Ahmad Nooruddeen Jahangeer Khan, UK
Every year millions of people of different faiths journey long hours, covering hundreds of miles in cramped planes and spending much of their savings, to reach holy sites where the language and culture may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to them, and where they have to endure the jostle of packed crowds and many other hardships. What is it that compels them to undertake such a challenge? For most, the sole purpose is to please God, but if God is everywhere, why not concentrate one’s effort in worship in the comfort of their home?
Analysing the different forms that pilgrimage takes in different religions – and finding the commonalities among them – helps us understand the purpose and wisdom behind the practice of pilgrimage.
In the Torah, the Israelites are instructed by God to visit Him three times in the year.
‘Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed; all shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.’
Although this instruction is given to males in particular, families and large groups also make the journey to Jerusalem – the home of many well-known prophets and the Holy Land, rich in its historical and religious legacy.
The three occasions marked for this pilgrimage are Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Festival of Booths). Passover is a celebration of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. It also commemorates the beginning of the new planting season after the winter in Israel. Thus, it is a time of thanksgiving both for the deliverance of the Israelites and the blessings they received afterwards.
Shavuot, on the other hand, is strictly an agricultural celebration, in tribute to the passing of exactly seven weeks from Passover. Jews renew their acceptance of God’s gift as He ‘re-gives’ the Torah. As Shavuot also means ‘oaths’, it is a time of devotion and loyalty to God.
Unlike the other two occasions, the weeklong holiday of Sukkot does not commemorate a specific historic event. Instead, it is a celebration of the gathering of the harvest, five days after Yom Kippur. Whilst celebrating Sukkot, Jews spend the days dwelling in a foliage-covered booth or tabernacle, and as work is forbidden, they spend the days and nights in remembrance of God.
In addition, Jerusalem is also the site in which Solomon (ra) built the first temple, which was destroyed after three centuries. King Herod then rebuilt the temple, and the ‘Western Wall’, or the ‘Wailing Wall’, which one can see today is all that remains of that rebuilt temple, which was destroyed by the Romans at around 70 CE. This is the holiest of Jewish sites and Jews around the world visit to mourn its destruction, spend many hours reciting verses of the Torah and offer prayers to their Creator.
So the city of Jerusalem holds a deep historic and symbolic significance to the Jewish people, and so the Jewish pilgrimage to the Holy Land allows pilgrims to reaffirm their commitment to God Almighty, to reflect on their history and the blessings granted to them by God, and to pray and worship Him.
Whilst we are already in Jerusalem, we also find that it is a popular destination for adherents to Christianity. After all, it is where Jesus (as) preached and was placed on the cross. Being Jewish himself, Jesus (as) followed the traditions of the Israelites and would visit Jerusalem during the aforementioned holidays.
As such, while other popular places Christians visit are not necessarily because of a direct instruction they have received from God, they nonetheless hold religious importance as they are sites where events took place in the life of Jesus (as).
For example, Bethlehem is where Jesus (as) is believed to be born, and so the Church of Nativity has been built there. Another place pilgrims like to visit is Nazareth, where Jesus (as) spent much of his youth. One can find the Church of the Annunciation there, where it is thought to be the home of Mary (as). Some Christians even walk between Nazareth and Bethlehem (a distance of about 70-80 miles) as part of their pilgrimage.
Then, there are certain events of Jesus (as) that took place in Jerusalem. Pilgrims visit the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus (as) prayed the night of his capture; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the crucifixion; the Via Dolorosa, the route from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the site of the crucifixion taken by Jesus (as); and the Church of Ascension, the site where Jesus (as) is alleged to have risen to heaven.
As buildings were constructed on these sites much after the time of Jesus (as), it is evident that the source of these pilgrimages is based on the visits of previous adherents to Christianity, and not from God. Even so, for Christians, this brings them to closer to the experience of Jesus (as) and enables them to develop spiritually.
Hindu pilgrimage is rooted in ancient scriptures. Textual scholars claim that the earliest reference to Hindu pilgrimage is in the Rigveda (1500 BCE), in which the ‘wanderer’ is praised. Later texts such as the Mahabharata and several of the mythological Puranas elaborate on the various benefits of performing pilgrimage, such as attainment of health, wealth, progeny and deliverance after death.
Furthermore, it is also mentioned that pilgrimage can be performed on behalf of ancestors and those who have recently passed away.
Hindu pilgrimage sites are often located in places of natural beauty, especially near rivers, which are pleasing to the deities. This may be because the Sanskrit word for a pilgrimage centre is tirtha, meaning a river ford or crossing place. Hence, performing pilgrimage may perhaps signify a sort of transition in one’s life from one stage to another, or a means to gain strength to pass whatever difficulties one may be facing.
There are many sites of pilgrimage in Hinduism, but the most sacred one is Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi. It has been the cultural centre for northern India and is closely linked with the Ganges river. Hindus bathe in the holy river in hope of washing away their sins. They also hold the belief that dying and being cremated there allows one to break the cycle of rebirth and ultimately attain Moksha, or salvation. Varanasi is also considered to be the city where Shiva, the god of destruction, lived.
The most important pilgrimage that takes place every twelve years is called Kumbh Mela, and it is the largest gathering of human beings in the world. According to the official figures of the Uttar Pradesh tourism department, an astonishing 240 million people visited during the 55-day pilgrimage in 2019! 
Varanasi also holds special importance to Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. It was in the nearby city of Sarnath that Gautama Buddha (as) first taught the Dharma, the teachings pointing towards the nature of the universe. Guru Baba Nanak also visited Varanasi for Maha Shivatri in 1507 CE, a journey which is regarded to have played a significant role in founding Sikhism. Therefore, the pilgrimage to these sites is significant to people of a number of religions.
As Buddhists do not believe in a personal God, the pilgrimages are not based on any sort of instruction as such to do so; rather the sites of pilgrimage in Buddhism generally signify an important event in the life of Buddha (as). In early Buddhist history there were four major centres that pilgrims would visit. Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddhaas; Bodh Gaya, the place of his first enlightenment; Sarnath, Varanasi, the place he preached his first sermon; and Kushinara, the village in which one can find the final resting place of Buddha (as).
According to a commentary to the Vinaya Sutra known as ‘Lung-Treng-Tik’ in Tibetan by the First Dalai Lama (1392-1474), the Buddha (as) is said to have emphasised the importance of pilgrimage several times.
‘Bhikkhus, after my passing away, all sons and daughters who are of good family and are faithful should as long as they live, go to the four holy places and remember: Here at Lumbini, the enlightened one was born; here at Bodh Gaya he attained enlightenment, here at Sarnath he turned the wheel of Dharma; and there at Kusinara he entered Parinirvana… After my passing away, the new Bhikkhus who come and ask of the doctrine should be told of these four places and advised that a pilgrimage to them will help purify their previously accumulated Karmas or actions.’
Out of the four, Bodh Gaya stood out as the most important pilgrimage centre; however, it later served as a Hindu shrine once it was taken over by Hindu groups, only to be restored once again in the late 20th century.
As time went by, four more sites became popular destinations for pilgrimage. Today one can find pilgrimage centres in whatever country Buddhism has been established, most of which are either associated with a historic relic or an event in the life of a revered figure.
As in other religions, Buddhist pilgrimages are performed for a number of different reasons – self-discipline, spiritual development and fulfilment of vows, to name a few. But again, as this is not performed for the sake of God, one would not consider it a time for seeking forgiveness or giving thanks, as in other religions.
No doubt the holiest of sites in Sikhism is the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple. In the temple is the Adi Granth – the final part of the holy scripture called the Guru Granth Sahib – which was written by Guru Arjan Singh. Hence, many Sikhs feel it is important to visit the holy site and pay homage to God. The construction of the temple was completed in 1604 CE and it is surrounded by a pool of clear water, believed to have healing powers.
For those Sikhs who make the pilgrimage, it is a time to strengthen one’s faith, learn more about their religion and history and to increase in spirituality. Visiting the historical places reminds one of the goodness and traditions of the pious people before them. However, pilgrimage is not compulsory in Sikhism and based on the following excerpt of the Guru Granth Sahib, many choose not to travel and instead donate money to charity.
‘Someone may go to Ganges, Godavari, Kumbha festival, or bathe at Kaydaar Naat’h, or make donations of thousands of cows at Gomti; he may make millions of pilgrimages to sacred shrines, or freeze his body in the Himalayas; still, none of these is equal to the worship of God.’
This very important aspect of pilgrimage has been reiterated by the Gurus, whereby one should perform the pilgrimage purely for the sake of God, for without God’s name such visits hold no significance. Guru Baba Nanak has also explained that pilgrimage does not necessarily have to be a visit to a holy site, rather it is also the study of God’s word and contemplating on the knowledge found therein.
The essence of pilgrimage is found not so much in the vast number of visitors from around the world to a holy site, nor in the beauty of the buildings and structures found therein, but rather in the innate yearning found in the core of every being to find truth, goodness and redemption. Pilgrimage embodies the eternal thirst of the soul to find the Supreme Being and the ultimate end. It is this very longing that brings millions upon millions away from the comfort of their homes and away from the familiarity in life many cherish, towards an epic journey of unlimited potential into the unknown and perhaps a return journey to the origin itself.
 The Bible, Deuteronomy 16:16-17.
 Guru Granth Sahib, 973:12-13.