Significance of Tirtha Yathra or Pilgrimages

Tirtha, Holy Place or Pilgrim Site

by Jayaram V

Suumary: This essay is about the meaning, concept and significance of Tirth Yathra or Pilgrimages in Hinduism.


Pilgrimages have been an important part of the Hindu ritual and spiritual practices since Vedic times. In many respects they contributed to the growth of Indian civilization and the emergence of numerous sacred cities and urban centers. In the process, they contributed to the preservation of Hinduism, elevating the character and consciousness of its people, uniting them into one nation despite their regional and cultural diversity, and creating feelings of belongingness and brotherhood.

The pilgrim places of India stand testimony to its ancient past and spiritual distinction. They also stand witness to the living presence of God in numerous forms and guises all over the Indian subcontinent. Pilgrim sites and pilgrimages played an important role in unifying the country, despite its geographical and cultural diversity and preservation of its chief faiths.

If Hinduism survived in India despite intense social and political pressures, the credit goes in no small measure to the importance of pilgrimages in Hindu spiritual and religious practice. The earliest reference to them can be found in the Rigveda itself. For generations, Hindu spiritual teachers and gurus made them the focal point of their activities and teachings.

Nowadays it is easier to go on pilgrimages, but there was a time when going on pilgrimage meant risking a near certain death. They tested the strength of one’s faith and devotion, since most pilgrim sites used to be in remote and inaccessible places, and to reach them one had to pass through difficult terrains and dense forests, risking their lives.

Pilgrimages are beneficial both mentally and spiritually. They are an important part of Hindu ritual and devotional worship. Devotees go on pilgrimages to fulfill their vows or perform their obligatory duties such as marriage, initiation or tonsure ceremony. Some pilgrimages are undertaken to atone for past sins or express gratitude. People also go on pilgrimages to holy sites to mix the ashes of their deceased relations to help them obtain a good birth in next life or ensure their safe journey to the next world.

Water plays an important role in all pilgrimages. Most Hindu pilgrim places are located on the banks of rivers or near water tanks. Most temples also contain sacred ponds (kovela) where pilgrims can take a dip before entering the temples and seeing their favorite deity. The association with water is not by accident. It seems to be ancient tradition, dating back to even Indus Valley civilization. The Indus cities contained large water tanks, which historians believe were used for ritual purposes. Pilgrimages are meant for spiritual cleansing, and water is an important cleanser.

One may also see the connection between the two in the very meaning and purpose of Hindu pilgrimages. In Hinduism, pilgrimages are historically and etymologically associated with water bodies, rivers and lakes, or with paths or steps that lead to them. This is evident from the fact that in Sanskrit a pilgrim place is known as a Tirtha (tīrtha or theertha, तीर्थ), which is reference to a holy site or a pilgrim place.

Tirtha means a passage, a roadway, a fjord, a staircase or a descent into a river. Customarily and traditionally these attributes are associated with pilgrim places which happen to be upon the banks or near rivers and water bodies or on the top of a hill or a mountain.

In ritual worship, tirtham refers to sacred water, which is collected from a river, a coconut or a sacred pond and ritually sanctified for worship and cleansing. The word also has other connotations. In general usage, it refers to an eminent teacher or philosopher, ascetic, saint or sacred preceptor. It is also often used as a title or an epithet to refer to divine beings or pious people, as in case of a Thirthankara or the purest beings. While all places are knowns as Tirthas, the holiest among them is called Tirtharaj, mening the king among the Tirthas. The epithet is historically given to Prayag, which is located on the banks of the River Ganga, and considered one of the four must see holy sites.

In a wider context, pilgrimages serve as a reminder of our essential nature and our highest purpose upon earth. The symbolize the life of mortal beings as pilgrims who are caught in the web of life. We all are on a spiritual journey in search of liberation. Our final destination is the immortal heaven, upon reaching which no one returns. In Hinduism, pilgrimages remind us of this singular truth. We may undertake them for a number of purposes, but as the scriptures say the best ones are those which are undertaken to express love and devotion to God rather than for selfish motives

Pilgrimages benefit not only those who undertake them but also the holy places and the divinities who resided there. According to our beliefs, the images which we worship in temples and at holy places are not lifeless images. They embody the power of the deity. Hence, they are considered living incarnations (arcas), whose power increases in proportion to the attention and offerings they receive. It means our gods grow in strength and power and contribute to the welfare of the world if a large number of devotees keep visiting the holy sites and worship them with ritual offerings.

From the above, one can see that thirthas or pilgrim places in Hinduism have ritual and spiritual significance. They are essentially holy places, which are sanctified by the presence of God and which symbolize purity and divinity, in an otherwise impure world. They also play an important role in the preservation and continuation of our faith, as they draw worldly people and strengthen their devotional fervor and religiosity.

Thus, pilgrimages serve an important purpose in our lives, by helping us practice Dharma and keep our gods happy and nourished through offerings and sacrifices. By that, they contribute to the preservation and continuation of our Dharma. Because of their beneficial effect, we should not look down upon them as mere acts of superstition. India is considered a sacred land because it is home to numerous deities, saints and seers. They are spread all over the country. Each year, millions of people go on pilgrimages to visit them and seek their blessings. In the process, everyone is benefited.

However, one should not expect too much from pilgrimages or solely rely upon them for their spiritual wellbeing. Although they have a symbolic parallel with the spiritual journey of individual souls upon earth, they form a part of the Hindu ritual worship. Hence, it is still a part of the lower knowledge, which is helpful to gain a good birth in next life, but not very helpful to achieve liberation or escape from suffering in the mortal world. For that you have to practice virtues, detachment, renunciation, sameness, etc. You have to cultivate purity and become pure to achieve oneness with the Supreme Self.

Popular Hindu pilgrim places

Since, India has numerous pilgrim places it is difficult to list them all. The most important and popular Hindu pilgrim sites are listed below. Most of them have a long history, and date back to Pre-Mauryan and Pre-Buddhist era. For example, places such as Kashi, Mathura and Gaya were already famous religious centers by the time of Mahavira and the Buddha. Both of them, frequented the pilgrim places to spread their teachings and attract followers.

1. Char Dham: The name refers to any four holy sites or abodes namely. Currently we have two lists. One consists of Puri Jagannath, Badrinath, Dwaraka, and the other, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotr.

2. Panchadham: The name refers to a group of five sacred places. There are many panchdhams such as Pancha Badris, Pancha Kedars, Pancha Prayags, Pancha Gokarnanaths, Pancha Kesavas, Pancha Kashis, Pancha Naths, Pancha Tirthas, Pancha Bhutalingas, Pancha Sarovars, Pancha Puras, etc.

3. The site where Kumbh Mela is held. It is the holiest of Hindu festival, held every three years on a rotation basis at one of the four locations namely Praya, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain.

4. Ancient holy cities: We have many ancient pilgrim sites. The holiest among them are Kashi (Varanasi). Prayag, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mathura, Vrindavan, Rameswaram, Madurai, etc.

5. Ancient holy temples: We have numerous Hindu temples, some of whihc over 1500 years old. Prominent among them are at Kashi, Ujjain, Vaishnava Devi, Kedarnath, Tirupathi, Sri Rangam, Tanjore, Sabarimalai, Thiruvananthapuram, Pandharpur, Sri Sailam, etc.

6. Popular modern Hindu temples: These are not very ancient, but attract a large number of devotees such as Hare Krishna temples at various locations, Birla Mandirs, Radhaswami temples, Kali temples in West Bengal, etc.

7. Shakti Peethas: These are associated with Devi or the Goddess. There are numerous Shakti Pithas in India. Of them, 12 are the most prominent such as the Kamakshi temple at Kanchi, Chamundi temple near Mysore, Jogulamba temple at Alampur, Bhramaramba temple at Sri Sailam, Mahalakshmi temple at Kolhapure, and so on. In addition, there are seveal prominent temples and pilgrim sites for each of the numerous manifestations of the Goddess such as Mahalakshmi, Saraswathi, Durga, Bhavani, Kali, Brahmi, Varahi, etc.

8. Vishnu temples: They include all the temples and holy places which are associated with Vishnu and his partial and complete incarnations and manifestations. Prominent among them are the Vshnu temples located at Dwaraka. Srirangam, Venkarachalam, Salagramam, Thothadri, Pushkar. We also come across the list of 108 Vishnu temples, known as holy places (divya desas). Devotees also go on pilgrimage to several popular temples of Vishnu's incarnations such as Krishna, Rama and Narasimha temples in various parts of the country. The five Dwaraka temples known as Pancha Dwarak also attracted many pilgrims.

9. Divya Desam: Another important set of pilgrimages are known as the "Divya Desams." They are the holy places, sanctified by divinities, where Lord Vishnu is worshipped. According to tradition there are 108 Divya Desams. Tirumala Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati is one among them.

10. Shiva temples: Perhaps more temples and holy places are associated with Shiva and his numerous manifestations than any other god. They are grouped under different names such Trilingas, Pancharamams, Panchabhuta lingas, Ashta lingas and Dwadasa (12) Jyotirlingas. Of them the 12 Jyotirlingas are the most prominent. They are located at Somnath, Ujjain (Mahakaleswar), Omkareshwar, Vaidyanath (Devgadh/Parle), Bhimshankar, Rameshwar, Nageshwar (Dwaraka), Vishveshwar (Kashi), Trayambakeshwar (Nashik), Kedareshwar (Kedarnath), and Grishneshwar (Verul, near Ellora).

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