Shrines, religious healing, and pilgrimage in South Asia

Authored by: Carla Bellamy

Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415635035
eBook ISBN: 9781315758534
Adobe ISBN: 9781317636465


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In August of 2011, pilgrims arriving at the Himalayan pilgrimage site of Amarnath were in for a surprise. Amarnath, or “immortal lord,” is a title of the Hindu god Siva, who is often worshiped in the form of an aniconic shaft known as a lingam. In this case, Siva was understood to be manifest in a naturally occurring column of ice located in a cave high in the mountains of Kashmir. That summer, the body heat of the estimated 400,000 pilgrims making the journey, when combined with heat generated by open gas cooking stoves and helicopter lifts had the effect of melting the lingam completely (Byerly 2012; Nelson 2012). In journalistic accounts of this event, however, there is little to suggest that the melting of the lingam in any way diminished Amarnath’s appeal as a pilgrimage destination, and while the site’s enduring popularity can in part be attributed to its location in Kashmir – thus making pilgrimage to it is a means of asserting Hindu presence in a state torn by ongoing armed conflict between India and Pakistan – Siva’s untimely disappearance still raises questions about places of pilgrimage in South Asia: what makes a site authoritative if not the physical presence of a deity or saint? How is divine or saintly presence mediated and experienced? How do pilgrims conceptualize supernatural efficacy? How do larger social, political, and economic networks and conflicts inform the culture and the popularity of particular places of pilgrimage? How do pilgrimage centers’ cultures and efficacy change in response to the mounting pressure of environmental degradation and population growth?

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