ABSTRACT

DELHI YATRA:
INDIA'S CAPITAL AS A SACRED SYMBOL FOR POLITICAL DISCOURSE

J. Daniel White
Department of Religious Studies
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, North Carolina 28223
email: jdwhite@email.uncc.edu



( ) While the idea of India as a nation in the modern, Western political sense developed during British colonialism and in large measure as a result of it, India as a sacred geography--the space surrounding jambudvipa [the island of the jambu or rose apple tree]--and therefore as tirtha [a point of crossing from profane to sacred], is at least as ancient as the Mahabharata epic. Moreover, the "secular-nation" concept of India's prominent freedom fighters which informs the present Constitution rings hollow for many Indians against a history believed to have been given birth by Bharat Matar, "Mother India." In this context, the present study examines the traditional Indian concept of dynastic capital as an object of yatra [pilgrimage], in which its political function as seat of the raja is hardly distinguishable from its sacred one as tirtha, and suggests that the contemporary VHP-RSS-BJP use of yatra or pilgrimage to Delhi as a quasi-theocratic ritual is not at all a symbolic anomaly in India's long history. For, traditionally a political capital often served as a sacred yatra center where people could have darsan[sight with attendant blessing] of both the raja and the hierophany of the raja's patron deity in an often-grand vimana built to enhance his karma, his role as cakravartin or at the very least to suggest his role as as the embodiment of dharma [cosmic, religous and personal order]. This study will argue that not only were ancient capitals tirtha, but that New Delhi--both intentionally and unintentionally, is perceived as tirtha toward which humans make yatra and which helps explain how much of the rhetoric and actions of the BJP so aptly calls up this sacred history to legitimize a political cause which resonates so well among the people of India.

( ) The study makes three basic arguments. First, it was not unusual for "capital" or dynastic center in ancient India to be both the royal court and a tirtha to which pilgrims made yatra to have darsan of and receive the prasadam [blessings or grace] of both the raja and the gods. To demonstrate this, the study reviews several of India's dynastic capitals as intentional tirtha to which yatra was made in earlier times and which today continue as yatra centers hundreds of years after the fall of the dynasty. Particular reference is made to two tirtha: the well-known ancient Pallava capital of Kancipuram as a place to which Indians have made yatra for over fourteen hundred years, and the lesser known Eklingji vimana in Udaipur, the Rajput capital of the Mewari Maharanas since the 16th century, and about which very little has been written.

( ) Second, this study critically examines Sir Edwin Lutyen's design of New Delhi as an intentional symbol of British imperial grandeur and power and as a design which, quite unintentionally, conforms precisely to the vastupurusa model of the temple precincts as the dwelling place of the god (i.e., purusa) to which yatra are made. On a nearly perfect East-West axis from the bank of the Yamuna River through the ancient capital of Indraprastha to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the president's house) are found definitive symbolic elements that imitate the temple vastupurusa that epitomizes the structured tirtha which are the focus of yatra. Moreover, the model suggests that as Delhi becomes an intentional destiny for political yatra, it also--unconsciously--becomes an "unintentional destiny" for a sacred yatra to an unintentional vastupurusa tirtha.

( ) Third, by examining the BJP's use of all-India yatras beginning in 1990, one understands even more clearly how they have carefully appropriated traditional symbolic tirtha yatra imagery to press their political agenda as they make "sacred" pilgrimage toward the tirtha that is Delhi: the epitome of ancient India's capitals-cum-tirtha, intentionally and unintentionally. Consequently, in the minds of the BJP and its adherents their Delhi yatras become both a political and a sacred destiny which not only fulfills a political and sacred goal but calls to mind the Vaisnava future avatara, Kalkin, who goes forth to destroy the mlecchas [barbarians] who have corrupted India and and then ushers in the age of dharma. This, after all, is ultimately the goal of all yatras in India: to defeat adharma [chaos] and restore dharma by returning to the sacred time and space that once was in mythical dominance.




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