The definatory purpose of pilgrimage routes

(Case studies from Bhaktapur, Kag and Muktinath (Nepal) and Varanasi)

by Niels Gutschow, Abtsteinach, Germany


Contribution for the Proceedings of the Conference

„Pilgrimage and Complexity"

at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, 5-9 January 1999



The following case studies present circumambulatory processions or pilgrimages which document a dichotomy between an inner and outer world. When eight years ago the philosopher Panikkar (1991) on a similar conference at the Indira Gandhi National C entre for the Arts on „Concepts of Space" made the statement, that „there is no outer without inner space", he referred to human beings. According to Panikkar, „inner space is subjective, it belongs to an inner structure of the knower, the human being", while „outer space is supposed to be 'over there'": In the context of the ritual journeys presented here, the „inner space" belongs to the „knower". In many cases it is a defined territory that represents his extended self, h is habitat that on so many levels is imbued with sacredness. But sometimes the sacredness of such a territory radiates beyond its protective enclosure. Pilgrims come from the outer realm to identify with the inside and proceed to a centre. In such a case the closed world which is inside, represents the womb that encorporates the ultimate place of bliss.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a pilgrimage as „a journey to a sacred place or shrine" but also says that a pilgrim is „one who embarks on a quest for some end conceived as sacred". The first definition stresses a linear movement in volving a finite destination. The second definition is open to include a variety of action and incorporates even the locus of the pilgrimage in an even more inner structure, either the body or the mind of the „knower" Panikkar was mentioning.

In this extended sense, any participant of a procession is a pilgrim - be it a person from the inner or the outer world of space. The aim is to share the quality of a defined „inner space" which is more than a protective enclosure. Kasi/Varanasi m ay serve as the model. There, the inside incorporates the outside, pilgrims come from within and without, any of the many ritual journeys emerge from the centre - the Jnanvapi or well of knowledge near the temple of Visvanath, the Lord of the Universe - a nd terminates there.

This paper concentrates on the complex notion of circumambulations, based on field studies that have been carried out over the past twenty years in Tibetan villages of the northern Himalaya, the Kathmandu Valley and Varanasi. Answers are presented to t he question how the mandalic inner space is set apart from an outer space that in itself is defined on various levels. The outside very often turns out to be the inside of a neighbouring entity. It is the mind of a community or a class of pilgrims that se t the standards.


The Case Studies




Bhaktapur is one of the three cities of the Kathmandu Valley which by the end of the first millennium A.D. had developed an urban character. At times, these cities served as centres of small, independent, and, since the fifteenth century, competing kin gdoms with little hinterland. A specific townscape with public squares, temples and shrines in abundance and with complex urban rituals developed in the sexteenth and seventeenth century. The spatial pattern of the towns mirror the hierarchic principle of the accepted social order: In all cities the royal palace with its important temples dedicated to the royal cult marks the „ideal" centre, the pivot of an order that reflects the cosmos.

Bhaktapur must have developed from a cluster of small rural settlements along the low ridge that runs parallel to the river Hanumante. What legend calls the „foundation" of the town in the 12th century, might have been a unification of these villa ges by means of a ritual involving a ceremonial circumambulation, a consecration of shrines dedicated to Mother Goddesses and the establishment of a palace as a seat of kingship. The main road with the two main squares forms the winding axis of a linear t ype of city: Running below the ridge, it generally keeps to a height of 1,330 metres. At intervals the street widens to form a number of squares that occasionally turn into stages for the performance of urban rituals. The palace and its spacious palace sq uare are not located in the geographic centre of the city but on the northern periphery, on a prominent spot of the ridge.

The territory of the city is experienced as a sacred realm, fenced off against the demonic surrounding countryside whose evil spirits must be repelled. Although there is no wall to delineate the protected and sacred realm, the edge of it is sharply dem arcated through death rituals as processions carrying the corpse may never cross that imaginary line. Eight shrines dedicated to the Astamatrka (Eight Mother Goddesses) constitute the most powerful ritual fortification of the urban space. The eight shrine s form the basis of a complex mandala that incorporates both worlds, the inside and outside. For the present context it is of importance, that these Mother-Goddesses as well as 26 other powerful place-gods receive blood-sacrifices - both in a process of p ropitiation as well as in honour of a rewarding experience. These gods and godesses invariably enjoy a twofold representation, of which the non-iconic one is always present and accessible, while the iconic version is kept on first floor level of a „god-ho use" (dyahche), from where it „comes down" only once a year on the occasion of the New Year ritual. The non-iconic representations ( of rock or stone) is housed in an open chamber, accessible throughout the year, while the iconic represen tations are shut away, inaccesible to public worship.

Since time immemorial the occasion of the vernal equinox has been considered appropriate and auspicious for celebrating the beginning of the New Year as a festival of renewal which is enacted as a cosmo-drama. The festival commemorates the foundation o f Bhaktapur: It centres around a myth in which a foreign prince had to kill demon serpents in order to take into posession a dormant territory. The killed serpents are hung from a large pole to demonstrate victory. On a different level, the pole, that is to be erected on New Year's eve, reflects the creation of the universe. The annual reenactment of the event stabilizes the cosmos and renews the quality of place, the urban territory.

Among the many events of the New Year festival which last for 9 days, of decisive importance is a concluding procession on the fourth day of Baisakha, which generally falls on 18th April. The iconic representations of 34 gods and goddesses - all of the m Matrkas, Ganesas, Bhairavas - who have already been mentioned, leave their room „inside" the god-houses on New Year's eve in order to return to or seek union with their place of origin „outside", the respective non-iconic representation. It se ems as if the existing twofold order of the world is dissolved at the moment of crisis in order to be created again. As soon as the World Tree is erected the iconic representations are „reborn" and return to their „house". On the fourth day of h e New Year the „Placer Gods and Goddesses" appear again to be placed in open arcades where they are worshipped along a continuous route that leads through and at the time around the city.

Almost everybody is Bhaktapur joins this dyah svaga bijyaigu procession at any point. There is no formal beginning or end. The counting of the 34 gods and goddesses on the map starts with Bhairava, the powerful guardian and master of the town, b ut in reality people join the procession at the point nearest to their house. In the morning groups of women make their round with baskets full of offerings, especially 34 eggs, one for each god or goddess. In the afternoon, groups of males take over with their drums and trumpets. More than 20.000 people will have completed the circuit by the end of the day.

The route largely follows the general processional route which probably got defined in the 17th century, acknowledging and incorporating newly built quarters of a growing urban place. On various occasions, gods or goddesses in iconic or even living for m follow this route to prove in a way their existence and to bless the urban territory. On the occasion of the New Year's procession the route deviates six times in order to incorporate the visit to a god that in recent years had been added: some 8 out of the 34 gods and goddesses have been added in the course of the twentieth century. Obviously every quarter of the town seeks to present its own god as part of the citiy's essential immaterial infrastructure. The festival concludes with the return of all g ods and goddesses to their respective „god-house". After a period of unrest, crisis and partial dissolution, the order is reinstalled and confirmed.


The route of the procession does not define a territorial unit along the edge. It is just a path that interconnects 34 places and thereby establishes a circuit within an urban territory that takes advantage of other tools to realize a ritual fortificat ion along the periphery. The punctuated circuit rather represents the essence of the territory at the moment of crisis and recreation. The reborn gods and goddesses bear witness of continuity of time and space. The people of Bhaktapur become pilgrims on a journey that leads them once a year to the entirety of those powerful guardians that are propitiated with blood to fulfill their obligation. Only on this day their split existance is revealed and only on this day the people turn beyond the guardian of th eir own neighbourhood to worship all of them. A twofold goal is achived: the guardians ensure the stability of their respective realm while the circuit adresses the territory in its entirety. It becomes a protected realm that supports life. The procession or pilgrimage is reencated to validitate that protection and support for another 12 months.


Mustang - Muktinath


In order to illustrate the location of the following case studies, the circumambulation of Kag (one of the five villages on both banks of the Kali Gandaki river) and the the circumambulation of the Six Villages (yul kha druk) of the Muktinath Va lley it seems appropriate to present the wider geographical and topographical frame of the sacred landscape of the Himalaya. Three mountains - Tise in the West, Lapchi in the South and Tsari in the East - punctuate an imaginary line or edge that sets the high plateau of Tibet apart from the plains that are drained by Ganga. The three mountains are imagined to represent the uppermost three cakras of the human body. The ridge of the Himalaya thus is equal to the spinal column of the body. Other mount ains along that ridge are inseparately tied to the notion of space on the micro-level. The Blue Mountain (or Nilgiri, 26492 feet)) and the Dhaulagiri (26795 feet), both form a gateway, through which a river leaves the arid valleys along a gorge. The rains rarely cross those high mountains, thus enforcing not only a change in climate but a decisive cultural change. Beyond the ridge agriculture is based on irrigation, villages have - until a generation ago - been built as multi-storeyed clusters. In such an environment the circumambulation of the cultivated area sets an edge against desert.



Kag: The circumambulation of the cultivated area of Kag


In the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar which corresponds to May, the young people of the Chöde - the monasterial institution of the village - and practically all the young people of the village participate in a ritual circumambulation of the entire cultivated area. The procession is thus called „the walking around the cultivated area" (Tib. klungs-skor). As the participants carry sacred books on their head, it is also called „the scripture circuit" (Tib. chos-skor) . While the young people set out for the procession, the old ones proceed to the Chöde to prepare consecrated food, which will be distributed to the participants.

On the occasion of the ritual, the constable of the village makes an early round to place piles of stones called thowo, at all halting points. Later, he, three women and two old monks accompany the procession upto the third halting point. From t here they return. They will meet the procession again near the reservoir at the eighth halting point.

The procession starts at the northern entrance of the village (1 - see map), the former gate that closed the extented cluster of rammed earth houses at the end of the 18th century. Facing north, an image of the protective grandfather, the meme, is moulded in clay against the wall in half-relief. As part of the ritual of renewal that confirms and actualizes the protectiveness of the exemplary couple of „Grandfather" (at the northern gate) and „Grandmother" (near the southwestern entranc e), the figure is renewed annually. The path leads north along an extended wall of mani-stones (inscribed with the auspicious formula om mani padme hum) and stops first at a multistoried and stepped square structure, a chörten (2) that serves as a receptacle to a person's remains. The halting point marks the edge of the present settlement just beyond the former archery ground that has been built up over the past two generations. Some 50 metres north the procession stops again at another chörten called Jin Chödro (3) which is placed in the middle of the road to protect the village against unnamed demons who threaten the village from the northern direction. A similarly protective Chörten is seen on the crest of the hill nor th of Kag, powerfully protecting the path leading to Lo and further on to Tibet. At Jin Chödro the path makes a sharp turn to lead along a wall that encircles the fields called Shön. Below a meditation retreat, a cave in the cliffs the processio n stops (4) to pay respect to that sacred place. The easternmost tip of the cultivated area which is named Tharkog is marked by a stone boulder (5), which does not represent a particular divinity. Such a marker is not necessarily a religious site. Such ma rkers may be classified as „sub-sacred", as my colleague Charles Ramble (1995) has written earlier and as such they collectively contribute to the definition of the territory. Only in a set these markers assure the safety and prosperity of the cultiv ated area. They somehow emerge from a dormant state on the occasion of the procession, having received a stroke of red or white colour in order to be recognized. - A narrow trail now leads down, crosses the river, that originates from the glaciers of the Annapurna and is fed by the sacred springs of Muktinath and climbs the cliff on the opposite side. There it crosses the upper leat, Shango Yüra, the channel which irrigates Kag's southern fields. There, a rock (6) marks the easternmost tip of the cu ltivated area that is called Tangasa. Similar to the boulder mentioned above this rock serves as a marker. Since 1974 the rock is located in an orchard encircled by a wall which on the occasion of the ritual circuit is broken down to allow the procession to proceed along the prescribed route. The sacred scripts are placed upon the rock, refreshment is brought from the village, the participants enjoy songs and dance. After an hours break the procession is resumed, leaves the orchard through the gate and co ntinues along the edge of the cultivated area towards the reservoir (7). This important source of water is probably honoured by the halt. After another fifty metres the procession stops near a rock, which is not merely a marker but identifiable as the sea t of a "wandering demon" named Tsen Khyampo (8). Now the route turns south and stops where the path coming from Lubra crosses Shango Yüra, the leat that serves most of Kag's fields with water. A temporary pile of stones (9) is erected there, visualiz ing an obstruction (Tib. barche), that bans those demons who try to enter the village. Along the southern tip of the territory, the cultivated area is reduced to a narrow strip of fields called Kahlung. Another pile of stones (10) obstructs the mai n path that reaches the village along the Kali Gandaki - in fact the main road from the plains up towards Tibet. The route turns and leads along that main road for a short stretch before it turns down to the lowest terraced area called Nama. At the southe rn tip of that terrace another pile of stones (11) installed for this occasion marks another halting point. The procession leads now along the edge of the fields of Shung until it reaches the bridge (12) across the Kali Gandaki, where for evil spirits try ing to enter the village from the west the entrance is blocked. From that bridge the route leads along the river Dzong Chu towards a second bridge that leads across. A double halt (13, 14) on both sides of the bridge probably ensures the integrity and saf ety of this important passage within Kag's territory. It links the ancient core of the village to the fields south of the Dzong Chu. A few steps noth lead to the representation of the protective „Grandmother" (Tib. iwi - 15), who guards the so uthern periphery of the village core - only a generation ago houses have been built beyond, that means south of this place. The procession finally reaches Deya (16), the village square west of the castle. In the old days the annual Shontse dances used to be held here. In the early 17th century the first houses of Kag were built opposite the castle thus giving shape to the square.


The procession clearly defines the territory of Kag on various levels. First, the clustered settlement is defined by the placement of the mythic couple, the „Grandfather" at the northern gate, where it commences and the „Grandmother" at the s outhern periphery, in a short distance from the edge of the original core of the village. The entire cultivated area is strictly circumambulated along the edges. Halting places at the extreme ends of the fields like Tharkog (5), Tangasa (6) and Khalung (1 0) convincingly demonstrate the purpose of the ritual in defining the area. While the halt near the path leading to Muktinath is dedicated to Tsen Khyampo's rock (8), the four remaining roads which arrive at Kag's territorial limits from the „Four directi ons" are blocked by obstructions in the form of „conspicious" piles of stones which have to be considered as part of an invisible fence that wards off evil influences to which every confined settlement is exposed. The „interior" has to be g uarded and thus ritually set apart from a potentially evil and threatening „exterior". Evil influence is expected to follow the paths of human beings, the regular roads. The „obstruction" literally „cuts" the path, making the settlement thu s for any kind of demons inaccessible. In a way these obstructions obtain the quality of the seats of the Three Protectors or Rigsum gonpo which can be observed in the neighbouring villages of lower Mustang. There, four chörten - small Buddhist votiv e structures - also gain a touch of renewal annually but remain as a physical obstruction throughout the year. In Khyinga, the village east of Kag, these Three Protectors even punctuate the processional route in the Four Directions. If the four obstructed entrances into the territory of Kag are seen as means to define the inner realm of a mandala, the final destination of the procession, the village square, could be seen as its centre.

It is open to speculation wether the number of the halting places mirrors qualities of a cosmic order on one more level. Sixteen places that punctuate the circuit suggest that it reflects four times four - thus reinforcing the spatial symbolism of the ritual.

The description of the procession stresses the point that no particular category of gods is revered and no particular category of demons is fought off. Certain divinities, sacred structures and sub-sacred markers of a nondescript kind are found along t he circuit. Small landmarks in the shape of piles of stones are even created for the occasion to visualize the halting places.


The circumambulation of Kag's cultivated area carves space out of a continuum that has markers on yet a different level. The cultivated area represents the microcosmos which ensures the wellbeing of the people, it supports their life. Wether or not the number of halting points punctuating the route bears symbolic meaning: it provides an order to the effect, that the defined area becomes a stable entity in a potentially unstable world. It would probably be too much to call the inner realm „sacred". But it has a special quality, which is reinforced by the annual journey along its edges. The participants who exclusively belong to the inner world, can be called pilgrims although they are not heading for a sacred place beyond that inner world. They the mselves act as the mount of the sacred scripts which bless the territory. A good harvest is the return of that meritorious action.


The scripture circuit of Muktinath Valley


As the cultivated area of Kag is circuambulated, so are the cultivated areas of the six villages, the „Dzar-Dzong yul kha druk" comprising Khyinga, Putra, Dzong, Chongkhor, Purang and Dzar. Located in the wide valley of Muktinath, these six vi llages form a remarkably homogeneous entity at a height of 3300 to 3800 metres. The neighbouring entity of five villages, „Chügyü yul kha nga" that includes Kag on the eastern bank of the Kali Gandaki as well as Tiri, Pagling, Phelag and Da ngardzong on the western side is less homogeneous, leaving every subentity in isolation. The territory of the six individual villages as defined by a circumambulation differs in extent. In Kyhinga, the route strictly follows the edge of the cultivated are a or the main leat that is brought in a channel from Dzar, while in Dzar large tracts of uncultivated areas are included. In a way, clusters of fields are bound together by a route that largely crosses above the water reservoirs that are fed by the glacie r streams of Khalung mountain. Between Dzar and Purang a dividing line runs straight across the fields. It becomes apparent only on the occasion of the procession. Between Dzar and Khyinga, however, a marker in the shape of a whitish rock demonstrates the edge of Dzar, while the territory of Khyinga starts only a few hundred yards away. In between lie stretches of uncultivated land that only a decade ago have been utilzed for orchards and willow saplings.

On a different level of scale, all Six Villages figure as a single entity that is circumambulated. Invariably this circumambulation is called Chökhor, the „scripture circuit", as the 108 volumes of the Kangyur are carried around to bless the wider territory. The ritual is not carried out annually but only on rare occasions: the reading is sponsored by an abbot, a monk or somebody who seeks a son. Until recently, the Kangyur was only available in the monastery of Dzar. It had to be borrowed an d read, either in halves or in full. Each sequence was followed by a circuit before the books were returned. Recently, copies of the Kangyur printed in India have been brought to Dzong and Chongkhor and before they have formally been installed in the resp ective monastery they have been carried along the prescribed circuit around the Six Villages.

The circuit also incorporates Chumik Gyatso, the sacred springs of Muktinath (see the contribution by Poudel in this volume), that famous pilgrimage destination which attracts pilgrims from the entire subcontinent. The inclusion of the springs the wate r of which irrigate the fields of Purang and a much venerated flame that blesses the devout, add to the inherent quality of the circuit.


A narrative circumambulation of the valley of Muktinath


The territory of the Six Villages is also circumambulated in the course of an invocation by the Nyingmapa priests of Chongkhor. The convocation recites 26 to 28 place names that dot the territory described above. It is a ritual journey that does not le ad along the edges like the procession but it represents a continuous movement through and at the same time around the territory. The convocation starts with the visit of Jowo Shartsenpa, that powerful Lord of the Place who has his seat high up in the cli ffs. A second seat of Jowo Shartsenpa is located along the processional circuit (3), before the ritualk journey enters the cultivated area of Chongkhor, the village, where the convocation takes place. Five places within the village are named (at 4 and 5) before the journey again transcends the territory defined by the real circuit. From there the journey moves to the sacred springs, Chumik Gyatso, to Putra, Dzar, Khyinga, again to Putra and Dzong. An abandoned monastery (22) along the leat that serves Dzo ng with water is visited before it ends at the seat of Dagmo Trashi, another powerful Lord of Place in the cliffs.




Kasi, Avimukta or Varanasi - names for spatial entities that differ - encorporating sections of the larger entity and centered around different places. Names, that, as Diana Eck (1983) has observed, „express the various powers and attributes of the city and reveal the dimensions of its sacred authority". Varanasi and Kasi seem to have been synonymous since the frst century AD, but Varanasi is also the name for the capital of the kingdom Kasi. Later, Varanasi referred to the urban settlement t hat streches along the Ganges (from Varana to Asi = Varanasi), while Kasi represented the sacred realm, the ksetra encircled by the Pancakrosiyatra, the circuit, that some fivehundred years ago became the outermost pilgrimage encircling a sacred „f ield" ideally defined by a radius of pancakrosa or 17,6 kilometres, with the temple and lingam of Madhyamesvara as its centre.

When the Pancakrosiyatra evolved during the 12th century, it turned out to incorporate only one fourth of a larger entity that once formed a perfect circle around Madhyamesvara. Its circuit covered 84 krosa or 269 kilometres, thus the name Caura sikrosiyatra. It is unknown why this extented circuit was given up. Today only a stretch of the Pancakrosiyatra in the west - between Bhimacandi and Ramesvara - follows the ancient route. Otherwise, the Varana serves as a rough border in the north while t he Asi stream marks the southern edge. While the Madhyamesvara linga only served as the geographical centre of the ancient Kasi, the linga of Avimuktesvara was the central object of worship and still remains to be so in the context of the Av imuktayatra. But when the Pancakrosiyatra evolved, the Lord of the Universe, Visvesvara, became the central focus.

The present temple of Visvesvara is in most rituals considered to be the „real" centre, although the original site has been destroyed in 1669 by a Moghul emperor, Aurangzeb. Subsidiary Visvesvaras are either called Adivisvesvara or are simply cons idered to have survived the Moghul raid having been hidden by devout citizens of Varanasi or Mirzapur. A king of Nepal, Siddhi Narasimha Malla, even built a large temple in front of his palace in Patan nine years after the raid to offer refuge to Visvesva ra. With that temple he added a third one to those which have already been built in 1627 and 1647, one of which even incorporated 108 named reliefs of lingas of Kasi, suggesting the quest to participate in the bliss bestowing qualities of Kasi.


Much has been written already about the yatras of Kasi by Rana P. B. Singh (especially 1987, 1993), Diana Eck (1983) and myelf (1993, 1994). The present contribution focusses on the structure of the four circuits encompassing eachother and the w ay the destination is reached. In contrast to the other case studies presented here, the circuits have a definite and meaningful destination. While in Bhaktapur the circumambulation is a continuous one which individuals join and leave at any place and in Kag or the Six Villages of Muktinath the circuits originate from the village to which they return, the circuits of Varanasi are tied to an individual vow (samkalpa - for the importance of the „formal decision" for a sacred journey see the cont ribution of Axel Michaels in this volume) in the presence of a priest. It resolves only with darsana, the „viewing" of the linga that constitutes the destination. - The circuit or „pilgrimage" thus has a formal beginning and a form al end, constituting a ritual frame that does not allow for any self-organization. The process itself is more complex, devoid of a rigid time frame. There are certain auspicious times that envite the different circuits but any other time is also possible.


The Pancakrosiyatra (see map) commences - after the vow at Jnanvapi and a purifying bath at Manikarnika Ghat - at Manikarnikesvara (see illustration), a lingam flights of steps below present Varanasi. The pilgrim not only returns to an ancient s tratum of Kasi's history but also seems to vanish in an earthen womb. He or she emerges from there and passes along 104 sacred places before returning to Manikarnika Ghat. After the true circuit is completed, the pilgrim turns to the destination represent ed by Visvesvara. Finally the neighbouring temples of Visnu and Annapurna are visited and the ritual journey completed with a circuit around the inner realm, paying respect to the guardians of the Lord of the Universe, the Pancavinayaka.

The route of the Pancakrosiyatra according to the Kasi Rahasya script is punctuated by 108 stops, a number which reflects various aspects of cosmic order. Moreover, along the route eight of the 64 Vinayakas of Kasi are found, thus adding to the ordering of space by referring to the cardinal and intermediate directions. The dedication of the 108 places refer not only to the Great Tradition of Hinduism but incorporates also protectors (gana) associated with local tradition. Almost every sec ond place has a linga as object of worship. Others are devoted to Devi, Durga or Gauri and a few to Bhairava and Visnu. Also worshipped are two sacred fields (bhumi), six water tanks and wells (kunda, kupa, sarovara), confluences of r ivers and ghats. The sequence of the 108 places do not convey any specific order. They probably represent places, which were already there when the Pancakrosiyatra was established. The route probably took advantage of an existing infrasstructure an d shaped it into a meaningful sequence and order.

More clearly than in other places, Kasiksetra - the „sacred field" of Kasi - is defined by the circuit as a space that differs profoundly from the profane continuum surrounding it. Kasiksetra or Kasimandala - the „circle" of Kasi - is believe d to be supended in the sky, resting on the three prongs of the trident (trisula) of Siva. The special quality of that space is said to be like the sun behind the clouds: you can't see it although it is there. Parry (1993: 108) quotes an informant, who said that „the soil is gold, the city is suspended in space and Siva does wander in it daily" In fact, the space even bears anthropomorphic traits: Siva's head is found at Asi and his feet at the confluence of Varana and Gan ga. Kasi is said to remain forever in the state of golden age, although only the divine sight of a yogi might realize that. While time turns out to be immune to degeneration, the blissful territory - Kasiksetra - is continuously redefined and confirmed by the feet of pilgrims. These may come from far for the realization of a vow, preferably during the inauspicous period of an intercalendary month, that occurs every two or three years or in the days following full moon in October. People from Varanasi itse lf often prefer the dark night of Siva, sivaratri in February. Hords of young men from the wrestling clubs will on that occasion cover the circuit in less that twenty hours. Pilgrims move in groups and for most of them it is an annual exercise. The ultimate aim is to die within the ksetra defined by the circuit, because death in Kasi ensures liberation, mukti. At the time of death Siva whispers a mantra into the ear which destroys all sins.

A hierarchy of sacred spaces is prevailant in which the ultimate aim is represented by Visvesvara. For example, those, who die in one of the other six sacred cities of India, are reborn in Kasi. Sins committed in Kasi are destroyed by the merit gained in performing the Antargrhayatra encircling the „inner realm" and sins committed while performing the Antargrhayatra are wiped out by the merit gained performing the Pancakrosiyatra.

Similarly, Kasi itself contains all outer space. People residing in Kasi don't have to leave the place for other pilgrimages, as Kasi contains all other places, like the Twelve Jyotirlingas of India and the Four Dhams that mark the four corners of the subcontinent. And on a different scale, Kasi itself is represented in a nutshel. The act of pilgrimage circuits or routes to a set of sacred places is in such cases incorporated into an act of worship that makes any movement unnecessary. For example, the Kasi Khanda text has identified three clusters of 14 lingas which may be worshipped along a Bayalisalingiyatra („journey to the 42 lingas"), preferably on the days of new moon. To avoid the burden of such a procession, the 42 lingas are „viewed" in miniature form (see illustration), forming together a collective linga. One level of the sacred infrastructure of Kasi is thus isolated from the rest and shaped into a symbol.

There is even a temple that goes by the name of Pancakrosi Mandir. But it represents much more than the 108 places along the circuit. The frame of the temple's entrance, the side and rear walls bear altogether 272 niches (see illustration) in which sty lized reliefs symbolize Kasi's sacred places in their entirety. If sculptures in the lintels and beside the main door’s jambs are added, the number adds up to 289 representations of gods, goddesses and places. A circumambulation of the temple encompasses Kasi as a whole. The essence, however, is found in the womb chamber. It houses a linga that is named Dvadasesvara - Siva as manifested by 12 lingas - , of which the central one represents Visvesvara and 11 miniature lingas carved of c rystal the remaining eleven of the Jyotirlingams.

The Pancakrosi Mandir incorporates, beyond the 108 places of the yatra, that provided the name for that temple, the complexity of Varanasi by adding 164 other places. On yet another level, Varanasi in its entirety is reduced to be represented by Varanasidevi, an idol found within the compound of Trilocanesvara and Kasi is reduced to Kasidevi, a goddess found at Lalita Ghat.

A final step even does away with „viewing" or an emphasis of „place". A siddha , a person how has achieved insight, will locate Kasi in his body and perform the Pancakrosiyatra within himself.


Kasi is a well-defined mandala that incorporates other circuits.The centre, Visvesvara with Jnanavapi, the two protectors Dandapani and Dhundiraja and the five Vinayakas that guard the inner realm, is encircled by three more circuits of ever reduced sp ace. Visvesvara is thus the innermost sanctuary protected by successive shells.

The Nagarapradaksina (see map), lit. the circumambulation of the urban Varanasi, follows exactly the route of the Pancakrosiyatra between the two rivers that define the stretch of ghats along Ganga. From the temple of Durga the Nagarapradaksina parts and incorporates roughly one sixth of Kasiksetra. The following shell is defined by the Avimuktayatra, dedicated to the space, „that is never forsaken by Siva". Early sources such as the 9th century Skandapurana already mentioned that the terri tory if Avimukta „is superior to all other places, including Prayaga, because it bestows most easily release (moksa)" (Bakker 1993: 25). Not only „Siva destroys all sins", but the place itself, Varanasi, „is veritably the rescuer of all b eings". In a cryptic way the territory is called „the most excellent knowledge". It is probably not the place itself from which knowledge emanates, but the knowledge about the quality of place that turns into a tool on the way towards liberation . It is a vulnerable knowledge, that has to be protected from the ignorant. Therefore it is called „hidden". Today, the Avimukta circuit is rarely performed, as it turns to the ancient centre, Avimuktesvara, instead of Visvesvara. The linga re presenting Avimuktesvara has been relocated in an unconspicious niche along the innermost circuit, hardly known or recognized by anybody. The Avimuktayatra certainly represents a remnant of an ancient configuration that is superseded by the establishment of the Pancakrosiyatra. The route covers only a small section of the ghats between Trilocana Ghat and Kedara Ghat and moves in a circle around what might have constituted the core of the early settlement of Varanasi.

The innermost pilgrimage, literally „the route inside the house", Antargrhayatra (see map), encircles the inner realm of the Lord of the Universe and is thus also called Visvesvarakhandayatra. The circuit is said to be preferably performed as a pr econdition of the circuit around Kasi. The procession starts with the worship of Manikarnikadevi, touches a few places near Sankatadevi and follows Ganga between Scindhia Ghat and Dasasvamedha Ghat. Seventeen lingas are worshipped to complete the f irst circuit. Six more circumambulations follow before the final destination, Visvesvara, is reached. The spiral-like movement demonstrates perfectly the gradual approach as an ideal movement of the pilgrim. No doubt, there is an identifiable destination, a centre or navel which bestows bliss, but the movement reflects a process. It is not an outer edge that defines an inner space. The spiral rather tends to claim the entire „house" as it identifies 72 places within it.




Timer and Space


In many cases (Bhaktapur, Varanasi, Kag) the processional path not only remains unchanged over a long period, but it is mandatory, it forms the backbone of a ritual activity. I know of pathfinding commissions, which days in advance of processional cir cuits check the accessability of former routes. Gates have to be kept opened and new walls removed not only to simply facilitate the ritual but to make it „effective". A loss in authenticity would probably harm the expression of ritual commitment and the resulting religious result or merit. Such rituals will eventually lead to a self-organization as could recently be observed on the occasion of the Narayana-jatra of the Kathmandu Valley (see below). Turning away from the path towards the enclosed spa ce one would say, that the microcosm is renewed or reconstructed by the pilgrim - certainly unknowingly, because the pilgrimage does not need knowledge. A pilgrim rather acts „non-intentional" as in ritual he is and he is not the author of his act (H umphrey/Laidlaw 1994:99, see also the contribution by Michaels in this volume). The route is prescribed and to follow the prescription is identical with the goal. It is the ritual commitment that elevates his action: he is not simply covering a distance i n space but performs a circumambulation. The mandatory quality of the prescribed route must also be understood as a demonstration against change. The ancient path survives change and remains valid forever. The pilgrim who follows such a route is in fact, as M. C. Joshi said in the concluding discussion of the conference in Delhi. „on a journey into the realm of deathlessness". The question is, wether this notion can also be applied to space? If time is set apart from secular time and if the ritual co mmitment transform a path into a circumambulatory route, is then the enclosed space sacred?

The pilgrims doe not „create personal and universal maps of ritual spaces" (Malville: preamble to the conference) but participate in collective actions in space which in most cases were created by ritual specialists. These specialists also created meaningful yantras and designed mandalas on the basis of a geometricised or ordered landscape. The average pilgrim does not need to worry about all this: meaning or even transcendental implications belong to a realm of thought that remains with the specialist - or is reconstructed by the anthropologist .


Complexity and self-organization


These notions are tied to certain observations that have been presented above. I am well aware, that complexity and self-organization start the moment ruthless rules are given up. This happened years ago, when the Narayanajatra of the Kathmandu Valley which is annually observed on the eve of Haribodhini Ekadasi, the eleventh day of the waxing moon in November. On this very day Visnu is said to have awakened from his four-month dreamless sleep on the body of a snake called Ananta - Infinity. For many a period of four month fasting comes to an end and many others observe 24 hours of fasting in honour of Visnu or Narayana as he is usually called in Nepal. On 14th November 1998 I saw thousands of people moving as fast and as convenient as possi ble from one Narayana temple to the next in order to cover all four of them in a short day (see map). Nobody followed any ancient processional route which two generations ago needed a long day to be covered. Instead, buses take advantage of a recently imp roved infrastructure of motorable roads. The pilgrimage to the four temples of Narayana at Changu, Bisankhu, Pharping and Ichangu developed into the most popular pilgrimage of the Valley within a decade. Earlier this was an event followed by Newars alone, the inhabitants who since twothousand years constitute the urban population. Since the opening up of the country at the middle of the 20th century, the diversified bureaucracy of a modern state and educational institutions has resulted in an i nflux that doubled the population within a generation. Today the newcomers join the Narayanajatra in order to demonstrate their integration into an emerging society beyond borderlines set by caste or ethnicity. New motifs overshadow ancient rituals and a llow for self-organization that was unthinkable in an hierarchically structured society. Earlier, the occasion, participation and enactment were tied to a fixed order that did not allow for an individual performance.









Bakker, Hans T. 1993. Early mythology relating to Varanasi. In: Singh, Rana P.B. (ed.), Banaras, Varanasi: Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions, Varanasi: Tara Book Agency, pp. 21

Eck, Diana L. 1983. Banaras. City of light. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Eck, Diana L. 1983. A survey of Sanskrit sources for the study of Varanasi. In: Purana 22 (1), pp. 81-101

Gutschow, Niels. 1982. Stadtraum und Ritual der newarischen Städte im Kathmandu-Tal. Eine architekturanthropologische Untersuchung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer

Gurtschow, Niels. 1996. Bisketjatra of Bhaktapur. In Lienhard, S. edt., Continuity and change of an urban ritual. Change and continuity. Studies in the Nepalese Culture of the Kathmandu Valley. Torino: Edizioni dell’Orso

Gutschow, Niels. 1993. Bhaktapur: Sacred patterns of a living urban tradition. In: Spodek, H. and Srinivasan, D. M. edt., Urban form and Meaning in South Asia: The shaping of cities from prehistoric to precolonial times. Hannover and London: Uni versity Press of New England

Gutschow, Niels. 1994. Varanasi/Benares: The centre of Hinduism?. In: Erdkunde 48 (3): 194-209

Gutschow, Niels and Michaels, Axel. 1993. Benares. Tempel und religiöses Leben in der heiligen Stadt der Hindus. Cologne: DuMont

Gutschow, Niels. 1998. The settlement process in lower Mustang (Baragaon), Nepal. Case studies from Kag, Khyinga and Te. In: Beiträge zur allgemeinen und vergleichenden Archäologie 18: 49-145.

Humphrey, Caroline and Laidlaw, James. 1994. The archetypal actions of ritual: a theory of ritual illustrated by the Jain rite of worship. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Panikkar, Raimundo. 1991. There is no outer without inner space. In: Concepts of Space, ancient and modern. Delhi: Abhinav Publications, pp. 7-38

Parry, J.P. 1981. Death and cosmogony in Kashi. In: Contributions to Indian sociology 15 (1-2): 88-111.

Parry, Jonathan P. 1994. Death in Benares. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ramble, Charles. 1995. Gaining ground: representations of territory in Bon and Tibetan popular Tradition. In: Tibet Journal 20 (1), pp.83-124

Ramble, Charles. 1998. The Mustang villages of Kag, Te and Khyinga: an introduction to history, ethnicity and the idea of place. In: Beiträge zur allgemeinen und vergleichenden Archäologie 18: 147-182.

Singh, Rana P.B. 1987. The pilgrimage mandala of Varanasi (Kasi). A study in sacred geography. In: National Geographic Journal of India 33 (4): 493-524

Singh, Rana P.B. (ed.). 1993. Banaras, Varanasi: Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Varanasi: Tara Book Agency




1 Bhaktapur


Bhaktapur: The urban fabric - clusters of courtyard houses form densely populated quarters (map based on a survey in 1978)



Bhaktapur: The processional route (marked with large dots) leads through and around an inner territory, tying important power places together. On the occasion of Bisketjatra - the week-long New Year festival - the route slightly deviates (indicated by small dots) in order to pass by all those 34 gods and goddesses which invite blood sacrifice.



Bhaktapur: On the final day of the New Year festival almost the entire population takes the chance to worship the 34 gods and goddesses. Women join the processional route in the morning, forming long ques (16 April 1991).


2. Kag


Kag: Ritual circumambulation of the fields. The processional path is punctuated by sixteen halting places. While three of these mark the northern and southern boundary of the village as well as its centre, eight are defined by markers such as rocks or boulders. At five places physical obstructions are produced against evil forces that have the potential to enter the protected space along the main access roads.



Kag: View across the fields and village towards north (19 February 1998)



Kag: The northern access to the village, where the procession starts. The 18th century gate is protected by the legendary grandfather, a figure of mud, which is renewed every year ( 6 October 1991).


3 Dzar-Dzong



The sacred landscape of Mustang and Muktinath: The Six Villages of Muktinath Valley and the Five Villages of Lower Mustang are located on both sides of the Kali Gandaki river which merges into the Seven Gandakis and finally joins the Ganges. Two mount ains - Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri - form a physical and spiritual gate that marks the boundary between the world of the plains and the high plateau with settlements based on irrigation. Three mountains (Tise, Lapchi and Tsari) mark this edge on a macro level. These three mountains are imagined as the three cakras of an anthropomorphic figure.



Dzar-Dzong (Yul Kha Druk): While the cultivated area of the individual villages (marked in black: Khyinga, Dzar, Purang, Chongkhor, Dzong, Putra) are circumambulated annually, the territory of the six villages are circumambulated collectively on certai n occasions when the 108 books of the Kanjur is read in the context of a complex ritual. The circuit also incorporates Chumik Gyatso, the sacred springs of Muktinath. Beyond the route the natural space of Muktinath Valley is clearly defined by three impos ing mountains, while the western border with the neighbouring entity of Chügyü Yul Kha Nga is disputed.



Dzar-Dzong: Ritual journey through the territory of the Six Villages of the Muktinath Valley.



Dzar-Dzong: View across Dzar towards west (12 October 1991)




4 Varanasi


Varanasi: Four circumambulatory routes encircling an ever increasing territory.

1 Antargrhayatra represents the innermost route that encircles the centre sevemnfold before it reaches the centre, Visvesvara; 2 Avimuktayatra encircles „the realm that is never left by Siva". The route is punctuated by 70 sacred places, followed by the last round that is dedicated to the four innermost shrines dedicated to Vinayaka before it reaches ist destination, Avimuktesvara; 3 Nagarapradaksina encircles urban Varanasi („nagara") - it commences with the worship of Manikarnikadevi and te rminates at the Jnanavapi, the entire route being punctuated by eight Vinayaka temples (as indicated on the map by circles); 4 Pancakrosiyatra delimits presentday Kasi Mandala - the circuit starts at Manikarnikesvara and ends with the worship of Visnu, An napurna and the five innermost Vinayakas after having reached Visvesvara. The route is punctuated by eight Vinayaka temples, as indicated by squares on the map.



Varanasi: Processional route around the inner realm of the „Lord of the Universe" (Visvesvara), called Antargrhayatra or Visvesvarakhandayatra.

A sevenfold circumambulation starts with the worship of Manikarnikadevi and leads towards the centre in a spiral-like movement. Altogether 76 temples and shrines punctuate the route before Visvesvara is reached.



Kasi: Pilgrims from Mirzapur encircling the sacred realm along the route defined by the Pancakrosiyatra, (near Ramesvara, 22 April 1991).



Varanasi: Linga of Manikarnikesvara, placed seven metres below the courtyard of a matha, high above the Ganges. Pancakrosiyatra and Avimuktayatra commence with the worhsip of this linga (20 April 1991).



Varanasi: Linga comprising fourty-two miniature lingas at Kapildhara, representing three series of fourteen lingas that mark the urban space which in turn are found scattered all over the subcontinent (2 December 1990).



Varanasi: Pancagangaghat along the Ganges (24 April 1991).



Varanasi: Detail of the wall of Pancakrosi-Mandir with twenty niches representing figuratively tirthas which are visited in the context of various yatras - for example in the upper row from left to right Visvesvara, Gabhastisvara (no. 98 of the 108 tirthas of Pancakrosiyatra), Vaidyesvara and Rnamocanakunda (7 November 1991).



Kathmandu Valley: the pilgrimage to the four Narayana temples on the eve of Haribodhini Ekadasi , the eleventh day of the waxing moon in November. The new infrastructure of motorable roads guides the „traffic" between the four places that punctua te the circuit a cosmic mandala.


Notes about the author:

Niels Gutschow, born 1941 in Hamburg studied architecture and completed his studies with a PhD thesis about Japanese cities in 1973. First visit to Varanasi in 1962, return in 1974 under the guidance of Kuber Nath Sukul and in 1989, in collaboratio n with Rana P.B. Singh and in 1992, with Axel Michaels. Extensive fieldwork in Bhaktapur 1974-76 and 1980-86, in Mustang 1991-98. Lives in Abtsteinach, Germany and in Bhaktapur, Nepal.


Note: all photographs and maps by the author