Editorial Feature

The Significance of Pilgrimage in the 21st Century

What can we learn from 100-year old spiritual voyages? 

In this era of 21st century globalization, we tend to think that the world is being made smaller by the forces of capital. Jobs jump across borders and continents; migrants embark on long journeys in search of better earnings. Far-flung places have become embedded in the same networks of production, exchange and consumption.

But the promise of riches isn’t the only reason for travel. For millennia, pilgrims and missionaries have journeyed the world for spiritual reasons. Their voyages shaped history as much as the expeditions of conquerors and traders.

Traveling Buddhist Monk monk from 9th century (From the collection of British Museum)

The pilgrimage remains an important act in the 21st century, with routes like the hajj to Mecca, the trek to Lake Mansarovar in Tibet, and the camino to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain still observed by legions of devotees. Spiritual belief offers a way of seeing the world, giving sacred meaning to geography.

Pilgrims' map of Mount Fuji and surrounding temples (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

The various islands of Japan are peppered with holy shrines and sites of pilgrimage, often clustered around mountains. None are more famous than those at the base and ascent of Mount Fuji. The mountain looms over Japan both physically and symbolically. It has been visited by Shinto pilgrims since at least the 7th century.

Pata, Sacred Hanging (From the collection of Sanskriti Museums)

Mountains are sacred in many parts of the world. The Shatrunjaya hills in the Indian state of Gujarat form a thirtha, or site of pilgrimage, for Jains. The yatra, or religious journey, is central to Jain and Hindu pilgrimages on the Indian subcontinent. This wall hanging plots routes through the many temples around the Shatrunjaya hills.

Map of the Ganges (From the collection of Kalakriti Archives)

The Ganges river has long been sacred to Hindus. This 18th century route map made in Rajasthan in northwest India traces the route along the upper course of the Ganges to the Himalayan temple of Badrinath, one of the four most significant sites of pilgrimage (or dhams) for Hindus.

The path wends its way along the river, stopping at various shrines and holy spots before culminating at Badrinath and its temple to the god Vishnu. The artist also depicted barefoot pilgrims making their way over the difficult route with walking sticks, inserting human experience into this vision of geography.

Depiction of Great Mosque of Mecca (From the collection of Chester Beatty Library)

With the exception of the Hindu Kumbh Mela in northern India, no site draws more pilgrims per year than the Ka’ba, the black structure at the heart of the sacred city of Mecca. Muslims come in their millions to Mecca every year, performing a pilgrimage that is considered an essential part of their faith.

This minimalist 18th century map of the Great Mosque at Mecca (above) shows the Ka’ba at the centre. In recent years, construction surrounding the mosque has caused controversy, with devotees claiming that modern development is infringing upon a sacred space.

Mappa Mundi by Hanns Rüst (From the collection of The Morgan Library & Museum)

Medieval Christian conceptions of space placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world, a position the city often found in mappa mundi (or “world maps”) of the period. Following an old cartographical tradition, the artist of this 15th century German map of the world put Jerusalem in the middle, the Garden of Eden at the top (in the east) and the Mediterranean at the bottom (in the west) of the map.

Christian theology shaped the representation of the world, not only populating the map with biblical legends and lore, but governing its very structure. The continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia all unspool from Jerusalem, the holiest of cities. The sacred oriented the understanding of the spread of the world.

Words by Kanishk Tharoor
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google