The search for ultimate meaning is a thread that runs through every culture, however wedded it may be to the practical and tangible. Gold and empire are greatly prized but always there are individuals who look for something else. The Mughal emperor Akbar’s inward journey was both long and arduous. Even the Material Girl has her own special space for the spiritual.

But nowhere is it better exemplified than in the pilgrim’s quest. When the devotee sets out, like Kim’s Lama in search of the River of the Arrow, it is with a humble heart and the hope of absolution or salvation at the end of the journey. That is the end of desire. These journeys are both internal and external and in each case generate a network of guide posts to help successive generations of travellers.

There are all sorts of networks, visible and invisible, written and drawn. Nor are they confined to the spiritual. The notes that Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton or Galileo left behind are also signposts. They served as maps for men and women curious enough to learn more about the anatomy of the universe. 

That is not the end of it, however, as the landscapes we inhabit are often notional and emotional, requiring a different sort of navigational aid. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for instance, consists of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person's journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife, a map into a different sort of geography.

Somewhat in this spirit is Diana L Eck’s India A Sacred Geography, where she provides insights into a realm that everyone has experienced but few have bothered to explore in any depth. Her concern is the Indian religious landscape, principally Hindu religious landscape, external, internal and hypothetical. That is a deliberate limit she places upon her study. It is a daunting task even with that constraint. The Indian religious tradition is more than 3,000 years old, at least the organised segment of it. Some practices are older, perhaps beyond recorded time.

This tradition has continued to evolve over the millennia, splitting into branches and subdivisions and coming together again in some cases. In some instances, outside influences have modified and moderated its main features. At least two major religions and several existent minor variations on the theme have come into being as a result of this process, and we are not including the tribal faiths which cannot be strictly classified as Hindu. Wisely, Diana Eck makes no mention of them either as it would complicate her task impossibly.

In addition to the indigenous faiths we have an extensively recorded history of Islam and Christianity, not to speak of Judaism (a very small sample to be sure) and Zoroastrianism. Of the first two there are millions of practitioners in every corner of the land, of every conceivable school of thought. Given the wealth of material, therefore, a certain economy of effort was probably inevitable. All the same, the geography of these faiths deserves separate study.

Everyone is familiar with the term “geography” in the sense of a description of or a pictorial representation of the landscape under the gaze of the observer. The atlas is the best example of geographic representation and there are many types, from the detailed large-scale maps of the surveyor, to the smaller maps of countries that we see in the bookshops.

There are in addition the population, natural resource, roadway and railway, wildlife and forestry maps. Indeed, there are as many geographies in our lives as fields of interest. Each is capable of cartographic representation, immediate instances being the charts and diagrams of weather, stock market cycles, and so on in the daily newspaper.

Then there is Google Maps, a wondrous use of available technology to provide detailed information about every part of the planet. The first view when you click on it is the familiar outline you will see in any atlas, but zoom in on a particular area and you see increasing, richer and finer details until you can view the houses and streets in your neighbourhood. That is your personal geography and mine, paths we traverse every day in the routine of work, study, worship, leisure and errands.

They set out from their villages and towns, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups and occasionally in large bands, travelling vast distances in search of God. Many never came back, lost forever to their friends and families at home. Some became wanderers, others died and some went to Kashi or Mecca or some other sacred place to die .

Now if we bend our minds to thinking like this we will find another interesting fact. This personal geography is repetitive and highly predictable; we go more or less the same way on most days, with only minor deviations. Consciously or unconsciously, our routines define the major part of our worlds and confine them.

Trevor Bailey, former England cricketer, was among the most travelled men of his time, having visited three continents playing for his country. But he considered himself a stay-at-home type. Most of his life, he said, was spent in an area approximately half a square mile (about 300 acres) in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. Birth, childhood, school, work, family, and retirement home, all were crowded into that little space, a remarkable fact, considering Bailey was born in the Age of Mobility, social and physical.

But it is when we are confronted with the fact of pilgrimage and its antiquity that the real surprises begin. Until the end of the 19th century, travel of any sort was both uncertain and dangerous, especially for ordinary people. As a result, few people ventured out of their environment. Merchants and the nobility had their own armed retainers, but hostile locals were not the only problem. Disease, ignorance of the country, flood and famine could be equally deadly, equally final.

Those of us who have travelled to Haridwar or Badrinath, Rameswaram or Puri by train, bus or car can have no idea of a journey without any of these conveniences. At best, you could ride a fast horse or a cart. The majority walked, day in day out, the only comfort being that every day brought them closer to the end.

Yet they set out from their villages and towns, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups and, occasionally, in large bands, travelling vast distances to the remotest places, in search of God. Many of them never came back, lost forever to their friends and families at home. Some became wanderers, others died and some went to Kashi or Mecca or some other sacred place to die.

Roopkund in the Garhwal Himalayas is a glacial lake 5,029 metres (16,499 ft) above sea level. It is piercingly cold, uninhabited and covered in snow most of the year. In 1942, H.K. Madhwal, a ranger from the Nanda Devi game reserve reported some 500 human skeletal remains lying at the edge of the lake. It wasn’t really news as similar reports had been coming in since the 19th century. No one knew where they had come from though rumour had added sinister overtones to a deep mystery.

A comprehensive study of the remains in 2004 turned up some astonising results. The remains dated from approximately 850 AD, more than 1,000 years ago. DNA evidence indicated that at least one part of the group probably comprised Kokanastha Brahmins in Maharashtra.

What inspired them to travel halfway across the subcontinent into completely alien terrain and climatic conditions is not known, but the remarkable fact is that they did so. Why? There is no historic evidence of trade routes into Tibet, but there is an important pilgrimage in the area, the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, once in 12 years. That is the likely explanation, but this too is speculative.

“The footsteps of pilgrims are the point of departure in creating the lived landscape. Pilgrims leave home, and the tracks of their journeys create a circuit of meaning and connection.”

This is the heart of the thesis in A Sacred Geography. Diana Eck devotes an entire chapter to a Hindu “Atlas of the World” including Jambudvipa (Rose Apple Island, an old name for India) but the real focus is on the pilgrim, the sites of pilgrimage and the groups of sites that make up the various circuits, in terms of the auspicious numbers, fours, sevens, twelves, and so on.

The pilgrim is of necessity a humble person. Princes, potentates and plutocrats have recourse to the sacrifice and ritual, but a man alone, of humble station, cannot afford the indulgence. For him it is the tirtha, where he can make the crossing from the mundane to the sacred. The Mahabharata, in the section on sacrifice, states: “The holy practice of pilgrimage excels even the sacrifice.”

Literally speaking, a tirtha is a ford or crossing, as in a river ford. It is especially potent spiritually because a tirtha is a place where the gods are nearby and much more inclined to hear the pilgrim’s prayers.

It thus becomes a place of transcendence as well, where devotee and deity become one, for however brief a time. This is a claim hotly debated, often derided and sneered at by disbelievers, but on a pilgrimage it is hard to ignore the genuine exaltation that takes over some of the devotees. They seem to slough off the dead skin of habit. Perhaps that is why some of them never return to normal life, preferring vairagya (renunciation). These are the persons who make the tirtha, the crossing.

This is what makes the pilgrimage so special and the pilgrim a figure of reverence. It is his feet, his heart and his faith that have created all the sacred geographies on this planet. It is the experience that sanctifies the geography, the lived landscape, as Eck terms it. Whether it is the Char Dham, Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram, the Sapta Sindhu, or the 12 Jyotirlingas, the lingas of light, all are mediated by the lived experience of the faithful.

As Andrew Sinclair notes in The Discovery of the Grail, the real story is not the mystery or the breathless conspiracy theories that surround the Grail legend, but the simple faith that over the centuries moved millions of pilgrims to walk the trail the Holy Grail is supposed to have taken into Europe. In their faith they created a sacred geography every bit as evocative as the Passion of Christ. As the faith waned the trail was overgrown and then forgotten, and surely there is a lesson in that.

It is appropriate to ask at this point to ask if faith is a form of delusion, a fever of fancy that has no connection with reality, or is it a miraculous act of creation? Eck does not make a direct attempt to answer it, but the response is implicit. She is concerned mainly with the lived experience and that has a value no one can gainsay.

It has long been fashionable to devalue religion by anchoring it in community power play, or by explaining it in terms of neurosis, obsessive behaviour with strong sexual undertones. Both explanations have provided many genuine insights but they often trail off into pseudo-psychological hyperbole. They discount the possibility that their explanations are not the last word on the subject.

Eck’s position resembles that of William James, the 19th century pragmatist. He was perfectly willing to concede that the whole of religion may be delusional, but an individual’s experience still had value to him if no one else.

He held that all the forensic investigation in the world could not, indeed should not, devalue that experience. It was not susceptible to the usual kinds of rational analysis.

The deity is the centre of the devotee’s world. Everything fades besides that passion and everything becomes possible because of it. The story of Ekalavya is one of the finest accounts of unquestioning humility leading to a power that could have shaken the world if he had not been betrayed by his idol, Dronacharya. The contours of a sacred geography are defined even more clearly by this passion of devotion. Deity and devotee thus share in this common task.

Geographies can be global, regional or local, as Eck reminds us time and again. The Char Dham is for all of India, but there are many of these tirthas. For instance, in the high Himalayas lie Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, its four great pilgrimages.

“In rural Chitrakut, where Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana are said to have halted in a forest ashram, there are also four dhams to be visited.” Then Eck goes on to speak of a village called Ghatiyali in Rajasthan where too there is a Char Dham yatra. It has nothing to do with the one we are familiar with.

They can also be overlapping. The statue of Gomateswara or Bahubali at Shravanabelgola in Karnataka is a breathtaking work of art, but it is also one of the great centres of pilgrimage, for Hindus and Jains, as is the temple complex of Girnar in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Girnar too has Char Dham in the needle peaks of the range.

Gaya and Kashi are sacred to Hindus, but for Buddhists they have equally great significance, both being important sites in the evolution of Gautama. The same could be said for a hundred other sites, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan, Shirdi in Maharashtra, Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and, possibly also Puttaparthi.

Often they run parallel despite the overlap. Thus the Madhava shrines of Krishna in south Karnataka are visited by thousands of people of all denominations of Hinduism, but the sect that tends them may have nothing do with any other. This is also probably true of the Lingayats who would be unlikely to go to any temple other than Shiva’s.

So it is perfectly possible to have two groups of pilgrims travelling side by side for miles on end with neither having the slightest idea of or interest in the other’s object of devotion. Indians are quite used to this form of polite indifference, living as they do among so many creeds and their sub-sects.

A Sacred Geography explores in detail some of the outstanding pilgrim circuits, the great river sanctuaries, the abodes of Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Krishna and Rama. Not all of them are covered, partly because that would make the work too big, but also because Eck’s task is the exposition of her idea of sacred geography. The tone is one of reverence but she is careful not to descend into hagiography.

At certain times of the year the road from Meerut to Haridwar is full of quiet, sunburnt men and women on their way by train, bus or on foot. They generally travel in family or village groups, all bent on the same task. They rarely speak to anyone, but if you speak to them they reply with grave courtesy.

They have travelled hundreds of miles from their little villages in Rajasthan for the pilgrimage to Ganga Mata. When they go back they will take some of her waters for their homes. It is a journey that has been repeated by countless generations of their forbears and it may continue for generations to come. 

In their unquestioned devotion to the Goddess, they have created an odyssey of their own, sanctified by a passion that is larger than themselves. It is this spirit that Diana Eck celebrates and salutes.

Sacred Geography does not dodge the difficult and troubling questions raised by faith as politics in the hands of opportunists, but it also recognises the central role of that faith in our lives.

India: A Sacred Geography
by Diana L Eck
Random House Publishers India.