Journeys of discovery for the soul: The age of the pilgrim

We live in a secular age, but more people than ever before - in all religions - are going on pilgrimage. Peter Popham reports on the spiritual travel boom and identifies the main destinations

We are told that we live in godless times, yet more and more people all over the world are going on pilgrimages, as if being on the road to somewhere holy suits us better than being inside the building at the end of it.

The new pilgrims are Christians and Muslims but also Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and Jains. There are also swelling numbers of "don't knows": people with little commitment to any established religion, whose marriage has collapsed, or whose wife has died, who have lost their job or retired, and who decide to take time off, on the road to somewhere ancient, beautiful and reputedly holy, to sort out their lives.

The clear and the woolly, the devout and the troubled, those who know exactly where they are going and why, and those who haven't a clue, increasingly walk shoulder to shoulder along these ancient tracks.

The rise in popularity of pilgrimages in the past 80 years has been dramatic. In 1925, 90,662 Muslim pilgrims performed the Haj, but by 1995 the figure had risen more than tenfold. By December last year, it had doubled again to more than two million.

For centuries, interest in walking "the Way of St James", the 1,000 mile pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, the legendary resting place of St James, was on the wane: by the late Eighties only a handful of pilgrims arrived at the city's cathedral every day. But then came the revival: by 1998, the numbers had jumped from 3,500 per year to nearly 10 times that number; by 2006 they had topped 100,000.

The Kumbh Mela, the Hindu festival on the Ganges, has always drawn large crowds but today they are stupendous, the biggest assemblies of humanity ever seen in history, numbering tens of millions who are visible from space.

Also in north India, the site of Buddha's enlightenment, the bodi tree in Bodhgaya and the Mahabodhi temple that stands next to it, has attracted monks and lay Buddhists for decades - but in modest numbers. But, despite Bihar's reputation as one of the poorest and most dangerous corners of India, the crowds of pilgrims have continued to multiply. Now, more than 350,000 come every year, and the small town is crammed with monasteries, temples and meditation centres. Last month, the Indian government inaugurated a train connecting Bodhgaya with the other main Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

But it is in Europe that the pilgrimage, while enjoying a surge of popularity, has also undergone a subtle change of meaning.

In the Middle Ages, and for many believers today, a pilgrimage to Lourdes or Medjugorje was like the Haj for Muslims or a dip in the Ganges for Hindus. But the huge rise in numbers of western pilgrims today derives not from a desire for miracles, but from a need to reduce one's life to its simplest elements.

This August, Rev Edward Condry, an Anglican priest and canon treasurer of Canterbury Cathedral, is leading a group of 30 pilgrims from Canterbury to Rome by bicycle along the restored Via Francigena, an ancient network of modern roads and restored trails that in 1994 was declared a Cultural Route by the Council of Europe. "Thanks to Thomas A Beckett," says Condry, "in the Middle Ages Canterbury was one of the four great pilgrimage destinations, along with Santiago, Jerusalem and Rome. But the Reformation killed it off. Calvin's view was typical: a pilgrimage, he said, never gained anyone salvation.

"Even today, we Protestants feel strange at sites like Lourdes. But for me, the pilgrimage is the dominant metaphor for what faith is like: walking embodies the spirit of faith." Condry is also walking to Santiago, doing the 1,000-mile pilgrimage a week at a time, one week per year.

Perhaps the most truly modern pilgrimages are like those conducted by the Dalai Lama when he travelled to Lourdes and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or by the Christians who travelled with him to Bodhgaya.

As Condry explains, the pilgrimage's goal is no longer necessarily the point. "Walking is such a minimalist activity," he says, "the less you have in your rucksack the better, and with this stripping away of possessions you are left startlingly exposed. And that's the significance of the pilgrimage. Reaching Santiago is important - but do I really want to reach Santiago?"

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments