TÎRTHA-YATRA – The Holy Pilgrimage Practice

A yatra was a pilgrimage, or visit, to a river crossing, or ford (tîrtha). Thus the term tîrtha-yatra came into usage. Over the centuries it came to mean a visit to any holy place, a pilgrimage to a sacred region (such as the plain where the Mahâbhârata battle was fought), to a temple city (such as Melkote), or to a river (such as the Gangâ or the Yamunâ).

Some have seen in the practice the influence of Dravidian or Indus Valley ritualistic bathing and a continuation of early purification practices. However, there may be something more interesting. Vedic literature mentioned Brâhmanical rituals (Agni yagas) being performed at river fords (tîrthas) wherever Aryan culture had become dominant in an area.

Add to that the need for large amounts of water when warriors were killed to perform their death rituals, as in the myth of King Asamañjasa’s sons: they were killed, but no rituals could be done for lack of water. King Bhagîratha was able to get S´iva to bring the heavenly Gangâ to earth, and the death rituals were finally done.

Combine the clues, and the fords may well have marked battle sites and the places where the sacred ashes of warriors rested, showing how Aryan culture had been spread and lands pacified. A full-blown cult of pilgrimage was already in evidence in the Mahâbhârata.

Surinder M. Bhardwaj’s classic study of pilgrimage sites (tîrthas) showed a clockwise journey, starting at Pushkara in Rajasthan, and then visiting ancient Mahakala (Ujjain), Dwaravati (Dwarkar), Kurukshetra, Varanasi, Gaya, and so on, hoping to end at Prayaga (Allahabad). The literary references to boatmen have meaning when there are great rivers to cross and no bridges.

Two kinds of stories about the sacred guided the pilgrim—those of local significance and those of a pan-cultural nature. It was Bhardwaj’s thesis that pilgrimage defined an Aryan consciousness. It circumscribed those areas where the fire rituals were done, where vows could be fulfilled, where worship to Brâhmanical deities could be done.

Tîrtha-yatra was one way of acquiring merit (punya). It was another type of austerity. It was an inexpensive substitute for Brâhmanical sacrifices. But the routes traced carefully by Bhardwaj showed no interest in land that had not been sanctified by Aryan conquest. Vast regions were not visited.

TÎRTHA-YATRA - A practice

Where there was no myth about a divine activity, there was no interest in a journey into that region. By the modern period tîrthas are classified in a number of ways: mythically (divine, demonic, sagely, human), religious (sectarian or pan-Hindu), cultural (regional or pan-Indian), liturgical (water for purification or temples for worship), geographic (battle sites, forests, mountains), and so on.

Myth and pilgrimage are linked in the most fundamental ways: myth locates where the pilgrim can experience the sacred. Modern Hindus choose from 1,800 tîrthas to nurture religious needs and longings. However, there is an innovation of visiting the four corners of India: Badrinath in the north nestled in the Himâlayas, Puri in the east, Ramesvaram in the south, and Dvarka in the west.

There seems always to be the desire to go to Benares (Varanasi) and return home with sacred water from the Gangâ. Finally, pilgrimage is further encouraged by festivals and fairs so rich in number and variety that they alone could possibly keep the myths alive. Each place has its special myths, festivals, and observances. And all of this activity of visiting sacred sites (tîrthas) is believed to gain merit, a better rebirth, and eventually liberation.

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