May 23, 2010

For me and my daughter Pratibha, last week will remain absolutely unforgettable. On two consecutive days we visited two hallowed sites that we had been longing to see for quite some time.

The first was Gangotri, the origin of the holy Ganga. The Gangotri glacier starts from Gomukh, 19 kms. uphill from Gangotri. When at Gangotri , we stepped into the Ganga close to the site where a yagna was being performed and for which I had been invited to offer the poornahuti we naturally found the glacier water ice-cold.

A Gangotri ghat A Ghat at Gangotri

The second was Kedarnath, one of the country’s twelve Jyotirlings. The foremost among these Dwadash Jyotirlings is Somnath, in Gujarat. In the political transformation of India’s single dominant party polity into a bipolar polity the BJP’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra has had a significant role.

The State of Uttarakhand is littered with pilgrim spots. No wonder it is popularly known as Devabhoomi. Gangotri and Kedarnath are reckoned as two of the four Dhams in the state which pilgrims aspire to visit, the other two being Badrinath and Yamunotri.

A view of Kedarnath Temple

A view of Kedarnath Temple

For five to six months, until April, all these four places are snow-covered. The Temples at these sites are opened every year in mid-May. This year, Gangotri temple opened on May 16, and Kedar Nath temple on May 18. The altitude of Gangotri is 10000 ft. above sea level, and that of Kedar Nath is 12000 ft. above sea level.

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In October, 1961, the AICC held its session in Madurai, the second largest city of Tamilnadu, and the place where the world renowned Meenakshi Temple is situated. During the freedom movement, it was at Madurai in 1921 that Gandhiji decided to wear only Khadi.

At the A.I.C.C. session fifty years later, Pandit Nehru made a memorable speech in which he highlighted how great a role pilgrimage places have played in uniting the country.

Nehruji said:

“India has for ages past, been a country of pilgrimages. All over the country you find these ancient places, from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath, high up in the snowy Himalayas down to Kanyakumari in the south. What has drawn our people from the south to the north and from the north to the south in these great pilgrimages ? It is the feeling of one country and one culture and this feeling has bound us together. Our ancient books have said that the land of Bharat is the land stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the southern seas. This conception of Bharat as one great land which the people considered a holy land has come down the ages and has joined us together, even though we have had different political kingdoms and even though we may speak different languages. This silken bond keeps us together in many ways.”

When last week I went to Gangotri and mentioned that I was proceeding to Kedarnath I was advised that I ought to carry water from the Gangotri and pour it on the Shivling at Kedarnath.

I had earlier shared with colleagues the information that of the four famous Dhams of the country namely Badrinath, Jagannathpuri, Dwarika and Rameshwaram, I had not been only to the last one. I was told at the Gangotri temple that offering Ganga water to the Shivling at Rameshwaram is a highly pious ritual. I also learnt that sand taken from Rameshwaram and added to the Ganges in Badrinath is an equally holy ritual.

Thus, it is not just the network of pilgrimages but also the rituals developed over time that have promoted continuing to and fro movement of pilgrims which, I believe, reinforces the core concept spelt out by Panditji and have fortified the feeling of one country and one culture – “the silken bond that keeps us together.”

I do not know how conscious our Tourist Departments are of the fact that in India a very sizable component of domestic tourism is religious tourism.

One has only to note how Governor Jagmohan’s exemplary development of the infrastructure, hygiene, sanitation, and other facilities in and around Vaishno Devi have made the Katra site in Jammu an all time favorite haunt for tourists. The same is true in varying degree about Tirupathi, Haridwar and Rishikesh, Amritsar and Ajmer.

This week a group of Indians settled in Jakarta (Indonesia) came to see me and invite me for a programme in that country. I casually happened to ask them: “Have you ever been to Tirupathi ?” And one in the group literally took me by surprise when he replied: “I have been to Tirupathi as many as twenty seven times’’

Governments, both Central as well as states would do well to take cognizance of the immense potential of religious tourism, and a la Jagmohan attempt to do a Vaishno Devi at all such sacred places – Hindu Muslim, or Sikh, Jain , Buddhist or Christian. Places in Bihar like Bodhgaya or in Madhya Pradesh like Sanchi have been attracting a large number of Buddhists from Japan and China also.

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Earlier, the dimensions of participation in the Ganga snan on the occasions of Kumbh were always guesstimates.

This year, the Uttarakhand Government requested the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to undertake a scientific survey and to evaluate as to how many pilgrims took bath at Haridwar on the last major snan on Baisakhi Day (14 April, 2010 ). The ISRO has conveyed to the Uttarakhand Government that according to their survey, the number comes to approximately one crore sixty six lakhs !

New Delhi

23rd May, 2010

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