India is covered with holy sites associated with the exploits of the gods, the waters of a sacred river, or the presence of holy men. The puranas (ancient lore in Sanskrit) are the indispensable source of information about the sacred places of ancient India.
Most of the important places of pilgrimage in India are located along the banks of the great rivers like the Ganges, Brahamputra, Godavari and Kaveri. Bathing at such sites is an especially meritorious act. With the expansion of public transportation in the twentieth century, there has been a vast increase in the numbers of people who visit these spots to partake of the divine and visit new places. In fact, for many Indians pilgrimage is the preferred form of tourism, involving family and community groups in enjoyable and uplifting vacations.
Certain important sites are well-known throughout India and attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. Probably the most significant is Varanasi (also known as Banaras, Benares, or Kashi) in southeastern Uttar Pradesh on the north bank of the Ganga. It is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, who flock to the Ghats, or steps, leading from temples down to the banks of the sacred Ganga in their search for an auspicious site for death, cremation, or immersion of ashes. Hardwar, in northwestern Utter Pradesh, far up the Ganga in the foothills of the Himalayas, is the Varanasi of northwest India for Hindus living there and is a favorite spot for ritual bathing.
There are numerous destinations in the Himalayas, including Bardrinath and Kedarnath, isolated sites in northern Uttar Pradesh that once required a long journey on foot. In southern India, the rivers Kaveri, Krishna, and Godavari attract pilgrims to a large number o bathing sites, and the coastline features major temples such as the Ramalingesvara Temple in Ramesvaram, Tamil Nadu, where Ram and his army crossed over to Lanka to rescue Sita. Pandharpur in Maharashtra is the destination for many thousands of devotees of Vitthala, an incarnation of Vishnu, whose tradition goes back at least to the thirteenth century and was written about y the great Marathi bhakti poets Namdev, Tukaram, and Eknath. There are smaller sites for pilgrimages in India near almost every river or scenic hilltop.
For many pilgrims, the process of getting to their destination involves preliminary vows and fasting, intensive cooperative efforts among different families and groups, extensive travelling on foot, and the constant singing of devotional songs.
On arrival at Pilgrimage in India, groups of pilgrims often make contact with priests who specialize in the pilgrim trade and for a fee plan the group’s schedule and ritual activity. At some of the major sites, the families of the priests have served as hereditary guides for groups of pilgrims over many generations. Where a shrine is the focus, the devotee may circumambulate the buildings and wait in line for long hours just for a glimpse of the deity’s image as security personnel move the crowds along. At auspicious bathing sites, pilgrims may have to wade through the crush of other devotees to dip into the sacred waters of a river or a tank.
Worshippers engaged in special vows or in praying for the cure of a loved one may purchase shrine amulets to give to the god (which are circulated back to the shrine’s shop) or purchase foodstuffs, sanctified by the god’s presence, to take to friends and family. Nearby, souvenir hawkers and shopkeepers and sometimes even amusement parks contribute to a lively atmosphere that is certainly part of the attraction of many pilgrimage sites.