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a physical journey made to a sacred place which also represents a spiritual or emotional journey. The custom of pilgrimage is found in a wide range of cultures, and in most of the world's religions it is frequently associated with a shrine, the place where the body or relics of a saint or holy person are kept, and which may be the scene of miracles and offerings of money flowers or symbolic objects.

In contemporary society the religious tradition continues. Alongside this is the growth in secular pilgrimage to places of cultural significance, such as Disneyland, or to the shrine of a dead hero, such as the grave of Elvis Presley, in Memphis, Tennessee (see C. King, 1993). Such journeys, whilst a feature of the modern tourist industry demonstrate many of the features of traditional religious pilgrimage.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place for the purpose of receiving some spiritual value. The nature of that value varies widely and might include increasing one’s sense of identification with a particular faith, gaining a sense of mystical contact with supernatural reality, cultivating spiritual merit or understanding, or receiving a particular benefit, such as the forgiveness of sin. Certainly in the first sense, all religions have sites that are particularly associated with their beginning and/or serve as the current earthly center(s) for worship and sacred activity. Even for religions such as Judaism or Sikhism that do not place a great deal of value on pilgrimages, a journey to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, can give the faithful a deeper tie to their faith community.

The greatest emphases on pilgrimages in the contemporary world are found in Islam and Roman Catholicism. Among the five pillars of Islam, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is demanded of physically capable believers at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj occurs each year on five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. On the Common Era (CE) calendar, the Hajj takes place at a different month each year. In the modern world, the pilgrimage has become highly ritualized. It begins in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and over several days visits nearby locations before arriving at the Kaaba, the most sacred site acknowledged by Muslims.

Pilgrimages within Christianity began around the sites associated with Christ’s death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but also extended to the various places he was said to have visited during his life. With the geographical spread of Christianity, the sites associated with the 12 Apostles, especially their martyrdom, attained sacred status. Persecutedduring its first three centuries, Christians paid considerable attention to the acts of martyrs. Popular piety began to ascribe to martyrs the power of granting the remission of canonical penances (requirements laid out in the confessional for a believer to make restitution for sin). Gradually, the tombs of martyrs and the sites of their martyrdom became places to be visited, as well. There, pilgrims could offer prayer and veneration of the martyr and know that the taint and penalty of sin was being removed. In the early Middle Ages, as the sacrament system of the Church developed and a penitential system erected, pilgrimages were designated as one of a spectrum of adequate actions which could make restitution for a variety of sins, a singular serious sin, or a lifetimes’ accumulation of sin.

Within Catholicism, the number of pilgrimage sites multiplied over the centuries, but pilgrimages to Rome were seen as the epitome of the pilgrim’s quest. Over the years such pilgrimages have been organized and ritualized, as has the Hajj. The clothing to be worn, the attention to personal hygiene, and (for the rich) the mode of travel, walking being preferred, are traditionalized. As targets of pilgrimages were identified, services emerged to provide for the pilgrim’s needs, including the stationing of soldiers along the most popular routes to protect pilgrims from robbers.

Pilgrimages were also tied to the system of indulgences. In Roman Catholic belief, God forgives even the most heinous sin for the sinner who repents. However, some recompense for the sin must also be made. At the same time, the Church is seen as possessing a treasury of merits bequeathed it by Christ and the saints. Thus, the Church may intervene on behalf of individual Christians and use that storehouse of mercy to relieve the temporal punishment due for their sins. In issuing indulgences, the Church seeks not only to assist individuals, but also to promote acts of devotion and charity. Indulgences, usually seen as remitting one’s time in purgatory, may be given for specific acts of pilgrimages.

India is covered with holy sites associated with the exploits of the gods, the waters of a sacred river, and/or the presence of holy men. Sacred texts, the Puranas, detail different sacred sites and the merit to individuals who travel to them with a proper consciousness. Once on site, bathing at such sites is an especially meritorious act. The improvement in transportation in recent decades underlies a significant increase in the numbers of pilgrims, and the tourist industry has made a noticeable shift in its programs to service pilgrims. As with devotees of other religions, many Hindus have conflated pilgrimages with vacations.

A list of the more prominent pilgrimage sites in India would include Benares (also known as Varanasi or Kashi); Uttar Pradesh, which is also sacred to Buddhists and Jains; Rishikesh; Vrindaban, associated with the deity Krishna; Puri, site of the annual Jagannath festival; and the four cities that host the large Kumbh Mela festivals ( Hardwar, Allahabad, Ujjain, and Nasik).

Unlike Hindus, Sikhs do not engage in pilgrimage to gain spiritual merit. Guru Nanak, for example, offered a spiritualized perspective on pilgrimage, equating it with inner exploration and the improvement of one’s moral resolve. However, Sikhs do venerate their founding gurus and find inspiration in visiting sites like the Golden Temple in Amritsar associated with them. Visits to such shrines help focus the group’s teachings and remind people of the moral uprightness to which they are called. Still, the emphasis is as Guru Nanak said, “My places of pilgrimage are to study ‘The Word,’ and contemplating its divine knowledge within me.”

Buddhism, while attempting to reform Hinduism, developed a vast role for pilgrimage, but then it died out in its land of origin. The reestablishment of Buddhism in India in the twentieth century has led to a recovery of the sites most associated with Gautama Buddha’s life: Lumbini,where he was born; Sarnath, where he gave his first public sermon; and Kusinagara, where he died. A particular effort was made through the twentieth century to obtain the spot where he attained Buddhahood (enlightenment), Bodhgaya, under the Bodhi Tree. According to the Mahapirinibbana Sutra, Buddha told Ananda, his chief disciple, that the pious should visit these four places and any who happen to die while on pilgrimage will be reborn in a “realm of heavenly happiness.”

Over the centuries, as Buddhism spread, a number of additional sites have been designated, not the least being places where Gautama Buddha’s relics have been preserved and are on display. In different countries, sacred sites exist. In Tibet, for example, Mount Kailas and the adjacent Lake Mamsa attract not only Buddhist but also Hindu and Jain pilgrims, who identify it with the mythical Mount Meru, the axis of the world. Borobudur, a temple in the middle of Java, was built when the island was home to a large Buddhist community.


Cousineau, Phil. The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred. Newburyport, MA:Conari Press, 2000.
Gitlitz, David, and Linda Davidson. Pilgrimage: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbra, CA: ABC-Clio, 2002.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a journey of believers to what are called holy places, undertaken in the hope of receiving “supernatural aid.” In antiquity, pilgrimage centers included the temples of Amon in Egyptian Thebes, Osiris in Abydos, and Apollo in Delphi. In the fourth century, Christians began making pilgrimages to Palestine, from which they usually brought back a palm branch. The pilgrimage aspect played an important role in the preparation for the Crusades, with religious motives often serving to conceal commercial and expansionist aims.

Both for the encouragement of pilgrimages and for religious propaganda, numerous guidebooks, or itineraries, were compiled. Many of them, along with descriptions of the pilgrimages themselves, later became important historical sources. In addition to Palestine, to which Christians, Jews, and Muslims make pilgrimages, other pilgrimage centers include, for the Eastern Orthodox, Constantinople (in the Middle Ages) and Mount Athos in Greece; for Catholics, Rome and Loreto in Italy and Lourdes in France; for Muslims, the hajj to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Karbala and al-Najaf in Iraq; and for La-maists, Lhasa in China. Hindu pilgrimage centers are Allahabad and Varanasi (Benares) in India and for Buddhists and Shin-toists, Nara in Japan.

Church organizations use pilgrimages to strengthen the influence of religion and to spread legends about the “miracles” performed at pilgrimage centers. They are also an important source of revenue.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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