Do we really need sacred places? In this age when we are being called to revere all the Earth, before it’s too late, should we not abandon our desire to make pilgrimages to holy places? And if wherever we are is the ‘Lotus Land’, is the yearning to visit sacred places simply a spiritual red herring?
These were the questions that faced me when I accepted an offer to write a book about fifty sacred sites around the world. At first I was excited. I chose some ‘old favourites’ – the obvious candidates such as Stonehenge, the Pyramids and Mount Kailash – but I also wanted to write about sites that are less well-known, such as the extraordinary Chauvet cave in France, twice as old as its more famous counterpart at Lascaux, and filled with stunning artwork.
But why cover only ancient sites? All over the world people are creating new ones. Recently I was in Zuvuyaland in New Zealand, which had once been a bare field near Lake Taupo in central North Island but over the last few decades has been turned into a lush ‘gift’ to the world, with a stone circle, a goddess sculpture, winding paths, a stream and many new trees. And so I decided to include this in the book, along with the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, and Walden Pond in America, and the dazzling Temples of Humankind at Damanhur, which were built inside a mountain in Italy in secret during the 1980s.
I became even more enthusiastic about the book when I realised I could write not just about one sacred place at a time, but about entire sacred landscapes in which pilgrimages take place, so that, for example, rather than treating Stonehenge as one isolated site, readers could learn about it in the context of the whole of Salisbury Plain as a ritual landscape, and could be invited to explore the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela which takes in hundreds of miles of countryside, as does the annual journey of the Huichol in Mexico to Wirikuta, the “field of flowers”, where they pick the peyote.
WHAT A RICH feast to research and present to readers! But then it happened – the turning of the coin, the inevitable revelation of the shadow. I was not prepared for this moment, which came when I decided to write a section on the Ganges as a sacred landscape, and there it was: the WWF warning that the Ganges could run dry by 2030, and an article entitled ‘Pilgrims’ Plague Destroying Himalayas’ by a Canadian journalist saying that if she ever wrote a book about the fate of the river it would be called By the River Ganges I Sat Down and Wept. She spoke of the way, with the increasing affluence of India, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are contributing to the degradation of the environment at the source of the river high up at the Gangotri glacier.
Here is the problem: the advent of cheap air travel combined with increasing affluence and the information explosion on the internet has meant an exponential growth in both conventional religious pilgrimage and ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’ pilgrimage. A few statistics convey the size of the ecological footprints involved: in 2000 70 million people journeyed to the Kumbh Mela in India, 6 million to Jerusalem and 2 million to Mecca, where, each year during the Hajj, 20,000 water trucks around the city distribute 50 million bags of cooled water and ice packs, and over 1,200 buses help to transport pilgrims to 44,000 air-conditioned tents for their two nights in the desert.
Our desire to visit sacred places has resulted in the creation of yet another industry that is pushing us all to the brink of environmental collapse. And yet doesn’t visiting sacred sites help us to appreciate our world and the contribution of spiritual teachers and great civilisations? Isn’t pilgrimage often a key component in many religions and an important spiritual practice in itself? Doesn’t bathing in the aura of these sites heal and inspire us, making us better people? How can we honour these concepts and respect the Earth at the same time?
However much we try to inhibit the urge to visit such places, it won’t work – our need for them seems to be innate. In the Sikh scriptures, an attempt is made to curb acts of pilgrimage, with the guru Granth Sahib saying: “I do not go to see sacred shrines of pilgrimage, or bathe in the sacred waters; I do not bother any beings or creatures. The Guru has shown me the sixty-eight places of pilgrimage within my own heart, where I now take my cleansing bath.” Despite the beauty and wisdom of these words, still we thrill to the idea of visiting a holy site.
Acceptance is always a good place to start any work, and so I began to write about each site including both the ‘good news’ and the ‘bad news’. On deciding to write about the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region in Colombia, I contacted Alan Ereira, who, twenty years ago, produced a powerful BBC documentary and book called From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning which spoke about the Sierra’s inhabitants, the Kogi, who had decided to warn the world of impending environmental disaster. More sad news came from him, but hopeful news too – of the land the Kogi have been able to reclaim as a result of the publicity they received.
Slowly a picture began to emerge that, like any relationship, our interaction with sacred sites can either be harmful or beneficial, depending on the awareness brought to the relationship. A good example of this is the sacred island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii which, despite its value to Indigenous peoples, became a US Navy range in the Second World War. However, thanks to grassroots initiatives, it is now being cleared of ordnance and reforested, and is becoming a place of pilgrimage and ritual once more. Spiritual care and concern can effect real change.
THOSE WHO HAVE followed a teacher know that being in the teacher’s physical presence can be inspirational, but that the real connection is at the level of soul and in the inner world. Perhaps in the same way we need to work with sacred sites at a soul level, still making physical journeys to them when the call is strong, but building the bond primarily in the inner world and in consciousness. Just as we are impressed by tales of adepts in the Tibetan fastnesses who can journey at will in their spirit-bodies to any location on Earth while remaining in their meditation caves, so now, perhaps, we can try to emulate them and reinterpret the concept of armchair travel so that it becomes a spiritual activity.
Try flying to a sacred site on Google Earth – flying up the Brahmaputra, for example, to enter Tibet and swoop over the Potala Palace. Then view a series of crystal-clear 360-
degree panoramas of the palace at
After-wards read about the Dalai Lama’s secret palace behind the Potala. Then close your eyes and go there in your imagination, and perhaps in your spirit too. If you connect with sacred places in this inner way, they can start to reveal themselves to you, to speak to you. Maybe one day you will visit them, maybe not, but the connection will be there nevertheless. Spiritually you will have ‘plugged into’ a network that covers the planet, and that is linked by lines of energy that create a matrix around the globe.
“Think globally, act locally” has become one of the most profound injunctions for our age. And while feeling connected to this great matrix of sacred places around the world, we can turn our attention to our own landscapes – taking care of a local sacred site, clearing it of rubbish and visiting it often. We know that all the Earth is sacred, and, like the creators of Zuvuyaland, we can help to create new sacred places in our homes and gardens, and with our neighbours at the end of our street.
Sacred Places: Sites of Spiritual Pilgrimage from Stonehenge to Santiago de Compostela by Philip Carr-Gomm is published by Quercus Books. www.sacredplaces.info