In the cold and dark I joined the pilgrims as they began their ascent over the 10, 000 steps, but for a while, I couldn’t see them and I was actually struggling to see the steps in front of me.
Then dawn broke and there was light and the show began.
The forms and faces of the other pilgrims became visible and what a truly eclectic mix it was: young couples, elderly couples, family groups and larger groups belonging to a sect – one lot clad in saffron and chanting, another dressed in pure white cotton and carrying small brass pots of water.
Everyone was on the move towards some unseen goal, some destination ahead which no one knew…….
Located in the state of Gujarat in the west of India, Junagadh was a pilgrim town with a difference.
A few kilometres away, 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.
Mind you, 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 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 which were in effect, 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 loomed larger than any kind of spiritualism.
In the past, pilgrims who went to sacred towns like Dwarka and Somnath had to endure great hardships to get there. They walked there and more than a few of them would have perished on the way. The pilgrimmage wasn’t meant to be easy let alone a form of self indulgence.
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.
And I can say also that Junagadh was a far more memorable journey than either Dwarka or Somnath…………