Published on 12th January, 2023, in Indian Express.
The pandas of Jagannath Puri in Odisha are often chastised for aggressively demanding daan and dakshina from pilgrims. They argue the temple is their mother – she feeds them through those who visit the temple. This idea that pilgrim spots are also commercial spots, source of livelihood for many, has often been a contentious issue, not just in India but around the world.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ drives out the money changers and dove sellers and other traders from the temple at Jerusalem, accusing them of defiling a sacred space. Recently, the Jain community held silent protest marches on learning that the sacred Shikharji mountains of Jharkhand and Palitana in Gujarat was being earmarked for tourism.
While the Vatican in Rome is open to tourists, Mecca is not. And yet, the Hajj and Umrah has been monetized. As soon as consulting firms told the royals of Saudi Arabia that oil may not have a great future, it turned its attention to Mecca, and went out of its way to build there some of the best pilgrimage infrastructure the world has ever seen. Every Muslim is expected to visit the House of God, or Kabbah, in this holy city, at least once in his lifetime, for this is where the Prophet Muhammad prayed, before him Abraham, and even before him Adam and the angels. The pilgrim needs food, transport, lodgings, and a bit of entertainment. Besides hospitality, he also needs banking and health services. This has created vast number of jobs, and so goodwill across the Islamic world. Thanks to 2.5 million annual pilgrims, Saudi Arabia’s revenue from religious tourism is expected to reach about $350 billion in 2030. What is India’s potential considering there are so many pilgrim spots in India?
Let’s take a look at the numbers. On the most auspicious day of Mahakumbha Mela at Prayagraj there can be over 50 million people. This happens every 12 years. In the remaining 11 years, during annual Magh Mela, Prayagraj can witness up to half a million people seeking to take a dip in the Sangam. The Puri Rath Yatra in Odisha is witnessed by a million people on a single day. It once yielded a pilgrim tax of 9 lakh rupees as per Mughal and Company records, until the pilgrim tax was outlawed in 1840. The scale of pilgrimages in India – which is voluntary not mandated by any religious authority – boggles the mind. The financial potential is huge. It would be foolish to ignore such an asset.
India is a religious country, with hundreds of Hindus, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian pilgrim spots dotting its mountains, plateaus, plains, and coasts. India is also a poor country. People need jobs. Tourism creates jobs. Religious tourism assures sustainable income. For many Indians, pilgrimage is the only tourism they can experience. Pilgrim spots are thus assets. And this has been realised long ago by the Government and Industry bodies like FICCI. So it makes sense to develop these pilgrim sites and provide infrastructure that helps more pilgrims travel easily, and comfortably. This means roads, railways, airports, hotels, taxis, restaurants, hospitals, shops, entertainment zones, and even spiritual theme parks. Kashi Vishwanath has transformed. Ujjain has transformed. Amritsar has transformed. Puri has transformed. Ayodhya and Mathura will soon transform. Revenues of several crores are being generated from these sites, with hardly any gestation period. This is good, right?
But what is the cost of such development? There are reports on the ecological impact of the infrastructure work in Mecca, the carbon footprint created in the fragile desert ecosystem, but such conversations can easily be deemed Islamophobic. The same can happen in India, where politicians accuse activists of being Hinduphobic anti-development atheist Naxalites.
But nature does not care for politics. Uttarakhand, holy since Vedic times, as the place where Ganga moves from the mountains into the plains, is home to many sacred spots such as Kedarnath, Badrinath, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Joshimath. The area is ecologically fragile. And in recent times there have been series of calamities such a floods, earthquakes, and landslides in recent times, calling into question development activities, and the push for infrastructure.
Politicians are still angry about temples broken centuries ago by invading Muslim warlords. But none of them are angry about destruction of sacred groves known as Devrais of Goa. These were for centuries out of bounds to farmers and pastoralists. It was believed it was the home of the Goddess. This ensured biodiversity. But these are being destroyed by mining activities and new infrastructure. Unlike well organised Jain protests, protests to save sacred groves of tribal communities does not garner media attention. The subaltern holy spot is easy to ignore.
India is a land created not by kings or merchants, but by pilgrims who followed sages to the isolation of mountains, or the fertility of river deltas, river confluences or river bends. These are where pilgrim spots are located. This is where mythological figures like Ram, Krishna, Shiva, and Durga performed magnificent deeds. This is where their power still throbs – power that people seek in their daily lives, which makes them want to visit these sites. This is encouraged by kings who realise the economic and political power of such movements. Let us not forget how the Kawar yatra in Gangetic region has been totally politicised, and how there are attempts to politicise the Varkari yatra in Maharashtra.
Politicians care for power. For this they need people. Merchants care for wealth. For this they need markets. Neither care for nature. For them the pilgrim is sheep, and the tribal is a savage, easy to exploitation and abuse. They milk the earth-cow ruthlessly, like Vena of the Bhagavata Purana. But they forget, the earth-cow will have the last laugh. As per Hindu lore, she will ask Parasuraman, Ram and Krishna to slaughter greedy kings. And if they fail, she will turn into the wild Kali and express her rage with disease and disasters and quench her thirst with blood.