Pilgrimage to Puri (Part II): Hunter's Description from the 19th century



Pilgrimage in the 19th century

With all these layers of spiritual significance, Puri has always been a great magnet to the people of India, who left their homes at great personal sacrifice, often spending their entire life’s savings just for the chance to see Lord Jagannath and bathe in the ocean tirtha. The Chaitanya Charitamrita describes the annual pilgrimages made by Mahaprabhu’s followers, who would walk the 500 kilometers from Bengal. Mahaprabhu’s dear associate Shivananda Sena would supervise the trip, taking care of travel arrangements, accommodations, border crossings, river crossings, and tolls for the several hundred pilgrims who would go to see Mahaprabhu every year during the Rathayatra. These times were often troubled and Shivananda had to make full use of his extensive diplomatic skills to negotiate through the various difficulties.

W. W. Hunter, writing at the time Bhaktivinoda Thakur was assistant magistrate in Puri, describes the armies of pilgrims that came each year to Puri. His eyewitness account, which evokes both the color and the hardship of the pilgrimage to Puri, is eye-opening to us from our vantage point nearly 150 years later:
Day and night throughout every month of the year, troops of devotees arrive at Puri, and for three hundred miles along the great Orissa road every village has its pilgrim encampment. The parties consist of from twenty to three hundred persons. At the time of the great festivals these bands follow so close as to touch each other; and a continuous train of pilgrims, many miles long, may often be seen on the Puri high road.

They march in orderly procession, each party under its spiritual leader. At least five-sixths, and often nine-tenths of them, are females. Now a straggling band of slender, diminutive women, clothed in white muslin, and limping sadly along, announces a pilgrim company from Lower Bengal; then a joyous retinue with flowing garments of bright red or blue, trudging stoutly forward, their noses pierced with elaborate rings, their faces freely tattooed, and their hands encumbered with bundles of very dirty cloth, proclaims the stalwart female peasantry of Northern Hindustan. Ninety-five out of a hundred are on foot.

Mixed with the throng are devotees of various sorts, some covered with ashes, some almost naked, some with matted, yellow-stained hair, and almost all with their foreheads streaked with red or white, a string of beads round their necks, and a stout staff in their hands.

Every now and then, covered wagons drawn by the high-humped bullocks of upper India, or by the smaller breed of Bengal, according to the nationality of the owner, creak past on their wooden wheels. Those from the Northern Provinces still bear traces of the licentious Mussalman rule by being jealously shut up. The Bengali husband, on the other hand, keeps his women good-tempered and renders pilgrimage pleasant by piercing holes in the wagon-hood, through which dark female eyes constantly peep out.

Then a lady in colored trousers, from some village near Delhi, ambles past on a tiny pony, her husband submissively walking by her side, and a female domestic, with a hamper of Ganges water and a bundle of dirty cloth, bringing up the rear.

Next a great train of palankeens, carrying a Calcutta banker and his ladies, sweeps past. I met one consisting of forty palankeens, with 320 bearers and about fifty luggage-carriers, whose continuous chant made itself heard far off in the silent night.

But the greatest spectacle is a north country Raja with his caravan of elephants, camels, led horses, and swordsmen, looking resigned and very helpless in his sedan of state, followed by all the indescribable confusion, dirt, and noises of Indian royalty. (Hunter's Orissa)
Even in the days before the railway (which only connected Calcutta to Puri in 1901), thousands of pilgrims annually made their way to Jagannath Puri. The Rathayatra regularly attracted the largest crowd, with as many as 100,000 people assisting at the great festival in a normal year. The incredible hardship that these pilgrims faced in making the a trip of five hundred to a thousand kilometers on foot stands as a testimony to the intensity of their devotion and the repute and glory of Jagannath Puri.

It was not an easy trip by any standard. During their stay in Puri pilgrims would be badly lodged in overcrowded and unsanitary housing. The temple held a monopoly on providing food, and pilgrims were forbidden to cook for themselves. Despite the glories of Maha Prasad being edible even when old or rotten, over-consumption of prasad in such a state caused problems to travelers whose health was often weak due to the long journey.

In those days, drainage and sanitation in the town were poor. In the heat and humidity that characterized Puri weather during the season of the Rathayatra, the oven-like heat of the overcrowded small rooms combined with improper sanitation made Puri a breeding place for cholera. Epidemics of the disease were a regular occurrence, causing up to 10,000 pilgrim deaths a year. In some years, the picture was one of incredible desolation. One writer described the city in the epidemic year 1841:
Corpse-fields lay around the town, in one of which, the traveler counted between forty and fifty bodies besides many skeletons which had been picked by vultures. The birds were sitting in numbers on the neighboring sand-hills and trees, holding carnivorous festivity on the dead; and the wild dogs lounged about full of the flesh of man.
In the rains, the return journey was even more difficult than the first part of the pilgrimage. The legendary rapacity of the Puri priests and lodging-house keepers often left the pilgrims at the end of their resources. Traveling conditions during the rainy season were notoriously bad in eastern India before the introduction of asphalted roads. There was no way of crossing the swollen rivers other than at the whims of greedy ferrymen who held the travelers hostage. Floods would turn the entire Mahanadi delta into a malarious swamp. The inadequacy of shelter on the road made travelers facile prey for disease, whether cholera or malaria.

Hundreds died on the roadside from sheer exhaustion. Overcrowding along the way created artificial famines in small village that could not provide for the surging crowds passing through. As if all this were not enough, conditions were made even more dangerous by roadside criminals who preyed on the weakened travelers by kidnapping women pilgrims to sell into prostitution or into Muslim zenanas.

During the 19th century, British government took many steps to improve the situation -- the construction of better roads and the railway had an immense effect on easing the difficulties of the journey. Besides the improved ease of traveling, medical science, pilgrim hospitals and sanitation have all made the tragedies of the past a distant memory. Since Independence, the Orissan and Indian governments have taken great steps to improve conditions for pilgrims at the modern Rathayatra festival, which may now attract as many as 800,000 visitors from all over the world.

Criticisms of Tirtha Yatra

In view of all the troubles that people went to on pilgrimage journeys, it is not surprising that many spiritual leaders called the institution itself into question. In the 15th and 16th centuries, in particular, the Sants leveled a spirited critique of formal religion and corrupt priesthood in both Hinduism and Islam, which extended to houses of worship and pilgrimage.

The argument they gave was the following: If the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is to see God everywhere, in everything, is it not misleading for us to pinpoint any one place as being especially sacred? Guru Nanak criticized both Hindus and Muslims for showing special veneration for particular places, whether Mecca or Benares, as holy. He asked, “If God is everywhere, then why venerate an idol? Indeed, by placing limits on God in this way, do we not become blind to the universal presence of God?”

Narottam Das Thakur, the influential second-generation follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, expressed a similar sentiment with great force in his Prema-bhakti-candrikā:

tīrtha-yātrā pariśrama kevala maner bhrama
sarva-siddhi govinda caraṇa
Making great efforts to visit the holy places is nothing but illusion. All perfection can be found at Lord Krishna’s lotus feet.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur expands on the idea in his Kalyāṇa-kalpa-taru:
mon ! tumi tīrthe sadā rata |
ayodhyā mathurā māyā kāśī kāñcī avantiyā
dvāravatī āra āche jata ||1||

O mind! You are so attached to making pilgrimages,
and so you visit Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Benares, Kanchi, Avanti,
Dwaraka, and so many other holy places.


tumi cāha bhramibāre e sakala bāre bāre
mukti lābha karibāra tare |
se kevala tava bhrama nirarthaka pariśrama
citta sthira tīrthe nāhi kare ||2||
Really you just want to travel around, visiting these places again and again,
hoping to attain liberation in the end.
All this is an error on your part and a lot of wasted effort.
The steady mind does not go on pilgrimage.
tīrtha phala sādhu-saṅga sādhu-saṅge antaraṅga
śrī-kṛṣṇa-bhajana manohara
jathā sādhu tathā tīrtha sthira kari nija citta
sādhu-saṅga kara ataḥ para ||3||
The real fruit of pilgrimage is the company of saints. In such intimate association,
the worship of the Lord is very pleasing.
Where saints are present, that is a holy place. Fix your mind on this
and henceforth keep the company of saints.
je tīrthete vaiṣṇava nāi se tīrthete nāhi yāi
ki lābha hāṅṭiyā dūra deśa |
yathāya vaiṣṇava gaṇa sei sthāna vṛndāvana
sei sthāne ānanda aśeṣa ||4||
I never go to a tirtha where there are no Vaishnavas,
What use is there in walking to such distant lands?
The place where Vaishnavas gather is Vrindavan,
and that is a place of unlimited joy.

śuddha bhakta jei sthāne mukti dāsī sei khāne
salila tathāya mandākinī
giri tatra govardhana bhūmi tathā vṛndāvana
āvirbhūta āpani hlādinī ||5||
In places where pure devotees gather, liberation attends like a maidservant.
The water there is the Ganges,
the hills are Govardhan, the earth is Vrindavan,
and the Lord’s pleasure potency is spontaneously manifest.
vinoda kahiche bhāi bhramiyā ki phala pāi
vaiṣṇava sevana mora vrata ||6||

Bhaktivinoda Thakur says, “Brother! I gain nothing from wandering around.
My vow to serve the Vaishnavas.” (Kalyāṇa-kalpa-taru, Upadeśa 14)
The point is a valid one: it has been made in the Bhagavatam and should be held in mind by every pilgrim. A pilgrim is not a tourist who simply comes to swim in the sea, gawk at some exotic buildings and buy a few souvenirs. He comes precisely because he recognizes that he is incapable of seeing God everywhere and needs to inundate his mind with aids to remembering Him.

The Vaishnava approach is to see God in His concentrated form – as present in the Holy Dham and His deity form -- and through such absorption, to come to see Him everywhere. The holy land is a place where the spiritual energy is concentrated. Most importantly, it is a place where the company of spiritually advanced people can easily be found. The holy land thus acts like a strong medicine, giving pilgrims a concentrated dose of the sacred that they can then carry with them back into their own everyday lives. A pilgrim does not simply make a physical journey, but an internal one. This was no doubt especially true when he or she had to walk for weeks in order to get to the destination, something that with our rapid modes of transport today has to a great extent been lost.

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