Panchakroshi Yatra, Cosmic Circuit of Varanasi, Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

Panchakroshi Yatra, Cosmic Circuit of Varanasi, Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana


“While public efforts have historically failed to improve the Panchakroshi Yatra pilgrimage route, there has also been at least one attempt to fix the infrastructure of the pilgrimage route through private efforts. Over the course of many decades many of the wealthy citizens of Varanasi, as well as wealthy persons who had performed the Panchakroshi Yatra, have realised that the pilgrimage route was badly in need of repairs, particularly the pilgrim rest-houses (dharmashalas).,” says Rana P.B. Singh  and Pravin S. Rana on Panchakroshi Yatra, the Cosmic (Pilgrimage) Circuit of Varanasi: Evaluating the World Heritage

Ramesh dharamshala-min

Ramesh dharamshala-min
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Rameshvara, the 3rd Night halt in Panchakroshi Yatra; a religious trust appeal through a wall-poster to conserve and preserve this religious heritage
photographs: Pravin Rana

In an abbreviated form Panchakroshi route (Varanasi, India) symbolises the cosmic circuit which centre is at Madhyameshvara and radial point is at Delhi Vinayaka, covering a distance of 88.5 km route. During the recent Panchakroshi Yatra in the Hindu month of Jyeshtha ‘Malamasa’ (16 May to 13 June 2018), in total 74,000 devout Hindus (pilgrims and pilgrimage-tourists) performed this pilgrimage. Nearness of distance, faith and mental setup, and cultural backgrounds, are some of the important factors controlling the overall characteristics. Under the recent Central Government’s missions of Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), and Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD), in the present Master Plan (2011-2031), issues of religious heritage preservation, environmental sensitivity and sustainability are given emphasis. However, their implementations are slow, mostly due to lack of public participation and complex political process.   


“When did pilgrimage begin? Probably when people became people and thus began to think, to remember, to want a deeper experience of perceived reality” (Clift and Clift, 1996: 22).

According to the Mahabharata (13.111.18), a 5th Century BCE Sanskrit epic, pilgrimage places are auspicious because of the extraordinary power of their earth, the efficacy of their water, and because they were frequented by the ancient sages (cf. Bhardwaj, 1973: 29-42). Such characteristics regarding sacred space are still invoked by contemporary Hindus. By journeying to these places via a sacred route, pilgrims obtain its “fruit” (phala), which transforms their life, give inner satisfaction, and also leads to purification and peace.

By the combined process of sacralisation, ritualisation, and deeper inter-connectedness, places become sacredscapes (puranas), where sacred ecology and sacred human-defined space interacts to form a bond between “cosmic and earthly forces” (Zoeteman, 1991: 259; cf. Singh, 1995: 97, 2009: 239-243). Here, the relationships between devotees and sacred landscapes are expressed simultaneously in terms of myths, folk history, cultural traditions, rituals, kinship, and even politics. Additionally, pilgrimages, their linked routes, and their sacred sites are considered a resource and a means for sustainable development and pilgrimage-tourism as well as leading to the development of strong relationships between the human psyche and the inherent divine forces in the earth. Pilgrimage, therefore, is a guiding force that can lead to the unifying of divinity and humanity (i.e., the search for wholeness). Ultimately, the wholeness of landscapes and their sacred and symbolic geography creates a faithscape that encompasses sacred place, sacred time, sacred meanings, and sacred rituals, and embodies both symbolic and tangible psyche elements in an attempt to realise humanity’s place in the cosmos (Singh, 1998: 56, Singh, 2013: 8).

Through the centuries, Hindu devotees have engaged in pilgrimage travel to find what is timeless and eternal in an attempt to renew themselves physically and spiritually. As well, pilgrims also share a bond with those pilgrims who have walked the pilgrim’s path in the past through replicating their sacred journey (Bielo, 2016). As such, pilgrimage in Hindu religious tradition is a process of gaining access to the “way”, or going from a mundane state to a state of transcendence through engagement with the spirit of sacred places and pathway pilgrims engage with the “spirit of place”, where faith is increased, regulated, constantly revived rituals performed along the way and at sacred destinations (cf. Singh 2009c: 76).

The case study city for this essay, Varanasi (also known as Kashi, and Banaras), is the holiest city in India – 54 different pilgrimage routes find their way to this city, and numerous pilgrimages to Varanasi are practiced today, in part because the city is located along the Ganga (Ganges in anglicized form) River. The city of Varanasi serves as the headquarters for the Varanasi District and what is referred to as the Varanasi Urban Agglomeration, which covers an area of 112.26 and consisting of 7 urban sub-units. The population of the Agglomeration was 1.435 million in 2011 (Census). The religious composition of the city is predominantly Hindus (63%), a large Muslim community (32%), and other religious groups. Additionally, about 40,000 commuters and devout Hindus visit the city daily, and these increases to 60,000 during festive seasons (cf. Singh, 2016: 424). Within the city’s boundaries there are approximately 3,300 Hindu sanctuaries, 1,388 Muslim shrines and mosques (more than in any city in the world), 42 Sikh shrines, 10 Buddhist temples, and 7 Jain temples.

We have elsewhere discussed mythology, spatiality and empirical and participatory experiences related to pilgrimage to Varanasi (Singh, 1991, 1998, 2002 2009b; Singh and Rana, 2016 and 2018), the purpose of this essay is to examine the Panchakroshi Yatra (yatra, i.e. procession or pilgrimage) circuit of Varanasi with a particular focus on the historical development of the route, how the route has helped with local development and cultural identity, and political and religious issues that have arisen in recent times along the route.

The Multiple Territorial Layers and the Routes around Varanasi

Varanasi is first and foremost a sacred city. Its design is such that its signs, symbols, and invisible meanings correlate with a sacred geometry and territorial organisation that reflects the city’s cosmological significance. Varanasi can be considered a “cosmocised sacred city”, in that the city acts as the centre of various cosmic axes that together represent the universe (Singh, 1994). More specifically, the centre of this sacred geometry is the Shiva temple of Madhyameshvara, the “Lord of the Centre”, on the north bank of the Mandakini Tirtha (Eck, 1982: 42), which, in Hindu cosmology, is surrounded by a mythic territory or sacred field (khestra) referred to as the Kashi Mandala (“mandala”, i.e. “circle”) (cf. Singh and Rana, 2002: 161-162).

Fig. 1. Kashi Mandala, showing three outer pilgrimage circuits delineated by routes. Source: Singh, Rana P.B., 1987, op. cit., p. 155, © the authors; reprinted with permission

As seen in Figure 1, concentric circles spread outward from the Shiva temple, each circle representing various levels of the cosmos (Singh, 1987: 151-157, Singh and Rana, 2016: 5). The largest concentric circle at the edge of the sacred field, referred to as the Brihata Panchakroshi, represents the outer limit of the universe (mandala). Within this outer limit are five yatras, which corresponds to the number five and is associated with the god Shiva, who is the patron deity of Varanasi (Singh and Rana, 2016: 5). The Chaurashikroshi Yatra used to follow this outer circle for pilgrims that wished to circumambulate the sacred territory. However, during the past few centuries, the popularity of this circuit has declined, and those pilgrimage that want to participate in a slightly shorter pilgrimage route follow the present-day path of Panchakroshi Yatra (i.e., laghu, or “the shorter one”). At smaller scales, there are other pilgrimage paths that circumambulate the city of Varanasi proper, although not concentric circles, including the Nagar PradakshinaYatra, which travels around the outer part of the city, the Avimukta Yatra, travels around the inner city of Varanasi, where Lord Shiva is said to be always present, and the Antargriha Yatra, which circles the core or the “inner sanctum” of Varanasi. Each yatra has a number of shrines or sites that people visit as a part of their pilgrimage, and never cross paths with each other (Singh, 1994).

As noted in Table 1, these five yatras are correlated in Hindu cosmology at the mesocosm level (the terrestrial world) with various elements at the macrocosmic (the celestial world) and microcosmic (the phenomenal world/realm of consciousness) levels or cosmic manifestations. At the macrocosmic level, each sacred route is represented by one of the five elements in Hindu cosmology, which also relate to the five human senses (e.g., sky/hear, earth/smell, air/feel, water/taste, fire/see), and at the microcosmic level with five aspects of the human body. As well, these pilgrimage route are also correlated with five types of transcendental power and the five koshasor ‘sheaths’ (see Table 1). According to Hindu mythology, the correlations between the different these koshas are an archetypal manifestation of the interconnectedness between the divine and the human realms, which can be perceived and expressed as the true form of natural existence (cf. Eck, 1982: 30, also Eck, 1986).

Download PDF of Table 1. Kashi (Varanasi) – Five Layers of Sacred Territories in Varanasi (compare Fig. 2).

These five sacred journey routes are identified by the respective boundaries in a series and never crossing one another, and are connoted as the five koshas, the ‘sheaths’. That is how kosha as are analogous to the five gross elements of organism according to Hindu mythology and also “with human being where the outermost (annamaya/food-made) kosha being the material body and the innermost (anadamaya/bliss-made) kosha being the subtle body” (Eck, 1986: 46). By this archetypal manifestation the interconnectedness between the divine and the human realms can be perceived and expressed into the true form of natural existence (cf. Eck, 1982: 30). The five sacred territories are further explained as the symbol of “gross elements” (mahabhatas) and compared with the corresponding body symbols, transcendental power and the sheaths (Fig. 2; Table 1).

Like the human body the Kashi Mandala is the Brahmanda (the cosmos) who illumines the world and dwells inside the citadel of the above mentioned five koshas, the world within. This way the pilgrimage journey completes the macrocosmic journey in the form of microcosmos. This reflects that “man tries to integrate multifaceted nature in terms of the intuitively known unity of his body. This perception of and analogy between human anatomy and the physiognomy of the earth is widespread” (Tuan, 1997: 89). Thus, “the cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany” (Eliade, 1959: 12). The revelation of hierophany gets initiated and finally completed at a fixed centre, i.e. Jnanavapi (“Well of the Wisdom”), the source of the primordial water from where life begins. In terms of area and time the coverage from higher to lower territories descends, however the intensity of the power of revelation follows the reverse tendency. This dialectics of shrinking universe and expanding force reflect the idea of creation and existence from the opposite forces. This is being operated by the drama of divine forces (mayaor lila) which while developing in complexity, converges into simplicity and resulting to an order. This metaphor is comparable to Shiva’s dance symbolising cosmic cycle of creation and destruction as the basis of all existence (cf. Capra, 1991: 242).


Fig. 2. Geomantic Map of Kashi Mandala, © the authors.

For each of these pilgrimages, pilgrims travel to the Vishveshvara (Shiva) temple and visit the Jnanavapi, a sacred well that was supposedly dug by Lord Shiva himself, which well serves as the ‘centre’ or axis mundi of Varanasi. Pilgrims engage in an initiation ritual by “taking the vow” (sankalpa lena), and once they have completed their pilgrimage circuit they perform the ritual of “getting release from the vow” (sankalpa chhodana). The symbolic behaviour of expansion (journey) and merger (returning), and the rituals performed at the sites or shrines along the pilgrimage path (the process of doing) completes a sacramental cycle, where one begins the cherishing transformation of life. This sacred centre where pilgrimages begin and end is the symbol of coincidential oppositorium, expressed by the zero, or a dot’, on pilgrimage route maps, and further denotes an unlimited entity, or the productive point of potentiality. In a more philosophical context, “this central point shows a mediation on the paradox of the maximum potential contained within an irreducible minimum” (Lannoy, 1971: 344).

The Panchakroshi Pilgrimage

The path of the Panchakroshi Yatra runs through holy territory (kshetra) that represents sacred macrocosmosspace; between the culturally conceived outer edge of the universe (i.e., Chaurashikroshi) and the microcosmic world, or the area surrounding the Vishveshvara temple. Based on ecological concepts, the Panchakroshi Kshetra can be likened to a developed kingdom, allowing the fulfilment of Hinduism’s potentials for ordering a community, to be called as “climax communities” as suggested by Levy (1990: 28). As noted on Figure 1, the radial point of the cosmic territory is the shrine of Dehli Vinayaka with the distance between the centre and the radial point being 5 krosha (i.e., 11 miles or 17.6 km; see Singh, 1987: 155).

According to prescribed and conventionally accepted rules, pilgrims that participate in the Panchakroshi Yatra are to complete the pilgrimage over a period of six-days, staying overnight at five “halt stations” where there are 44 dharmashalas (or pilgrims’ rest houses) for pilgrims to choose from. Of the total 108 shrines and images attached to this route, 56 are associated with Shiva, 11 with Vinayakas (Ganesha), and 10 with the Shiva’s assistants (see Figure 3, compare Table 2). By the turn of the 16th century, the Panchakroshi Yatra grew in popularity, and a good number of legend books are written. For example, a Marathi treatise, titled the Guru Charitra (41.265-315), dated 1538 CE, describes in detail the various elements of this pilgrimage. Later, the famous devotional-poet Tulasi (1497-1623 CE) eulogised this pilgrimage route and the attached divine images (cf. Singh, 2004: 118).

Fig. 3. Varanasi: Panchakroshi Yatra Circuit linking 108 sacred sites. Source: Singh, Rana P.B., 1987, op. cit., p. 156, © the author; reprinted with permission.


Download PDF of Table 2. Varanasi- Panchakroshi Yatra Circuit (108 Sacred Places)

According to Hindu tradition, in addition to travelling to sacred sites which gives special merit, or power that accumulates through good deeds and acts, to pilgrims (Singh and Haigh, 2015), each month of the calendar contains various religious activities that help pilgrims gain merit. However, the activities done in some months give pilgrims more merit, such as during Ashvina, the seventh month in the luni-solar Hindu calendar (September-October), Karttika, the eighth month (October-November), and Margashirsha, the ninth month (November-December). Regarding the Panchakroshi Yatra, the most auspicious period for participating in this pilgrimage is the intercalary month of the leap year, referred to as the mala-masa; the “month of pollution”, or adhi-masa (the “extra month”). According to the Hindu lunar almanac, there will be 37 mala-masas between 1945 and 2047. However, pilgrims also perform the Panchakroshi Yatra in the cold season (Magha-Phalguna, January-March) and the spring (Chaitra-Vaishakha, March-May), every year. Every year there is also an abbreviated pilgrimage for one day on the day of Maha Shivaratri, or “the great night of Shiva” (i.e., Shiva’s marriage day), which falls on the 13th dark-half/waning of the month of Phalguna (February-March; the latest one was 8 March 2016, and in 2017 it would be on 25 February), and marks the completion of the lunar year.

As noted above, a total of 108 sacred sites and shrines can be found along the Panchakroshi Yatraroute (see Figure 3). The number 108 has a cosmogonic meaning related to the constellations (lunar mansions) and the rhythm of human cognition. This number therefore defines cardinality, centrality, and circulation. Further, this number refers to a product of 12 (the yearly cycle of time of months in a year) x 9 (the cosmic space denoting nine planets in Hindu mythology). Other cosmogonic parallels include the number 108 being the product of 27 constellations, 4 parts of the day, or the 4 directions; being a product of 36 crores (360 million) divine beings and 3 mythical realms [the heaven, earth, and underworlds]; and also being the product of the powers of the three basic integers, i.e. 11x 22x 33(see Singh, 1993a: 60-61; see also Singh, 2009b).

Download PDF of Table 3. Panchakroshi Yatra, P-Y, Varanasi- Frequency of Pilgrims, 1985-2018.

Another important part of the Panchakroshi Yatra is the Panchakroshi Temple (house No. CK 5/33 Gola Gali, Bhikharidas Lane, Chauk, Varanasi), which represents the cosmos in miniature form (microcosmos). This temple, built in early 18th century, houses over 100 images of the Panchakroshi path in addition to 189 other images associated with the different pilgrimage routes of Varanasi. These miniature-like stone niches (average size of about 30 x 45 cm) on the walls and at the front gate contain engraved form of names. Some of them are now ruined and poorly repaired with cement. Architect and pilgrimage scholar, Niels Gutschow (1994: 200) remarked that “as the initiated might perform the yatra within his own body[,] the Panchakroshi Mandir (temple) serves as tool: 272 [in fact 289] gods and goddesses, ghats, ponds and wells are visualised, worshipped and circumambulated in a single act of motion. The walls of the temple are transformed into a vast sacred scene.” This temple, like other temples, visualises “the cosmic force which creates innumerable forms, and these are one whole, and without the least of them the universal harmony would lack completeness” (Kramrisch, 1946: 67). Unfortunately, this temple is not frequented by foot-pilgrims of the Panchakroshi Yatra, but is well-visited by pilgrimage-tourists and devotees from the local neighbourhood, who, due to the housing of images that are also found on the Panchakroshi Yatra circuit, feel that by circling the temple they will gain the same merit as having performed Panchakroshi Yatra.

There have been a number of studies examining the socio-cultural characteristics of pilgrims that participate in the Panchakroshi Yatra. According to one study conducted in 1996 during the sacred Hindu month of Ashadha (June-July) (i.e., the mala-masa) (Singh, 1998: 78-87; see also Rana and Singh, 2003, and Rana, 2014: 93-94), 48,200 foot-pilgrims and pilgrimage-tourists performed the Panchakroshi Yatra. Of these 48,200 pilgrims, most of the pilgrims were female (66.2%), which supports in part the perception that Hindu women are “more religious” than their male counterparts (see Sopher, 1968). A little over half of the foot-pilgrims travelled in groups between 4-10 people, while three-fourths of pilgrimage-tourists travelled in smaller groups (i.e., between 2-3 people). The study also showed that about half of the foot-pilgrims lived in the Varanasi district, were between 40-60 years of age, and had achieved educational levels ranging from the 5th to the 12th grades. As well, the Brahmins and Merchant castes constituted a little over half of the pilgrim total.

In a follow-up study, Singh (2002, 2009a) explored the cultural geography of Varanasi’s Panchakroshi Yatra during AshvinaMala-masa (18 September-16 October 2001). Surveying a sample of 432 from its 52,310 pilgrims, Singh (2009a) found that most of them travelled as small, typically family, groups (between 3-6 persons). Also, like the 1996 study, a majority of the participants were female (66%). While most of the pilgrims came from the local area, there were a number of pilgrims who had travelled from the Bengal region of India, as well as a number of areas outside of India, to participate in the Panchakroshi Yatra(Singh, 2009a). Over half of the pilgrim-tourists were middle-aged (between 40 to 60 years of age), and 20 per cent of the pilgrims came from the lower classes, including the peasantry and menial servants. The overall educational level of the pilgrims low, with 57% of the local pilgrims claiming to have an education between primary school and graduation (Grades 5-10), as compared to 70 per cent of the pilgrim-tourists from further afield. There were large numbers of pilgrims from the Brahmin caste, in part because undertaking rituals such as the Panchakroshi Yatrahelps reinforce their professional image and religious status. Together, the Brahmin and Merchant castes shared a little over half of the total (Singh, 2009a)Similar results are found in a survey of 500 pilgrims to the Shaivite Jageshwar shrines of Kumaun (Agrawal, 2010), which was also dominated by Brahmin participation and by married people. Agrawal (2010) also found that rural respondents and those from lower income groups were more inclined to be religious than pilgrims from wealthy, urban areas.

The authors of this essay recently did a survey of Panchakroshi Yatra, which was done during the year of intercalary Hindu month of Ashadha Mala-masa (17 June to 16 July 2015), where 68,802 Hindus (pilgrims 45.8%, and pilgrimage-tourists 54.2%; see Table 3) participated. For this study 497 pilgrims (239 Foot-pilgrims, and 258 Pilgrimage-tourists) were surveyed, and, not surprisingly, found very similar findings as the earlier studies had found (e.g., Singh, 1998, 2002, 2009a, 2012). These studies show that there has been no noticeable cultural change regarding the Panchakroshi pilgrimage outside of its socio-structural aspects undergoing some changes over time. As well, there seems to be an increasing tendency for pilgrims to use vehicles and other modes of transportation while performing the pilgrimage. However, most pilgrims prefer to walk with their luggage and supplies for rituals and daily use being carried by car (see Singh and Rana, 2016: 9). It is noted that in the recent most Panchakroshi Yatra (16 May- 13 June 2018), politicians and even monastic ascetics performed this journey for their own benefit, especially using this as a means for emotional support from the religiously minded people. [This is discussed in the sequence in the later part].  

Local Development and Identity

The route of the Panchakroshi Yatra has long been in need of updates in terms of the quality of its pathways, electricity and general maintenance at the night pilgrim rest-houses, more infrastructure along the route for pilgrims’ needs, and the improvement of the ghats (stairways to the riverbank) along the Ganga (Ganges) River and the Panchakroshi Yatra pathway. Historically there have been a number of attempts made to fix this pilgrimage route. For example, the history of preservation and renovation of ghats goes back to the early 1930s, when a religious trust, Kashi Tirtha Sudhar Samiti (KTSS, founded in 1926), was formed to make improvements to the eroding ghats. The KTSS, supported by the Viceroy and Governor-General of India at that time, Lord Baron Irwin, came up with a development plan with a starting fund of then INR 50,000 (approximately the same amount in US$), and covered a stretch of riverfront that included 33 sites of the Panchakroshi Yatra. The KTSS prepared a document (1931) that detailed the history and conditions of each of the ghats that needed to be fixed and a detailed improvement plan with an estimated cost of INR 3 million (again, approximately the same cost in US$). However, there was not enough money to go through with the plan, and the development project was never fully implemented. While there was a revival of the KTSS in 2013, where the trust began to engage in collaborative efforts with different local and regional organisations to improve the ghats, including those related to the Panchakroshi Yatra, as of the writing of this essay no real work has been done on the ghats outside of some much needed cleaning.

In an effort to institutionalise the planning and development activities in and around Varanasi, the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) was created in 1974. The VDA revised and modified the city’s Master Plan, which plan would in part affect the route of the Panchakroshi Yatra. However, nothing in the new Master Plan was implemented. In 1982 the VDA again assessed and changed, and, with assistance of Town & County Planning Organization (TCPO) of the Government of India, developed a document called the Master Plan of Varanasi—1991-2011. However, this plan contained very little in terms of developing and improving the Panchakroshi Yatra route (cf. Singh and Rana 2018: 174).

In 1986, a detailed survey and draft-proposal was made under the auspices of the ‘Reformation Committee for a Development Plan for the Panchakroshi Yatra Circuit’, consisting of the then District Magistrate R.S. Tolia, the Commissioner D.S. Bagga, and a local Varanasi activist, the late Dr. Bhanu Shankar Mehta (cf. Table 4). However, during the development of this plan the District Magistrate and the Commissioner were transferred, and the plan never materialised. However, as a part of this development plan the following items were noted as needing improvement along the Panchakroshi Yatra route:

  • Improvement of roads and pathways;
  • Maintenance and repairing of dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest-houses);
  • Supply of drinking water, especially during the pilgrimage seasons, through installing hand pumps;
  • Electrification of night-halting stations, covering the surroundings;
  • Repairing and cleaning of sacred ponds for bathing and ritual purposes;
  • Plantation of road-side shady and sacred trees for shade and have better feeling of nature-attachment; and
  • Medical camps, ration shops, sanitation facilities, etc. during the pilgrimages.

The committee had also detailed the financial resources needed to complete all these improvements, which called for an estimated INR 6.376 million (US$ 491,000); and this number did not include the costs for the medical camps, ration shops, and sanitation facilities needed during the peak season of pilgrimage (see Table 4)!

Download PDF of Table 4. Panchakroshi Yatra Region- Development Plan 1986, Cost in INR.

Fig. 4. Rameshvara, the 3rd Night halt in Panchakroshi Yatra; a religious trust appeal through a wall-poster to conserve and preserve this religious heritage (photo: Pravin Rana).

While public efforts have historically failed to improve the Panchakroshi Yatra pilgrimage route, there has also been at least one attempt to fix the infrastructure of the pilgrimage route through private efforts. Over the course of many decades many of the wealthy citizens of Varanasi, as well as wealthy persons who had performed the Panchakroshi Yatra, have realised that the pilgrimage route was badly in need of repairs, particularly the pilgrim rest-houses (dharmashalas). As such, a committee, the Shri Kashi Kshetra Panchakroshi Jirnoddhara Samiti (KPJS) (a religious trust founded in 1944) repaired a number of dharmashalas (numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9) in 1960 with the help of individual donations. After a gap of a number of years, more dharmashalas were repaired in 1996. Since 2000, however, thanks to sponsorship, the KPJS has started voluntary programmes surrounding the maintenance, conservation, and preservation of temples, pilgrims’ rest-houses, attached Sanskrit schools, water pools, and ritual item shops. To promote these programmes, the KPJS drew wall paintings and slogans at each night halt (e.g. at Rameshvara, see Figure 4) about their plans and programmes. However, like other such initiatives, the lack of a good plan, leadership, educational programmes, and the lack of participation from local residents has caused this programme to stall.

In the recent manifestation of the city of Varanasi’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP, 2015), there is a strong emphasis on inclusive development that will integrate local resources, religious and heritage properties, and the provision of basic amenities, especially during peak pilgrimage times, along the Panchakroshi pilgrimage route. The stalls and other shops along the route, where religious literature, naturalised ritual items, and medical kits will be available, will be maintained by the tourism department but run by local people.

One of the major religious trusts looking after the temple of Vishvanatha, the Kashi Vishvanatha Temple Trust, has, during recent meetings (March-April 2016), prepared a plan to fix up all 44 rest houses at the five night-halts along the Panchakroshi pilgrimage route (see Figure 3), through partnerships with the local community and sponsorship from the Department of Culture of the state government If this plan works out, the services available to pilgrims will be improved and the local economy will benefit. As well, a new Master Plan for the city of Varanasi (2011-2031) gives special attention to the Panchakroshi Yatra route because of the document’s focus on ‘pilgrimage tourism’ and ‘heritage development’. However, due to lack of public awareness and active participation, the complex web of bureaucracy and politics, and the rise of individualism and consumerism, there seems on the surface to be little hope that this plan will be implemented and the Panchakroshi Yatra route improved.

A minister in the UP Government, who was elected from Varanasi, Neelkanth Tiwari said that a fund Rs 970 million (equals to US$ 14.3 mill.) has been sanctioned for the widening of pilgrimage route and Rs 40 million (equals to US$ 0.59 mill.) for developing basic infrastructure and other facilities. The work will be started after the end of the current pilgrimage, i.e. by end of June 2018 (cf. TOI 31 May 2018: p. 4)

Environmental Sustainability

In addition to the efforts to improve the Panchakroshi Yatra route by local government officials and private groups, the national government of India have attempted to frame tourism and cultural development in a holistic manner, particularly in places that have ancient heritage properties and traditions of spirituality, sacrality, and pilgrimages. India’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture, and the Ministry of Urban Development, have recently conceptualised two innovative national programmes related to strengthen and promote heritage sites and important pilgrimage-tourism centres while focusing on environmental and cultural sustainability. These programmes include the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) and the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD). These programmes will initially focus on locations: Varanasi, Mathura, and Ajmer.

Cultural heritage sites in India are seen as the true representative of the divine order and an example of human faithfulness. While these sites are religious resources, they also have scientific, recreational, aesthetic, and economic value. Therefore, the HRIDAY programme has strong metaphorical meaning, as the core concern for this programme – ‘HRIDAY’ literally means ‘heart’—is the “inclusive-sustainable development of heritage and pilgrimage cities” in India. Under this programme, the Panchakroshi Yatra route is considered to be a role model, as the route is associated with six “value elements” related to cultural heritage (Singh 2015: 13):

  • Aesthetic value: the visual beauty of the temples and religious building, site, and so on;
  • Spiritual value: the significance of the asset in providing understanding or enlightenment or in representing the religious tradition;
  • Social value: the role of the site in forming cultural identity or a sense of connection with others, i.e. interfacing local and outsiders;
  • Historical value: connections with the past, and representation of continuity;
  • Symbolic value: objects or sites as repositories or conveyors of meaning and mythologies; and
  • Authenticity value: the uniqueness of visiting ‘the real thing’, by experience, exposition and visual appearance.

With a view to beautifying and improving the amenities and infrastructure at pilgrimage centres of all faiths, the PRASAD program (literally meaning ‘food offered to god’) was given a budgeted INR 11.7494 billion (US$ 199 million) by the Indian national government in their 2014-2015 budget. Under the PRASAD programme, all the old historical-cultural pilgrimage routes in India and their associated sites would be re-developed. The city of Varanasi has been allocated a major sum (in October 2015) under this programme (approximately INR 893 million or US$ 15.13 million), and one-fourth of this money will be used to fix up the Panchakroshi Yatra route. In addition, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has come out in support of both the PRASAD and the HRIDAY programmes, as they complement UNESCO’s view of heritage conservation and its uses for sustainable development.

Returning to the current Master Plan (2011-2031) for the city of Varanasi, there is a sub-plan, named Heritage Development Plan (HDP). Under this heading there are three main emphases or aspects:

(i)     Five halt stations (vasa sthana) on the Panchakroshi Yatra route (i.e., Kandwa, Bhimachandi, Rameshvar, Shiopur, and Kapildhara) are attached with a sizeable kund (water pool) and these are now facing critical environmental problems. The emphasis is laid upon the kunds, main temple complexes, dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest houses), preservation and restoration of historic buildings, pilgrimage paths, and maintenance of green space in view of keeping the serene and sacred scenes of the area alive and more eco-friendly for the mass of pilgrims.

(ii)    Construction of the Ring Road outside the city territory without encroaching the sacred territorial pilgrimage path of “Panchakroshi,” which developed in the medieval period and is still so frequently used by pilgrims, to get the old route the archetypal symbolism maintained.

(iii)   Developing an approach of eco-friendly ‘green’ and sustainable environment along the PY route; but unfortunately this is put only at the margin.

There are a number of problems with the HDP as outlined above. They include:

  • Lack of understanding of the historical-cultural processes that have shaped the religious and physical landscape and lifeways;
  • Lack of cooperation from local experts and people;
  • The heavy use of the top-down approach to heritage planning;
  • The use of theoretical rather than practical and applied models of heritage development;
  • The choice of redeveloping water pools (kunds) without understanding their cultural significance and symbolic values as perceived and practiced by local people;
  • Not considering the proposal on the line of urban planning acts and the earlier planned Master Plan (1991-2011);
  • Placing greater importance on (recreational) tourism and Western visitors (approximately 300,000 in 2015);
  • Neglecting the requirements of the huge mass of pilgrims (around 6 million in 2015); and
  • Not coordinating with other development plans and government agencies related to the transport system, sewerage drains, building construction, and cultural activities.

If these issues be sorted out to a certain degree, the proposed HDP would be beneficial, eco-friendly, and really help Varanasi be a sustainable heritage city, with the Panchakroshi Yatra serving as an example of the sustainable religious tourism planning (Singh, 2016: 435).

Other development plans have been recently announced that involve the Panchakroshi Yatra. For example, in 2014 a highly ambitious mega-exploratory project or “science-heritage initiative”, was launched by the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur (in West Bengal, India) with support from the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Indian government. Varanasi, and in particular the Panchakroshi Yatra route, was to be an important focus of this project. However, this project is still in the preparation phase, and the main development focus regarding the Panchakroshi Yatra route has been limited to the development and maintenance of roads (Sen, et al. 2014).

On 20 September 2016, Varanasi was added to the list of cities that will be a part of the Indian Government’s “Smart City Mission”. Each of the cities on this list (total 109) will receive Rs 5 billion (or US$ 756 million) for the period of five years, and with this money the cities are expected to improve existing and build new urban infrastructure, enhance the natural environment, preserve culture and history, and embrace new urban technology, with the hope that these things will lead to the “restoration and sustenance of culture, heritage and spirituality with enhanced quality of life”. The supporting resources and monetary allocation will be sorted out by a public-private-partnership (PPP). While the Panchakroshi Yatra route has been mentioned in different contexts throughout this plan, only time will tell if the route will be given budgetary and development or if it will again be placed at the developmental margin. 

In the recent most Panchakroshi Yatra (16 May – 13 June 2018), the newspaper (TOI 31 May 2018: p. 4) reported that pilgrims have to face a lot of problems, particularly the scarcity of potable water and unavailability of toilets along the route. Most of the guest houses are in pathetic conditions lacking potable water and proper sanita­tion. Women faced a crucial situation in lack of toilets. Additionally, threat of encroach­ment and land grabbing near temples is another problem. Poor sanitary conditions and defunct hand pumps are also noticed. Taking in view of the Chief Minister’s performance of the Panchakroshi Yatra on 9th June 2018, on 22nd May 2018, the commissioner of Varanasi division asked to removes debris, close manholes and improve condition of roads to avoid problems for the pilgrims. He also instructed to arrange fans at guesthouses of each halt-station and deploy team of doctors and paramedical staff with ambulances round the clock on this route. He said that he or DM (district magistrate) would keep conducting surprise inspection of the pilgrimage route and in case of overlooking of any of these instructions the official concerned would have to face music. They have also paid visit to some spots. All these renovations and development have been done in a short-cut way, and after passage of time the pathetic situation as it was, returned back into its original form. There does not exist a mechanism of proper balancing among the various sectors for maintenance and rejuvenation of the infrastructure and facilities, together with lack of cooperation and participation from the stakeholders. Pity to note that only during the period of special pilgrimages some programmes for the betterment of health and hygiene are operated by the city authorities, and there is no mechanism for its regularity and sustainability.

Political Strategy vis-à-vis Publicity

The Panchakroshi Yatra of a five-day period is held every third year in the intercalary month [Purushottam Masa] of the leap year, when around 70,000 pilgrims walk on the sacred circuit. By walking to the holy places, a pilgrim is able to be free of speed, anxiety, and desire. One of the pilgrims (Kumar, 1992: 196) expressed his feelings as: “I enjoyed every moment in complete peace and solitude. Walking became a meditation and every step was teaching me to be mindful. I relaxed to the soul of my own breath as it issued into the deep silence surrounding me.” By walking one can experience the idea of unity between humanity (pilgrims) and divinity (spirit of the Earth), and by this “unification” one experiences the harmony and transcendence of the pilgrimage — which is ultimately a transcendence of the cosmos in which human beings are at the centre.

The purpose and motives that are responsible for the act of such pilgrimage are to be kept into two broad categories: specific mundane motives where deity is the focus of pilgrimage, particularly to have blessings for the solution of a problem. The second category refers to overall religious merit, generally difficult to explain them; sometimes it turns to be a superstition with the notion that by doing this one can fulfil the expectation. Taking the mass consciousness and belief in the mundane motive of this journey, politicians take it for the emotional attraction.

The Congress Party, claim to be the secular in ideology and practice, realising their loss in the election they attempted to use religious pilgrimage as a tool for cleansing the sins and unfair things intentionally or unintentionally. For the first time in political history, Cong­ressmen led by former MLA Ajay Rai undertook the pilgri­mage for their political strategy, during 25-29 May 2018, to regain lost ground by arousing religious sentiments of people, but during an interview he innocently provoked that, “We have undertaken Panchakroshi Yatra for the well­being of Varanasi (Kashi) and public wel­fare.” He has concluded his five-day yatra on Tuesday (29th May 2018) in presence of senior Congress leaders like Sriprakash Jaiswal and Amita Singh after a rigoro­us foot march. On first day of the Yatra, 25 May 2018, UPCC president Raj Babbar, se­nior leaders Pramod Tiwari and Sanjay Singh had joined Rai’s pilgrimage group. Mr Rai said that alt­hough the objective of the yat­ra was purely religious, the party took this opportunity to highlight the issue of demoli­tion of buildings and temples to build Kashi Vishvanath Corridor Project and also the condition of the pilgrimage ro­ute. That is how they used the means of ‘emotional blackmailing’ to get favour of people for political benefit. Scores of Congress wor­kers, including district presi­dent Prajanath Sharma, Satish Chaubey, Jitendra Seth and many others joined him in this yatra (TOI- Times of India, a daily from Varanasi, 31 May 2018). To be kept in mind that ‘any Hindu temple as a socio-cultural space, is predicted on the embodied agency of the divine’ (Hancock 2008: 88).  Also, “Divine power – creative, destructive, sustaining – lies at the heart of the complex, always evolving network of relations that connect human and nonhuman actors” (Hancock 2008: 88). This perception is encased by these politicians through emotional bondage and formalising the ritual performances.

Hindu nationalist parties have tried to exploit the particular alchemy to offer an ethnic definition of the nation (and its territory) and thereby gather a following by lending some of their demonstrations the appearance of a pilgrimage (cf. Jaffrelot 2009). This approach asserted itself in the early 1980s – thanks to the Ekatmata Yatra (Unity March) in 1983, and later on confirmed in 1990 during the Rath Yatra (Chariot festival). Similarly, for the first time a chief minister, Mr Adityanath Yogi of Uttar Pradesh, has performed Panchakroshi Yatra like a pilgrimage-tourist, using car for the major routes and having bare-footed short walks at the five night-halts, viz. Kandava, Bhimachandi, Rameshwar, Shivpur and Kapildharam, and performed rituals at the main temples at these sites under the guidance of specialised priests those walked together. He started his journey around six O’clock on 9 June 2018 in the evening and completed in the mid night by performing rituals at Vyasa Pitha near Jnanavapi (Vishvanath temple). Several ministers of the state, and politicians walked together with him. For this period of over six hours, the regular pilgrimage and nearby villagers were completely blocked not to walk, resulting into frustration and humiliation. The whole route by predominated by the police on the name of security.

Svami Avimukteshvara­nad, a chief of the monastery named Vidya-Shri Nyas founded by Svami Svarupananda Sarsvati (Shankaracharya of Dvaraka Pitha) along with his followers went on the Panchakroshi pilgrimage (26-30 May 2018) with a pledge to save the temples of Kashi under the aegis of his movement called ‘Mandir Bachao – Dharohar Bachao’ (‘Save the temple – Save the heritage’); this itself was a politicised motive to get support of religiously-feared people and create an atmosphere against the ruling government at State and Central levels. At all the halt stations, there were special discourses and religious preaching by Svami-ji, who openly criticised the government and administrative authorities and blamed them for doing work against Hindu society and religion by destroying the temples.  Raising slo­gans like “Khud ko Hindu bole rake ho, phir bhi mandir tod ra­he ho” [‘Project yourself as Hindu, however destroying the temples’], his followers targeted the chief minister. Using social medias like WhatsApp and Facebook, Svami-Ji and his close associates are regularly disseminating news against the government, and now they called a national congregation for this purpose. No way they hold interfacing discourses with authorities for development plan together with conservation and preservation of religious heritage.

These organised pilgrimages to Panchakroshi Yatra are successfully used as tools for political gain. It is remarked that “the Hindu nationalist apparently played successfully on the religious heartstrings of the faithful. [Such Yatras] inaugurated a new brad of ethno-religious engineering likely to become more and more political over the course of time” (cf. Jaffrelot 2010: 331). Yatra politics became part of the strategy promoting undiluted version of Hindutva, what ruling party BJP and their foundational base RSS together with their supporting allies Vishwa Hindu Parishad consistently doing to reinforce and activate. 

The inscription of ‘Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Japan’ in Unesco World Heritage List in 2016, taking in view pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, has provided a vision and base to get Panchakroshi Yatra route and its associated sacred sites to be inscribed in the WHL.  The 108 sacred sites (temple and shrines) are connected by 88.6km of pilgrimage route. Panchakroshi Yatra reflects a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred route, associated deities and distinct rituals, recording uninterrupted history since 12th century, recording the five night-halt stations consisting of 44 pilgrims’ rest houses (dharmasala). Among the five night-halts, the first one is at Kandawa, where Kardameshvara temple presents an example of successive layers of growth, beginning from 6th-7th century to 13th century. In the southern part of platform there are the fragments of the ancient shrine which consisted of the images of divine dancers, musicians, snakes, and mythical beasts; these figures date back to 6th-7th century. During the period of Gahadavala dynasty (12th-13th centuries) most of the upper parts were built. It is the only surviving temple after the Mughal invasion during 17th century. Its locality in the then forest-clad area and a considerable distance from the city area had saved it from destruction. Since then additions and modifications have been made. This temple itself fulfils major criteria for getting inscribed in the WHL. Of course, some special projects and plans have been chalked out for the Panchakroshi, however most of them deal with infrastructural establishments, leaving at the margin the properties of heritage values many of them possess archetypal and cosmic symbolism, which can easily be taken as resource for developing heritage tourism under the purview of Sustainable Development Goals. A mass movement of awakening (chetna march) is required for reverential development. But this should not turn into fundamentalism, nor should it cause any impacts on secular life (cf. Singh, 2016: 444).

Towards closure to Vision

There is a near universal assumption that there is an interconnectivity and reciprocity between pilgrimage and tourism, and that both are an integral part of human travel. Pilgrimage-tourism is considered now as strategy by both government officials and religious organizations to foster heritage awakening, promote deep spiritual experiences, transfer religious beliefs onto a global stage, bridge recreation and spirituality, provide a rational alternative for cultural consciousness, and help with poverty alleviation. However, as Ruggles and Sinha (2009: 79) note, “The current emphasis on architectural preservation overlooks the dialectics between the tangible and intangible forms of heritage. As important as it is to preserve significant material remains from the past, the knowledge base and skills that produced them should be preserved as well in order to support a living heritage tradition”. However, as religious pilgrimage trails and routes are merged “with the ongoing integration of new forms of ‘universal value’, the heritagescape will continue to expand, complexifying participants’ conceptualisations of their position with others in history and in the world ― their very heritage ― linking them with disparate times and places, and orienting them towards meaningful future activity” (Di Giovine, 2009: 429).

Since religious heritage is now seen as a potential sustainable resource for tourism development, it is essential that (1) heritage be protected and maintained; (2) heritage protection be continuously monitored, assessed, and strategies be changed according to appropriateness, priority, and in the need of the time; (3) the impact of heritage protection should be constantly evaluated and improved; (4) heritage protection activities should be supported by the residents and stakeholders; (5) city development plans should follow a specific heritage guidelines support system and the by-laws; (6) heritage should be promoted to bring sustainable economic benefits to the local population; and (7) information and cultural programs on heritage issues should be disseminated for building awareness among the citizens (Singh, 2016: 444).

At different levels, there also work several factors pertaining to process and rites of performances, at last making the place a system of life world where anytime and at every site space there generates the world of meaning, experience and a mental state of faith (see Dovey, 1985: 93-94). The ultimate result of this system where person and place imply a closed religious connection called the spirit of place (genius loci).

The faithscape is neither created, nor is it transferable; it develops by the human quest for searching a divine connection between man and the environment. With this analogy René Dubos (1973: 45) argues that “we shall not be able to solve the ecological crisis until we recapture some kind of spiritual relationship between man and his environment”. Faithscape can be explained to a certain degree when a person experiences the divine manifestation – a reality of totally different order where man and natural mystery meet. Jim Swan’s (1990: 221) narration fully exposes this fact:

“When the spiritual world decides to show itself, beauty, peace, truth, bliss, wonder, and awe can manifest in the most extraordinary ways. The real reason for going to a sacred place, however, is not just to get high. The purpose is to come into harmony with the greater unity of all life so that you can become who you are and then serve others according to who you are”.

In our temporal frame, we have to give respect to the past, search for solutions in the present, and make directions for the future. Sustainability needs to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of a site. That this heritage may become a resource for development, it needs to be first documented, then protected, maintained, and finally utilized according to specific heritage guidelines and legislations. Only then, combined with an increased stakeholders’ awareness and participation, will policy efforts and interventions become sustainable—environmentally, socially, and culturally. The awakening of people to understand, grasp and relinquish the inherent and mytholised meanings conferred on the holy spots and overall pilgrimage routes by the people living and devout visitors or pilgrims will regulate the functioning and preservation of this universal heritage.  In the case of the Panchakroshi Yatra, while there have been attempts to improve its route, money issues and the lack of political and public will have cause these attempts to fail. If something is not done to fix the failing infrastructure and aesthetics of the route then in many ways it would cost the hearts and souls of thousands of pilgrims who perform this pilgrimage every year (Singh, 2016: 444). Hopefully the recent efforts by the Indian government will make the Panchakroshi Yatra route a sustainable spiritual heritagescapes ― satyam, shivam, sundaram (the truth, the good, the beautiful).


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1 Comment

  1. An eyeopener for all who would like to visit the holy city of KASI !

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