The sage Pulastya explains to Bhishma:
One whose hands, feet, and the mind,
Knowledge, ascetic endeavour, and reputation
Are well trained, controlled, and mastered,
It is such a one who obtains the fruition of his pilgrimage.
Turned away from possessing, owning, grabbing,
Contented with whatever [comes one's way]
Having ceased the [indulgence of] ego,
It is such a one who obtains the fruition of his pilgrimage.
O lord of kings,One not given to anger, by nature truthful,
Firm in the undertakings of his vows,
Seeing in compassion all beings like one's own self,
It is such a one who obtains the fruition of his pilgrimage.
Mahabharata, Vana-parvan Ch.82, vv. 9-12.
This gift of thoughts was originally presented for the occasion of the kumbha mela at Allahabad (Prayag) in January 2001, but its content is applicable to all times that we, world pilgrims, experience in our course of being.Kumbha is Sanskrit for the Aquarius sign of the zodiac, the sign of a full round jar filled with the gods' elixir of immortality. It is multi-layered, multi-lateral, multi-temporal, like all symbols presented to us as reminder of what the wise philosopher lady of the Upanishads, named Maitreyi, said: "What shall I do with that which will not lead me to the realization of Immortality?"The Festival of Aquarius, kumbha mela, has been the largest pilgrim destination in the world for thousands of years. It is a pilgrim destination and not a tourism attraction.
What is a pilgrimage and who is a pilgrim?
But what is a pilgrimage and who is a pilgrim?In the mystic traditions of the world, life is regarded as a journey. Its rites of passage are the wayside inns. In the traditions of India, the concept of an inn, however, was not known. The word used was dharma-shala, the house of dharma. The country was dotted with these dharma-houses, endowed by the wealthy or built and managed by village, ethnic, trade guild, and suchlike groupings. These were places for the pilgrims to stay, somewhat like the hospices of the Middle Ages in Europe. According to a count I received from the City Council of Haridwar - twin to Rishikesh - in 1968, there were at that time 76 such establishments, large and small, operating in that city alone. Alas, the tradition has been giving way to the tourist hotel because today's traveller to sacred places wants to call himself a pilgrim but seeks to enjoy the comforts of tourism.
What is a sacred place?
Before we learn what is a pilgrim, let us understand what is a sacred place. For uncountable millennia certain places have been dedicated only to prayer, to worship, to meditation. More such places also come into being with each new divine incarnation, each sage, each person who becomes a Master. These are places where there is a particular concentration, a vortex, of an unnamed spiritual energy.
A holy place of pilgrimage may be one where an Incarnation of God (see this author's book titled God), a manifestation of divinity, took a form, or battled with forces of evil, or saved a fallen soul, or conferred grace upon an ascetic, or revealed the divine word, or played any other uplifted cosmic games. It may be a place where an ascetic, a sage, a realized philosopher practiced austerities or performed long sacraments, or sat still in meditation for a century at a time (this is no exaggeration), or granted initiations and direct experience of God, or taught the divine silence or a mundane science, or promulgated a philosophical system. In the epic Mahabharata, the five Pandavas undertake a pilgrimage which is described in 76 chapters (Vana-parvan chapters 80-156), in 2,683 verses, from which we have quoted at the beginning of this presentation. These chapters give the legends and stories associated with each of the places of pilgrimage they visited and the holy ones they met at many of them. So, also, a text called Skanda Purana covers all possible places of pilgrimage in six or seven volumes. It is the Skanda-purana that is considered the most comprehensive text with regard to the holy places of India, describing in nearly eighty-one thousand verses the history, geography, and spiritual import of each.
A holy place may be a stupa (as in Sanchi, Sarnath, Borobudur), an ornate, cathedral-sized, built-up mound containing holy relics. It may be what is known as a samadhi among the Hindus and as a dargah among the Muslims, the grave of a saint where thousands gather, irrespective of religion, and scatter flowers, offer worship, offer charity, receive healing, have their wishes fulfilled. In these spots the rituals of several religions may be going on at the same time and people drift from one religious ritual to another. There may be fixed days in a year holy to particular places where people come to offer their devotion at that time. There is one such spot on the border between India and Pakistan, for example. A war may be going on between the two countries in another area, but at this place in the Punjab state, the mela (festive and religious fair) takes place every year at the holy place sacred to both. The people gather across the border, may not be able to cross because of visa restrictions, and exchange the holy offerings en masse to lay one on behalf of the other.
Such melas are common to all the holy places. One reason that our Gurudeva Swami Rama expressed the specific wish not to have his remains be buried, but rat her be cremated, without establishing a shrine, was so that it would not become such a place of popular worship.
The holiness may reside in a pond, a lake, a river, a confluence, an icon, a hill, a mountain, a cave, a tree, an image, a piece of cloth worn by an ascetic, or an ice formation. Who can command the Divinity as to where to manifest Herself? It could be a yantra, or a particular edifice, such as a temple or a stupa built to the design of a yantra, making it a vortex of energy. It is imbued with a special force that is still palpable, and one sitting there in worship or in silent meditation may even be granted a dream, a vision, a promise, or even a higher initiatory experience. I have felt this touch of a vortex of an actual electric current when taking a dipwith my Gurudeva in the Ganga at the kumbha mela in Haridwar; while circumambulating the Rameshwaram temple at the land's end in South India; at the samadhi (holy mausoleum) of St. Francis of Assisi; in the chapel in Avila, Spain, where St. Teresa was born; while doing special practices in a meditation cave in Gangotri; at Borobudur in Java; in the sage Agastya's cave in Bali; at a very little known cave in Delhi (yes, a cave in Delhi) where, in the 13th century, a Sufi saint lived for his ascetic practices and from there performed his chilla, the forty days intensive prayer while hanging upside down in a water well.
If an adhikarin, a worthy one, fulfils the qualifications, s/he may receive the rarest privilege of the darshana of a sage, of Shiva gender or of Shakti gender, who left his physical body thousands of years ago but still dwells there as a being of light. This is reality. This is true.
You feel the energy to the degree that your mind is attuned. If you blanket your mind with the elements of the unsettled, the non-sacred, and the mundane, carry your anger and your impatience with you, then the energy plays hide and seek and you come back non-recharged, just as you went, thinking that there is nothing to these places.
Each of thousands of such places has its own protocol, form of worship, ambience, special power, and traditions built around that.
Why take a pilgrimage?
Many spiritual seekers who have listened to the songs of the mystics ask a question: "Is it not said that all the sanctity is within one's person; that it is not by much walking, or taking dips in sacred pools that one will be liberated, but by internal surrender, purification, diving deep within?" 'If taking a dip in a river would grant me liberation, the fish would have been liberated long ago' says Kabir. Why, then, all this talk of pilgrimage?
Indeed, that is the correct perspective for those who have truly learnt to dive within. On the other hand, in the case of the large majority, if they were not going on a pilgrimage they would only be indulging themselves in false amusements, sitting watching TV, overeating, worrying, visiting Coney Island, only pouring more confusion into the mind's empty vessel. Better to fill it with clean pure waters, with the memories, impressions, samskaras of the scriptural recitations and the sacred song, with the remembrances of a million others in prayer alongside. Yes, better to come away charged with the sacred energy that the saints, sages, mystics and masters have stored in these locations, and the pilgrims of the past thousands of years have further intensified with their devotion and self-dedication.
A pilgrimage may be undertaken with many different spiritual goals in mind. It may be an act of paschat-tapa, acknowledging to oneself one's failures, misdeeds, acts of hurt, dishonesty or violence. One then wants to be freed of the burden by undertaking a prayash-chitta, an act of atonement and purification. These acts of atonement can take the forms of renouncing some particular pleasure or addiction, or an item from the diet, or a habit.
One day I was awaiting to host at the Rishikesh Ashram some eminent leaders in knowledge. I prepared a special fruit salad in their honour. As the fruit salad was served, one of the honoured guests inquired if it had mangoes in it. I enthusiastically answered in the positive. Sorry. He could not have the salad. Mangoes had been his favourite fruit and at one time he used to over-indulge in them. During one of his pilgrimages, then, he renounced mangoes and would no longer accept them.
On door-darshan (the Indian TV) I watched a program about addiction. One of the persons who had freed himself of a serious drug addiction was being interviewed. How did he manage to overcome the sinister habit? His reply was: “I am the eldest son of the family and therefore carry a number of ritual roles and responsibilities. When my father died, I had to take his ashes for immersion to the holy waters where our family ashes have been immersed for centuries. All eyes were on me. I was so totally immersed in my duty that during the journey, when the withdrawal symptoms came and wherever they went, I simply had to ignore them and carry on. Upon returning from that pilgrimage there was a nine-day series of ceremonies and there was noway I could indulge the habit. By the time the ceremonials were over I no longer needed the drug and have been free ever since."
As acts of atonement or purification, one may undertake a period of fasting or silence. A number of leading political figures in countries of Buddhist East Asia, convicted of corruption, chose to exile themselves into a monastery for a period of expiation. One may give to oneself a certain sacred task such as a thousand or a million japas of a given mantra, or a fire offering (see “Special Mantras” https://www.ahymsin.org/main/index.php/Swami-Veda-Bharati/special-mantra.html). Some prefer to undertake a pilgrimage in which all of these components may be combined in different permutations as advised by one's spiritual guide or by one's own conscience. After completing the pilgrimage one forgives oneself, feels lightened, unburdened, ready to make a fresh start with a clearer heart and a cleaner mind. It becomes a transition from past burdens, fixations, obsessions and self-repeating habits towards shaping for oneself a new personality and a fresh plan for sculpting one's thoughts and sentiments.
A pilgrimage may be a prayer for someone. Or one may go to one's favourite or ancestral deity in the sacred place and ask for a favour for a beloved one. Or one may make a promise to repeat the pilgrimage if the deity would grant the favour of one's petition. Or it may have been the wish of a dying relative to undertake the pilgrimage that s/he was unable to fulfill and one may undertake the pilgrimage to honour the wish as a loving filial duty. Or one may simply be bringing the ashes of the loved one to immerse at the sacred spot, as we have shown above. In 1987 the Master took me on a pilgrimage to make special offerings to the soul of my father who had departed from the world twenty-seven years earlier, because many of my karmic debts to him had remained unpaid.
These are all lesser goals of pilgrimages, not absolutely spiritual, but better than frequenting a night club. The effect of the sanctity experienced during the pilgrimage rubs off on one's very soul. Many a seeker has found his guru during a pilgrimage which was originally undertaken for some such exterior purpose. Or, it may be seen this way: the karmic debt has been paid off in the coinage of the pilgrimage and now the soul is ready to receive the guru's grace and truly benefit from it.
Sometimes accidents, intense illness, or great financial loss may serve just such a purpose, i.e. paying off karmic debts, and thereafter, or even during the very illness etc., the grace begins to flow. Often a pilgrimage may be prescribed by one's astrologer, village priest or current spiritual guide when such an illness, accident or loss is apprehended. The principle involved is: do a voluntary atonement so that one may no longer have to suffer an involuntary karmic effect.
There are holy spots where mothers go to ask the Deity to grant their daughter a good marriage. Or would-be parents go begging for an offspring. For the fulfillment of each wish there is a special ritual protocol, a special offering, a special prayer, a special act of penitence to subdue the karmic forces.Some rare couples may wish to invite a specially holy soul into their womb, and may undertake a pilgrimage to an 'energy field' where they may choose to conceive after performing special offerings and acts of worship.
It is also a common practice that when one has an incurable or terminal illness one embarks on a pilgrimage. Sometimes it is undertaken in the hope of a cure, as there are special places of pilgrimage in all religions that are sacred and healing to certain parts of the body. When one reaches the sacred place s/he undertakes the immersions, penitent acts, japa of a mantra or a prayer appropriate for the particular problem. If the force of karma is not stronger than the sacred act being undertaken, one may come back fully or partially cured, or may even have warded off one's own or a beloved one's death.
During such a pilgrimage, an inspiration may arise in one's mind that one has been freed not only from death but from fear of death (which is the true cause of all death principle) and now one feels ready to enter the life of a renunciate. We know of kings and princes and bankers as well as common folk who came to a sacred place for a pilgrimage and never went back home.
Immersion in a holy body of water
It is a common practice that during the pilgrimage one takes an immersion in a holy body of water, be it a river or a pond. Those in the West would be reminded of the baptism in Jordan, or of a healing immersion at Lourdes. One takes a dip facing the course of the river while reciting sacred verses glorifying the holiness, and touching all one's limbs absorbs the sacred. At this time one may remember many of his/her relations, neighbours, friends, and take a dip for each of them. It is common that those bidding farewell to a pilgrim say "Do make an immersion for me too". During one of the Kumbha melas at Haridwar, my Master took his dip and came out of the river. He stood at the shore while I took my immersion, taking a dip for each person I could remember, the last dip for my Master, even though he stood right there. At that point he yelled "Do not forget your grand-guru!" And I took a dip for my master's master who had actually left his body many years earlier. It was at that time I felt an electric current rise up from the river into me, that whirled around me three times and then subsided. The immersion had been not in mere waters but in a holy river of light, flowing from the feet of Vishnu, from the hair-locks of Shiva, through countless generations of Himalayan Masters.
Taking a dip with one's guru is often a form of initiation. For many thousands of years all monks have been ordained with a 'baptismal' dip (see the booklet “Vows of a Swami”).
Continuity of the Lineage
The flowing river represents the continuity of the Lineage and the Tradition. This became manifest to me during the Haridwar kumbh mela in 1974. The Master directed that I should take the holy dip with him and that I should bring one of my most favourite students with me.There were two such candidates present.
They made a compromise between themselves and one of them came along. At the exact astrological hour for the holiest immersion we were at the river. The Master stood a little upstream, I was a little downstream from him, my favoured student stood a little downstream to me, and we took a dip together. Gurudeva explained to me that this represented the continuity and the passing on of the continuity of the Tradition of the Lineage.
Thus have the Traditions been passed on at the kumbha mela, and at other occasions during pilgrimages in the holy places for countless generations.
Acts of Charity
During these pilgrimages one also undertakes acts of charity. The reason places like Haridwar are seen as filled with beggars is because the tradition enjoins the pilgrims to give charity and to feed the hungry. One contracts with local food merchants to distribute food to so many on a certain evening, and so on. The offering of food and gifts such as clothing and money can be out of (a) compassion, or out of (b) reverence. In the latter case one may invite just one or a thousand sadhus, holy men, to be honoured with a feast: each one may be given some vestments and a money offering. We often do this at our Ashram on sacred occasions such as anniversaries of our Master, or when someone takes the vows of renunciation. At the kumbh mela it is the duty of the mandaleshwaras and such others to feast maybe five thousand sadhus at a time. The organizational systems to bring that about successfully and in a disciplined way have been in place for millennia.
Needless to say that all this is done as part of worship. The pilgrims often ask their family priests to officiate in these sacraments. These may be family priests from one's own village who may accompany a group of pilgrims or they may be the priests resident in the holy places. This last is an amazing social phenomenon. India has thousands of groups of ethnic or trade origin, all living side by side for thousands of years, each practicing its own customs and traditions, and marrying according to complex rules of endogamy and exogamy. A large number of these endowed pilgrims' houses primarily for the use of their kin and the clan undertaking a pilgrimage. For thousands of years the priests have been in residence in these establishments in the various holy cities. They are priests, pilgrim guides and family record keepers, called the Pandas. It is their duty to keep track of any pilgrims from their ancestral village or kinship group coming; to officiate in the ceremonial required, to guide the pilgrims, and often house them - if the pilgrims by now have not become so comfort-loving that they must have starred accommodation. It is common to see at the railway stations of places like Varanasi or Haridwar groups of Pandas inquiring of the arriving travellers as to where they are from, so that they would not be neglected, would be properly guided, and housed.
Har ki pauri
I recall: I returned to India after a sixteen year absence in 1968, and naturally went to the holy city which has been the ancestral place to visit for a pilgrimage for the people of our brahmin sub-caste. I went to Har ki pauri, the sacred area of Haridwar, and got the attention of the first Panda-looking person I saw, and inquired: I am of the Kaliya clan of the Saraswat sub-caste Brahmana (brahmin) from the Noormahal village, District (County) of Jalandhar in the Punjab State. Where would I find my family Pandas ? The gentleman immediately directed me to the street, the house, and section of the haveli (mansion-like house) where the priests of our particular "clan" reside. Now, imagine, I am asking the first person I meet, and out of a country of (now) one billion people he can give me the right directions - such is the system still in place. I went to the house, and was received like one's own relative, was guided to take my holy bath, and made an offering. The Panda took out the family's genealogy register, going back three hundred years (because paper cannot last much longer), in which I saw the signatures of the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather. I entered the present state of the family, the marriages that have taken place since the last pilgrimage of a family member, how many children had been born, and so forth, made an appropriate money-offering (the amount depends on your capacity and the degree of reverence), and came away feeling fulfilled.
In 1986 ( I am not sure of the year) I was helping lead the Himalayan Institute tour group in Kashmir. There is a place a called Martand (Sanskrit, martand, meaning the Sun). It used to be a Sun Temple, and, as all Sun temples were at one time, a seat of ancient astronomical observations. It is on the pilgrim route to Amarnath, a cave shrine to Shiva at the height of 13,400 feet in the mountains, where the medium of worship is the usual oval Shiva symbolic form that takes shape out of ice dripping from the roof of the cave; it is fully formed every full moon night, though the pilgrimage is in July-August.
Well, here I was by the holy pool at Martand - on the pilgrim route.
The priests saw me as one lone Indian among so many in an American tour group, and inquired of my origins. I understood their purport; if I was from a kinship group known to them it would be their dharma-duty to take care of me. I told them that this is not the pilgrim route our family normally takes and they were not likely to have any of our family records there. But they insisted on knowing. I told them of my origins. Within five minutes they brought out the genealogy register and told me that one year before, on such and such date, my three times removed cousin, together with such and such family members, had passed that way.
I, too, then signed in the register giving the present condition of my branch of the family.
I was still a householder. Mother Arya was away visiting a daughter in England. I took two smaller ones and decided to go for a pilgrimage in the mountains, or, rather, to escape the summer heat of the plains. There is a place called Gaur-kunda beyond which cars cannot go. The pilgrims take a bath in the hot mountain stream that forms a pool, to both cleanse and to purify themselves. Then the fourteen kilometre climb on foot begins to the holy shrine of Kedarnath.
As I came out of the car, I was approached by a priestly looking gentleman who, as usual, asked about my origins, and I told him. He pointed to another person in the distance, and said that was the person I would need. The other person was called over to where I stood and I introduced my family background. The gentleman said for me and the children to please go ahead (now, at that time there were hardly any telephones in the region), that his brother would be standing outside the Government Tourist Hotel before you reach the town of Kedarnath and would greet you and escort you.
I rented the ponies (that's a bit of cheating everybody indulges in for difficult climbs), arrived at the right place, and before I could open my mouth the gentleman greeted me, and said that he had had a message from his brother to receive us. He took us to his pilgrim house, prepared the meals and we all huddled under thick quilts for the cold night just under the glacier.
Before leaving the house in Dehradun I had miscalculated the expenses and had not counted on paying so much for the ponies. Upon arrival I spoke to my car driver: "I am in trouble, I am running short of money." He said "You have forgotten the traditions of India; you are in no trouble. You are in the house of your Panda. There is no problem." Next morning, before I could wake up, the priest came up through the trap-door to where we were sleeping, and said "I hear you are running a bit short on money; have no worry." He handed me a bundle of two thousand rupees. No credit cards, no bank references. He arranged for the worship to be performed and everything else we needed done.
Upon returning home I sent him the money, of course, together with an appropriate offering.
A pilgrimage is not an individualistic undertaking
Thus, a pilgrimage is not just an individualistic undertaking but a whole social attitude, the realization of special relationships with God as well with His lesser beings.
During the pilgrim season it is common to see traffic diversions by police orders on the main roads, say, between Delhi and Haridwar-Rishikesh because of several million pilgrims walking on the road. Someone from among the pilgrims begins a chant or song, a kirtana, and others follow along. The vehicular traffic has to give right of the way to the pilgrim. The pilgrims make stops at other holy places along the way. Another common phenomenon observed is that, while some prefer to go on a pilgrimage, others choose to feed and shelter the pilgrims and thereby gain their 'punya'. All the way from the plains near Delhi to the source of the holy Ganga, little or large tent encampments spring up, endowed by the merchants, where the pilgrims may stop at any hour of day or night to have a cup of tea, some prasadam for nutrition, a little rest for the weary feet, and then go on.
One may intensify the 'gaining of punya' by adding to what might appear to others the hardships of a pilgrimage. For example, some will not lie down along the way but will keep walking day and night until their goal has been reached - occasionally resting against a tree. There are many who are seen not just walking on a pilgrimage but prostrating at each step along the way - right there on the sidewalk, with heavily laden trucks exuding fumes. Each prostration may be accompanied with a mental chant of the glorification of the deity one is so eager to see upon arrival. Or one may do a mental repetition of one's personal mantra with each prostration. The pilgrim may do the entire journey with prostrations or just a part thereof. There are even more intensive forms prescribed for special places, special occasions, or special purposes and intents. The most difficult is the pilgrimage to Mount Kailasha, the abode of Shiva, at the altitude of 18,000 feet, equally sacred to the Tibetan Buddhists, of which many circumambulate withprostration at every step.
Millions of pilgrims travel on foot to Haridwar and Rishikesh, carrying specially adorned water vessels (kumbha) to receive holy water and bring it back to make an offering to their village temple or to add to the sanctity of their home. The pilgrims will not put down the holy water vessel on the ground. There is a tradition among some sadhus that at the onset of winter they fill their vessels from the northernmost source of Ganga, at the Gomukh glacier, and walk the entire length of India to make the Ganga-jala (holy Ganges water) offering at the southernmost temple at Rameshvaram and then start their northward journey again, to be back in the Himalayas at the end of the winter.
A Holy Book
One of the most common forms of the sacred is a Holy Book. This is especially so among Sikhs, which means 'disciples'. Sikhs are disciples of ten gurus who founded the faith. The tenth guru decreed that there would be no more personal gurus - only the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. It is so very uplifting to walk into a Sikh Gurudwara and observe the calmness and fervour, the purity, devotion, and service to all living beings without a trace of inequality. Do please read H.H. Swami Rama's translation of the first part of this holiest work in the spoken language of the people.
The founders of the Sikh faith were both saints and warriors. Many are now scholars and saints. The holy places associated with them are places of miracle, power, beauty, strength, and total self-sacrifice. For example, I often pass Paunta Sahib on my journey to the Punjab; this Gurudwara at the banks of the placid Yamuna river (the twin of Ganga) is less than two hours drive from our Ashram in Rishikesh. Here, three hundred years ago, Shri Guru Gobind Singhji, the last Guru, sat writing his copious poetic-saintly works. The river used to rise and flood the surroundings which greatly disturbed the Saint's writing work. He finally commanded Yamuna never again to rise beyond a certain spot which he marked. It doesn't - even though it may be in flood in the rest of the countryside.
The holy book is never just picked up and carried about; it is wrapped in ornate cloth and carried over one's head. This is common to all traditions in India. In Bali island, Indonesia, the ritual of carrying a holy book to do a reading is even more complex; you have to visit the country to see it.
The Mark of an Incarnation’s Feet
Another manifestation of sanctity is shri-pada, the mark of an Incarnation's or a saint's feet. It may be a real mark of the footprint, or an idealized symbolic version. The mind enters a state of calm to see the flowers scattered upon it by the devotees. It is especially common in the Jaina and Buddhist traditions but the Vishnu-pada is also worshipped in certain holy places. On the other hand, it is common to see the devotees place a paduka, wooden sandals of an ascetic after his departure from the body, and that serves as the icon of the shrine.
One of the impressive features about all places of spiritual devotion is that the sacred spot may have belonged to the followers of one religion, then, with conquest or conversion, the people's religion changes, or the spot comes within the rule of the followers of a new religion. Now the spot is sacred to the followers of this new religion who jealously guard it from the 'infidels' to whom it was sacred before. The fact of sanctity does not change. Is that not the problem with the most sacred place in Jerusalem that is honoured by the people of three religions? No matter who rules over it, its sancity remains indubitable, unchallengeable.
I recall visiting the holy bamboo grove, near the town of Rajagriha in Bihar State in India. The Buddha had his hut there, on a little hill, from where he walked down to the small lake below for his daily ablutions. I retraced his steps from the kutiya (cottage) spot down to the lake. It was from there I sent a blessing to my students: "Walking in a bamboo grove, may your foot step into the Buddha's footprint."
I felt deeply hurt that now there was no sign of the Buddha's hut, but there were dargahs, graves of Muslim holy men there. The spot is held sacred, nevertheless.
This goes to show that the power of sanctity does not abide in one particular religion; it is independent of religion and followers of every religion experience it at the same place. Once sacred, always sacred.
The sanctity does not have to begin with a human event. There are identical stories about many places.
A certain cowherd, or maybe it was a village householder, or an ascetic, used to send his cow to roam and graze in the morning. As is the common custom in India, the cows graze the whole day unattended and come back home with full udders in the evening. So did this cow come home, but came with empty udders.
The owner was puzzled as to who might be milking his cow stealthily - a very rare happening. So he decided to follow the cow and saw that every evening, before coming home, the cow was going to a certain spot and simply pouring the milk from her udders onto a particular spot. Next day it was the same, and the following day, too.
The spot was dug and an icon was found there, buried centuries ago, and the cow was simply making the consecration by pouring a stream of milk – the common ritual way in India to consecrate any sacred form.
Sometimes the Deity gives a dream, or a meditative vision: "I am manifesting at such and such place. Come dig me out." Such icons are called svayam-bhu, the self-manifested ones. Thereafter a temple may be constructed at the holy place.
One can go on without end regarding the million ways of the mystery of sanctity. I know of a cloak passed down in the family of the priests of a certain temple in Vrindavan. I have been fortunate to have the darshan of this cloak. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had given this cloak to the family more than five hundred years ago as he placed under their care the temple which they still serve with devotion.
We can conclude that sanctity is not dependent on any form. It is an independent force that gets imbued with an intensity, suffuses a form, and thereafter becomes an object of veneration.
Universality of Traditions
These kinds of traditions are not particular to India alone. They are well known to the Zarathushtra tradition, to Judaism (the visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is a pilgrimage), as well as to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. There is an enormous amount of literature available on each tradition. It is common in a country like Thailand where the pilgrims wear white and lead an especially sacred life (such as periods of vegetarian diet). Outside the Thai temples one sees the bird catchers holding birds in their cages, and the Thai tourist (oops!) literature informs us about 'merit-making' (gaining punya) by giving some money to these bird-catchers to release a bird or two to fly away in freedom. In India the same sentiment may take the form of feeding monkeys or the sacred elephants of the South Indian temples. In Japan there is a mystical map of the country in which the spots sacred to the Buddha in India are superimposed upon Japan and in lieu of making the pilgrimage to these spots in India one pays homage to the incidents in the Buddha's life right within one's own country.
What is a pilgrim?
Here to confuse, and then 'unconfuse' the reader a little:
The angel Gabriel reported to Allah that a million-strong throng had gathered for the hajj at Mecca (or was it a Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem?), and won't Allah (or maybe it was the French Dieu?) just glance at the pilgrims from above and send them a grace and a blessing. Allah looked down, and said, "Why misreport to me thus? Where is the million-strong throng?". The angel insisted that his report was correct and asked why Allah was testing him. "I am not testing you, but I see no millions around Mecca, I see but one pilgrim." The angel failed to understand. Gott (for it was probably the God of Germany) granted to his angel the sight to see a village in Lebanon and told him to go there and he would understand what Allah (Oh, Theos, rather) meant. The angel descended to the earth right at the given village and found the house of a very poor man who had saved his money for his entire life with the desire to go on the pilgrimage. But, as he was about to leave, his even poorer neighbour came begging for help for his only child who was very ill. The would-be pilgrim gave him all of his savings and stayed home thanking God for having granted him such an opportunity. It was he who was the true pilgrim in God's eyes and not the millions whom Gabriel had seen around the holy city.
In India there is a particular genre of sacred literature known as mahatmya, meaning glorification. Different mahatmya texts glorify special sacred spots, or other sacred texts. For example, the epic called Padma-purana contains eighteen mahatmyas for the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad-gita. There is, similarly, prayaga-mahatmya, the text glorifying the sacred city of Prayaga, the real name of Allahabad. Prayaga is the place known for yagas, that is yajnas, the fire offerings performed there by the ancient rishis for thousands of years. (There are half a dozen other prayagas deep in the mountains, each one at a place where a tributary meets the main course of the Ganga River, each renowned for an ancient ashram where such purificatory sacraments were performed). Here is a story from the prayaga-mahatmya :
Shiva and Parvati were travelling by the sky-path, and Parvati espied a huge throng below in the vicinity of where the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, meet at Prayaga. She was excited to see so many pilgrims gathered in one place and wanted to join the excitement. She asks Her Lord of the Universe:
"Please, may we land down there below?"
"For what ?" asks the Lord.
"Well, to be part of all that excitement of pilgrimage being undertaken by these millions" she pleaded.
"What millions?" he asks, with an eyebrow raised.
"Do you not see, down there below, all those pilgrims?" she implored again.
"I see only one couple walking there as pilgrims; none else. What is the matter with your vision, O Lady of the Universe ?"
After some argument, Lord Shiva agreed to go down with her to let her prove her point, or to show her how her cosmic vision was failing. The divine couple disguised themselves as two lepers, a destitute man accompanied by a begging woman. The lepers, the Divine couple, sat down by the roadside, begging. No one stopped, but one kindly human couple who saw in them the presence of the divine, prostrated to them and served their feigned human needs.
"See? I told you there was only one pilgrim hereabouts" said Shiva triumphantly and the Divine couple ascended to their sky path to continue to survey the universe.
Having read all of this, the seeker on the meditative path needs to know that a pilgrimage is thus not the highest endeavour. But at the same time s/he is to be reminded that better than 'going on touristic holiday' a pilgrimage is far more conducive to the meditative enrichment of the self. Rather than attending a lecture about silence, it is better to practice silence; better than not practicing silence is to attend a lecture on silence. Better than going on an external pilgrimage is to undertake the inward journey; better than indulging in outward chatter while staying home is to go on a purificatory pilgrimage. If you did not go on a pilgrimage, would you be going on a touristic holiday, sight-seeing, but not insight-seeing ? Then go insight-seeing.
The pilgrimage grants one a brighter karma than the ones accumulated walking in a shopping mall. If done properly it cleanses the mind, unburdens the heart, and gives to oneself the confidence in oneself that one can do it.
Can do what?
One may abandon for a time the physical comforts one is used to - so that one may realize how little is really needed. Upon return, one sees that all one's comforts can be reduced, drawing less from nature, ending one's dependence on them for idleness and for greed.
One renounces the pleasures one is addicted to and realizes that one has the spiritual strength to live without them. Thus does one return from a pilgrimage ever more confident of one's spiritual capacity.
One starts the pilgrimage with the declaration of a resolve to oneself, a sankalpa (see a paraphrase summary of sankalpa at the end of the booklet Special Mantras): This is the purpose of my pilgrimage; thus shall I conduct myself during the pilgrimage, in proverbial sackcloth and ashes,
giving of myself,undertaking unselfish charity,
maintaining silence, celibacy, stillness, restraint in matters of food,
accepting whatever the stations in the journey have to offer,
control of speech and of all the senses,
withdrawing from desires and from memories thereof.
(See "Five Pillars of Sadhana": https://www.ahymsin.org/main/index.php/Swami-Veda-Bharati/five-pillars-of-sadhana.html).
One makes the resolve to thank the Divinity for the opportunity of being at a place where some Incarnation of the Divine Mother or the Lord of the Universe at one time made Her/His playground and wrought miracles and uplifted and liberated the souls from misery, or granted Grace to an ascetic, or revealed the Divine Word.
"May I succeed in these acts of renunciation and self-purification"- prays the pilgrim before leaving his/her accustomed place for shores and conditions unknown.
A pilgrim is one who walks barefoot on the stony and thorny ground when he can use comfortable footwear; a tourist puts on footwear even where it is not needed.
A pilgrim sleeps on hard ground or on a wooden board, having a brick for a pillow; a tourist seeks a bed ever-softer even though it would damage his spine.
A pilgrim fasts where he can eat; a tourist eats when not hungry.
A pilgrim sleeps not when he can enter meditation; a tourist sleeps even after he is rested.
A pilgrim walks in silence even in the midst of noise, restrains the senses; withdraws from any disturbing sensations being poured into him from the surroundings; remains celibate even when accompanied by a desirable spouse; responds with kindness when provoked to anger; remains patient when disappointed; remembers at all times that s/he is on a pilgrimage for self-purification and not on a tour for entertainment.
A holy place of pilgrimage is called tirtha, a ford, a point of crossing over. This word is also used for one's own preceptor, acharya, or guru. The alumni of the same guru-kula (the guru-family, that is the place of learning), are called sa-tirthya, they who have lived together as classmates in one ford, one and the same crossing point, that is under the same preceptor. Let a pilgrimage be a point of crossing over, a transit, a transition to a higher level of thought, act, and very existence. After the pilgrimage, be not what you were before. Go with the resolve, "After the pilgrimage, I shall be a higher self, purer, brighter, more stilled, more akin to my own interior divinity".
Through all of these resolves being renewed every moment with an unprecedented spiritual alertness the pilgrim reaffirms that his life henceforth shall not be a mere journey but a pilgrimage to the interior holiness. Until that final realization, s/he is a pilgrim. Thereafter one becomes a guide to other pilgrims who follow behind, seeking to grasp the vessel of the gods' elixir of immortality, the Aquarian fullness, the essence of enlightenment.