A pilgrim's travels - in Wellington
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"Curiosity does, no less than devotion, pilgrims make." - Abraham Cowley
Trudging up Wellington's Mt Victoria in a flowing shalwar kameez and sandals on a squelchy day is not a great idea I found one weekend afternoon, while giving my Italian friend from Auckland a tiki tour. I'd never walked up Mount Victoria before.
"Take off your shoes", suggested my friend after my umpteenth embarrassing stumble. And so I did. I also wrapped my long dupatta or scarf around my head. "I feel as though I'm on a pilgrimage except there's no temple at the top." "Who knows?" the trees echoed, as my friend disappeared.
My mum being a devout Hindu, I've been on countless pilgrimages since childhood. Across the length and breadth of India. From Kedarnath and Badrinath nestled in the Northern Himalayas to Tirupathi and Kanyakumari in the South. From Dwaraka and Somnath in the West to Kamakhya in the North-Eastern state of Assam.
I've been on horseback, human back, ferry and palanquin. My sisters and I have waded through streams, tiptoed over scorching sands, hobbled over pebbles, weathered blizzards to get but a glimpse of the hallowed deities of the vast Hindu pantheon. We've survived a stampede to tug at the ropes of the great Juggernaut in Puri, Odisha as it rolled majestically through a sea of humanity - guaranteed to bring salvation.
In fact most of our vacations were pilgrimages. Rise at 4am (Brahmamuhurtham, a couple of hours before sunrise literally meaning the hour of God and deemed to be auspicious), bathe and set off without breakfast, make our offerings at the temple - that was the general routine. The ritual would culminate in partaking of "prasad" the meal offered to the deity, usually comprising fruit and yummy sweets. After this we could do other "holiday" things.
The pilgrimages were not confined to Hindu temples. We went to Mount Mary and Haji Ali in Mumbai and the dargah of Salim Chisti in Fatehpur Sikri, to Dilwara the Jain temple in Rajasthan. To Buddhist temples, gurdwaras and synagogues.
In India, pilgrimages are undertaken by followers of practically every religion, from every socio-economic layer. Sometimes it's to ask for a boon - good grades, a job, wealth, a husband, a child, a cure. At other times, as penitence. Or to gain freedom from karma and the cycle of birth and death. And also of course to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case, the Sharmas, Reddys, Chatterjees, Patels.
Whatever the reason, the sheer faith and conviction of pilgrims as they go on these long and often physically challenging journeys can be awe-inspiring.
Looking back, my own relationship with pilgrimages has evolved over the years. From being a pull-along child, to a young adult seriously believing that visiting a holy place would earn me brownie points with God. At some point I metamorphosed into a pseudo-intellectual doubting Thomas, secretly resenting the family pilgrimages and then again seeking refuge and solace in them in turbulent times.
Pilgrimages have taught me resilience, patience, self-control. It has taught me compassion for fellow-travellers. They have made me realise that white or brown, rich or poor, we are essentially brought to our knees by the same fears and desires. And I've made great friends along the way too. They're called Risk, Uncertainty, Pain, Solitude, Faith and Knowledge.
Then I left my homeland and crossed hemispheres to the land of the long white cloud, which someone called "the last bus stop in the world". Driven by curiosity and a spirit of adventure. By the larger than life "why am I here?" questions I would constantly plague my sister with, precisely at midnight, much to her chagrin. I surrendered to the overwhelming urge to leave the cocoon of family and familiar surroundings and explore life and culture in a strange new land.
The origins of the word "pilgrim", lie in the Latin "pelegrinus", meaning a foreigner or traveller who undertakes a long journey to a distant land, generally a holy place. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian allegory, tells the story of Christian, an Everyman character who undertakes a journey from his hometown, the "City of Destruction" ("this world"), to the "Celestial City", "that which is to come", atop Mt Zion.
Delinked from its Christian context, therefore, it might be viewed as a metaphor for a spiritual journey or a quest for truth. My journey to Wellington was a pilgrimage of its own kind. A restoration of faith and self-confidence, a process of self-discovery. It has inspired me to go on many more pilgrimages - alone.
"Here we are at the top". My friend reappeared from nowhere and broke my reverie. The haze had lifted and the breathtaking Wellington landscape with its hills and houses, seas and gardens stretched across the azure canvas. I had reached my temple.
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