It is a quarter past three in the morning. A cow is feeding
silently and a neighbour turns in his sleep under the night sky.
We wait patiently for our taxi. Better late than never, it arrives:
yellow and black, dilapidated but spacious. It will take us from
Vadodara north to Ambaji. Our Divali yatra has begun.
It has often been said that Hinduism is not a religion in the
sense that we in the West understand that term but ‘a way of life’,
a complex social and religious system in which individuals order
their lives in relation to dharma or duty. Social position (varna
and jati) and stage of life (ashrama) determine the nature of
this duty providing, in theory at least, a well- structured system
of roles and responsibilities. Within this each has his or her
own place with its social and religious duties and goals. While
the specific nature of an individual’s obligations will depend
on his or her position and stage in life, the need to fulfil one’s
duty is shared, and one of the principal aspects of this is service
to the gods. The home is the normal arena for fulfilment of this
obligation but particular merit (punya) can be gained from visiting
religious sites in order to worship and make offerings.
The yatra or pilgrimage has not always been valued as a form
of religious practice. The Mahabharata was the first text to stress
the importance of religious travel per se, and its desirability
was reiterated in puranic literature as this quotation from the
Vamana Purana shows:
A man who goes there (Kurukshetra) filled with faith and who
bathes in the great pool Sthanu, wins whatever his heart desires;
of this there is no doubt. A man should practise self-control,
circumambulate the lake, go to Rantuka to seek forgiveness again
and again, bathe in the Sarasvati, observe and salute the Yaksa,
offer flowers and incense and food to the god, and recite the
following: ‘By your grace, O chief Yaksa, I shall make a pilgrimage
to whatever sacred fords, forest and rivers there may be. Make
my way ever clear!’ (1)
Pilgrimage is an aspect of religious behaviour particularly associated
with the development of popular Hinduism and the practice of worshipping
the deity with offerings (tarpana), and its characteristics and
goals are similar to those exhibited in domestic worship. It is
not just an extension of regular ritual practices, however, it
is ‘time out’ from ordinary life. It provides an opportunity to
escape from normal work, leisure, religious duties and general
commitments into a new space with different associations. In pilgrimage
both religious and social characteristics and goals are present,
and all are intensified. ‘As the pilgrim moves away from his structural
involvements at home his route becomes increasingly sacralised
at one level and increasingly secularised at another.’ (2) Let
us return now to the Ambaji pilgrimage in order to see what factors
are involved in this intensification.
The journey to North Gujarat took place just two days after my
arrival. I had come to India to undertake comparative fieldwork
for use in my research on the Gujarati Hindu community in Leeds.
For the family I was staying with in Vadodara my visit provided
an opportunity to undertake a long-planned yatra to the temples
in the North dedicated to Shakti (divine female energy). As with
all householders it was the duty of my host to serve both gods
and ancestors, an obligation which generally took the form of
regular domestic worship and the practice of life cycle rites.
The pilgrimage to Ambaji provided a valuable extension to these
normal duties, a chance to affirm family traditions and to serve
the family god. As Shrigaud Brahmans the family worshipped the
goddess Mahalakshmi, one of the three aspects of Shakti. (3) Living
in a large city away from the ancestral home in Kaira (a small
town south of Ahmadabad), the opportunities to fulfil familial
religious duties were rare: the visit of an English student able
to contribute to travelling costs, interested in Hinduism, and
coming as it did in the season of Divali, made the yatra not a
dream but a real possibility.
Ambaji lies to the north of Gujarat’s large towns and cities
near the border with Rajasthan. Travelling there by road one is
impressed by the changes: from the dry, flat land of central Gujarat
to the trees and hills of the North; from the heat to the cool
hill breezes; from the white pyjamas and gandhi-caps of Ahmadabad’s
traders to the thick cotton blouses and red turbans of the herders
of Khed-Brahma. Ambaji is the regional centre for the worship
of Ambamata (Durga), the aspect of Shakti associated with the
mountain-god, Shiva. (4) In Ambamata two qualities are combined,
the warm maternal spirit and the powerful warrior temperament.
Amba rides a tiger and in her many hands holds an assortment of
weapons. Like Shiva, however, she blesses those who serve her,
and she protects and helps her followers.
The journey to Ambaji has much in common with other Hindu pilgrimages.
The pilgrims’ motives are similar: personal pleasure and the fulfilment
of duty to God are both of central importance. In addition, some
of the practices that are performed at different places of pilgrimage
have much in common: people attend morning and evening worship
(Arti), they go shopping, bathe at ghats, and visit relatives.
The differences between pilgrimages, however, are worthy of equal
consideration: Why, for example, does one yatra seem to be more
special than another? Why does one site attract people from so
great a distance when another has only local visitors?
The nature of a Hindu pilgrimage, and the meaning it has for
those who undertake it are determined by five different elements:
the mode of transport chosen and the distance to be travelled;
calendrical considerations; the character of the religious site
to be visited; the pilgrim’s reasons for making the journey; and
the activities that are performed by pilgrims during their stay.
These characteristics, when taken together, define and describe
Hindu pilgrimage. Considered theoretically they suggest a unified
picture, that is, a picture of common purposes, popular practices,
and of religious sites standardised by traditional requirements.
The detail provided by an empirical examination of particular
pilgrimages shows that, although there are common features, there
are also striking dissimilarities. Religious trips are distinguished
from one another by their geographical, social and religious context,
by the status and facilities of the place of pilgrimage itself,
and by the pilgrims’ own complex intentions. Our trip to Ambaji
illustrates the operation of these five elements of pilgrimage.
Mode of transport and distance travelled
Our taxi journey to the North was comfortable. We slept, watched
town and countryside pass by, and stopped to refresh ourselves
at our leisure. The advantages of taxi travel over other more
conventional forms was considerable: we could make detours at
will to visit additional places of interest, Khed-Brahma, for
example, with its three Mataji temples, and we could relax without
the discomfort of a crowded bus or train. For the family I was
with, this was an unusual luxury, made possible only by my presence.
However, in choosing the taxi they had denied themselves the social
benefits of travelling by public transport. There was no opportunity
to meet and converse with other pilgrims en route. Neither was
it a meritorious way to travel: as we drove through the environs
of Ambaji we saw many pedestrian pilgrims, all with a few belongings,
some carrying small personal shrines. For those like us, who had
travelled two hundred miles, however, a pilgrimage on foot was
out of the question.
For those making the journey to Ambaji this particular period
had special meaning. It was Divali, the festival of lights. This
period begins with Dhanteras, ‘wealth-thirteenth’, the day on
which Lakshmi is honoured and petitioned for good luck, success
and fortune in the coming year. This is followed by Kali Chouvdas
(‘black fourteenth’), Divali night itself, when the candles and
lights are lit, New Year’s Day and the Divali Annakut (mountain
of food). Throughout the festival period people wear new clothes,
visit relatives, give presents of money to younger family members,
eat special foods, go shopping and light fireworks. New year’s
greetings are exchanged with the customary phrase ‘Sal mubarakh’.
Many people visit local temples or travel further afield on pilgrimages
to religious sites as we had chosen to do.
When we arrived in Ambaji early in the afternoon of Kali Chouvdas
we joined the throng of Divali pilgrims already gathered there.
It is said that Ambaji is generally a quiet village. It has no
offices or factories. It is not on a main travel route. During
the season of Divali, and to an even greater degree the folk festival
of Navaratri, the village of Ambaji comes alive. (5) The streets
are full of vendors selling their wares. Those who make a small
living from begging beset wealthy pilgrims. The dharmasala, where
visitors can rest during their stay, provides a cheap and welcome
meal for all, and the local taxis are much in demand to carry
people from Ambaji to other local sites in the surrounding area.
During our short stay everyone was dressed in their best clothes:
women visitors from the towns and cities in silk saris; rural
women in bright embroidered blouses and skirts. Money was changing
hands. The family I was with bought sugar, kankum powder, hair
braids, a piece of red cloth (for Mataji), and a coconut. A small
girl asked me for money. I had been told to resist. She followed
me for two hours.
The character of the place of pilgrimage
It was not until after we had found a place to stay, had wandered
round the market and had eaten with the other pilgrims that the
real business, of visiting local mandirs and dens (temples and
shrines), began in earnest. There are a great many religious sites
in Ambaji and its environs. Most of these are dedicated to Ambamata,
although Shiva, her divine partner, also provides a focus for
local worship: on the peak of Mount Gabbar, small shrines to Shiva
and Mata face one another, Shiva represented by the trident and
the bull, Mataji by a red flag and a tiger. Other local sites
also have special importance for pilgrims. We visited Komeshwar,
at the source of a stream, which is said to have been visited
by the goddess herself. From there we moved on to nearby Neminath
where we saw the five Jam temples dedicated to Mahavir, interesting
because of their antiquity and architectural merit. Neminath’s
significance is historical; the value of Komeshwar for pilgrims
lies in its natural setting and it mythological character. The
two sites also differ in level of importance. Komeshwar is only
known locally. Many people visit it during Navaratri and Divali
but only in conjunction with their pilgrimage to the more famous
shrine at Ambaji. Neminath, however, while having only minor importance
for Hindus, has greater significance for Gujarat’s Jam population.
The nature of the places we visited in and around Ambaji can be
seen to depend on a number of factors. These include the particular
deity related to a site, the site’s natural features (mountain,
water etc.), its mythological and historical significance, and
its status in relation to other sites.
The reasons for pilgrimage
After our tour of local places of interest we returned to Ambaji
and joined the crowds gathered outside the temple to await evening
Arti. As the doors opened everyone surged forward. From our position
at the end of the informal queue we stood no chance of getting
in. We abandoned the struggle: we would rise early and go to morning
worship instead. We sat in the square outside the temple relaxing
and talking together. My host told me about the religious traditions
of his family, about their home in Kaira, their temple to Mahalakshmi
and their migration to the urban centres of Gujarat and to Leicester
and Leeds in England. His father had brought him to Ambaji at
the age of two and he had always promised to return but had never
had the opportunity to do so until now. He saw the yatra as part
of his duty to his family and to their special deity, Lakshmi,
for although Ambaji is dedicated specifically to Ambamata, to
make an offering to one aspect of the divine female energy or
Shakti is to worship Shakti itself.
The host had fulfilled a promise (vrata) he had made both to
himself and to his family deity in coming to Ambaji. The promise
was related to his religious and social duty as a Shrigaud Brahman
and an eldest son. Other pilgrims had more pragmatic, though no
less important, purposes. Many people had brought their children
to be blessed by Ambamata: they would ask her to provide them
with long life, good health and success in business and marriage.
All those in Ambaji, irrespective of any specific personal intentions,
also shared a common desire to perform worship and make offerings
(Arti), and to experience the presence of Ambamata (Darshan).
In addition, as my host pointed out, all had come to enjoy themselves,
to meet friends and relatives, to go shopping in new markets,
to see monuments, mountains and lakes, and to be free of the day-to-day
responsibilities of work and the home.
Activities performed by pilgrims
After our conversation and a last drink of soda we returned to
our room. The adults were no less tired than the two children
and we all slept soundly. Morning Arti demanded that we rise early
again, and it was only the bucket of hot water I washed with that
improved my mood. We had had a glimpse of the goddess (Darshan)
the day before, and had given our offerings to the temple pandit.
Today’s Arti was for worship, to offer greetings and praise to
Ambamata, and to receive food blessed by her (prasada). The temple
was hot, dark and crowded. It reverberated with roars of ‘Mata
ki jay!’ (Glory to the Mother). Men held children above their
heads to see the goddess, and women pushed towards the massive
stone tiger at the centre of the temple, touching it and marking
their foreheads with the red kankum that lay at its feet. We all
sang the Arti prayer, addressing it to Ambamata, and waving the
light from the candles across our eyes and foreheads. Coins and
flowers were thrown to the front, and we bowed in homage as the
song ended. Crushed but excited we made for the doors, received
our prasada and went out into the bright sunlight. Nothing out
of the ordinary had been performed: Arti is sung twice daily in
most Hindu homes. But how different this particular morning’s
worship had been! Marked by devotion and communitas it had been
the highlight of our trip to Ambaji. (6)
The religious and social practices associated with each pilgrimage
(Arti, Darshan, special religious vows and rites, bathing, shopping,
site-seeing and socialising), like the other elements described
above, contribute to its character and quality. Each is different,
contextualised by its geographical setting, its religious traditions,
and the aims and intentions of the pilgrims who undertake it.
Certain aspects are common to all yatras: Hindu religion and culture
determine the general features of pilgrimage sites and the practices
that are consequently carried out there. In addition, the principal
motives for religious travel — a sense of duty (dharma) and a
desire for enjoyment — are generally held by all pilgrims. As
is true of most aspects of Hindu belief and practice, unifying
features operate but in each case they are contextualised and
particularised to provide a complex picture of Hindu pilgrimage.
One observation stands out above others from this picture, and
that is the combination of social and religious qualities. Pilgrimage
combines the practice of worship with the holiday, and pilgrims
enjoy in equal proportion fulfilling their religious duty and
indulging in tourist activities. The yatra provides an opportunity
to move away temporarily from ordinary social life into a new
and different environment. This does not represent a structural
reorientation from the profane to the sacred, but rather an intensification
of both the social and the religious aspects of life. The market
and the temple are both more exciting than their equivalents at
home. Children and gods are indulged with money and attention.
Bartering for silk and praising the deity are both performed with
more fervour than usual. Pilgrims do not seek to choose one type
of activity above another because pilgrimage, like all other areas
of Hindu life, is replete with both social and religious significance.
1. C. Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, Classical
Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, Philadelphia
1978, p. 329.
2. V. W. Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors.
Symbolic Action in Human Society, Ithaca, 1974.
3. Shakti is comprised of three elements (Mahalakshmi,
Mahasarasvati, Mahadurga) which correspond to the divine characters
of the trimurti (Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva). The addition of the
prefix ‘Maha-’ signifies the status of these three deities, and
distinguishes them from minor Hindu goddesses.
4. Durga appears in Hindu myths and stories
with a variety of different names. In Gujarat she is referred
to as Amba, Ambaji, Ambamata, Mata, and Mataji. As Shiva’s partner
she also appears in two other forms, as Parvati, the dutiful wife,
and as Kali, the goddess of destruction.
5. During the nine nights of Navaratri the goddesses
are worshipped. Durga (Ambamata) is of particular importance,
and her shrine becomes a focus for the folk dancing and singing
that are popular during this period.
6. Turner, op. cit. The term communitas is used
by Turner to refer to The experience brought about by secular
fellowship and sacred communication.
The Pilgrimage Theme Revisited
The practice of pilgrimage in the world’s religions has inspired
much recent scholarly interest. In 1987 and 1988 two conferences
were held in Britain on this theme, one in Oxford arranged by
the British Association for the History of Religions and the other
in London at Digby Stuart College. The second of these, an interdisciplinary
conference, included contributions on pilgrimage both in India
and amongst Hindus in Britain.
My most recent experiences of pilgrimage activity were not, however,
in a Hindu context but whilst staying in Japan in 1987. In addition
to visiting various stages on what is known as the Saikoku pilgrimage
route in the Osaka region (which is composed of 33 Buddhist temples
focusing on the worship of the Buddhist figure of compassion,
Kannon), I followed in the footsteps of the seventeenth century
poet, Basho, in travelling part of ‘the narrow road to the deep
north’. With a party of staff and students from the Department
of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Tsukuba,
I visited the region known as Dewa Sanzan, famous for its three
sacred mountains. It is renowned for the ‘Shugendo’ ascetic practices
which have taken place there over the centuries, for its festivals
(matsuri) and its pilgrimage activity (junrei).
Japan, like India, is an exciting place to research popular religion,
particularly temple worship and pilgrimage. In both cultures there
is much to explore at the interface between the sacred and the
profane. This aspect of pilgrimage — the relationship between
pious action and the holiday spirit, between asceticism and ‘the
package tour’ (Reader 1987) — remains central to an understanding
of the motives and behaviour of pilgrims. Victor Turner’s work
continues to be important in this regard and others have followed
his lead. In addition, the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion
contains useful introductory material on pilgrimage amongst Roman
Catholics (in Europe and the New World), Eastern Christians, Muslims,
Jews, Buddhists (in South, Southeast and East Asia, and Tibet)
and Hindus. The overview article is written by Edith Turner, who
co-authored a book on pilgrimage in Christian culture with Victor
- Victor W. Turner, 1974, ‘Pilgrimages as social
dramas’ in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, ed. Victor W. Turner,
Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
- Ian Reader, 1987, ‘From ascetism to the package
tour — the pilgrim’s progress in Japan’, Religion, 17, pp. 133—148.
- Surinder M. Bhardwaj, 1973, Hindu Places
of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography, University
of California Press, Berkeley.
- Articles on Pilgrimage in The Encyclopedia of Religion
(Vol 11), 1987, ed. Mircea Eliade, Macmillan, London.