The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

The tales pilgrims tell
Shalini Rawat

Spiritual journey, imperial city
by Alexandra Mack
Vedams, Pages 227; Rs 900

THE hallmark of good research is its universal applicability. Lines of thought run a relay, handing over the idea from the author/researcher to the disseminator/s, thus creating a diffusion of pluralities, which convey, classify or extend the boundaries of the original idea.

The book is a neat little piece of published research, with its maps, tables, graphs and glossary all in place. Yet what sets it apart are the meanings on offer in its manifold analyses. These also make it amusing reading for anyone even remotely interested in the anthropological as well as sociological aspects of the medieval history of India.

The self-professed aim of the book is to study 'how the political and economic aspects of pilgrimage affected social interactions in Vijaynagara, the capital of the empire that dominated South India from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.' However, the project is an inner spiritual quest for the author herself, who tries to subconsciously penetrate the hierarchical boundaries of a strictly patriarchal society of a civilisation older than her own and explore the minds of those who peopled this civilisation at a point of time far removed from one's own.

This delving into the mind of the other, the Oriental, the ancient is what makes the book exotic. An attempt to introduce the Oriental to the western world, albeit with all the fringe concepts and their meanings which bear repetition such as the dynamics of the pilgrimage process, particularly in the Indian context, encompassing the whole range of rituals with a hint of local colour, complete the picture.


Although the data has been scrupulously compiled and the 'rounded off' inferences served on a platter, it seems too much has been inferred from the archaeological evidence available i.e. the grinding stones as well as ceramic artifacts found in the area. The patterns of provisioning and donating alone cannot make us confirm the hypothesis that pilgrimage lead to increased social interactions as well as greater demarcation of group identities at the same time.

In fact, if 'part of pilgrimage is the departure from (it) often involves temporary abandonment of domestic responsibilities as well as arduous and sometimes expensive travel' (Malville and Singh,1997), then the logical conclusion would be that the pilgrims are essentially tourists at heart and are indulging in typical tourist behaviour as there is a breakdown of social boundaries whenever human beings are in transit en masse. The best literary example being the 'pilgrims' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales who tell stories to each other and crack jokes, in spite of belonging to different ends of the social continuum.

Again in India, rarely have pilgrimages been 'vigorously opposed by powers whose interests it would not serve'(Morinis 1992) as is evident from the number of persons belonging to the minority communities who are allowed to proceed towards their respective pilgrimage sites even today (Sikh jathas to gurdwaras in Pakistan, a traditionally hostile neighbour, and Muslims for haj to Mecca).

Also in southern India, where the society is rigidly defined along caste lines, it is difficult to visualise pilgrims from different sub-castes sharing the same common eating houses or preparing/partaking meals together. Nor do the inscriptions, detailing the donations made to different temples by persons of different sub-caste, class or gender, validate the hypothesis. Even another criterion, the use of common pathways in the city by pilgrims promoting socialisation, is superficial. Even if the time spent circumambulating, shopping or sight-seeing in the city comprises a major part of the total time spent 'pilgrimaging', there is no way to ascertain that this activity was also not confined to the same sub-group, i.e. those belonging to the same sub-group probably moved together for the above-mentioned purposes.

However, the importance of the work lies primarily in bunching these varied themes together and trying to interpret the remains of a civilisation not only from the archaeological point of view, but also taking into account the sociological perspective as well. The examination of literary texts, ethnographic data and other lines of evidence do add depth to the research.

Also illuminating are the definitions which are gleaned from contemporary research papers or journals, giving us insight into similar concepts existing across other cultures. It is the belief of visualising a relationship between people and stones that makes Mack's study revealing and her methodology inviting enough to bear imitation.