A pilgrimage is a journey that a person undertakes in search of deeper personal or spiritual understanding. Throughout history, pilgrimages have often been linked to religious belief, with pilgrims traveling – sometimes great distances – to places with special significance for believers of their faith.
Some religions consider a pilgrimage to be a duty that all believers are expected to fulfill in their lifetimes. Others view it as a way to achieve a deeper comprehension and a greater appreciation for a shared faith, or an opportunity to learn about the culture and history that binds a community of believers. For these reasons and more, pilgrimages are as important and widely practiced now as they have ever been before, with some attracting millions of pilgrims each year.
Here are just a few examples of the most popular religious pilgrimages around the world, often practiced by both believers and travelers looking for a unique cultural experience.
Hajj: the Pilgrimage to Mecca
The Hajj is considered a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims to fulfil at least once in their lifetime, assuming they are physically and financially equipped for the journey. Pilgrims undertaking the Hajj journey to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to visit a stone structure called the Kaaba, which, for Muslims, is the home of God.
Believers are expected to walk counterclockwise around the perimeter of the Kaaba seven times in observance of a sacred rite called Tawaf. The Kaaba receives devoted visitors throughout the year, but the ten-day celebration of the Hajj marks an annual high point, with more than 2 million Muslims visiting the holy site during Hajj each year.
Kumbh Mela: pilgrimage and religious festival
Kumbh Mela is not only a significant pilgrimage for Hindus but is widely considered to be one of the largest regular gatherings of pilgrims in the world. The pilgrimage is celebrated every three to four years, with pilgrims converging on one of four Indian cities that regularly host the event. Kumbh Mela destinations welcome tens of millions of visitors during the month the pilgrimage is celebrated, with the city of Prayagraj seeing nearly 120 million attendees in 2013.
The central ritual of the Kumbh Mela consists of bathing in the water of the river that passes through the host city, which is believed by Hindus to have a purifying effect that washes away past sins and can help believers liberate themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. Alongside the bathing ritual, pilgrims celebrate the Kumbh Mela with other events, including spiritual lectures and discussions, periods of fasting punctuated by feasts, artistic and cultural displays, and markets.
Bodh Gaya: following the steps of the Buddha
Buddhist pilgrims make their way to four distinct places connected to important events in the life of the Buddha, with perhaps the most significant being Bodh Gaya. This village marks the site where the Buddha is said to have attained the state of bodhi, or enlightenment, while sitting in the shade of the sacred Bodhi tree.
The location has been a pilgrimage destination of major importance to Buddhists the world over for more than two thousand years. The Mahabodhi Temple, which houses the Bodhi tree as well as the throne the Buddha is said to have sat upon as he meditated, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives nearly half a million visitors each year.
Camino de Santiago: the famous pilgrimage and its routes
The Camino de Santiago is a Christian religious pilgrimage consisting of several walking routes through parts of Spain, France, and Portugal that converge on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the Spanish autonomous community of Galicia. Since the 9th century, pilgrims have made the journey to the cathedral believed by Christians to be the resting place of St. James, one of Jesus’s twelve apostles.
In total, the various routes that comprise the Camino de Santiago see more than 200,000 pilgrims each year, and several sections have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The majority of pilgrims follow a path referred to as the French Way, which begins in the French commune of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before crossing the Pyrenees mountains and leading travelers through several major cities in the northern regions of Spain. Travelers on the Camino often identify themselves by attaching white scallop shells to their clothes or backpacks painted with the unique red St. John’s Cross, both symbols of the pilgrimage’s namesake.
Grand Magal of Touba: a popular Muslim festival and pilgrimage
The Grand Magal of Touba is a two-day pilgrimage that has brought members of the Mouride Brotherhood, a Sufi Islamic order, to the Senegalese city of Touba each year for almost a century. The event celebrates the life and teachings of the founder of the order, Sheik Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, and commemorates his exile by French colonial authorities.
The Magal of Touba is among the world’s most popular religious pilgrimages, regularly drawing 3 million people or more to visit the Mouride Brotherhood’s most revered site, the Great Mosque of Touba, which contains the mausoleum of Ahmadou Bamba. Pilgrims make the journey to pray and pay respects to the order’s late founder with many also taking the opportunity to meet and listen to a variety of community figures and spiritual leaders.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe: the Catholic pilgrimage that attracts millions
Many Catholics who feel a special connection to Mary, the mother of Jesus, make pilgrimages to shrines built in places where tradition holds that she has spoken or appeared to fellow believers, such as Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, and La Vang in Vietnam. The most popular and widely visited among these is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, built near the site where believers profess that Mary appeared five times and performed miracles over the course of several days in 1531.
The Basilica is the most-visited Catholic sanctuary in the world, surpassing even St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City by attracting as many as 20 million visitors each year. Nearly half of them make their visit in the days surrounding December 9, when the first of the apparitions is said to have taken place.
These are just a few of the many pilgrimage journeys that believers of all faiths, as well as those simply eager to learn and experience new things, make around the world each year. From devotion to curiosity to a passion for adventure, the motivations that drive us to travel are as diverse as the destinations we visit on our journeys. Check out the Life Abroad section of our blog for more tips and stories about traveling and living overseas.
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