The Hindu terms for pilgrimage is tirthayatra (journey to a ford). Indeed, many places of pilgrimage are near rivers though the meaning is more profound than fording a river as it connotes crossing from the shore of birth and death to the shore of immortality. Varanasi, one of the seven sacred cities, situated on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, is probably the foremost pilgrimage destination. Many Hindus aspire to visit at least once, and it is considered a blessed place to die. Even if that is not possible, bereaved relatives bring the ashes of their deceased loved ones to the city to immerse them in the river which is revered as a goddess renowned for her powers to purify. The Kumbh Mela festival, observed every three years at one of four sites in a 12-year cycle, attracts millions of pilgrims. Its founding myth concerns Vishnu bearing away the pot containing the elixir of immortality produced by churning the Ocean of Milk but spilling four drops hence the four sites where the festival is celebrated. This festival is particularly notable for the attendance of ascetics and renouncers alongside ordinary pilgrims who follow in their wake when the mass bathing commences. Despite the practise of austerities by pilgrims, in these instances the distinction drawn between pilgrimage and tourism can become blurred and, while great rewards are promised to the pilgrim in this life and in terms of release from samsara (round of existence), the sincere motivation of the pilgrim is vital. Other perspectives on pilgrimage regard it as a meditative process internal to the body as a microcosm of the universe or consider any external ritual performance as pointless since only inner qualities matter.
Traditionally, pilgrimage reflects the sacred geography of the subcontinent; its cardinal points in the North, South, East and West, its mountains as well as its rivers and numerous centres sanctified by their mythological association with specific deities such as Ayodhya as Rama’s capital, Vrindavan where Krishna spent his youth, the locations of Shiva’s 12 Jyotirlingas (lingas of light) and of the 51 Shakta Pithas (seats of the Goddess). However, new pilgrimage routes have created in the diaspora including in the UK where coach trips have been arranged to convey visitors to favourite temples and, of course, Hindus in diaspora may join tours to important Indian pilgrimage centres. Also, it should be noted that Hindus have gone on pilgrimage to sites with a non-Hindu religious heritage and cross-community appeal, a practice that continues today. A popular example is the tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in gratitude to the saint for the birth of an heir where Hindus, Muslims and others go in the hope of having a family.