A few days until Christmas, so it seems apposite to have a blog with a religious bent. Their origin may lie in atoning for sins, but like Christmas, pilgrimages nowadays mean much more than just an expression of devotion to a particular faith. Whether secular or religious, they are in some ways the essence of travel: a practice that mingles the private and the public, mixes the many joys of camaraderie with the more private pleasures of reflection and discovery – of place, people and oneself. Here’s a whistlestop global tour of some of the great pilgrimages.
The Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Perhaps the pilgrimage route of greatest modern renown for Europeans, the trails to Santiago are actually many, the routes radiating out across the European map like a continent-wide spider’s web, its centre northwest Spain’s most beautiful city. The most popular – and culturally and geographically the most interesting – route enters Spain in the Pyrenees, journeying along the northern coast and through Galicia’s green heart, peregrinos having their pilgrim’s passport stamped in medieval villages and rustic way-stations. It’s a motley crew on the trail, a fleeting coming together of disparate interests and motivations, and that’s part of the fascination: alongside the deeply devout, expect to see the newly-wed and divorced, the retired, gap-yearers and recently redundant, walkers paying homage or seeking enlightenment, cyclists exploring the landscape or undertaking a religious rite of passage, individuals on horseback even – an extraordinary, unique community of intention.
The Grand Mosque in the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, final resting place of Saladin and containing a shrine said to hold the head of John the Baptist: the Umayyad Mosque is a place of profound reverence and after Mecca the most important place of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims. Built on a site considered sacred for millennia before any mosque was constructed, a pilgrimage to the mosque Is a salutary lesson in the journey being as important as the destination – a sacred itinerary winds through the labyrinthine, frankly confusing streets and lanes of Damascus, taking in several mosques and holy sites en route to Umayyad. Walk the route through the buzzing bazaar, where the call to prayer joins the cacophony of stall-sellers’ cries, for perhaps the most vital marriage of religion and the street you’ll find anywhere.
Among the remote, rugged, forested hills of the Western Ghats, Kerala, stands Sabarimala Sree Ayyappa Temple, sited where the deity Ayyappan is believed to have meditated after killing the demon Mahishi, and the focal point for the world’s second largest annual pilgrimage. The commonly-applied sobriquet ‘The Mecca of Hindus’ illustrates the importance of the place, and visiting, for Hindus – and walking uphill from Pamba is a symbol of love, equality and devotion for millions each year. Flocks of pilgrims converge to form a great human sea of the devout, gathering outside the temple, a gleaming gold jewel sparkling among the deep greens of the surrounding countryside. Unusually, the temple is open to all faiths, and the pilgrimage ignores caste, creed and colour, each pilgrim wearing black dhotis and carrying bundles of offerings - coconut filled with ghee, camphor and rice.
The Via Francigena, Italy
A route less taken by pilgrims nowadays, but one of deep religious significance nonetheless. The Via Francigena crosses some of Europe’s finest scenery on its journey from Canterbury to Rome, and none more so than in the lush landscapes south of Parma. Leave the great gatherings of the devout for Rome and the Vatican – the rural idyll of the Apennines is perfect for a contemplative walk, a meditative landscape quietly worked by man for centuries and all the more beautiful for it. Pilgrimages are about travelling with a purpose, and in this area it may well be that the purpose is one of quiet indulgence: this is parmesan territory, parma ham and lambrusco wine, among other earthly pleasures.
Anyone with the pilgrimage bug could do worse than whetting their wanderlust by tracking down a copy of the authoritative, eminently page-turnable Pilgrimage: an Encyclopedia by Linda Kay Davidson. Merry Christmas!