Why pilgrimages are not just for the religious | Lifestyle | DW | 12.10.2016
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Why pilgrimages are not just for the religious

Most pilgrims aim to strengthen their faith and explore the meaning of life through their journey. An exhibition in Cologne shows how pilgrimages are booming worldwide - and why they're not just a spiritual experience.

The "pilgrimage" label can include way more than the traditional religious rites.   

Fans traveling to Elvis' grave on the anniversary of his death, for example, or the millions of people flocking to soccer stadiums or huge shopping centers could be considered pilgrims as well.

On the other hand, there is a growing number of people worldwide who are rediscovering pilgrimages as a way of finding inner peace. 

The exhibition "Pilgrimage - Longing for Bliss?," now on show at the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in Cologne, presents 39 of the most important pilgrimage destinations of all world religions.

Pilgrimages are booming worldwide

The exhibition features pilgrimage sites from each continent, except Australia, ranging from Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Cathedral of Cologne in Germany, to Karbala in Iraq and Mount Kailash in Tibet.

On this Tibetan mountain, also known as the Holy Mountain Gang Rinpoche, members of four religions travel there to receive blessings. People from all over Asia flock to the mountain, over days, months, or even years. Video recordings document the difficult ascent in deep snow up the 5,200-meter-high mountain, where the air is way too thin.

Pilgrimages, no matter the religion, are associated with effort and deprivations.

In some cases, pilgrims are also rewarded for their enormous efforts. In Ajmer in India, tens of thousands of pilgrims eat up to 7,000 kilos of sweet safran rice per day, offered in huge cooking pots.

Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti (DW/S. Oelze)

Shrine of Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti

Each Sufi and Hindu traveling to the shrine of Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti is to be fed properly. Providing so many people with food is a logistical accomplishment carried out by 4,000 members of the shrine staff.  

Pilgrimages require organisational skills

And that's what makes the exhibition in Cologne so interesting. It explores the logistical, economic and political dimensions of pilgrimages. Within a few days, millions of pilgrims need to be received, fed, housed and looked after, and some of them need medical attention. The security of the pilgrims must also be guaranteed.

These rituals also create new business opportunities, for example the devotional objects of Our Lady of Guadalupe sold in Mexico City - "made in China." On December 11 and 12, six to eight million pilgrims visit the Basilica Our Lady of Guadalupe. It wouldn't be possible to let so many people in if there weren't four treadmills transporting people to the sacred shrine. Huge spotlights might prevent a mystical experience, but they are necessary for the pilgrims' security.

Pilgrims need to be quite well-off to be able to pay for their travel expenses.

In Touba, not a single hotel for pilgrims

Pilgrimages are also booming in Africa.

Each year, two to five million members of a Senegalese Sufi community travel to the Holy City of Touba in the West African country. They visit the grand mosque and the mausoleum of  Sheikh Amadou Bamba, who lived there from 1853 to 1927, and who is venerated as one of the most significant mystics of West Africa.

This big event takes place every year - although there isn't a single hotel to house the pilgrims. And yet, each one of the faithful will find a bed in private homes, where up to 40 people are sleeping in one room.

Europeans go to Santiago de Compostela and Cologne

Compared with Touba, the 42,000-kilometer-long pilgrimage to the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela almost appears comfortable, as hundreds of guest houses along the way are available for travelers.

 A statue of Saint James the Greater (DW/S. Oelze)

A statue of Saint James the Greater

Cologne is also another comfortable destination. Each day, roughly 10,000 people visit the golden shrine housing the remains of the three Magi in the Cathedral of Cologne. These pilgrims usually stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.

The exhibition "Pilgrimage - Longing for Bliss?" is organized like a pilgrimage in itself, with different stops allowing visitors to travel from one destination to the next through the world's different religions. The show runs through April 9, 2017, in Cologne.

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