chapter  5
13 Pages

The accidental pilgrim: Vaiṣṇava tīrthas and the experience of the sacred


A tīrtha is a Hindu holy site. The term derives from the idea of a “point of crossing” or “ford,” a shallow area that enables one to traverse a body of water at a point of least difficulty. The symbolism is particularly significant for it evokes the idea of a crossing point between the mundane world of ordinary, everyday, profane existence and the spiritual world of extraordinary, special, sacred existence. Tīrthas are those geographical spaces where human beings can most easily make contact with the divine. These Hindu holy sites may be associated with the earthly activity of deities or holy men. They may be places of particular geological interest like mountaintops and sacred lakes. Or, they may be places of architectural interest, as when magnificent temples or memorials are built on special locations. As such, tīrthas are often the geographic goals of pilgrimages.