The young anonymous 19th century Russian peasant who tramped all over the steppes of his vast country in search of one compelling question, how one should utter the Jesus prayer constantly, had caught the imagination of a whole generation of young seekers a century later. Walking the countryside he had been gifted with insights, miracles, and he had found answers to so many of the questions that had been nagging him. The last century also had been one where people and leaders had walked in search of answers. The Long March of Mao in China and the Dandi march in Gujarat of Gandhiji happened around the same time and there was also the ‘forgotten long march’ from Burma to eastern India at the end of World War II at great human cost. After Independence also there were votaries of the long walks, like Vinoba Bhave who trudged the entire country from his ashram in Paunar persuading landowners to part with land for the landless. He did not seem to have made much of a change of heart of the acquisitive middle peasants.
Apart from these politically driven marches the faithful, over the centuries, had always gone on pilgrimage by foot even when vehicles were available. To say your prayers with the feet had been one of the precepts that had been ingrained in the psyche of these simple peasant folk world-wide. During the earthquake at Assisi, in Italy, at the end of the last century, the favourite stomping ground of St. Francis, the hardy peasants of the region believed that it was a retribution for their not observing the festival in honour of the saint by offering bread that year.
In India also even at a time when there were no clearly demarcated borders the saints and holy men had traversed vast stretches and unearthed sacred spots and anointed priests and erected worship places. From the Adi Shankaracharya to Guru Nanak these avatars had blessed the country with the touch of their feet. These persons also were too sensitive to the places and the weather and used to take a break from their wanderings during the rainy season, the chaturmasya. There is also the other kind of wanderlust when they used to hit the trail during shravan, the beginning of the rainy season.
The recent visuals of the faithful hitting the road barefoot, the kanvariyas, young men carrying small vessels to fetch the Ganges water from Haridwar to offer at their temples in far-away small towns of Rajasthan and Haryana had become so popular that this had caused traffic jams on the highways and at the Har ki Pauri in Haridwar it created almost a stampede this year. The people walking barefoot were given grand receptions all along the way and at places they were showered with flowers from helicopters and their tired feet massaged by even high police officials. Such visuals were touching as well as intriguing.
Soon after this is the annual Amarnath yatra in South Kashmir that culminates on Raksha Bandhan that is the full moon night when the ice image of Shiva assumes its full size. The pilgrims who carry the Shiva maze, Chaddi Mubarak, from Jammu walk all the way through the snow- clad slopes of the mountain ranges to reach the cave. This arduous pilgrimage used to attract 21,000 pilgrims for a long time but now this has burgeoned over the years and last year two lakh faithful made the visit. It is not always that they trek along the mud track, but go in buses and use other modern modes of transport.
Then there is the Kailash Mansarovar yatra that comes in August and after the Chinese allowed Indian pilgrims access, after a long time, one of the first pilgrims was the Harvard trained economist Subramaniam Swamy who made the return trip by helicopter.
Right across the country these holy places, situated amidst exotic but inaccessible places, have become so popular all of a sudden. Vaisnodevi is one scenic spot that has now been made more accessible. Sabarimala in the south, where the pilgrims make the trip during the colder months after observing the 40-day austerities had also become so popular that there is a traffic jam on the narrow road to the shrine in the high ranges. In Ramana Maharshi’s Tiruvannamalai ashram that also was at one time a retreat for the truly spiritual seekers and visited by the enlightened like Arthur Osborne and Paul Brunton, there are traffic jams now and accumulation of garbage, all symptoms of modernity.
In the rain shadow Marathwada region of Maharashtra is the holy town of Pandharpur, where pilgrims carrying palanquins trek all the way from across the state to congregate during ashadh month,( June-July) on the full moon day, to venerate Vithoba, the presiding deity , a tradition that dates back by 800 years. These pilgrims march on foot from across the rugged Satara region , from holy places like Sant Dhyaneshwar’s birthplace Alandi and Sant Tukaram’s Dehu, taking 21 days, singing all the way. The Pandharpur pilgrimage has also been recognised as one of the world’s largest and oldest movement of people where they gather on a specific day and walk a distance of 250 miles. It has also got into the World Book of Records as one of the most visited places on a single day.
Then there are the char dhams, the pilgrimage to the four shrines in the Himalayan region, where the devout walk for days singing and dancing. There are the parikramas, the walk along the length of the sacred rivers, like the Narmada and Ganga and the stomping grounds of Gods, like Vindavan where the 54-mile playground of Krishna is trekked by groups of the young and old, singing and dancing all the way. There is also the panchakosi of Varanasi and Govardhan region, where the Braj devotees do the circumambulation adding adventure for good measure. Here the UP Tourism Department has provided helicopter facility for devotees during July. This aerial pilgrimage is a compressed one lasting 10 minutes.
Not only pilgrims, even lawmakers and academics used to walk to their places of work, often miles, though some like the economist Tendulkar and historian Irfan Habib used to cycle to work. At one time the Oxford-educated Inderjit Gupta used to walk from his Western Court residence to Parliament, a little over 1 km distance, both ways, as did the dapper Ashok Mehta from his North Avenue quarters to Parliament though HV Kamath used the cycle rickshaw and arrive in style at Parliament House.
Gandhiji’s favourite author Thoreau waxes eloquent about walking and had mentioned that he had travelled many places around the world in his Walden Pond. ‘I walk into a nature such as the old prophets and poets, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. You may name it America but it is of America; neither Americus Vespucious, nor Columbus, nor the rest were discoverers of it. At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property, the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when will not be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only - when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the road.’
The weather and many traps also put a spanner in the works as sometimes happen when inclement weather or political trouble or Article 370 sometimes does. The Amarnath yatra this time had to be curtailed because of the change in the status of the state itself and though Kailash yatra’s fate hangs in the balance even if the Chinese had started the process of issuing the necessary travel documents.
Now things have changed and the kavariyas no longer go barefoot but travel on Harvey Davison motorcycles and helicopters are available for a quick darshan of the Vaishnodevi deity and there are package pilgrim tours to places like Assisi and Mansarovar. As far as the Russian peasant is concerned he need not travel the whole of Russia now to find the right way to recite the Lord’s prayer, he just has to Google and get it in an instant.
This aerial pilgrimage is a compressed one lasting 10 minutes. A new trend that has caught the fancy of the faithful in Kerala is the 'four temple circuit' where shrines of the four brother Gods are visited the same day. Tour operators, guides for the un-initiated, resting places for the travel weary are all included in this crash package.