June 13, 2024

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The Enduring, Transformational Power of Pilgrimage

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

Even the most casual student of the Silk Road, that fearsome, wondrous network of routes that people began plying in the second century B.C. (and did so for approximately the next 1,600 years) knows that the two — business and God, whoever or whatever your god was — often intermingled. Merchants and adventurers returned with new kinds of goods, but also with new kinds of ideas: of art, of architecture, of ideology, of faith. The Silk Road brought Islam to India, and Buddhism to Japan. It’s why travel has always been both thrilling and dangerous. You never know how a new land is going to change you; it never knows how you’re going to change it.



In T’s cover story — conceived during the pandemic, and reported over the course of a year — the T writer at large Aatish Taseer embarked upon three pilgrimages: first to the Feast of the Virgin of Copacabana, an Indigenous Catholic festival in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia; next to Mongolia, whose people are still rediscovering their native strain of Buddhism, forbidden to them for nearly 60 years under Soviet-mandated Communist rule; and finally to Iraq for the Shiite observance of Ashura, commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in 680 A.D.

There are few writers who have a more poetic understanding of how syncretism operates in the contemporary era than Taseer. Though it may be ancient, he writes, the pilgrimage is “a kind of ur-travel, crucial to so much that we associate with the modern industry of tourism, from early inns, hostels and brothels to guidebooks and travel writing.” And while some of the trappings of these pilgrimages might now be specific to their time, many would be familiar to travelers from centuries ago. Here is the integration of local traditions into the dominant faith (and vice versa); here is the economy of food and trinket sellers that inevitably flourish wherever pilgrims go; here are cherished rituals of various provenance; here are faith’s companions superstition and luck. The pilgrimage is our most elemental kind of travel, and it endures because, as Taseer writes, it’s in fact two trips in one: one external, one internal.

It would be too tidy if Taseer had ended his journey with some great, life-altering revelation about religion, God or even the self. And yet, he says, it transformed him nonetheless — as, he contends, all travel transforms us. “The true lesson of pilgrimage in a secular context is setting out into the world with a questing spirit that is unafraid of looking without finding, allowing curiosity, sympathy and self-improvement to do the work of faith,” he writes. “Looking without finding”: what better, braver philosophy is there for any of us, especially in a time when every undertaking is expected to have a goal and a result? Sometimes, the looking is the goal. Or rather, not sometimes: always.

Hanya Yanagihara

2023-11-09 10:00:55

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