The concept of pilgrimage is an ancient one, appearing in many religions as a way of reaffirming one’s faith, as a path to forgiveness and as a means of spiritual uplift. Pilgrimage sites are nearly always places that hold a special significance: places where a prophet was born, where a historical event has taken place or where nature inspires people to wonder about their place in the universe and their Creator.
While Muslims will be performing their pilgrimage to Makkah this month, we explore the concept of pilgrimage in Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism and Buddhism. While these are not the only sites that attract large numbers of religious pilgrims, they provide some insight into the commonality between all rites of pilgrimage: to better themselves and to become closer to their Creator in the process.
Christianity – Bethlehem, Palestine
The Church of the Nativity in the town of Bethlehem in Palestine is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Christians around the world. Many early Christian fathers such as Justin Martyr, Origen and Jerome noted the belief that Jesusas was born in a cave in Bethlehem which lies fifteen miles south of Jerusalem, itself sacred to the Jewish faith.1
The Church of the Nativity sits above a cave. It was in 327 CE that Emperor Constantine restored the site’s Christian presence, built the Church of the Nativity and had it dedicated by his mother Helena.2 The original church was destroyed in a revolt in 529 CE, but rebuilt by Justinian I in its current form and was later added to by the Crusaders centuries later. Over a thousand years ago, pilgrims would travel across continents to get here, and the whole journey was part of the pilgrimage in order to cleanse themselves of sin. Indeed, the thought of freeing the Holy Land from other faiths was a key catalyst in the early Crusades.
Today, many Christians flock to Bethlehem every year on December 25th to mark Christmas celebrations and to visit other sites in Palestine and Israel related to the life and works of Jesusas. Pilgrims also visit Jerusalem to see the Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa where he walked on his way to crucifixion, the Sea of Galilee where he preached and other sites mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible. Over the year, Bethlehem attracts over 1.4 million devotees.
1. DeVries, LaMoine (1997), Cities of the Biblical World, Hendrickson Publishers, USA, p.249-254
Sikhism – Golden Temple, India
One of the most iconic temples in the world, the Sikh Golden Temple is the holiest site and a place of pilgrimage all year round. It is also known as the Harmandir Sahib (Temple of God) or the Darbar Sahib (Court of the Lord). First, Guru Amar Das ordered the digging of a nectar tank as a place of worship in Punjab where worshippers would obtain spiritual uplift by bathing in the water. The pool was dug in 1578 CE and became known as Amrit Sarovar (the Pool of the Nectar of Immortality). The city that grew up around it adopted the same name. Guru Arjan then had Hazrat Mirza Mir lay the foundation stone in December 1588 CE. It was also Guru Arjan who completed the holy scripture of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth, and had it installed in the gurdwara within the complex in 1604 CE once the construction was completed. The gurdwara itself was rebuilt in 1764 CE following attacks by the Afghan army. The gold covering of the temple was only applied at the start of the nineteenth century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and completed in 1830.
The water tank is fed by the Ravi River that runs through Punjab. The complex has four entrances, a langar (free soup kitchen) and a museum. The temple complex attracts over 50,000 visitors from all faiths every day, and is the focal point for Sikhs worldwide who visit on pilgrimage. Pilgrims must cover their heads and entering barefoot, wash their feet and hands. Then they move clockwise around the various temples until reaching the Golden Temple itself, whilst all the time chanting of the holy book can be heard across the temple site.
Hinduism & Jainism – Varanasi, India
Varanasi is a place of Hindu pilgrimage around the Ganges River, sacred to Hindus and Jains. There are thought to be 23,000 temples and dozens of mosques in the area.
Varanasi has a long and distinguished history. The area is thought to have been inhabited for many thousands of years, and is referred to in the Hindu Rig Veda scriptures by its ancient name of Kashi. Buddhaas gave his sermon about the Wheel of Dharma here in 528 BCE. Guru Nanak visited in 1507. Successive Mughal emperors built and destroyed temples here. Hindus also believe it to be the home of Lord Shiva.
The author Mark Twain in describing Benares (Varanasi) said, ‘Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.’
Nowadays, millions of Hindu and Jain pilgrims visit Varanasi every year from around the world to perform ritual ablutions in the river at the many ghats (embankments leading into the river). The river represents life and purity, and for the pilgrim, bathing in the water at sunrise cleanses them of all of their sins. There are also many Parikramas, or pilgrimages circling the many temples and sacred sites around Varanasi.
Hindus believe that a blessed death here leads to salvation, and for those that die, after a funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges, their remains are scattered in the river.
Judaism – Wailing Wall, Israel
For Jewish people around the world, Israel, and in particular, the city of Jerusalem, holds the key to many of the key events in their history as chronicled in the Torah. The Temple Mount complex housed the two stone tablets inscribed with the Law of Mosesas known as the Ark of the Covenant, and this used to be kept in the Holy of Holies, only accessible to the High Priest. The Temple site was selected by Davidas and his son Solomonas went on to build the first temple there. After three centuries, this temple was destroyed by the Babylonians of Persia and the Ark went missing. Years later a second temple was built. Herod the Great rebuilt the second temple, but finally this too was destroyed by fire when the Romans destroyed the city and evicted the Jews around 70 CE.
What is left of that old temple is the ‘Wailing Wall’ on the western side of the old complex, and this is now the most sacred place in the Jewish world. The name came after the Roman conquest, when Jews would stand here crying at the destruction and loss of their temple.
Millions of Jewish pilgrims visit the site from around the world. For them, the Wall lies directly beneath the entrance to Heaven. Pilgrims and devout worshippers spend many hours reciting verses from the Torah, and also leave written prayers on slips of paper and inserted into gaps in the wall. Jews especially pray here around the time of the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukhot (Tabernacles). In ancient times, pilgrims would also make an animal sacrifice. The pilgrimage reaffirms commitment to the covenant with God for the devotee.
As part of their pilgrimage, Jews also visit other sites in the region such as Mount Nebo in Jordan (from where Mosesas was shown the Promised Land before passing away there) and Abraham’s Well in Beersheba.
Buddhism – Potala Palace, Tibet
The Potala Palace complex in Lhasa (altitude 3,700 metres), Tibet, has been home to the Dalai Lama for centuries and attracts pilgrims from long distances. The construction of the palace was begun by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645 CE, although the original construction is thought to be from Songsten Gampo around 637 CE, the man credited with starting the Tibetan Empire and introducing Buddhism to Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism came to the region from India around the 8th century CE, and had a renaissance in the 11th century after the Indian monk Atisa visited Lhasa (1042-1054 CE) and revived the original Indian sources.1 After the Mongol Khan converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century, he bestowed the title Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom) on the head of the sect. When a Dalai Lama dies, the followers believe that he is reincarnated in a child, and after a search and the meeting of certain criteria, the next Dalai Lama is revealed to the faithful. After years of training in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama is able to take on duties as the leader.2 The present Dalai Lama is the 14th and was born in 1935.
Buddhist pilgrims start their long journeys to Potala many months in advance, and perform the same ritual day after day. This worship involves taking three steps, raising their hands to heaven whilst repeating ‘mantras’ (short prayers), dropping to their knees, propelling their body forward, standing up, and then repeating the process. It is an act of selfless devotion.
In Lhasa, the main Potala Palace is a vast complex of thirteen stories consisting of 1,000 rooms, 10,000 Buddhist shrines, 20,000 statues, 35 small chapels, meditation halls and various other facilities for the monks. The foundations include copper which protects the complex from earthquakes. Candles are burnt throughout the palace and temples to drive away ignorance.
Near the Palace is the Jokhang Temple which attracts thousands of Buddhist pilgrims every year.
1. Eliade, Mircea & Couliano, Ioan (1991), The Eliade Guide to World Religions, Harper Collins, USA
2. Burton, Rosemary & Cavendish, Richard (1991), Wonders of the World – A Guide to the