Walking can be a meditative experience. It helps an individual focus on the mind and the body. It gets him into a state of heightened awareness. This awareness aids introspection. It helps one be in the now. With every step an individual takes, there is a lesson to be learnt and meditated upon.
Walking not only aids introspection and mindfulness but also pushes the individual to go beyond physical limitations. Perhaps, this is why several faiths across the world have long stressed the importance of padayatra (pilgrimage on foot). In this feature, Soulveda travels from Jammu in the north of India to Kerala in the south to the islands of Sri Lanka and Japan, exploring what padayatra does for pilgrims.
Every year, thousands of devotees clad in black and orange clothes walk to Lord Ayyappa’s abode in Sabarimala in Kerala. They trek through the forest barefoot, on a path full of thorns and stones, chanting Swami Saranam Ayyappa in praise of the god. Their reverberating voices fill the air with devotion for the deity.
In order to reach the temple, a devotee has to take a vow to wake up at 4 am every day, take a cold shower, and worship the lord, for 41 consecutive days. On the 41st day, the devotee carries irumudi (a small bundle of holy objects and a travel kit) on his head and climbs 18 steps to seek the blessings of the lord.
Eighteen is a significant number for Ayyappa devotees. Lord Ayyappa is the lord of 18 hills and lord of 18 steps. Every devotee climbs 18 steps to reach the temple on the hill. It is said that the first five steps represent panchendriya (the five senses). The next eight stand for ashtaraga (basal emotions)—kama (, krodha, moha, lobha, madha, matsarya, asooya and dhumba. The next three steps represent the qualities of nature (gunas—sattva, rajas and tamas). The last two steps stand for vidya (knowledge) and avidya (ignorance). It is believed that on climbing these 18 steps, a devotee symbolically detaches himself from the materialistic world, and becomes receptive to be one with the ultimate creator.
Hindus believe it is their duty to visit Char Dham at least once in their lifetime as it washes away their sins not just in this life but previous lives too.
Kataragama Padayatra, Sri Lanka
The Kataragama Padayatra is probably one of the oldest traditions in Sri Lanka that covers about 73 places of worship. Pilgrims travel by foot from Jaffna in the north to Kataragama in the east coast over a period of 45 days. According to a legend, the padayatra began when Lord Murugan landed on the shores of Lanka and walked to Kataragama. It is said that devotees get a ‘call from the divine’ to take part in this padayatra.
Along the path, they lead lives like homeless people, not knowing where their next meal will come from. This, they do to abstain from worldly pleasures and focus solely on their spiritual pursuit. Generally, a pilgrim walks for about 10 to 15 km a day and halts in one of these places of worship. They accept alms from villagers who believe that these pilgrims are messengers of God.
In the final leg of the pilgrimage, the devotees walk through treacherous paths in the Yala National Park. Some pilgrims can’t even make it to the final miles. But for those who manage to finish this arduous pilgrimage, it becomes a journey of a lifetime filled with life lessons, wisdom, and liberation.
Char Dham, India
The Pandavas believed that Chota Char Dham (four abodes)—Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri—had the power to wash away sins and help people attain moksha. The Char Dham as defined by Adi Shankarcharya includes Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameshwaram. These four destinations are in four directions in India—Badrinath in the north, Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east, and Rameshwaram in the south. Hindus believe it is their duty to visit Char Dham at least once in their lifetime as it washes away their sins not just in this life but previous lives too. The journey begins from Puri in Odisha and proceeds clockwise in a typical manner of circumambulation in temples. It is said that a trip to Char Dham can help a person find a sense of belonging.
A legend has it that the path of Shikoku pilgrimage covers places that were once worshipped by Daishi. Some even believe that along the way, one can feel the spirit of Daishi.
Mata Vaishno Devi, Jammu
The cave temple of Mata Vaishno Devi is one of the most revered places of pilgrimage by Hindus. The abode of Vaishno Devi—an avatar of Goddess Parvati—is located 1560 metres above the sea level in the caves of Trikuta Hills in Jammu. As the goddess is known to fulfil wishes, pilgrims throng the temple throughout the year.
Pilgrims battle bitter cold weather 13 km uphill to reach the caves. Some devotees are even known to crawl uphill as a mark of their steadfast belief in Vaishno Devi! It is said that the trek is a humbling experience. All along the way, devotees sing in praise of the goddess, even as they appreciate the splendid nature around them. The breath-taking view of the sunrise and sunset will make the journey worthwhile.
Shikoku Temple Trek, Japan
There are certain things that are unique to Japan, one being the 88-temple pilgrimage encircling the island of Shikoku. It is the smallest island among the four principal islands of Japan. The 800-mile trek has a history of 1100 years. The pilgrimage is associated with the ninth century Buddhist monk Kukai, who after his death came to be known as the Kobo Daishi, the dharma master, who was known for his wisdom and benevolence. A legend has it that the path of the pilgrimage covers places that were once worshipped by Daishi. Some even believe that along the way, one can feel the spirit of Daishi.
So, what motivates a person to leave everything behind and take this pilgrimage? Some reports suggest that the beautiful cultural and natural landscape is a huge draw for the pilgrims. There are several other beliefs associated with the trek. Some pilgrims take this walk hoping for a possible enlightenment, others hoping they or their loved ones will be cured of illnesses. It is also a popular belief in Japan that the spirit of the recently deceased is unstable and that this pilgrimage is known to calm their souls.