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India is a vast country, people with diverse and ancient civilizations, and its religious geography is highly complex. To grasp the complexity of the situation, it is important to consider two aspects of Indian life: its characteristic of being an ethnic and cultural mosaic, and the ancient rural foundations of many of its religious and cultural patterns.

The process of racial and cultural mixture that began in India 5000-10,000 years ago has been continuous into historical times. Although isolated from the rest of Asia by oceans on three sides and impassable mountain ranges to the north, India has experienced a near-constant influx of differing cultural influences, coming by way of the northwest and the southeast (including extremely ancient migrations from the drowned continent of Sundaland, which had been in the general region of contemporary Indonesia). India in the third millennium BC was inhabited in the tropical south by a people called the Dravidians, in the central and northeastern regions by aboriginal hill and forest tribes, and in the northwest by the highly advanced Indus Valley civilization known as the Harappan culture.

The religion of the city-building Harappan peoples seems to have been a fertility cult centered on the Great Mother, while the rural Dravidians and the various tribal cultures worshipped a wide variety of nature spirits, both benevolent and demonic. Anthropological theories of the 1800’s and 1900’s (deriving from a biased Eurocentric outlook) stated that around 1800 BC a nomadic people, called the Aryans, entered northwest India from the steppes of Central Asia. A large amount of archaeological, scriptural, linguistic and mythological research conducted during the past few decades has now shown this earlier theory to be inaccurate. While it is certainly true that migrations of different cultural groups did enter India from the northwest during ancient times, it is now abundantly clear that a highly sophisticated culture had already been thriving in the Indus valley region long before the supposed entrance of the hypothetical invaders from Central Asia.

What these archaic people already living in northwest India called themselves we do not know, but the term ‘Aryans’ is no longer considered suitable for them. Current scholarship has accepted the term ‘Harappan’ following the naming of one that culture’s great cities as Harappa in the early 1900’s. Scholars have also significantly pushed back the date of the Harappan culture to approximately 3000 BC (or earlier), rendering it simultaneous with the oldest cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Harappan culture possessed a sophisticated religion called Vedism (again, we do not know what the people themselves called their religion), which worshipped powerful gods such as Indra, the god of rain; Agni, the god of fire; and Surya, the sun god. During the millennia of the Harappan culture the religion of Vedism developed an increasingly complex form with esoteric rituals and magical chants, and these were later codified in the sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas.

The religion identified as Hinduism did not actually appear until the centuries preceding the Christian era. Hinduism is an aggregation of the religious beliefs and practices deriving from the Vedism and fertility cults of the Harappan peoples, and the animistic, shamanistic, and devotional practices of the widely varying, rural-dwelling indigenous cultures of south, central, and eastern India. Adding to and further enriching this mix were the concurrently developing religions of Jainism and Buddhism. Indian culture has thus developed a fascinating collection of religious beliefs and customs that range from simple animistic worship of nature spirits in a common rock or tree to the complex, highly codified Brahmanic rituals practiced at the great pilgrimage centers.

In India we find the oldest continually operating pilgrimage tradition in the entire world. The practice of pilgrimage in India is so deeply embedded in the cultural psyche and the number of pilgrimage sites is so large that the entire subcontinent may actually be regarded as one grand and continuous sacred space. Our earliest sources of information on the matter of sacred space come from the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. While the act of pilgrimage is not specifically discussed in these texts, mountain valleys and the confluences of rivers are spoken of with reverence, and the merits of travel to such places are mentioned. Following the Vedic period the practice of pilgrimage seems to have become quite common, as is evident from sections of the great epic, the Mahabharata (350 BC), which mentions more than 300 sacred sites spanning the sub-continent. It is probable that most of these sites had long been considered sacred by the aboriginal inhabitants of the region and only later came to be listed in the Mahabharata as different regions came under the influence of Hinduism. By the time of the writing of the Puranas (sacred texts of the 2nd to 15th centuries AD), the number of sacred sites listed had grown considerably, reflecting both the ongoing assimilation of aboriginal sacred places and the increased importance of pilgrimage as a customary religious practice.

In India all temples are considered sacred places and thus religious visitors to the temples may be described as pilgrims. For the purpose of our discussion, however, for a temple to be considered a true pilgrimage shrine it must have a long-term history of attracting pilgrims from a geographic area beyond its immediate region. Given this condition, the number of pilgrimage sites in India is still extremely large; one text, the Kalyana Tirthanka, describes 1,820 shrines of importance.