'Mata K! Jay!' A Hindu pilgrimage to Ambaji in North Gujarat

It is a quarter past three in the morning. A cow is feeding silently and a neighbour turns in his sleep under the night sky. We wait patiently for our taxi. Better late than never, it arrives: yellow and black, dilapidated but spacious. It will take us from Vadodara north to Ambaji. Our Divali yatra has begun.

It has often been said that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense that we in the West understand that term but ‘a way of life’, a complex social and religious system in which individuals order their lives in relation to dharma or duty. Social position (varna and jati) and stage of life (ashrama) determine the nature of this duty providing, in theory at least, a well- structured system of roles and responsibilities. Within this each has his or her own place with its social and religious duties and goals. While the specific nature of an individual’s obligations will depend on his or her position and stage in life, the need to fulfil one’s duty is shared, and one of the principal aspects of this is service to the gods. The home is the normal arena for fulfilment of this obligation but particular merit (punya) can be gained from visiting religious sites in order to worship and make offerings.

The yatra or pilgrimage has not always been valued as a form of religious practice. The Mahabharata was the first text to stress the importance of religious travel per se, and its desirability was reiterated in puranic literature as this quotation from the Vamana Purana shows:

A man who goes there (Kurukshetra) filled with faith and who bathes in the great pool Sthanu, wins whatever his heart desires; of this there is no doubt. A man should practise self-control, circumambulate the lake, go to Rantuka to seek forgiveness again and again, bathe in the Sarasvati, observe and salute the Yaksa, offer flowers and incense and food to the god, and recite the following: ‘By your grace, O chief Yaksa, I shall make a pilgrimage to whatever sacred fords, forest and rivers there may be. Make my way ever clear!’ (1)

Pilgrimage is an aspect of religious behaviour particularly associated with the development of popular Hinduism and the practice of worshipping the deity with offerings (tarpana), and its characteristics and goals are similar to those exhibited in domestic worship. It is not just an extension of regular ritual practices, however, it is ‘time out’ from ordinary life. It provides an opportunity to escape from normal work, leisure, religious duties and general commitments into a new space with different associations. In pilgrimage both religious and social characteristics and goals are present, and all are intensified. ‘As the pilgrim moves away from his structural involvements at home his route becomes increasingly sacralised at one level and increasingly secularised at another.’ (2) Let us return now to the Ambaji pilgrimage in order to see what factors are involved in this intensification.

The journey to North Gujarat took place just two days after my arrival. I had come to India to undertake comparative fieldwork for use in my research on the Gujarati Hindu community in Leeds. For the family I was staying with in Vadodara my visit provided an opportunity to undertake a long-planned yatra to the temples in the North dedicated to Shakti (divine female energy). As with all householders it was the duty of my host to serve both gods and ancestors, an obligation which generally took the form of regular domestic worship and the practice of life cycle rites. The pilgrimage to Ambaji provided a valuable extension to these normal duties, a chance to affirm family traditions and to serve the family god. As Shrigaud Brahmans the family worshipped the goddess Mahalakshmi, one of the three aspects of Shakti. (3) Living in a large city away from the ancestral home in Kaira (a small town south of Ahmadabad), the opportunities to fulfil familial religious duties were rare: the visit of an English student able to contribute to travelling costs, interested in Hinduism, and coming as it did in the season of Divali, made the yatra not a dream but a real possibility.

Ambaji lies to the north of Gujarat’s large towns and cities near the border with Rajasthan. Travelling there by road one is impressed by the changes: from the dry, flat land of central Gujarat to the trees and hills of the North; from the heat to the cool hill breezes; from the white pyjamas and gandhi-caps of Ahmadabad’s traders to the thick cotton blouses and red turbans of the herders of Khed-Brahma. Ambaji is the regional centre for the worship of Ambamata (Durga), the aspect of Shakti associated with the mountain-god, Shiva. (4) In Ambamata two qualities are combined, the warm maternal spirit and the powerful warrior temperament. Amba rides a tiger and in her many hands holds an assortment of weapons. Like Shiva, however, she blesses those who serve her, and she protects and helps her followers.

The journey to Ambaji has much in common with other Hindu pilgrimages. The pilgrims’ motives are similar: personal pleasure and the fulfilment of duty to God are both of central importance. In addition, some of the practices that are performed at different places of pilgrimage have much in common: people attend morning and evening worship (Arti), they go shopping, bathe at ghats, and visit relatives. The differences between pilgrimages, however, are worthy of equal consideration: Why, for example, does one yatra seem to be more special than another? Why does one site attract people from so great a distance when another has only local visitors?

The nature of a Hindu pilgrimage, and the meaning it has for those who undertake it are determined by five different elements: the mode of transport chosen and the distance to be travelled; calendrical considerations; the character of the religious site to be visited; the pilgrim’s reasons for making the journey; and the activities that are performed by pilgrims during their stay. These characteristics, when taken together, define and describe Hindu pilgrimage. Considered theoretically they suggest a unified picture, that is, a picture of common purposes, popular practices, and of religious sites standardised by traditional requirements. The detail provided by an empirical examination of particular pilgrimages shows that, although there are common features, there are also striking dissimilarities. Religious trips are distinguished from one another by their geographical, social and religious context, by the status and facilities of the place of pilgrimage itself, and by the pilgrims’ own complex intentions. Our trip to Ambaji illustrates the operation of these five elements of pilgrimage.

Mode of transport and distance travelled

Our taxi journey to the North was comfortable. We slept, watched town and countryside pass by, and stopped to refresh ourselves at our leisure. The advantages of taxi travel over other more conventional forms was considerable: we could make detours at will to visit additional places of interest, Khed-Brahma, for example, with its three Mataji temples, and we could relax without the discomfort of a crowded bus or train. For the family I was with, this was an unusual luxury, made possible only by my presence. However, in choosing the taxi they had denied themselves the social benefits of travelling by public transport. There was no opportunity to meet and converse with other pilgrims en route. Neither was it a meritorious way to travel: as we drove through the environs of Ambaji we saw many pedestrian pilgrims, all with a few belongings, some carrying small personal shrines. For those like us, who had travelled two hundred miles, however, a pilgrimage on foot was out of the question.

Calendrical considerations

For those making the journey to Ambaji this particular period had special meaning. It was Divali, the festival of lights. This period begins with Dhanteras, ‘wealth-thirteenth’, the day on which Lakshmi is honoured and petitioned for good luck, success and fortune in the coming year. This is followed by Kali Chouvdas (‘black fourteenth’), Divali night itself, when the candles and lights are lit, New Year’s Day and the Divali Annakut (mountain of food). Throughout the festival period people wear new clothes, visit relatives, give presents of money to younger family members, eat special foods, go shopping and light fireworks. New year’s greetings are exchanged with the customary phrase ‘Sal mubarakh’. Many people visit local temples or travel further afield on pilgrimages to religious sites as we had chosen to do.

When we arrived in Ambaji early in the afternoon of Kali Chouvdas we joined the throng of Divali pilgrims already gathered there. It is said that Ambaji is generally a quiet village. It has no offices or factories. It is not on a main travel route. During the season of Divali, and to an even greater degree the folk festival of Navaratri, the village of Ambaji comes alive. (5) The streets are full of vendors selling their wares. Those who make a small living from begging beset wealthy pilgrims. The dharmasala, where visitors can rest during their stay, provides a cheap and welcome meal for all, and the local taxis are much in demand to carry people from Ambaji to other local sites in the surrounding area. During our short stay everyone was dressed in their best clothes: women visitors from the towns and cities in silk saris; rural women in bright embroidered blouses and skirts. Money was changing hands. The family I was with bought sugar, kankum powder, hair braids, a piece of red cloth (for Mataji), and a coconut. A small girl asked me for money. I had been told to resist. She followed me for two hours.

The character of the place of pilgrimage

It was not until after we had found a place to stay, had wandered round the market and had eaten with the other pilgrims that the real business, of visiting local mandirs and dens (temples and shrines), began in earnest. There are a great many religious sites in Ambaji and its environs. Most of these are dedicated to Ambamata, although Shiva, her divine partner, also provides a focus for local worship: on the peak of Mount Gabbar, small shrines to Shiva and Mata face one another, Shiva represented by the trident and the bull, Mataji by a red flag and a tiger. Other local sites also have special importance for pilgrims. We visited Komeshwar, at the source of a stream, which is said to have been visited by the goddess herself. From there we moved on to nearby Neminath where we saw the five Jam temples dedicated to Mahavir, interesting because of their antiquity and architectural merit. Neminath’s significance is historical; the value of Komeshwar for pilgrims lies in its natural setting and it mythological character. The two sites also differ in level of importance. Komeshwar is only known locally. Many people visit it during Navaratri and Divali but only in conjunction with their pilgrimage to the more famous shrine at Ambaji. Neminath, however, while having only minor importance for Hindus, has greater significance for Gujarat’s Jam population. The nature of the places we visited in and around Ambaji can be seen to depend on a number of factors. These include the particular deity related to a site, the site’s natural features (mountain, water etc.), its mythological and historical significance, and its status in relation to other sites.

The reasons for pilgrimage

After our tour of local places of interest we returned to Ambaji and joined the crowds gathered outside the temple to await evening Arti. As the doors opened everyone surged forward. From our position at the end of the informal queue we stood no chance of getting in. We abandoned the struggle: we would rise early and go to morning worship instead. We sat in the square outside the temple relaxing and talking together. My host told me about the religious traditions of his family, about their home in Kaira, their temple to Mahalakshmi and their migration to the urban centres of Gujarat and to Leicester and Leeds in England. His father had brought him to Ambaji at the age of two and he had always promised to return but had never had the opportunity to do so until now. He saw the yatra as part of his duty to his family and to their special deity, Lakshmi, for although Ambaji is dedicated specifically to Ambamata, to make an offering to one aspect of the divine female energy or Shakti is to worship Shakti itself.

The host had fulfilled a promise (vrata) he had made both to himself and to his family deity in coming to Ambaji. The promise was related to his religious and social duty as a Shrigaud Brahman and an eldest son. Other pilgrims had more pragmatic, though no less important, purposes. Many people had brought their children to be blessed by Ambamata: they would ask her to provide them with long life, good health and success in business and marriage. All those in Ambaji, irrespective of any specific personal intentions, also shared a common desire to perform worship and make offerings (Arti), and to experience the presence of Ambamata (Darshan). In addition, as my host pointed out, all had come to enjoy themselves, to meet friends and relatives, to go shopping in new markets, to see monuments, mountains and lakes, and to be free of the day-to-day responsibilities of work and the home.

Activities performed by pilgrims

After our conversation and a last drink of soda we returned to our room. The adults were no less tired than the two children and we all slept soundly. Morning Arti demanded that we rise early again, and it was only the bucket of hot water I washed with that improved my mood. We had had a glimpse of the goddess (Darshan) the day before, and had given our offerings to the temple pandit. Today’s Arti was for worship, to offer greetings and praise to Ambamata, and to receive food blessed by her (prasada). The temple was hot, dark and crowded. It reverberated with roars of ‘Mata ki jay!’ (Glory to the Mother). Men held children above their heads to see the goddess, and women pushed towards the massive stone tiger at the centre of the temple, touching it and marking their foreheads with the red kankum that lay at its feet. We all sang the Arti prayer, addressing it to Ambamata, and waving the light from the candles across our eyes and foreheads. Coins and flowers were thrown to the front, and we bowed in homage as the song ended. Crushed but excited we made for the doors, received our prasada and went out into the bright sunlight. Nothing out of the ordinary had been performed: Arti is sung twice daily in most Hindu homes. But how different this particular morning’s worship had been! Marked by devotion and communitas it had been the highlight of our trip to Ambaji. (6)

The religious and social practices associated with each pilgrimage (Arti, Darshan, special religious vows and rites, bathing, shopping, site-seeing and socialising), like the other elements described above, contribute to its character and quality. Each is different, contextualised by its geographical setting, its religious traditions, and the aims and intentions of the pilgrims who undertake it. Certain aspects are common to all yatras: Hindu religion and culture determine the general features of pilgrimage sites and the practices that are consequently carried out there. In addition, the principal motives for religious travel — a sense of duty (dharma) and a desire for enjoyment — are generally held by all pilgrims. As is true of most aspects of Hindu belief and practice, unifying features operate but in each case they are contextualised and particularised to provide a complex picture of Hindu pilgrimage. One observation stands out above others from this picture, and that is the combination of social and religious qualities. Pilgrimage combines the practice of worship with the holiday, and pilgrims enjoy in equal proportion fulfilling their religious duty and indulging in tourist activities. The yatra provides an opportunity to move away temporarily from ordinary social life into a new and different environment. This does not represent a structural reorientation from the profane to the sacred, but rather an intensification of both the social and the religious aspects of life. The market and the temple are both more exciting than their equivalents at home. Children and gods are indulged with money and attention. Bartering for silk and praising the deity are both performed with more fervour than usual. Pilgrims do not seek to choose one type of activity above another because pilgrimage, like all other areas of Hindu life, is replete with both social and religious significance.


1. C. Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, Philadelphia 1978, p. 329.

2. V. W. Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society, Ithaca, 1974.

3. Shakti is comprised of three elements (Mahalakshmi, Mahasarasvati, Mahadurga) which correspond to the divine characters of the trimurti (Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva). The addition of the prefix ‘Maha-’ signifies the status of these three deities, and distinguishes them from minor Hindu goddesses.

4. Durga appears in Hindu myths and stories with a variety of different names. In Gujarat she is referred to as Amba, Ambaji, Ambamata, Mata, and Mataji. As Shiva’s partner she also appears in two other forms, as Parvati, the dutiful wife, and as Kali, the goddess of destruction.

5. During the nine nights of Navaratri the goddesses are worshipped. Durga (Ambamata) is of particular importance, and her shrine becomes a focus for the folk dancing and singing that are popular during this period.

6. Turner, op. cit. The term communitas is used by Turner to refer to The experience brought about by secular fellowship and sacred communication.

The Pilgrimage Theme Revisited

The practice of pilgrimage in the world’s religions has inspired much recent scholarly interest. In 1987 and 1988 two conferences were held in Britain on this theme, one in Oxford arranged by the British Association for the History of Religions and the other in London at Digby Stuart College. The second of these, an interdisciplinary conference, included contributions on pilgrimage both in India and amongst Hindus in Britain.

My most recent experiences of pilgrimage activity were not, however, in a Hindu context but whilst staying in Japan in 1987. In addition to visiting various stages on what is known as the Saikoku pilgrimage route in the Osaka region (which is composed of 33 Buddhist temples focusing on the worship of the Buddhist figure of compassion, Kannon), I followed in the footsteps of the seventeenth century poet, Basho, in travelling part of ‘the narrow road to the deep north’. With a party of staff and students from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Tsukuba, I visited the region known as Dewa Sanzan, famous for its three sacred mountains. It is renowned for the ‘Shugendo’ ascetic practices which have taken place there over the centuries, for its festivals (matsuri) and its pilgrimage activity (junrei).

Japan, like India, is an exciting place to research popular religion, particularly temple worship and pilgrimage. In both cultures there is much to explore at the interface between the sacred and the profane. This aspect of pilgrimage — the relationship between pious action and the holiday spirit, between asceticism and ‘the package tour’ (Reader 1987) — remains central to an understanding of the motives and behaviour of pilgrims. Victor Turner’s work continues to be important in this regard and others have followed his lead. In addition, the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion contains useful introductory material on pilgrimage amongst Roman Catholics (in Europe and the New World), Eastern Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists (in South, Southeast and East Asia, and Tibet) and Hindus. The overview article is written by Edith Turner, who co-authored a book on pilgrimage in Christian culture with Victor Turner.


  • Victor W. Turner, 1974, ‘Pilgrimages as social dramas’ in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, ed. Victor W. Turner, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
  • Ian Reader, 1987, ‘From ascetism to the package tour — the pilgrim’s progress in Japan’, Religion, 17, pp. 133—148.
  • Surinder M. Bhardwaj, 1973, Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography, University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Articles on Pilgrimage in The Encyclopedia of Religion (Vol 11), 1987, ed. Mircea Eliade, Macmillan, London.
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