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History of pilgrimage in India dates back to Mahabharath period and beyond. There are numerous references on pilgrimage in the great epic. In fact, it has a lengthy chapter, known as “Theerthayatra Parva ”  on Pilgrimage. It covers the pilgrimage done by Pandavas across the Indian sub-continent- A beautiful narration of ancient Indian geography and important sacred places.

Pilgrimage or offering prayers at sacred places by being physically there, is considered as religious duty to a devote Hindu. The belief that, visiting Kasi {Varanasi} at least once in a life time a must for a Hindu is an example.

Thus, we have many well established, ancient temple circuits in India, where people are on pilgrimage as a religious ritual. The Ashtavinayak temples of Maharashtra, Aarupadai Veedu temples of Lord Muruga in Tamil Nadu, Panch Kedar temples of Uttarakhand are few examples.

Bhakthi movement of Medieval period gave fillip to this practise in many ways. It revived ancient religious texts and popularised them through vernacular languages. Many scholarly poets cum ascetics of the time gave a new definition to the concept of God and on practising religion. All most all of them were deeply associated with a particular God or Goddesses. Like Namdev and Panduranga, Meerabai and Srikrishna, Tulsidas and Lord Sriram, Aandal and Lord Muruga etc…

The local Hindu rulers also gave great support to temples and other religious places during this period. All most all important pilgrim centres, as we see it today, are the result of this patronage.

Apart from religion, pilgrimage in India has other dimensions too. It is both social and commercial. Even with a cursory look, it is evident that many important pilgrimage centres are either major trade centres by itself or near to it. Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Nasik and Kolhapur in Maharashtra, Varanasi in UP are all examples.

British era witnessed many structural difference to the way Indians do pilgrimage. Firstly, with the advent of modern ways of transportation, like Railways, Busses and private vehicles, Pilgrimage has become easier. Localised nature of it slowly transformed into a pan India event.

Growth of English as a link language paved the way for easier communication between the host and the visitor. Even now, English is an acceptable language to the wooden stick seller at Mata Vaishno Devi temple in Kashmir and sea shells selling boy of Kanyakumari, in deep South.

Modern era of Pilgrimage in India encompasses, all that we discussed here. It saw the manifold increase in the number of pilgrims. Now it represents all strata of Indian society, irrespective of caste and creed.

Modern India have better transport, communication facilities. Travel infrastructure like food, accommodation etc…also have improved manifold. No wonder, now the pilgrimage tourism contributes almost fifth of the total tourism revenue.


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Sri Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi (Kashi)

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