Yatrā and Darśan: Pilgrimage to see in Hindu Religion

— Meera Ishwar Dass

Ujjain in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, was documented for a project that was funded by the Government of India under their Urban Renewal Mission scheme. The project was done by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Regional Chapter Bhopal of which I was the Convenor and the project leader. The documentation was centred around Mahakal temple, believed by the Hindus to be located at the navel of the earth marked by one of the twelve jyotirlingam located across the country. Considered to be a sacred shamshana (crematory) Ujjain has been mentioned in ancient maps as zero meridian and with the distance of various towns of India measured from there. Mentioned in Ptolemy’s map of India (India intra Gangem), his 10th map of Asia (Tabula Asia X), as Ozone, Ujjain is also mentioned in the treatises as Avanti and a place to visit during one’s lifetime. Skanda Purāna, a sixth century CE text that has special sections on the sacred cities, called mahatmyas, has one on Ujjain titled Avantiksetramāhātmya.

Skanda Purāna is a genre of eighteen Hindu religious texts, named after Skanda, son of Siva and Parvati, and the earliest text likely existed by the sixth century CE but it is considered a living text, as it has been widely edited, over many centuries. The mahatmyas on the pilgrim centres such as Benaras and Ujjain contain their geographical locations, and sacred spots. Avantiksetramāhātmya deals with Ujjain tirtha region and narrates how Lord Śiva happened to visit Ujjain and fell in love with the upavan (the forest) there. He decided to stay there for a while, an event that was celebrated by the Gods, yakśas, and other divine and semi-divine entities that were then blessed by the Lord. The Lingās (anionic phallic symbol of Śiva) installed by the gods, yakśas, and other divine and semi-divine entities collectively make Ujjain a tirtha to be visited by the devotees, who then visits each spot marked by the lingā to complete the pilgrimage. Such pilgrimages undertaken by devotees are called yatrā.

When Hindus travel on pilgrimage or yatrā, as they do by the millions each month of the year, it is for the darśan of its famous deities. They travel to the sacred city of Ujjain not as ‘sightseers’ but have an interest in the powerful places where darśan may be had. These powerful places are called tīrthas (sacred “fords” or “crossings”), dhāms (divine abodes), or pīthas (the “benches” or “seats” of the divine). These are the places where the possibility of darśan are the highest as these are where the gods generally dwell. The pilgrims are called darśanārthī, or, in other words, one who is desirous of darśan.

At Ujjain, Śiva is worshipped as Mahākāla, which means ‘beyond time or death’. He is believed to be the manifestation of the power to dissolve even time and space unto himself and exist as Void at the dissolution of the universe. Ujjain Mahākāla is represented in his aniconic form that of a lingā at a spot that is believed to be the navel of the earth. Dying at Ujjain is believed to transcend one to the other dimension, releasing one from the cycle of life and death. A map of 1939 (see the image below), at the Mahākāla dharamshālā (place for the devotees to stay), shows Ujjain with various yatrā routes, such as the panckrośī yatrā.  Panckrośī yatrā is a 122 km route, to be undertaken during five identified auspicious days falling only on certain years based on the Hindu calendar. The objective of the pilgrim map is manifold, one of them is to facilitate darśan of all eighty-four temples that constitute the sacred circle around the main Mahākāla temple. On return, the map also acts as a sacred object or photo print to be worshipped by the devotee.

Although represented here in his anionic form the supreme god Śiva is otherwise believed to possess a third eye, due to which he is called Trilochana, one with the third eye. Eyes as the main agent for darśan have a special meaning when it comes to the gods, for it is not just that the devotee sees the god but the god must also see the devotee. The myth associated with the third eye of Śiva is found in several puranas and goes like this: Once Goddess Parvati (Śiva’s consort), playfully covered both the eyes of the lord while he sat meditating with his eyes closed. Immediately, the entire universe plunged into darkness. Chaos prevailed everywhere, the gods of heaven were afraid. Śiva then created the third eye in the centre of his forehead from where fire emerged and light was restored in the universe. The heat caused Parvati to perspire and the perspiration filled with the power of Siva and Parvati transformed into a child, who was called Andhaka (he who darkens). When Siva’s eyes are closed, there is no light anywhere, when his third eye opens it threatens destruction. The all-seeing god is said never to close his eyes, as the well-being of the world depends on the open eyes of the lord.

Simply translated, darśan means “seeing”. However, it means much more than that. Eck (1998) describes the concept of darśan and says, “The very expression is arresting, for “seeing” in this religious sense is not an act which is initiated by the worshipper. Rather, the deity presents itself to be seen in its image and the people “receive” their darśan. One might say that this sacred perception, which is the ability truly to see the divine image, is given to the devotee by the god himself. The prominence of the eyes of Hindu divine images also reminds us that it is not only the worshiper who sees the deity, but that the deity sees the worshiper as well”.

“Seeing” is not a passive awareness of visual data, but is a two way communication and is an active occupation. What is seen depends on the object of the sight and how much of it chooses to reveal, but is also dependent on the vision development (enlightenment) of the observer to receive/perceive the object. The conscious development of the ability to see through the ‘mind’s eye’ comes through gyān mārg (path of intellect) or bhaktī (path of devotion). Rudholf Arnheim, elaborating on the ‘mind’s eye’, contends, “that visual perception is integrally related to thought. It is not that the eyes present a kind of raw data to the mind, which in turn, processes and refines it by thought. Rather those visual images are the shapers and bearers of thought”.

Eyes as the active agent of darśan have a special place in Indian iconography. While installing a deity, the process of sacralisation is not complete till the ‘eyes’ of the deity are ‘opened’. The opening of the eyes of the deity is the last ceremony of the consecration ritual. In the town of Puri in Odisha, a state of India, there is a festival where wooden idols of Śri Jaggannatha (Krsna), his brother Balbhadrā and sister Subhadrā are ceremoniously brought out from the inner sanctum of the temple, are then placed on a chariot that is pulled by numerous devotees across the road to another temple some three kilometres away. The yatrā takes place on a prescribed date and time of the year. The construction of the large chariot starts much in advance, also on a specified date with wood of a specified tree by a specialist team of carpenters.

The yatra that Śri Jaggannatha along with his accomplices take on their chariots is not just to give darśan but with their large eyes (as large as their bodies) are believed to see and absorb all the devotees they see on their way. Celebrated every year at Puri, the temple town of Odisha, on the second day of the waxing moon of Āśādha māsa draws a multitude of devotees who line across the wide avenue in front of the temple up to the destination temple. The whole event is a visual representation of what darśan is all about, it is a transactional exercise where the gods are as keen to give darśan as the devotee to receive it.

The concept of darśan has little to do with distance and even a mere glimpse of the temple śikhar (the high peak of the temple roof) is enough for the divine to sight a devotee and from the point of view of the devotee is adequate for having been blessed. The roof over the temple sanctum is shaped like the peak of a mountain or the Śikhar of a mountain and represents the hills or mountains where Lord Śiva is believed to dwell. At this high point, the Lord’s gazes the world below bestowing darśana to all who fall in the path and surfaces illuminated by the light that comes from within the Lord.

The light of the Lord that illuminates the universe comes from within him, which is translated in architecture by the introduction of gavākśa. Gavākśa is a Sanskrit word which means “cow’s eye” and is envisioned as symbolically radiating the light and splendour of the central icon in the sanctum of a temple or a cave temple. Alternatively, gavākśas are described as providing a window for the deity to gaze out into the world. Early cave temples and later structural temples placed this window on the facades of the caitya hall (prayer hall) of the Buddhist caves and on the śikharas of the temple towers in the form of “gavākśa mesh”. The window also allows light to fall on the deity within, thereby illuminating it for the devotees to see. The dark interior of the caves and temples sometimes allows for only enough light to decipher the deity located deep inside the additional structures in front of the sanctum.

Ajanta, with its fifth century Buddhist caves located in the Western Ghats not far from Aurangabad in Maharashtra, is well known for their painted interiors. In one of the caves, the mandapa of the cave or the entrance hall of the cave leads to a smaller and darker sanctum where a large image of a seated Buddha is hued out of living rock, lightly illuminated by the gavākśa window from the front façade. In front of the Lord are, carved out of the living rock, several devotees on the floor, seated and kneeling. Visitors’ eyes, still adjusting to the darkness of the interiors barely notice these kneeling sculptures initially, easily mistaking them to be real devotees praying. The whole composition is brought to life like a diorama in which the visitor willy-nilly becomes an actor in the ongoing theatre, set historically in the sanctum. This leaves the visitor with a strong feeling of having participated in the act rather than having witnessed a scene as a member of the audience.

The term darśana also refers to the six traditional schools of philosophy which developed in the Indian tradition. Eck (1998) says “However, it is misleading to think of these as “systems” or “schools” of philosophical thought. Rather, they are “points of view” which represent the varied phases of the truth viewed from different angles of vision. We speak of “seeing” the point of an argument, of “insight” into an issue of complexity, of the “vision” of people of wisdom”. The six systems (śhad-darśana) or the āstika (orthodox) school of darśana are Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. There is an extensive literature on these darśanas and also on other philosophies that derive from or are different from these forms of thinking and vision.

To summarize, this post expressed the following views:

  • That darśan is a two way communication between god and devotee
  • Yatrā is taken to have darśan
  • Yatrā is not random, walking into landscapes, but is fixed spatially and in time. 
  • Chances of a god giving darśan is high, if the devotee is at a particular spot at a particular time. 
  • The concept is exemplified in architectural and iconographical examples.

Meera Ishwar Dass is a fellow of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She is an art historian and architect, working on cave temple architecture and the reengineering of the towns of Ujjain and Chanderi.  


Eck Diana, (1998) [1981]. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press.

 Rudholf Arnheim, (1969). Visual Thinking, University of California Press. Archive.org.

Dass, Meera Ishwar. “Yatrā and Darśan: Pilgrimage to see in Hindu Religion”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 13/08/2021. https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/1484

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2021, August 13). Yatrā and Darśan: Pilgrimage to see in Hindu Religion. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3e5

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1 Response

  1. December 23, 2022

    […] Darshan literally translates as ‘seeing’ and denotes the interaction between a human being and a deity – seeing and being seen. Our former UrbRel fellow Meera Dass has discussed this religious concept and its spatial implications in another blog entry:https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/1484 […]

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