I promised myself, a long time ago, that I would never travel on a pilgrimage. Not that I’m not spiritual –sometimes even I’m surprised that I am – but because I’ve convinced myself that pilgrimages are ritualistic, hypocritical exercises lacking the serendipity of travel. Because I’ve watched these journeys often peter out into self-flagellation, or worse, self-righteousness. Because, and this is Shug Avery (The Color Purple), God is in the people and not the places. Or because I once read Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and swore off them – pilgrimages and Coelho – for good.
And maybe because I dislike them, I seem to be surrounded by career pilgrims. One of my neighbours takes off on a pilgrimage nearly every month. Leaving family and work behind, her quest for the supreme every first week leads her to temples in obscure places with varying numbers of steps or stupas. Over the years (she’s close to 50 now), I think she’s done the rounds of every tier-I sacred spot in India at least twice over.
There are many others. A friend’s family drives to ‘special’ churches nearly every weekend. My home in Kerala, very close to the first Sabarimala pit stop Erumeli, is always teeming with pilgrims en route. I’ve seen them trudge up the steep slopes, singing, chanting, panting, praying, till the next roadside tea shop arrives. The recent National award-winning Malayalam film Adaminte makan Abu is the story of an old and poor couple’s desperation to save up money for their Hajj. It’s moving, brilliant, the anguish heartrending, even though I don’t agree with the premise of scrounging for the journey.
In fact, even I’ve tripped up on my vow, when the family hopped on the road to Vailankanni a few years ago. Since I could not not go, I decided to treat the journey as a sight-seeing tour. Turned out I didn’t have to try very hard. The shops abounding in this once-sleepy hamlet today make it a picnic spot with a smell of fish that simply will not go away. If I ever had any doubts about my pet theory on pilgrimages, my only one yet very neatly blew them off.
I have three reasons for these views – at a moral level, I think the punitive absolution of sin the pilgrim hopes for is a delusion; secondly, travel is inherently a quest, and a pilgrimage kills its essence, a chance at spontaneity, with its obnoxious instruction manual (light a candle here, chant three times, circle this one barefoot); and aesthetically, for what business has done to these quaint, quiet spots. Pilgrimages are increasingly associated with wealth; fortunes are made selling them, smaller fortunes spent buying them. These, almost always, scream commercial, and that is never really a good thing - package tours to Bethlehem, good luck charms and keychains, magnets for the refrigerator, postcards and polaroids.
I don’t think pilgrimages were designed to be this way; it’s probably only the modern self-assured faithful on the trip I am wary about. I think, in her rush to climb those 99 steps, my neighbour forgets that tranquility is in the journey itself. Do the Sabarimala pilgrims ever keep in touch, email each other, break the class divide, once their annual trek is done? And I don’t believe that the good Muslim couple needed to do the Hajj; a fact that, unfortunately, the moviemaker seemed to have brushed aside.
I’ve convinced myself that pilgrimages serve no real purpose. That doesn’t mean I won’t travel to Jerusalem. I sure want to, just as much as I’d like to hike in Iceland.