We often hear of the Jain community in business papers, at economic events and in the start-up world –- the world of wealth and business. Or we know them for their simple, non-violent living and vegetarian food. I often end up choosing Jain meals during my travels.
They were trending of late on social media platforms, protesting to save Sammed Shikhaji – a sacred hill where 20 of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras took Nirvana. The government wanted to convert it into an ecotourism hub, threatening the hill’s religious sanctity. Incidentally, such transformation often gets interpreted as a place where non-vegetarian food and alcohol must be made available. Things like drugs follow.
It reminded me of my emotional turmoil when I saw non-vegetarian food being served right on the Varanasi ghats along the Ganga. The response to my sharing this in the public domain gave me an insight into the high-hanging confusion between pilgrimage and tourism. Most people think of pilgrimage as just another vertical under tourism. So, you have adventure, rural, culinary, heritage, and spiritual tourism.
What is a Pilgrimage?
A common myth people have for places like Varanasi is that ghats are not temples, so it is ok to take liberties there. Our scriptures mention that Ganga is the biggest tirtha or the holiest place in Kashi: Every pilgrim takes a dip in the mornings or on special occasions like Kartik Purnima. In pilgrimages, rivers, lakes, ponds, forests, or hills are the most sacred.
Both pilgrimage and tourism involve travel to a distant destination, but their nature is diametrically opposite. A pilgrimage is for spiritual pursuits — a quest for knowledge by following traditional rituals through mental and physical preparations to purify the body and mind by limiting sensory pleasures and focussing on spiritual pursuits like japa, tapa, dhyana and learning. The focus is on self while disengaging with the world and living a simple, minimalistic life.
Tourism focuses on the heightened engagement of the senses. We enjoy good food and engage in activities that titillate our senses and give us a sense of euphoria. Think about a hot air balloon ride, a river rafting experience, visiting an abandoned ruin full of ghost stories, or that shopping trip. Our senses constantly absorb all the new sights, sound, smell and experiences surrounding us. Tourism is leisure travel, whose primary purpose is pleasure and entertainment.
Tirthas are created over long periods by tapas of avatars, saints, sages and ordinary pilgrims who keep adding their spiritual energy to the space. Boundaries of most major tirthas are well defined in their Mahatmyas. Tourism destinations also gain importance over time, but this period is much smaller and can be made even shorter with the right marketing push.
Pilgrimage Vs Tourism
So, the question is – can a pilgrimage place be a tourist attraction? Are they complimentary to each other, or are they at opposite ends of the spectrum by design?
Since times immemorial, India has attracted the world to its sacred spaces for its spirituality and knowledge. Even when India was politically divided among many big and small kingdoms, pilgrims moved freely to visit the spaces sacred to them. This is an invisible thread connecting India. In modern parlance, pilgrimage is a part of our age-old branding that continues to thrive even today as our strongest soft power.
So, can tourism be promoted at pilgrimage places but with some boundary conditions that do not violate the sanctity of our holy places? Can these small spaces, sacred to millions, be preserved and kept away from the experiences that potentially violate them? For example, non-vegetarian food is available all over Varanasi, so can we deem the ghats and the sacred geographical area of Kashi vegetarian?
Yes, It Is Possible!
I see no reason why this should not be possible. At an MP tourism event, when cruise operators wanted to ply luxury cruises on the Narmada, the officer clearly stated – it is a sacred river; we cannot allow any meat or alcohol, please keep this in mind.
More than a regulation prohibiting, banning or dictating activities, tourism players can softly implement steps to ensure the spiritual quotient of holy places. Tourists, as consumers, can ensure this by being mindful of the boundaries, like dressing appropriately. This is how it seamlessly worked for so many centuries.
The tourism industry also needs to look beyond the hotel, restaurant and leisure template. They need to innovate as per the character of the destination. For example, in a typical pilgrim town, people want to get up early morning and visit temples, but I have yet to see even the best hotels integrate it into their daily schedules or services. Given our lack of knowledge about these places, we need to build a strong, soft infrastructure, like making available texts, stories and customs of the places to visitors.
Pilgrimage travel is a significant part of the total travel people undertake. From a business perspective, it is more of a bread-and-butter business with little visibility on media when compared to leisure travel.
The Ministry of Tourism launched Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) scheme in 2014-15. It aims to build sustainable infrastructure at identified pilgrimage cities. The Devil, as always, lies in the actual execution of the scheme.
First Published on Feb 05, 23 in The New Indian Express.