The lasting and transformative power of pilgrimage | ET REALITY


Travel, the movement of people from one place to another, has always existed. But long before we thought about traveling for pleasure, we traveled with a purpose: for commerce and for faith.

Even the most casual student of the Silk Road, that fearsome and wondrous network of routes that people began traveling in the 2nd century BC. C. (and continued that way for approximately the next 1,600 years) knows that the two: business and God, whoever your God is, were… often intertwined. Merchants and adventurers returned with new types of goods, but also with new types of ideas: of art, of architecture, of ideology, of faith. The Silk Road brought Islam to India and Buddhism to Japan. That’s why traveling has always been as exciting as it is dangerous. You never know how a new land will change you; You never know how you’re going to change it.

In T’s cover story, conceived during the pandemic and reported over the course of a year, T writer-at-large Aatish Taseer embarked on three pilgrimages: first to the Feast of the Virgin of Copacabana, an indigenous Catholic festival in the Andes mountains of Bolivia; alongside Mongolia, whose people are still rediscovering their native strain of Buddhism, which was forbidden to them for almost 60 years under the Soviet-ordered communist regime; and finally to Iraq for the Shiite observance of Ashura, which commemorates the death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, in 680 AD

There are few writers who have a more poetic understanding of how syncretism operates in the contemporary era than Taseer. Ancient though it may be, he writes, the pilgrimage is “a kind of journey through time, crucial to many things we associate with the modern tourism industry, from the first inns, inns and brothels to tourist guides and travel articles.” And while some of the features of these pilgrimages might now be specific to his time, many would be familiar to travelers centuries ago. Here is the integration of local traditions into the dominant faith (and vice versa); here is the economy of food and trinket vendors that inevitably flourish wherever pilgrims go; here there are precious rituals of diverse origins; here are the companions of faith, superstition and luck. Pilgrimage is our most elemental type of journey, and it endures because, as Taseer writes, it is actually two journeys in one: one external and one internal.

It would be too neat if Taseer had ended his journey with some big, life-changing revelation about religion, God, or even himself. And yet, he says, he transformed it anyway, since, he maintains, all traveling transforms us. “The true lesson of pilgrimage in a secular context is to go out into the world with a spirit of search that is not afraid to look without finding, allowing curiosity, sympathy and self-improvement to do the work of faith,” he writes. . “Looking without finding”: what better and braver philosophy exists for any of us, especially in an age where every company is expected to have a goal and a result? Sometimes the look is the goal. Or rather, sometimes not: always.

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