Category Archives: e. Hindu Pilgrimage

Hindu Pilgrimage

There are a large number of people that travel across India every year on pilgrimage in order to celebrate and develop new sense of spiritual awareness. There are specific pilgrimages for the devotees of Krsna and others who follow the god Rama. Each set of followers travel to distinct destinations that are specific to a particular deity. Other pilgrimages are done in order to visit sacred sights and temples, some for religious purposes and others for more leisurely reasons. These journeys can be done for reasons of celebration, while others have more profound and sacred motivations behind them. Pilgrimages can be undertaken alone as an solitary journey to find oneself reconnect with a special form of self-awareness. Other journeys, however, can be taken in groups as fun adventures. There are a remarkable number of differences found in pilgrimages within Hinduism.

The Sanskrit word for pilgrimage is yatra, and one undergoes this in a process of observance or vrata. Some who take on a pilgrimage will do so because of a motivation to travel and see other parts of India. For some, the practice has a more spiritual meaning. The idea of journeying may be an attempt to reach perhaps a temple or holy site in the hopes of receiving forgiveness. Others may decide to take on a pilgrimage in order to find a path of self awareness, and understanding. Whatever the reason may be behind the pilgrimage there are numerous options to any traveler. Another common type of traveler found on a Hindu pilgrim is a new married couple, perhaps using a pilgrimage as a honeymoon. Pilgrimages relating to new marriage can also be tied to traditions connected with goddesses that hope to bring fertility and prosperity. (“Village Daughter,” Sax, 498) Many who choose to go on a pilgrimage do so in the hopes of being able to travel from the reality found in everyday life to a more centered and holy place (an axis mundi). The ability to travel into this realm comes from crossing a tirthas or a crossing place. This crossing allows the traveler to be able to make the journey across reality to a holy place. Jean Rémy argues that, “Popular religion, particularly seen in the pilgrimage, is thus supposed to lend greater importance to the individual with his personal problems and at the same time to favour participation in collective undertakings.” (Remy, 41) Some pilgrimages brought about through tragedies such as a death, such as the sraddha ceremony for those who have died. (Bharati, 138) This ceremony is linked to the holy site of Gaya. Family members will carry the ashes of the deceased family member, which have been preserved till the pilgrimage, and deposite them in Gaya. (Bharati, 139) Other pilgrimages are more festivals in order for people to gather and celebrate. The Kumbha Mela is a festival that takes place every three years but is held in four different locations. Not every location is held in the same regard, which is made evident through the much larger gathering at Prayag (Allahabad). This location holds the festival every twelve years and millions travel there. Popular rituals for worshippers at this location are bathing in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The idea of bathing is to purify oneself and because of the belief that bathing in a holy place will allow the pilgrim to also become holy. (Sax, 54) A vast number of travelers visit this festival making it very popular.

Other popular pilgrimages are ones in which those devoted to a certain deity set out in a journey of worship. Individual deities have separate destinations for worship that travelers can visit. For Krsna-bhaktas a journey to Mathura or Dvaraka is a popular choice while Rama-bhaktas will journey to Ayodhya. A very popular holy site is the temple of Sri Venkatesvara that is dedicated to a form of Visnu. It attracts thousands of visitors each day and is a very wealthy temple. While some pilgrimages are marked by a journey to a natural landmark such as a river or a mountain other journeys take one to a manmade temple. The hopes of awakening self-awareness are apparent in some pilgrimages, and some devotees begin their journeys because of personal failure. Furthermore, it is obvious that some pilgrims set out clearly to honour and worship their own personal deity. Often times the option of pilgrimage is determined depending on location, as pilgrims are often restricted due to location, time, and the financial constraints of undertaking such a task. While there are many pilgrimages in West Bengal they are often restricted to those living in the region of Bengal because of the time needed to travel to the location. (Morinis, 12) In order to compensate for the amount of time needed to travel on a pilgrimage, some pilgrims take part in a shorter pilgrimage, often taking part in the journeys culmination. (Sax, 47) For some the practice of a pilgrimage can be the journey to a festival, a journey to a temple, holy site, or an attempt at spiritual awakening. Sādhus or holy men participate in pilgrimages in the Himalayas; there they challenge themselves by travelling barefoot on demanding paths. While some Hindus see pilgrimages as simply a chance to travel, while others regard pilgrimage as a difficult challenge in order to become stronger in personal faith.

It is impossible to make sweeping conclusions about pilgrimages in Hinduism due to the fact that they occur for such a multitude of reasons. However, due to the vast number of travels being undertaken by pilgrims they offer a fascinating study not only to those interested in studying Hinduism but also anthropology and geography. Part of what makes pilgrimages important is not only the importance to Hindus but also the fact that it is an ongoing journey which provides detailed information. (Rutherford, 143) One of the most important elements for a pilgrim is the idea of contemplation. One may be a follower of Krsna, Rama, or is simply looking for an adventure, yet a pilgrims claim to seek some sort of personal gain. That gain may be trying to find a deep understanding, a surreal realm, or an attempt to find balance in life. Hindu pilgrimages occur for many different reasons and therefore are fascinating for those reasons. Scholars are able to seek out numerous different questions when trying to understand this very diverse tradition. It is this diversity which so uniquely defines Hinduism.


Bharati, Agehananda. (Summer 1963). “Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition.” History of Religions 3, no. 1, z135-167.

Morinis, E. Alan. (1984). Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition. A Case Study of West Bengal . Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rémy, Jean. (1989). “Pilgrimage and Modernity.” Social Compass 36 no. 2: 139-143.

Rutherford, Ian. (2000). Theoria and Darśan: Pilgrimage and Vision in Greece and India.” The Classical Quarterly 50, no. 1, 133-146.

Sax, William S. (1991). Mountain Goddess. Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sax, William S. (August 1990). “Village Daughter, Village Goddess: Residence, Gender, and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage.” American Ethnologist 17, no. 3, 491-512.

Suggested Terms:




Kumbha Melas

Prayag (Allahabad)








Sri Venkatesvara

West Bengal


Suggested Websites

Written by Amanda Munroe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Pandharpur Pilgrimage

Pandharpur, often referred to as the city of the saints, is located 200 miles east of Bombay on the Deccan Plateau in Western India and is home to about 55, 000 people (Engblom 1). The city plays an important role within the Hinduism, especially in the last seven centuries (Engblom 1). Pandharpur is the location where the god Vithoba is worshipped. This worship takes place in the lunar month of Ashadh, which is the time period between the end of June and the beginning of July. Throughout the year small pilgrimages to Pandharpur take place, with the largest pilgrimage taking place in Ashadh. During this lunar month Pandharpur becomes home to five or six hundred thousand pilgrims who come from all over India as well as from other places throughout the world (Engblom 2). The site’s importance to the Hindu tradition is directly influenced by how many pilgrims go to it each year. Due to the popularity of the large Pandharpur Pilgrimage in Ashadh, as well as the smaller pilgrimages throughout the year Pandharpur has become the largest site for pilgrimage in Maharashtra (Engblom 1).

The city of Pandharpur is centered on the Vithoba temple, which has a central role in the pilgrimage. The temple is large, covers a vast area and its structure is very detailed. The style of the temple dates back to the 5th century BCE and some of the designs on the temple date back to the 13th century BCE. Containing many columns the temple has six different gates where each is an entrance into the temple. The navdev gate is located on the eastern side and is the main gate used by pilgrims to enter the temple (Deshpande 3). When pilgrims go through the entrance of the temple and become closer to Vithoba, they “dissolve their separateness from one and other, moving nearer towards the movement and place when and where they would be seeing god’s face with their own” (Ludwig 289).

Pilgrims embark on this fifteen day spiritual journey starting in Alandi, which is in the district of Pune, and make their way to Pandharpur (Karve 15). Pilgrims come from a variety of areas, including Pune, Junnar and Moglia (Zelliot 158). Travelling in small groups, individuals sleep in white canvas tents and eat their meals communally. Typically, females prepare the meals for the men as well as for themselves. During the pilgrimage some pilgrims choose to follow special dietary rituals at meal times in order to form a stronger connection with god, therefore they do not participate in the communal meal times.

Alandi, which is located outside of Pune, is the starting point for the pilgrimage. Alandi was chosen because it is the location where Dnyaneshwar, a philosopher and poet, died voluntarily at the age of twenty in front of hundreds of people. Dnyaneshwar composed songs about the meaning of the Bhagavad-Gita in Marathi and set out in search of God by entering into a Yogic path at a young age (Karve 15). He is an important symbol to the pilgrimage and for pilgrims, because during his quest for God Dnyaneshwar traveled to Pandharpur. To commemorate his journey, every year on the pilgrimage silver images of his feet are taken to Pandharpur by a palanquin.

On the pilgrimage the pilgrims travel through the hilly regions of Alandi, Poon, Saswad and enter the plateaus of eastern Maharashtra where the temple is located. Each group of pilgrims is accompanied by a dindi that sings different songs, and keeps different rhythms with their feet (Karve 15). A dindi is worshipping in groups where individuals creative talents, such as singing and dancing are expressed (Lele 121). The individuals who make up the groups travelling to Pandharpur are from different castes, but are mostly all Marathi speaking people who are able to sing the same verses (Zelliot 158). Even though everyone speaks a different dialect, the pilgrims sing the same verses and are thus able to express themselves in a standard language when forming a connection to Vithoba (Zelliot 159).

Waking up early in the mornings when on the pilgrimage is common; some groups wake up as early as 4:30 am in order to bath and continue the journey. According to the anthropologist Iravati Karve, when walking towards Pandharpur there are many professional beggars and poor people who are willing to eat whatever pilgrims are willing to donate (Karve 18). Giving food to beggars is a form of sacrifice that the pilgrims choose to partake in, and they believe that by performing such acts of charity, a stronger connection is formed with God. As pilgrims near the city of Pandharpur the pilgrimage swells in number as more pilgrims congregate and the different groups who have walked the fifteen day journey merge. Pilgrims of all the various castes come together, singing the same songs and verses. This is one of the most notable characteristics of the Pandharpur Pilgrimage for through the collective singing, the ideology that distinguishes and separates each caste is removed and commonalities between individuals are formed.

There are two distinct traditions of worship that take place at Pandharpur. The first is the pilgrimage that takes place accompanied with travel by road, singing and prayer in order to worship Vithoba. The second form of worship is an emotive approach that lovingly worships Vithoba (Engblom 8).

Once at the pilgrimage site there are various ritual services that are available. These include snana which is ritual bathing. The action of ritual bathing is believed to be the washing away of one’s sins. Tonsure and upanayana (the sacred thread ceremonies) are also available. If someone has died since the last pilgrimage, often their ashes will be brought to Pandharpur, where family members will spread them in the holy waters of the Bhima River (Engblom 10).

Individuals from any caste can enter the temple of Vithoba. Once individuals have entered the navdev gate many take part in the Pad-Sparsha-Darshan which is a ceremony where individuals can place their head at the feet of Vithoba (Religious Portal 1). It is claimed that placing one’s head at the feet of Heads Vithoba provides a direct connection between the god and devotee. This procedure of making physical contact with the feet of the divine is a particularly attractive feature of the Vithoba temple, and therefore draws a large number of Hindus as well as tourists (Pandharpur 1).


Deshpande, Mayur. “Pandharpur: Pilgrimage Place in Maharashtra”. Dec 2008.

Engblom Philllip C. and Mokashi, Digabar (1987) Palkhi, an Indian Pilgrimage. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Karve, Irawati. (1962) “On the Road: A Maharashtrian Pilgrimage.” Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Nov 1962), pp. 13-29.

Lele, Jayant (1981) Tradition and Modernity in Bhakti Movements. Canada: Queens University.

Ludwig, Theodore (1990) “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again.” History of Religions. Vol. 29, No. 3 (Feb 1990), pp. 289-291.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1988) The Experience of Hinduism-Essays on Religion in Maharashtra. New York: State University of New York Press.

Related Terms / Possible Topics for Future Students





The impact of Hindu pilgrimages on other cultures and religions

The history of Indian Pilgrimage

Other Related Websites

“On Pilgrimage: Transformative Journeys to Sacred Centers”

“Pilgrimage India”



“Pilgrim: Religion”

Vithoba Temple”,_Pandharpur

Written by Kim Morden (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Kumbha Mela

The Kumbha Mela is a pilgrimage festival in contemporary India, which attracts millions of Hindus to various sites to bathe in scarred waters. Hindus believe the Kumbha Mela (or Kumbh Mela) is a time when all forces of creation are collected into one vessel (Kumbha) and celebration (Mela) ensues. It has been estimated that up to 70 million people attended the last Kumbh Mela in Prayaga. The mythological beginnings of the Kumbh mela are a central focus of the pilgrimage and festival in contemporary India, though economic and political factors also influence the religious festival.

The Kumbh Mela has textual, mythical, and historical roots. It is believed that at the beginning of creation the gods were under a curse that made them weak. Brahma the creator god, advised them to churn the oceans in search of the nectar of immortality (amrta) from the primordial ocean of milk (Ksira sagara) and share the nectar equally. The gods sought help from the demons, and together churned the primordial ocean to bring up the nectar. However when the nectar was gathered up in the Kumbh (pot, vessel) the demons ran away with it, and the gods chased them. The battle for the nectar lasted twelve days and nights (the equivalent of twelve earth years). Drops of the nectar fell to earth during the battle in four locations Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik (Hebner, 1990:viii).

Historically the origins of the festival are difficult to identify. Rivers such as the Ganges have long been considered givers of life, often seen as bridges between the imortal heavens and mortal humans. Evidence exists of the Kumbh Mela dating back as far as the sixth century but its date of orgin is inconclusive. The Kumbha is mentioned in the Vedas although no specific reference to the event itself, as well in the Ramayana (see Rai Subhas chapter two) .

The Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years, rotating between the four sacred places completing a cycle every twelve years. The central focus is a tale of mythological life arising from the ocean. This life, once born, needed help to grow which was provided by both the Devas and Asuras. It is believed that bathing in these spots will cleanse your soul and help a person reach immortality.

The Kumbh Mela at Prayag (Allahabad) is the most holy of the four fairs, and takes place every twelfth year. Three sacred rivers converge at Allahabad: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythological Saraswati. The Ganges and the Yamuna both have physical origins in the Himalayan Mountains, while the Saraswati is a mythic river that does not exist in a physical form, but is said to join the Yamuna and the Ganges at Prayag. Bathing at any of the sites where the nectar was dropped is believed to have purifying effects. This place where the three rivers join is regarded as particularly beneficial. Purification is increased one hundred times, and when bathing during the Kumbh Mela purification is thought increased one thousand times. Bathing here is thought to be an act of great absolution of ones sins.

An ascetic smeared with ashes awaits the crucial bathing period at the Kumbha Mela in Nasik, India
An ascetic smeared with ashes awaits the crucial bathing period at the Kumbha Mela in Nasik, India

The Kumbh Mela begins on Makar Sankranti, an auspicious day when the moon and sun enters Capricorn and Jupiter enters Aries. Astrology plays a role in the festival as it is said that during this time the passage from earth to higher planets is open allowing earthly souls to enter the celestial world. According to Subhas Rai, the cosmic alignments associated with the festival are chosen so as to increase the efficacy of the pilgrims’ bathing. The combined power of river Ganges and the auspicious planetary positions creates a unique purifying power ( see Rai Subhas 1-2 )

During the Kumbha Mela, the Hindu Sastras ordain particular bathing norms to pilgrims. Observance of these rituals and baths are greatly eulogized are said to aid in the liberation from the cycle of life and death as well as earn praise from the gods. Akharas have exclusive rights to the most holy bathing areas, and the procession of royal baths are known as Shahi Snans. Akharas are sects or religious orders, however in the instance of the kumbh Akhara refers to the great congregation of sadhus, and members of mostly celibate religious communities. Each Akhara will have a large compound with many tents to hold thousands of members. The Akharas hold weapons and banners symbolizing royal authority, and are highly scripted. Before 1800 the bathing order reflected the individual’s status in relation to one another (Lochtefeld 103-126). Shanhi-Snan is the royal bath, in which members of various akharas are given priority access in a prearranged order for bathing. When Akharas are bathing ordinary pilgrims are not allowed to bathe. The procession of the Akharas is an elaborate ritual and one of the most colorful events of the Kumbh Mela. After the eulogies and first rights to bathe in the Ganges, the crowds of millions are allowed to walk in and perform the sacred ritual bath.

A temporary city is erected as a result of the crowds. Often during the Kumbh Mela tents are erected as hospitals for the pilgrims, offering free health care which is not offered in India normally. State governments have implemented sanitary arrangements, roads, and food shops. In the main festival area a wide variety of entertainment is available, and Indian culture and history is put on display. Images from the Ramayana and Mahabharata can be seen, traditional plays and songs are performed, and elaborate paintings are sold. The gathering of a vast amount of people provides an opportunity for merchants to capitalize on tourism and religious fervor.

The magnitude of the gathering also provides an opportunity to gain exposure and prestige for political organizations, activists and religious teachers. Economic and political pressures alter the tone of Kumbh Mela, Because of these pressures the Kumbh Mela at times becomes a stage for military power and government control, and a footing for economic and social change. In recent years the government has used the Mela to promote its own agenda such as family planning and environmental concerns, tourism and economic development. At times the festival also becomes a center in which a nationalistic identity is expressed through religious festival on an international stage (Lochtefeld 103-126).

The crowds of the festival can also have disastrous results when many families get separated, and children are often lost. Stories tell of families that were caring for a member of the family, such as an elderly person, who being a burden was left at the festival. Political tensions if high have sometimes boiled over with deadly results, and anxious rushes of pilgrims to the river have resulted in people being trampled. Despite these tragic stories we must keep in mind that the festival centers on purification and liberation. Although there are small pockets of tragedy and uprising the majority of the people come for a beautiful religious experience. Holy men are on every corner giving inspiration, people give of themselves to help strangers, and a culture is being celebrated through joyous festivities.

Bathing during the time of Kumbh mela is thought by Hindus to be of immeasurable significance. It also becomes a time in which people of different sects resolve their differences to bathe in holy waters, to resolve sins that all share in. Millions of people gather in the world’s largest pilgrimage during an astrologically auspicious time to absolve their sins. Mythology, literature and history become one as a culture and a religion is celebrated. Class and caste although carefully defined come together in a world renowned event. This can become a stage in which politics and economics is acted out, which in turn redefines the Kumbh mela.


Govind, Swarup (2003) Nashik Kumbha Mela : a spiritual sojourn. India Book House.

Ghosh, Ashim (2001) Kumbh Mela. Rupa & Co

Hebner, Jack (1990) Kumbha Mela: The world’s largest act of faith. Ganesh Editions

Lochtefeld, James G (Oct 2004) The construction of the kumbh mela. Vol.2 Issue 2, p103-126

Nandan, Jiwesh (2002) Mahakumbha: a spiritual journy. Rupa & co.

Rai, Subas. (1994) Kumbha Mela: History and religion, astronomy and cosmology Rupa & Co.

Related Topics

Vedas and astrology

Hindu caste system



Maurizio Benazzo Nick Day (2004), Shortcut to Nirvana.

Nadeem Uddin (2001) Kumbh mela: Songs of the river.

Related Websites

Hebner, Jack and Osborn, David. (04/10/2006) Kumbha Mela the world’s most massive act of faith,

The experience of a life time begins here

Brown, Doug Kumbh Mela 2001

Written by Lori Van Sevenant (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.