Geography Program (SNR)


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Published in Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, ed. Adriana Proser (New Haven & London: Asia Society/Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 2-4, 178. Copyright © 2010 Robert H. Stoddard.


A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place motivated by religious devotion. Although the term may be applied to a meditative search for new spiritual experiences, prolonged wanderings, or travel to a place of nostalgic meaning for an individual, here the word refers to the physical journey to a distant site regarded as holy. As defined in this essay, pilgrimage excludes local and family places of worship; therefore the spatial component of distance is critical.

Throughout the world and in numerous faiths, pilgrimages differ from other forms of worship because of the emphasis on the unique roles of movement and place. Most other religious activities are located conveniently in the home and neighborhood, and thus are situated in close proximity to where people reside. This spatial proximity adheres to a common geographic principle: phenomena having interacting functions are located close together. In contrast, pilgrimages occur because worshippers feel obligated to travel to particular sites of sanctity, irrespective of their locations. In fact, within certain religious traditions, the act of visiting a nearby pilgrimage site is regarded as having less spiritual merit than that of undergoing the hardships of travel to a remote holy place. The role of movement as a form of worship is demonstrated further by religious processions and circumambulations; consequently, the journey to a pilgrimage site may possess more significance than mundane travel to a distant destination.

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