Joining the Pilgrims – Part 1

 

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. In this, my sentiments echoed those of the famous Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner, Rabrindinath Tagore.

During the 1930’s Tagore publicly condemned a British plan to build a railway up to the Himalayas to make it easier for Hindu pilgrims to reach sacred sites at the source of the most sacred river in India, the Ganges. The whole point of a pilgrimage he argued, was that it involved hardships, even dangers. From time immemorial, the traditional Hindu pilgrim was someone who left home and cut all ties with society and wandered the vast natural expanses of India; closeness to the Divine Creator, a sense of the sacred, came about through the act of moving rather than reaching a fixed destination.

It wasn’t surprising really, that Tagore took this stand – unpopular as it was. His poetry often revolved around the poet’s attempt to find the divine presence in the natural world; he was a kind of Hindu Wordsworth. Whilst his compatriots were proud of him having won the Nobel Prize for literature, they nevertheless embraced the British pilgrim railway with enthusiasm. These were strange days; the very people who flocked to make use of the British pilgrim line were at the same time rallying behind Mahatma Ghandi in his campaign to force the British to quit India. One of the tactics used by Ghandi’s followers was for tens of thousands of them to lie down on the railway tracks and make it impossible for the British to use their railway system – which was the lynch pin of their rule of India.

The pilgrim line however was exempted from the boycott of the British railways by the independence movement.  

 

My plan to go to Junagadh came after visits to two very famous pilgrim towns on the coast of Gujarat: Dwarka and Somnath.

During my stays there, I thought of Tagore and how much the original concept of a pilgrim had changed in recent times. 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 tourists, a part of a corporate pilgrimage industry. The hardships faced by pilgrims in the past was a distant memory. The pilgrim town was a place where commercialism thrived on the worship of the gods. 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. Behind this lucrative tourist industry was the belief that the means of reaching the sacred temple was irrelevant; it was by being there that one gained the blessings of the gods. This symbolised, as few other things could, how 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, long before the British invaded India, 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.

It was something a bit closer to Tagore’s journey in search of the Divine.

 

I didn’t get into Junagadh until late at night.

The bus station was in the centre of town.

I got down and found a hotel in a nearby side street. It consisted of two floors of rooms at the top of an old three-story building; the reception desk was at the street level, next to some small shops and offices. Zombie-like, I filled in the endless number of forms which were required whenever one checked into a hotel in India, went to my room, had a shower and went to bed. I was exhausted.  

On the following morning, sun streaming into my room together with the sound of the traffic and horns blaring, I decided to take it easy and tackle the pilgrim trail on the following day. I spent a day doing some sight- seeing. I got an auto rickshaw to an ancient fort; within its walls were the remains of a mosque and a palace.

There was really nothing out of the ordinary here. All over India, there were countless towns and cities which boasted ancient forts and palaces. Junagadh’s fort, like all the others, was a relic from a long past dominated by conflict. It boasted that it had seen 16 major battles during its 500-year long history. Before the British appeared on the scene, India hadn’t been one country, but rather, a fragmented patchwork of kingdoms locked into endless dynastic battles. Pax Britannica had put an end to that. It laid the groundwork for a unified country. Thousands of miles of railways stitched together a nation. A hundred different kingdoms which had waged war on each other since time immemorial suddenly became connected under a single seat of authority in Delhi. The British appeared, and Junagadh’s fort was consigned to history.  

Standing on top of the old fort wall, I got a fine view of the journey I was to undertake on the following day: there were temples perched on top of a series of dry, yellow-brown hills, one after the other, each one slightly higher than the one before it.

 The 10,000 steps, which not visible from where I was standing, connected those temples.

 

On the following morning, I got off to an early start.

It was still dark when I left the hotel and went out onto eerily quiet streets to find an auto rickshaw. Some of the lamp posts worked and threw down a weak light. All the stalls and shops were shuttered. Cows wandered around aimlessly, goggle eyed, like the ghosts of departed souls. In some places there were cows sleeping on their haunches and next to them, stray dogs lying curled up. At one place, under a street lamp, there was a man standing behind a little trolley selling biscuits and glasses of chi.  There were a few men standing around, blankets drawn over them like ponchos, holding their glasses of chi with both hands.

I stopped and ordered a glass. No one said anything; the only sound to be heard was the roaring of the kerosene stove. In a few hours’ time, that same street would be bursting with people and traffic and dust and fumes: utter mayhem. 

Whilst I was sipping my glass of tea, a loud yell came from somewhere behind me. It was so sudden that I gulped my tea and burned the roof of my mouth. The yell came again. I looked around and saw an old man wrapped in a blanket, with a loose piece of cloth tied around his head, wandering passed as aimlessly as a cow. He was obviously not of sound mind (I often wondered what happened to old people suffering from dementia in India).  He yelled out again and again. When the men standing around the tea trolley answered his yell, I realised that it was a religious incantation which he had latched on to and was yelling out like a trained parrot. Perhaps in the confusion of his mind, he was beseeching the gods to restore him to sanity. But the yelling was jarring and it got on my nerves- and not to mention my burned mouth. After answering his yelling a couple of times, the tea drinkers ignored him.

He disappeared into the night and mercifully, his yelling faded away.

 

I got an auto-rickshaw out to the place where the steps began. It was only a few kilometres away, yet the trip seemed longer.

I began climbing the steps at 6 am; it was dark and unseasonably cold. There was no lighting. The only illumination came from the moon.

Many other people were also climbing the steps, but I couldn’t see them; they were voices in the dark unless they passed me, or I passed them.

The steps zig zagged back and forth up a steep slope. There were flights of steps and in between them, long sections of paved stones. It was a process of climbing steps and walking. 

I had joined the pilgrims, but I couldn’t see them. They were like ghosts.

The real journey began after the sun rose.

 

 

Joining the Pilgrims – Part 2

 

In the aura of dawn’s first light, 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 how long it would take to get there or, whether in fact they would get there.

Along the sides of the steps were the idols of the world’s most idolatrous religion. On one stretch of the trail, there were concrete boxes, painted white and inside them, gaudily painted multi-armed and multi-headed deities. I recognised only one of them: Kali, the goddess of death with her protruding tongue, her angry face, her necklace of human skulls and murderous weapons in her hands including sword, axe and mace.

A little further on there was a small area of rock which had been painted orange; on the rock face, in silver paint, there were two eyes and a mouth; this also represented a deity – at its base were candles and burning sticks of incense.

After about 3000 steps and a steep ascent, I came to a group of large temples.
In times gone by, this must have been where the trail ended. The temples were old and high. Their tapering stone facades had been delicately carved, in the Khajuraho style, into galleries of figures and deities, animals and humans. They were enclosed by high walls.

It was too cold to linger there so I kept going.

 

The trail wound its way higher up a mountain slope and near the top, levelled out. It was here that the pilgrims entered an arcade of stalls lining the trail on either side, their canvas roofs almost touching one another. The rising sun shone down into the arcade and simultaneously lighting up the trail ahead in a blaze of flaring red light.

In the stalls they were selling glasses of hot chi and biscuits, pakoras and sweets; books and cd’s by famous gurus and cd’s of sacred music. In a couple of the stalls there were screens featuring sermons by famous gurus – they could be seen every day on several Indian TV channels – and scenes from the annual ‘kum mela’, when tens of thousands of pilgrims converged on the Junagadh trail. From a cd player came sacred music, choirs endlessly repeating a refrain in honour of Rama to the accompaniment of tabla and sitar. At one stall there was a table covered in a tattoo blaze of colour; here the pilgrims could buy small, framed mass produced images of the gods; the purple faced Shiva, a third eye in the middle of his forehead (where the Hindus place the red dot or bindi) a cobra entwined around his neck, holding a trident spear and mounted on a bull, riding above the peaks of the mighty Himalaya; the monkey god Hanuman, with a monkey face and tail but the body of a man (and a body builder at that), wearing a gold crown and holding a large mace; the elephant god Ganesh also wearing a gold crown, seated on a magnificent throne, his long trunk dangling below like a flaccid member; a doe-eyed Rama holding a huge bow, a sheath of arrows on his back, and loaded down with so much finery that it was miracle he could stand up; another version of Kali, this time mounted on a tiger – and so on, an endless pantheon of lurid images and fantastic creations, of blues and reds and greens and yellows….it seemed extraordinary to me that these extravagant, outrageous images could mean something to someone, form the focus of their most heartfelt hopes and desires, and more than that, be worshipped by hundreds of millions of people.

 

 

As I left the stalls and continued my journey, I was met by a strong cold wind and a flaring early morning sun; the pilgrims up ahead were like silhouettes, black figures devoid of any features, moving over the trail as if drawn by a magnetic force.

The trail rose gently towards the top of a ridge, where there was a small temple. This is where most of pilgrims stopped – at about the 6000-step mark – before turning around and going back. The temple was a small shrine on top of a pile of rocks. I didn’t stop and look at it, but instead kept going; the steps plunged steeply downwards into a ravine, looping back and forth before climbing up again on the other side.

This was the last 4000 steps. At the end of it was another small temple.

It took me over an hour to reach it.

But the temple was an anti-climax.

There was an unimpressive painted concrete deity enclosed inside a shelter of corrugated iron. The iron rattled in the wind. I took a cursory look at the deity and then stood outside and took in the scenery.

Looking down at the zig sagging trail below me and the people and small groups working their way upwards, ant-like, I was impressed. There were groups of elderly people and villagers, people who were far from being physically fit, plodding towards the final goal, step by torturous step, singing and repeating mantras.

I wondered:

What was at the end of all those steps for the true believers?

An accumulation of merit so that in the next life they would be born into a higher caste or at least not slip down in the caste hierarchy?

Or perhaps not to be reborn at all but rather to be freed from, in Ghandi’s words, ‘the vicious cycle of births and deaths’ and attain enlightenment?

 

On the way back – by which time I began to feel the first pains in my legs – I thought about Tagore and his insistence that a pilgrimage was never meant to be easy. Whilst descending Junagadh’s 10, 000 steps and dodging the increasing number of people on their way up, I recalled an incident from a few years previous.

It was in Belgium.

In the backstreet of a town with a beautiful historic centre was a small shrine inside a narrow room between shops. The shrine was over 500 years old and was dedicated to a young man who had gone on a pilgrimage to Rome, been attacked by a bear on the way and badly injured. He had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten afterwards by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued until he reached Rome, where he had died shortly afterwards. The then Pope had declared him to be a Saint. For centuries afterwards, he was a kind of local hero. People had worshipped en masse at the small shrine. In recent times however, no one bothered. As the caretaker of the shrine observed, rather humorously:

‘These days you can drive to Rome in a day. No one can see why this man should be a Saint. The Vatican would like to annul his Sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’

In medieval Europe thousands of pilgrims walked to Rome. In those days, when Europe was covered in forests and where bears and wolves – and bands of violent thugs – thrived, it was a journey filled with danger. It was a mirror image of the situation in India in centuries past, and it seemed to me behind this original idea of the pilgrimage was a deep-seated expression of the nomadic impulse, when thousands of years ago, Homo Sapiens had lived as nomads. Civilisation, the settled life, came late in the history of the species.

Behind the pilgrimage was a longing to return to that existence….

 

That night, I was on a bus to the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan.

At some time in the early hours of the morning, I was woken from a deep sleep when the bus stopped for a break.

I could hardly get down from the bus.

My legs were killing me.

How had the considerable numbers of elderly pilgrims I had seen that day had fared?

Were they in a much pain as me?

Or did the rituals and prayers which they performed at the temples on the way inoculate them against the pains of a non-believer?