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|Pottuvil: Pilgrims of all ages, mostly simple villagers from the North and East, walk from as far as Jaffna. Pilgrim parties may grow in size to a hundred or more as villagers join along the route.|
The Pāda Yātra route
|Verugal: Crocodile-infested rivers are only one of the hazards that pilgrims face.|
|Pilgrims setting out from Okanda Murugan Kovil must carry all their dry rations for the six day trek to Kataragama through Yala National Park.|
|Foot pilgrimage is an opportunity for villagers to have the darshan of local spiritual leaders, like these pilgrims visiting the ashram of Swami Vishwanatha of Mullaitivu.|
|Yala: foot pilgrims trek through wild jungle teeming with elephants, deer, sambur, and boars.|
|The Kataragama Pāda Yātra attracts foreign pilgrims as well as Sri Lankan devotees. A veteran British pilgrim pauses to assist a senior swāmi.|
|Pāda Yātra camp in Yala East: At night there is the glow of campfires, shared food, continuous chants of praise from the pilgrim groups, and of course the wisdom teachings being recited by the elders.|
|Trincomalee District: Attired as mendicant-beggars, pilgrims walk, eat and worship together in small bands.|
|Generally a swami among them bears with dignity the god's Vel or lance emblem. A Pāda Yātra party arrives to Tirukkovil, Ampara District.|
|Mutur: Whole villages turn out to fete the Pāda Yātra pilgrims with food and entertainment offered to the gods and their pilgrim 'messengers'.|
|Their long trek at an end, foot pilgrims worship in awe as they arrive at their final destination: Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale.|
In ancient India and indeed across the ancient world, people saw little need to undertake long journeys unless it was to visit marvelous places celebrated in poetry and legend. Only with the accumulation of wealth was there any incentive for enterprising individuals to undertake long and hazardous journeys to obtain rare goods like gems, silk and spices. And even then, adventurous people undertaking long journeys were searching not only for rare goods alone but even more for rare intangibles, like marvelous sights and the grace or assistance of deities having their abode in remote places.
In Central Asia pilgrim-travelers would travel by horse or camel, but in India it was usual for people to go on foot. Hence a journey, or yatra, primarily meant a pilgrimage. To distinguish it from journey by boat or cart or animal, it came to be called pāda yātrā or 'foot pilgrimage'.
Pilgrimage for the ancients as well as for traditional Indians even today, is deeply steeped in ritual beliefs and practices. Indeed, most westerners are trained from childhood to consider travel as a casual matter and to believe that people are the same everywhere and all places are equal. In other words, there is no room in the modern mind for sacred places and saintly people, as these are considered to be no different from other places and other people.
In a sense, this represents the dividing line between East and West, between the traditional and the modern mentalities. And hence those of us who grew up in the West stand to learn and experience much from undertaking pada yatra -- if only we can set aside our deep-rooted notions long enough to discover how foot pilgrimage differs from mundane travel!
Of course, it is not merely a matter of going by foot instead of by vehicle. For the entire duration of the pilgrimage, one is no longer an ordinary householder but rather a swāmi or swāmi amma, a messenger or representative of the deity. Therefore only pure vegetarian foods may be consumed and these also should be offered to the pilgrim on behalf of the deity. And ordinary street clothes are also unacceptable in the context of Indian culture. Women pilgrims wear simple cotton sari while men and boys wear dhoti and shawl.
Often foot pilgrims in India wear brightly colored garments -- saffron or orange for any pilgrimage or deep red for pilgrimage to shrines of either the Goddess or Murugan. If one sees pilgrims wearing deep green, it means they are walking to a shrine of Murugan, while black is for Ayyappan. Simple traditional cotton garments are said to be most pleasing to the devas and at the same time the visible distinctions between rich and poor pilgrims are erased.
Additionally, traditional pilgrims do not wear perfume, garlands or jewelry but rather will approach the deity in a state of utter simplicity and poverty. Like beggars, a pilgrim carries all his or her belongings in a plain shoulder bag or bundle balanced upon the head.
So far, so good, you may suppose. But Indian pilgrims are also expected to walk barefoot. For villagers who go barefoot most of their lives, this presents no special hardship. But for the foreign tenderfoot, walking barefoot on Indian roads can be an excruciating affair even from the start. A typical pada yatra in South India might amount to one hundred kilometers over four days and nights.
When walking by day, the road becomes hot by mid-morning. So pilgrims generally start walking before dawn and stop in mid-morning to rest and bathe while other devotees prepare annadanam, cooked food (generally rice and curry) that is offered freely first to pilgrims and then to all as long as the food lasts. Food is served in profuse quantities. The pilgrim is more likely to be over-fed than to go hungry -- provided he or she can savor the often-spicy fare that Indian villagers love.
By late afternoon the road surface cools enough for pilgrims to resume walking. If the pilgrimage happens to coincide with a full moon such as Tai Pucam or Pankuni Uttiram, the pilgrims may go on walking throughout the night, stopping for only a few hour's nap on the ground under a tree or in a temple.
For popular pilgrimages like Tai Poosam to Palani, the roads may be choked with hundreds of thousands of foot pilgrims, all gaily dressed and many singing devotional hymns as they walk. So there is no chance of losing one's way. But there is the very real possibility of getting separated from the other members of one's kuttam or party of pilgrims, as this pilgrim has discovered.
Once it took me nearly a week to reestablish contact with my co-pilgrims, so massive was the flood of humanity walking to Palani. En route the western pilgrim also shares the experience of bathing with other pilgrims at a well or river, and washing and drying one's clothes in the open. The shy or inexperienced western pilgrim may feel reluctant to answer the call of nature in the open, suffice it to say. In such cases one may stop at a house having toilet facilities and find that the residents are more than happy to lessen the travails of the foreign pilgrim.