Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.
A few kilometres outside of town, on top of a high ridge, were famous temples.
But to reach the temples, the pilgrim had to climb stone steps: 10, 000 of them.
That was a lot of steps.
I didn’t have a problem with the idea of ascending all those steps. A pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t meant to be easy. My conviction on this point emerged after previous visits to the famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.
In Dwarka and Somnath there were temples which were famous all over India and which every year were visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – and their number was increasing rapidly. It was in these sacred towns that I got to see the contemporary Hindu pilgrimage industry first hand. The pilgrims came in luxury coaches or cars, stayed in luxury hotels, dined out and bought souvenirs – and in between visited the temples. They were a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry.
Vendors did a brisk trade selling trinkets and souvenirs and in the temples, the priests had thoughtfully installed ATM’s to facilitate the donation cash flow. The spirit of consumerism had scored a complete triumph in India – supposedly a ‘spiritual’ land.
At the outskirts of Dwarka and Somnath, armies of peons worked like ants to build new luxury hotels and kitsch parks full of statues, avenues, ponds, swings and rides.
The Holy Site converted into a theme park.
In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. More than a few of them would have perished on the way.
Of course, climbing ten thousand steps wasn’t the same as experiencing the ancient pilgrim’s uncertain, primordial world, but it did at least put more emphasis on the notion of the pilgrimage involving physical effort; of the means of getting to the end destination being at least as important as the end destination itself……..