From Pilgrim Landscape to ‘Pilgrim Road’
Tracing the Transformation of the Char Dham Yatra in Colonial Garhwal
Keywords:Hinduism and ecology, caste hegemony, phenomenology, history, orientalism
The pan-Indian pilgrimages to the char dhams (four holy abodes) of the Garhwal Himalayas were deeply ecological and sensorial experiences in the pre-colonial era. Drawing on archival research, I trace how colonial schemes, together with the enterprises of modern Hindu institutions, engendered significant changes to the ethos of this yatra (pilgrimage). Colonial administrators imagined the thinking, acting, and sensate personae of the pilgrims as simply suffering bodies. Officials implemented road works, forestry, and conservancy arrangements in ways that exacerbated inequalities of class and caste in the pilgrimage. State gazetteers and neo-Hindu guidebooks alike privileged a high-Hindu, upper-caste narration of the significance of the yatra. I argue that the locus of the sacred increasingly shifted away from pilgrims' ephemeral encounters with the natural world toward the precincts of temples. I contend that in the postcolonial context, this historical trajectory helps explain ongoing government plans to build 'all-weather highways' to link the char dhams.
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