The book outlines the origin and development of the practice of pilgrimage in India between AD 300 and 1200 and draws extensively on epigraphic and literary data particularly the Puranic corpus to delineate the growing popularity of the ritual, spatially and chronologically.
Viewing religion as part of the social process, it seeks to explore linkages between new religious trends and changes taking place in the material conditions of life. Although there are a few references to pilgrimage centres in inscriptions of the early second century, the number of these destinations rapidly multiplied from the fourth-fifth centuries, coinciding meaningfully with widespread decay and desertion of urban places.
In an age of political disintegration and social insularity religious congregations served as the nucleus of cultural bonding. Alongside of decaying towns cult-sites, relating to forests, hill tracts, deserts, river banks, sea-coasts, crossroads all surfaced as pilgrimage centres of some sort, with an attendant increase in the number of myths and legends sanctifying these places with the emergence of temple as the focal point of social processes, even large villages and marginal political centres also emerged as places of pilgrimage.
A trust area of the ritual was the changing nature of the gift-exchange system. Gifts, largely agricultural goods and inputs during the Gupta and post-Gupta times were necessary if one wished to acquire religious merit and drive away the impurities of deeds and thoughts entailing loss of social status. Charities, performed at the sacred places, were considered all the more beneficial.
The idea, that religious merit ensured a comfortable afterlife and that dying in places sanctified by gods and god-men brought instant religious merit, encouraged the practice of committing self-immolation at the holiest of pilgrimage centres.
Samarendra Narayan Arya, teaches History at the Magadh University. He has had a brilliant academic career. A gold medallist in M.A. (History and Sanskrit) from the Patna University, he obtained his Ph.D. degree from the same university in 1997. He has published several research articles in different academic journals including Proceedings of the Indian History Congress.
Pilgrimage study is one of the new themes, which has found
increasing favour with scholars and researchers during last three
decades. Scholarly interest in the subject appears to have grown
significantly, although not much serious work has in evidence till the
late eighties and early nineties. During these years, a series of national
and international seminars were organized in different parts of India. In
certain university centres pilgrimage study societies were also formed
by dedicated bands of scholars.
The present study tries to collect and analyse a mass of information
so far unutilized. The two chief sources of this information are the corpus
of inscriptions and the vast body of Puranic literature, both spanning
the whole of the first millennium and the early part of second millennium.
It surveys the archaeological information to consolidate the idea that
the practice of pilgrimage marked a sharp upturned in the wake of urban
decay in India and that many of the decaying towns were being
proclaimed as the holiest of pilgrim's destinations. The work also under-
lines the rise of a large number of rural pilgrimage sites in the peninsular region during the post-urban decay phase.
Despite my best endeavour, the subject is yet far from exhausted and
that considerable work remains to be done in terms of cultural and
historical significance of the ritual. Pilgrim's destinations have been great
meeting places for people drawn from every nook and corner of the country and even outside it, facilitating continuous exchange of ideas and
awareness of unfamiliar reasons, peoples, languages and life-styles. It
would also be interesting to learn about the reactions and responses of
other religious communities, not observing the practice. The accounts of
Muslim chroniclers and Jaina literary compositions can be useful sources
from this angle. The assimilation of aboriginal cult-sites into the network
of the pilgrimage centres could not also have been a one way traffic. But
to ascertain the other side of the picture one may have to go for in-depth
studies of aboriginal folklores, folk songs and folk art.
The inclusion of six maps, one showing location of main pilgrimage centres and the other five distributing them gradually into five important zones of India, northern eastern, western, central and southern and two exhaustive charts, one detailing the pilgrimage centres mentioned in inscriptions and the other manifesting historical evolution of different pilgrimage centres on the basis of various sources can be described as strong documentary support to the study.
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