Sudhansu R Das
When global warming threatens lives and property world over, many surviving environment friendly sectors offer clue to reverse climate change. Over the years pilgrim tourism has been recognised as one of the most vibrant natural sector economies. In the Western and European nations, Christian religious tourism is a thriving sector. There are around 117 Marian shrines in Canada, 181 shrines in the United States for Roman Catholics and thousands of sites connected to various Protestant denominations and ancient religions of the native Americans.
Majority of those places have become important global destinations for pilgrims. It happens because those countries have a sound approach to promote pilgrim sector. They have honest, dedicated and disciplined people to keep those places clean. In India, there are hundreds of pilgrim destinations connected to the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and the Muslims, which have potential to generate employment on a sustainable basis.
More than 20 crore Indians visit pilgrimage places across the country. The nation’s ancient history and historial past have sprung up hundreds of pilgrim centres across the country. Many have origins traced in the history. The Badrinath, Kedarnath, Mount Kailash, Vaishno Devi, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Amritsar in the North, the Sabarimala, Rameswaram, Madurai and Tirupati in the South, the Puri Jagannath temple in the East and Shirdi Sai Baba temples, the magnificent churches of Goa in the Western part, the Ujjain, Omkareswar, Sanchi and Ajmer in the Central India and a host of other famous pilgrim spots keep more than 15 per cent of India’s population moving.
When people move out of their houses on pilgrimage it triggers a host of economic activities right from their doorsteps. Travel agencies, hotel chains, restaurants, sale of religious artifacts, handicrafts, floriculture activity, health sector, and shops selling travel kits etc get activated. The Tirupathi Devosthanam in Tirumala requires more than 28 tonnes of flowers every day during the peak season. Bangalore city transports flowers worth Rs 40 lakh every day to Tirumala. Faith is the greatest stimulant for economic activities, which could generate revenues on a sustainable basis without putting pressure on environment.
The famous patta chitra, palm leave carvings, appliqué work, painting on tassar clothes originate from the religious practices in the Lord Jagannath temple of Puri. In ancient time people believed a pilgrimage to Puri is not complete unless one carries a piece of patta chitra or an appliqué work with them. Today handicraft traders have carried those traditional crafts to international craft bazaars. A 40 sq feet patta chitra made by a senior artist sales at price ranging from Rs 5 to Rs 7 lakh in international craft bazaar. Nearly 15 lakh pilgrims gather in Puri to watch the spectacular Rath Yatra, widely known as the journey of the mankind. More than 20 million people gather in Kumbhamela, which is the largest congregation of pilgrims in the world. Though millions more want to travel, uncomfortable journey, lack of clean and economy class accommodation, poor quality of food and water served in many pilgrim centres dissuade pilgrims to travel. Many pilgrim centres in India have become too commercialised and caught up with making money only. Business opportunities let economics overshadow the very purpose of spiritual places, which ultimately affects pilgrim sector.
Unlike tourists who come to spend and enjoy, the pilgrims generally come to have spiritual experience. Natural surroundings, cleanliness and ethnic culture always provide the spiritual aura. The magnificent hills of Sahyadri range in Maharashtra attracts more than six lakh pilgrims to walk 261 km to have darshan of their revered god Panduranga at Pendarpur. The Amarnath Yatra would not fascinate lakhs of people without those snowcapped mountains, forests, springs and vallies. Many Hindu temples across the country have been encroached, its lands are sold out and the temple authority allowed unplanned construction. Archaeological Survey of India, historians and endowment commission have proved lethargic to preserve the pristine beauty of temples and other places of worship, which could have earned huge revenue from pilgrims. Our planners behave what monkeys do to a necklace of gems. Ram Sethu could start an era of mega tourism involving India and Sri Lanka. Unfortunately this scope is scuttled due to our planners’ ignorance to tap pilgrim potential. In the process they lose jobs and foreign currency.
A well thought out pilgrim policy will undoubtedly help millions of Indians to rise above the poverty line. Children from school must learn how to tap the pilgrim tourism potential. Public awareness about pilgrim sector should be created among people for cleaner and greener environment in pilgrim places. Documenting the mysteries, history and folklore of pilgrim places is the first step towards making a thriving pilgrim sector economy in India.