The most sacred city for Hindus, Varanasi (Kashi), has a unique personality possessing all the important pan-India Hindu sacred places in abbreviated form and spatially transposed in its landscape—hence, the city’s title of ‘cultural capital’ of India (Singh 1993, 1997). The sacred territory (kshetra) of Kashi is delimited by a pilgrimage circuit, known as Panchakroshi. In an abbreviated form, the Panchakroshi pilgrimage route of Varanasi symbolises the cosmic circuit, the center of which is the temple of Madhyameshvara and radial point at the shrine of Dehli Vinayaka, covering a distance of 88.5 km (Figure 5). There are 108 shrines and sacred spots along this route, archetypically indicating the integrity of the division of time (e.g. 12 zodiacs) and cardinality of space (nine planets in Hindu mythology, referring to eight directions and the center). Among the 108 shrines, 56 are related to Shiva (linga). The antiquity of this pilgrimage goes back to the mid-sixteenth century as described in the mythological Singh, Rana P.B. 2006. Pilgrimage in Hinduism: Historical Context & Modern Perspectives 228 Puranas (Singh 2003).
The commonly accepted period for this scared journey is believed to be the intercalary month of leap year, commonly known as malamasa. During the last Panchakroshi Yatra in the Ashvina Malamasa (18 September-16 October 2001), a total of 52,310 devout local pilgrims and out-of-town pilgrim-tourists performed this sacred journey. To understand pilgrim-tourist experiences better, a survey was conducted with 432 pilgrimage participants by this author during Panchakroshi Yatra (see Singh 2003). According to the study, travel distance, level of faith, mental preparedness, cultural hierarchy, gender context, and various other life conditions, significantly influence the intensity of the experience. The survey found that small groups (3-6 persons) are the most common social setting for performing Panchakroshi Yatra, which is a finding consistent with Sopher’s (1968) observations in Gujarat (western India). The data also show the dominance of females (66.2 percent), which supports the perception that Hindu women are ‘more religious’ than men. This reflects to a large extent, the family-based nature of the pilgrimage experience. The majority of pilgrims were from a proximal area surrounding the city and district of Varanasi. In addition, people from Bengal form a significant cohort owing to the fact that Varanasi has been an important settlement destination for Bengalis since the twelfth century. The religious history of the city and the efficacy of the pilgrimage attract Hindus from all over India, as well as Nepal. Likewise, in recent years there has been a notable growth in diasporic Hindus from many other countries (e.g. Singapore, United States, Canada, Fiji, South Africa, etc) travelling to Varanasi to participate in the various pilgrimages (Singh 2001). Figure 15.5. The Panchakroshi Pilgrimage Circuit in Varanasi Well over half of the pilgrim-tourists are older people between the ages of 40 and 60. Adolescent devotees usually accompany their parents and grandparents to support and help them, but they also enjoy the fun of leisure pursuits and sightseeing in addition to the religious rituals of the pilgrimage. Approximately one fifth of the pilgrims surveyed belong to the lower classes, including peasantry and menial servants. Where education is low and dependency on Singh, Rana P.B. 2006. Pilgrimage in Hinduism: Historical Context & Modern Perspectives 229 subsistence farming is high, there is a strong belief in religious and ritualistic activities. Lower educational status is represented by a high percentage of pilgrims and vice versa. More than half (57%) of the foot-pilgrims from the local region claimed to have an education between primary school and graduation (grades 5–10), while among pilgrimage tourists it is around 70 percent. The predominance of the Brahmins caste is obvious in the observance of Hindu festivals and ritual performances, for by undertaking these rituals, they rejuvenate their professional images and religious status. The hierarchy of the higher-lower caste has a positive correspondence with the frequency of devotees. Brahmins and Merchant castes together share a little over half of the pilgrims (Singh 2003).
Since India’s independence in 1947, the upward mobility of the lower caste has become more notable by their adopting symbols and performing religious activities more typically associated with the higher caste. This tendency has encouraged lower caste people to take part in such sacred journeys, as set forth in Sanskrit law books and mythical anthologies. These texts explicitly designate pilgrimage as an appropriate meritorious act for poor people, members of the low caste, and women. However, Hindus of the very lowest caste (e.g. untouchables, such as cobblers, pig-herders, sweepers, basket makers, and mouse eaters) almost never make pilgrimages (Morinis 1984: 281). While no noticeable cultural changes have occurred in the Panchakroshi pilgrimage, socio-structural aspects have undergone important changes in the course of time. Hindu pilgrims enjoy sacred journeys as an earthly adventure from one place to another that entails the combined effects of a spiritual quest and physical hardship—by walking, suffering, or avoiding temptation. Believers often speak of the special power of pilgrimage to uplift them (based upon particular qualities of places) and of the compelling effects of various rituals and rites performed by priests at sacred places (Sax 1991).
Conclusion: With the growth of global tourism and a widespread interest in seeing culture in the mirror of history and tradition, religious heritage resource management becomes a critical issue in two primary ways: protection and maintenance of sacred sites and the survival and continuity of pilgrimage ceremonies that preserve centuries-old human interactions with the earth and its mystic powers. Fostering a rediscovery of forgotten (or, about so) common cultural heritage and practices at sacred places that centred on reverence to and harmony with the Earth as source and sustainer of life, the conservation and preservation of such holy sites would put a strong step in this direction. There are examples of grand Hindu pilgrimages at the regional level, such as Sabarimalai in Kerala (South India), in which even Christians and Muslims participate (Sekar 1992). Such places are the nexus of cultural integrity. Sopher (1987: 15) has provoked two contrasting messages in Hindu pilgrimage: searching the roots in place as basic religious impulse, and the other ironic form of mental construct of mystical tradition where place has no value. One is free to choose any of the approach, but for understanding the cultural system in both intrinsic and extrinsic ways, or as insider and outsider, a human science paradigm would be better as it covers the totality thus attempting to reveal the “whole” of the culture, human psyche and functions at play.