I still remember the day my dad came back from office with a sparkle in his eyes. After years of just dreaming about it, he had finally paid an advance to book us on a trip — not a holiday, but a pilgrimage to see the Dwadashi Jyotirlingam, a trail of 12 Shiva temples spread across the country. The year was 1989, I was five, and my family was then living in Bombay. Someone had told my father about a person who organised pilgrimages by bus for folks like us — middle-class south Indian families with an itchy foot. The buses were said to be good enough and the puliyodarai and thayir sadam were “first class”, a family friend assured us. As I heard later from my parents, they were told that the organiser was a “sincere god-fearing fellow, uninterested in making a profit”. My father sold a few of the silver coins he and my mother had been saving for my marriage to fund the trip. In a few days, luggage in tow, we left home at the auspicious Brahma Muhurtham at half past four in the morning, boarded an auto, and joined the 80-odd people travelling in two rickety buses to visit the five Jyotirlingams in Maharashtra, singing bhajans and clinking our bronze cymbals noisily all the way.

According to religious lore, it is at the jyotirlingams that the spiritually awake can glimpse Shiva — symbolised as the phallic lingam — as radiant light, or jyoti . We were seekers in buses, determined to endure any physical hardship to reach these shrines, including a bout of jaundice in my case. I fell ill at Parli Vajinath, en route to Bhimashankar. Yet, with a prayer on our lips, we trudged on to Bhimashankar. Past Nashik, at Bhimashankar, where the bus couldn’t go further, we got soaked on a rainy day while walking for four hours each way, on narrow stony paths amidst dense hilly jungles. We were staying at a dharamshala that offered bare-minimum facilities and only moth-eaten blankets to keep us warm. The nearest doctor was in Pune, 130 km away. Rather than losing heart and abandoning the trip, my father was determined to pass this “test of devotion” and complete our journey. Our guide located a cave-dwelling holy man nearby who “treated” me by dusting me with peacock feathers and smearing holy ash on my forehead.

On returning to Bombay, my extended family showered me with praise, as if I had aced an endurance test.

Three decades on, a lot has changed. Pilgrimages don’t necessarily entail roughing it out. Family and friends embark on well-organised trips marked by comfortable stays and lip-smacking food, even rounding off their piety with picnics, guided treks and pit stops for adventure tourism.

A visit to Bhimashankar today gives you the option of checking into a five-star hotel less than 30 km away, or booking yourself a guided trek through the Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary and camp, with someone at hand to take care of your luggage and provide you with hot food. At Rameswaram, the site of another Jyotirlingam , in coastal Tamil Nadu, you can go snorkelling for corals and indulge in water sports in the holy waters.

At Rishikesh in Uttarakhand — a gateway to several holy sites in the Himalayan region — few can resist river-rafting down the sacred Ganga. Not far from the Sai Baba temple at Shirdi in Maharashtra are the lush vineyards of Nashik, which are a popular tourist destination.

As one travel company declares prominently on its website: “We even dare to mix your religious tour with other upbeat tours in Nasik, and offer deals that cannot be found anywhere (sic)”.

The Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh — long-synonymous with arduously long waits in serpentine queues — now offers online darshan tickets that rake in the moolah while guaranteeing you just an hour’s waiting time. The time saved can be spent on the many tourist sites that have popped up in the vicinity in recent decades, including a deer park and the Sri Venkateshwara National Park for wildlife enthusiasts, Silathoranam — a rock garden with ancient geological rock formations, including a natural stone arch said to be millions of years old, and a regional science centre.


When Lord Krishna said all paths lead to the same destination, perhaps he also meant the explosion in the tourism industry today where the traveller is spoilt for choice.

From dhabas to multi-cuisine restaurants, budget lodges to star-rated resorts, from trains to helicopter rides and ropeway services — no place is unreachable for today’s pilgrim, with their every need taken care of, and at budgets to suit every pocket. A growing number of Indians today are going the extra mile, including availing themselves of EMI payment options from travel sites, to tick a bucket list that had hitherto remained in the realm of wishful. For the well-heeled, of course, the path to VIP darshans is paved with every manner of luxury that money can buy.

On the high-altitude journeys to Kailash Mansarovar, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, or the Char Dham (four abodes) of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, one can take a helicopter all the way to the top for a few lakh rupees. For senior citizens, those with asthma, bad knees or anyone short on time, this is surely a godsend.

Last month, when Jamuna Ravi, a Bengaluru-based IT consultant in her 50s, and her husband booked with a travel company for the char dham, they helicoptered to Kedarnath and travelled to the other destinations on bus or ponies, in order to not miss the scenic beauty, which they believed was “superior to some of the best parts of Europe”.


Heavenly view: Jamuna Ravi, a Bengaluru based IT consultant, travels in a helicopter to Kedarnath


The tour company took care of their specialised diet requirements, apart from providing a knowledgeable tour guide, who enriched their experience.

Among Muslims, the annual Hajj pilgrimage was for long fraught with uncertainties. Back in the ’60s, people would sail to Jeddah, and brave an unforgiving terrain, the risk of stampedes and dehydration on the road to Mecca and Medina. After the Indian government ended the Hajj subsidy in January this year, there has been a big demand for private package tours, across budgets. The Saudi government provides amenities that include air-conditioned buses, shaded walkways, adequate supply of cool drinking water and shelter. From a time not so long ago, when only those at the fag end of their life contemplated the Hajj, owing to the risk to life and limb, today we have pilgrims making repeat visits in their lifetime.


To the house of god: The Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj was for long fraught with risks to life and limb. With improved amenities, pilgrims today make repeat visits in their lifetime


Besides the Hajj subsidy, several other pilgrimages in India have received state assistance down the years. The Tamil Nadu government recently launched the Jerusalem Pilgrimage Financial Assistance Scheme for Tamil Christians desirous of visiting Bethlehem (Jesus’ birthplace), Jerusalem (the place of his crucifixion, death and resurrection), Nazareth (early childhood), Jordan river (the site of baptism), the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee, among other related sites.

Under the scheme, travellers belonging to economically backward communities will each receive ₹20,000 for the 10-day trip. Incidentally, during the run-up to the Nagaland assembly polls this year, the BJP had offered Christians free trips to Jerusalem, if elected.

The luxury version, from private tour operators, involves 12-day Holy Land tour packages to Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Besides visits to the Biblical sites, the packages throw in the pyramids of Giza and a Nile cruise, among other attractions.

Clearly, spiritual quest is no longer just a sombre affair for the modern-day pilgrim. Which brings to mind one man’s more-than-arduous journey to visit Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950), the well-known sage who lived in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district. The story goes that Rangan, a childhood friend of the Maharishi, was on his way to meet him. He had missed his connecting train at Villupuram, 65 km away. The stationmaster, who knew him, arranged for him to travel on a goods train. With no permission to stop midway, the train’s guard offered to slow it down enough to allow Rangan to jump off safely. Sadly, it wasn’t slow enough and Rangan fell into thorny bushes and bruised himself. When he limped into the Maharishi’s ashram late at night, utterly exhausted, he found the sage awake and waiting for him. “The yearning for the darshan matters more than the darshan itself,” he had remarked to Rangan. It is the yearning that matters still.