Last month, the Centre set up two national committees under the Ministry of Culture to boost religious tourism in the country.
We learnt that the committees, with sadhus, religious leaders and gurus as members, would devise ways to encourage tourism by identifying theme-based pilgrimage circuits along India’s age-old religious sites associated with Ram and Krishna.
At their first meeting on June 14, the committees proposed 11 sites across six states for what is being called the Ramayana circuit: Ayodhya, Nandigram, Shringhverpur and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh; Sitamarhi, Buxar and Darbhanga in Bihar; Jagdalpur in Chattisgarh; Bhadrachalam in Telangana; Hampi in Karnataka; and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. Under the Krishna circuit, they proposed Dwarka in Gujarat; Nathdwara, Jaipur and Sikar in Rajasthan; Kurukshetra in Haryana, Mathura, Vrindavan, Gokul, Barsana, Nandgaon and Govardhan in Uttar Pradesh and Puri in Odisha.
For Uttar Pradesh alone, the Centre approved projects worth Rs 300 crore for the development of these circuits.
Though the committee has narrowed down only on a few, India is home to many tirths, or religious sites, given that the lives of both Ram and Krishna, in their human avatars, were marked by constant mobility.
According to Hindu mythology, both traversed large swathes of land, crossing rivers, forests and even what are now international boundaries. Ram’s pilgrimage sites, therefore, spread from Nepal in the North to Sri Lanka in the South, while Krishna’s journey begins in Mathura (where he was born in a prison cell), fans out to Dwarka in Gujarat and other parts of North and Central India and then moves to Arunachal Pradesh and beyond in the East.
Given this, it is not easy to comprehend the ways in which the stories from the Ramayana (the Indian epic on the life of Ram) and the life of Krishna compose a sacred landscape in India. As we probe further, we come across duplications of sacred places (for example, there are questions about whether the Ayodhya and Dwarka of today exist on the precise spot that they did in ancient times), holy rivers and even the spots where Ram or Krishna are said to have rested, ruled or fought demons .
The lore have local and regional variations too. “The pilgrims’ India, writes Diana Eck in her book India: A Sacred Geography, “ is a vividly imagined landscape... created by linking, by duplication, and multiplication of places so as to constitute an entire world.”
Semantically, the word tirth originates from the Sanskrit word tri, which literally means swimming across to the other side. A tirth is therefore a sort of holy point, or diving board if you will, from where pilgrims take a leap into the spiritual world, leaving behind the gross physicality of their life here on earth. That point remains beyond the boundaries of an actual physical presence. Tirths may be located in hard-to-access forests or mountains close to a river (or a water body), sanctified by the visit of a great deity during his earthly sojourn.
Or as the Mahabharata, the mother lode of most Hindu myths and lores, says, they can be in the mind. Tuladhar says to Jajali: “O Jajali, all rivers are holy, all hills are pure, and the human soul is the true tirth. It is therefore senseless undertake pilgrimages and become guests in alien lands.”
Similar thoughts are echoed by some of our most revered medieval gurus such as Gorakhnath and Kabir, who also pooh pooh the very idea of going on long and elaborate pilgrimages and bathing in holy rivers to cleanse one’s soul. “Ganga na jaoon ji, main Jamuna na jaoon ji main na koi teerath nhaoonji !” – I shall not go to the Ganges, or the Yamuna, neither will I bathe in the holy waters at a tirth – Goraknath has famously proclaimed.
Then there was the humble cobbler, Saint Ravidas, who performed a miracle by summoning the waters of the holy Ganga into his bowl, where patches of leather lay soaking. Hence the saying: "Man changa, to kathauti mein Ganga” (If the heart is pure, the river Ganges will appear even in a cobbler’s wooden bowl).
By identifying specific pilgrimage sites along the circuit, the committees developing the Ramayana and Krishna circuit have defined what is largely undefined and constantly mutating.
The first possible point of dissonance can emerge from these very cities and places identified by the committee, given that there are myths and counter-myths, multiple interpretations of religious lore and multiple versions of Ram and Krishna's story. Is it fair, then, to create one template for all pilgrims, on the presumption that one size fits all?Their next headache will arise when identifying potential tourists and preparing a calendar of events for the guided tours for the so-called Ramayana and Krishna circuits.
Some of our most ancient tirths, such as Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Kashi, or Varanasi, Gokul and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, or Pataliputra and Gaya in Bihar, have their own swirling crowds of visitors from several faiths – Hindus from multiple sects of Ram and Krishna worshipers, the Nath Sampraday, Sikhs and Buddhists, to name a few.
Add to this similar holy sites from other states and lands and you’ll realise that no fixed landscape for religious tourism can be created in India by priests and gurus, each of whom come to the table with their own literature and ritualistic interpretations that must be met by the new template.
How do you create specific and centralised tourism patterns in this sacred landscape without destroying the broad spiritual margins that the place has, for centuries, offered pilgrims from multiple sects and faiths?
More importantly, what precise systemic elements led to the identification of these cities by the committees? One would like to be assured that the final choice of cities was not driven by political dimensions of their specific location in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which will be the arena of a hotly contested Assembly election early next year.
After the conflagrations over Ram and Krishna Janmbhoomi that rocked the state in the 1990s and unleashed horrific communal violence in several parts of India, killing thousands, will the government ensure that a sacred geography enlivened by the presence of beloved Gods will not be used again politically to feed the fervour of the same brand of Hindu nationalism?
Commercialisation of religion
If religious tourism in its present avatar (perfected in the state of Uttarakhand by successive governments keen to prop up their Gross Domestic Product) takes over tirths, we may soon begin to see the new Ram and Krishna circuits becoming clones of the Char Dham and Amarnath Yatra that have destroyed the solemn and gentle appeal of pilgrimage sites in the hills.
Attracted by these widely advertised yatras, boorish, vociferous and flashy masses clicking selfies within the sanctum sanctorum and playing loud music all day long throng to vulnerable mountain regions throughout the year. They have money and use it to demand five-star comforts and chilled beer and mules and palanquin bearers, and the so-called priority darshan (sighting) of the deities. They leave behind a trail of non-degradable plastic trash after having polluted small pilgrim towns with their pleasure-seeking ethic. Just as bad money drives out the good, these yatra tourists have sent traditional pilgrims with insufficient means who trek vast distances in search of spiritual solace scurrying for cover. The unplanned construction of supporting infrastructure in these areas has also caused significant ecological damage.
True, creating Ram and Krishna circuits in Uttar Pradesh could consolidate Hindu votes. But as someone who has witnessed the steady degradation of Uttarakhand in the name of government-sponsored and promoted religious tourism, I would request the honourable committees to think of the 2013 floods in Kedarnath, which killed more than 5,000 people – largely pilgrims – and the shrinking of the Gangotri glacier in the Garhwal Himalayas, before moving ahead and flagging projects for new roads and hotels and tourist lodges.
In practice, it scarcely matters whether or not a tirth embodies a coded message from some atavistic spiritual instinct or the holy rituals created and handed down to mortals by a divine hand since the Year Dot. This cannot be emphasised strongly enough: seldom, if ever, do our myths hold it morally desirable to belittle or destroy another faith, or degrade the timeless nobility of a tirth in the name of tourism.
Indian pilgrims throng to holy cities such as Amritsar, Gaya, Ajmer or Kashi not just for the Hindu tirths but for dargahs (shrines) of Sufi saints, an iconic Sikh gurudwara and a holy Buddhist pilgrimage site.
Will creating a (presumably government-sponsored or subsidised) Hindu circuit not mar the spontaneity and peaceful cohosting of pilgrims from other faiths at these sites? Will it not be discriminatory in a country that – so far – is secular as per its Constitution?
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