Spirit of sacred sojourns

Picture source - Twitter @LIH_Luxembourg

We keep on hearing and watching on our screens, people of different faiths thronging places annually, entailing the complete round trip to a certain place and back home, after having performed certain rituals at sites. Rituals are holy and sacred in spirit, collective and seeking in manifestation. The phenomenon is referred to as pilgrimage or sacred sojourns.

Our great religion Islam makes it mandatory for a Muslim who affords to perform Hajj, the supreme of all holy travels or pilgrimages. Large numbers of Muslims throng Makkah and Medina every year to commemorate the ritual of Hajj, details of which are well known to us as Muslims. For the last two decades, another holy journey which is grabbing attention worldwide is the Arbaeen walk in Iraq from Najaf to Hazrat Imam Hussain AS shrine at Karbala during the month of Safar, due to its sheer enormity of attendance, predominantly Shiite Muslims. What is the cross-cultural and cross-faith significance of this practice, how it is manifested, what is commemorated or sought, and where it is commemorated or sought, repeatedly every year? The aim is to give out a gist of the same without expecting acceptance or rejection by readers owing to religious biases. Pilgrimages are undertaken to try to find solace, peace, redemption, spiritual enlightenment or a faith reset due to the reverence of believers for a particular place, the person with whose name it becomes synonymous or even in a bid to connect with the Almighty.

In a nutshell, more or less all religions share the concept of pilgrimage. Some consider it mandatory, and others regard it as a matter of choice. This concept in Christianity goes places, like Walsingham, Lourdes, Jerusalem, and the Vatican. Walsingham is a small village in Norfolk, England which houses a replica of Mary’s House at Nazareth, at St Mary’s church, known as “Holy House”, believed to be an outcome of a vision which a noblewoman had in 1061 A.D. Pilgrims seek forgiveness of their sins and seek blessings by covering the last mile to the Holy House barefooted. Lourdes, in France was declared another pilgrimage site in 1858 A.D on the basis of a vision of Virgin Mary to a young girl. The waters of Lourdes are believed to have healing powers. Catholic Christians visit and pray at the sanctuary known as “Our Lady of Lourdes”. They also take part in a torch-lit procession in honour of the Virgin Mary and also take the holy water back home for cures and blessings. Christians’ reverence for Jerusalem is based on their belief that Jesus Christ spent the last week of his life there before being crucified. The must visit sites for Christians here are the Garden of Gethsemane; where Jesus prayed, Church of Sepulcher; the site of crucifixion, Via Dolorosa: the route from outskirts of Jerusalem to the Church of Sepulcher and Church of Ascension; built around a stone with footprint, believed to be of Jesus from where he had risen to heavens. After having spent time with Jesus, Peter became the leader of his disciples. After having spent time with Jesus, Peter left for Rome, where he became the first Pope and was later executed and buried on Vatican Hill. Christians throng to the Vatican in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Pope or participating in a mass led by him at St Peters Square.

Pilgrimage in Judaism is not only commemorative but festive in nature too. The Temple Mount was known to be sacred for Jews since prehistoric times. The First Temple was destroyed here in 587-586 BCE by the Babylonians, followed by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The Three Pilgrimage Festivals are known as Pesach, Passover, celebrating the mass exodus of Jews from Egypt and the start of plantation season, Shavuot, thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and Sukkot, the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years. These pilgrimages are referred to but actually are held in abeyance until the construction of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount. Therefore, they are not made obligatory for Jews to practice. Their linkage with the construction of the Third Temple has created a rift between unorthodox and orthodox Jews, the latter being in favour of constructing it forthwith, whereas unorthodox Jews feel time is not ripe for the same.

For example, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrian faiths all have in vogue pilgrimages to ancient and historic sites associated with their respective revered holy figures. Varanasi is the most visited pilgrimage site which holds significance for devotees, being on the banks of the Ganges and home to the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The Ganga Aarti ritual is performed here by pilgrims. Then there is the much-heard of Amarnath Yatra, the pilgrimage to icy caves. Sikhs have a number of pilgrimage sites in India and Pakistan, like the Golden Temple in Amritsar, known as Harmandar Sahab, surrounded by clean pools of water, sacred to Sikhs. Similarly, on Pakistan’s Punjab side is the Nankana Sahab, Punja Sahab in Hasanabdal, and the recently inaugurated Kartarpur Sahab. Pakistan is replete with sacred Buddhist sites, as the areas that formed the cradle of Gandhara civilization now form part of the country, as is India. Pilgrimage is, however, not considered mandatory in Buddhism. The Indian state of Gujrat holds the largest number of sacred fire temples, which are revered pilgrimage sites for Parsees and Udvada. Navrasi, and Surat, to name a few. The commonalities of purpose in pilgrimage regardless of faith can help build inter-faith harmony. It can help raise a tolerant society based on universal ethics and dispensation of the spirit of pilgrimage, which in my opinion, actually starts when we return home to act as better and enlightened human beings, truly beneficial to society. To me, that is the true spirit of sacred sojourns.

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