgrim-host relationships, which grew in the form of visitor jajmans, those who commissioned the rituals that coincided with the pilgrimage and the pandas, the performers of these rituals.
Pilgrims also interacted with porters, the host communities managing the chattis or halting stations along the arduous routes and those who provided the essential services. Pilgrims from across the world interacted with local people, and learning about host communities, could critically reflect on life.
Often, pilgrimage offered new perspectives on existence, the sheer ardor of walking through inhospitable yet naturally invigorating terrain transforming the self.
Pilgrimage in the past was about creation of new meanings, transformation of social, cultural, political and environmental beliefs and, most importantly, moving towards new values of openness, tolerance, sharing, empathy, compassion, justice and peace, unity and oneness, and service to others. Pilgrimage also meant that the visitor undertook the rigour of the journey, preparing oneself physically and spiritually, to undertake it. It is said that in the past, people traveling to sacred sites in the Himalayas would often say their final goodbyes to friends and relatives before embarking on the pilgrimage, in case they were unable to survive the rigours of the journey.
Today in our desperate attempt to earn revenues from tourism, we have committed the folly of altering the very nature of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage has fallen prey to crass commercialisation and amidst the scramble to attract record pilgrims, has led, as we are all aware, to disastrous consequences.
Amidst the post-disaster debate on pilgrimage, the one question that reverberates is, where are the hosts, the communities? Today, the pilgrimage to Kedarnath is under the stranglehold of tour operators in New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmadabad or Chennai. Ashrams, more and more performing the role of tour operators and hotels, are relinquishing their earlier role of being spiritual refuges and retreats, with organised motor travel taking over an ancient form of travel and community interaction.
Pilgrimage is more performed for collecting selfies and profile photos than gaining merit by facing the perils of the journeys.
In the past, pilgrimage routes were well mapped out since there was a constant stream of seekers trudging these paths. Today, things have changed. The traditional walking routes, those that the Pandavas and their progeny would have taken lie forgotten and forlorn.
There is an urgent need to document foot pilgrimage routes and map them for there are enough devotees and nature enthusiasts, who would shun the highways to embark upon spiritual journeys up the Gangetic water courses. For, in pilgrimage, the cardinal principle is, “the more the pain, the greater the merit earned”.
Pilgrimage into the Himalayas is an essential aspect of major religious faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Recently at the annual Urs at Peeran Kaliyar in Roorkee, I witnessed the sight of thousands of Muslim devotees bathing in the Ganga Canal before offering ziyarat. Different places are sites of pilgrimage for different religions, but the Gangetic region attracts people from all faiths.
Modes of pilgrimage are also different. In the Himalayas, people generally travel in community and family groups. Though there is insufficient data to corroborate the change in the nature of travel to spaces like Kedarnath, the opening of luxury resorts and rafting or rappelling camps on route, indicates that pilgrimage is more and more undertaken for pleasure.
In the run up to the 2013 disaster, it was not uncommon to see honeymooning couples travelling to Kedarnath, even though the journey is meant to be undertaken while fasting and under abstinence. Most blogs and travel sites on this pilgrimage refer to it as a trek, rather than a spiritual journey.
Tourism studies nowadays divide pilgrimage into two dimensions: the traditional (religious) pilgrimage and modern (secular) journey. Undoubtedly, majority of current pilgrimage journeys fall into the latter category.
Recent studies provide a new way of perceiving travel experience by focusing on how value searching matters in a journey for a certain group of travelers. It proves that foot pilgrimage has the potential to provide meanings to self-perception and the experience of being touched by ‘something’.
In the field of psychology, it is found that the external environment is able to raise an individual’s level of sensory awareness, which is directly related to spiritual inspiration and meaningful experience. Similarly, mindfulness makes travelers actively experience the place and keeps thinking about everything ongoing in a setting. Mindfulness is referred to as a state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. Individuals connect their personal identity and deepest-held values with the ‘particulars’ of a place, because when an individual thoroughly experiences a place, one begins to gain a life that is full of quality and meaning, not simply in the material sense.
Studies have found that “mindful” travelers tend to learn more from their journey than other travelers and they are more aware of the consequences of their behaviour. The feeling of “awe” is another element that contributes to a transformational journey. Awe is a result of certain experience often perceived and narrated as peak, spiritual, optimal, or extraordinary experience. It usually happens in nature-based settings, like the route to Kedarnath that also offers an extreme outdoor adventure. Awe affects individuals in dramatic ways.
It is the traveler motivated towards transformation that pilgrimage in the Upper Ganga Region must target. For this to happen, it is imperative to involve communities and limit pilgrimage to the extent permitted by carrying capacity studies. There is an urgent need to revive the traditional foot pilgrimage by refurbishing the roots.
Thus, rather than making the Char Dhams into a golden goose, a documentation of the foot routes to the major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand, along the river Ganga, and their restoration as ancient sites of outstanding universal value is essential.
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?)
Monday, 11 November 2019 | Lokesh Ohri | in Guest Column
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