Rapid Transformation of Rural Landscapes: the Panchkroshi Pilgrimage’s Landscapes

Theme: Revitalization of Rural Heritage landscapes

By Ms. Sukanya Sharma
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from NewDelhi , India
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
Bachelors in Architecture, School of Built Environment and Design, Lingayas University



Sacred landscapes in India play a pivotal role in the celebration of religious traditions and the mythological stories associated with them. A pilgrimage is an act of journeying to the sacred landscapes primarily for religious reasons and spiritual benefits but is not limited to them. Pilgrimages have various types of paths like circular, linear, spiral, converging at a central point, etc. Circular pilgrimage, like the Panchkroshi in Varanasi, India, ends at the same point it started, thus forming an endless loop. The Panchkroshi Pilgrimage is about circum-ambulations around the holy territory, along a 25-mile long route, protected by 108 shrines of Hindu gods and goddesses. There are several goals identified for performing a pilgrimage, with the most important being the attainment of divine salvation. The act of achieving these goals is to walk through the sacred landscapes of the pilgrimage. However, with rapid urbanization and lack of preservation, these heritage landscapes have suffered degradation. The pilgrimage path has become fragmented, breaking the continuity and flow of movement. The pilgrimage route has become a palimpsest of urban residential, commercial zones, state and national highways with no designated pathway for pilgrims to walk on.


A pilgrimage is like a text that can be read by journeying on its physical geography (Haberman et al. 1994). Pilgrimage can be defined in many ways, and it is difficult to define it in a single universally accepted notion. One important definition of pilgrimage is as a journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. It can be explained as an act consisting of three elements, a holy place, the attraction of individuals to this place and a specific aim of attaining spiritual or material benefit. The term “pilgrimage” can also be used in the sense of a trek to a local sanctuary that allows even a small-scale transition from the worldly realm to the experience of the sacred. The aim of this chapter is to explain the difference between a pilgrimage and any other journey and to introduce the idea of the Panchkroshi pilgrimage, explaining what makes it unique. Pilgrimage and landscape share a deep connection. A pilgrimage happens by journeying in the outdoor environment. The type of destinations varies but traveling is an essential element of the entire process. Landscape defines the designed and natural elements of the outdoor environment. Hence, it is difficult to think of pilgrimage without reflecting on the landscape.

The Panchkroshi Yatra

The pilgrimage of Panchkroshi in Varanasi has been popular since the sixteenth century. The rituals and practices associated with the pilgrimage are explained in Kashi Mahatmya, an ancient script that was written in Sanskrit language in 12th century to eulogize glory of the city, its culture and its traditions. The text was written by highly regarded Sanskrit scholars to glorify the religious centers and to provide a guide to pilgrims seeking to perform pilgrimage to such sites. During the period of Mughal rule, sixteenth century witnessed reconstruction and new development towards Hindu temples by rulers like Humayun and Akbar, there were many shrines and temples, destroyed by the Mughal ruler Humayun in seventeenth century during his political conquests in the Varanasi territory. His intolerance towards Hindu religion further contributed to the act of temple demolition (Alam et al. 2017). However, the eighteenth century was a strong Hindu revival period when many shrines were recovered, and replicas were created of the ones that were destroyed (Singh et al. 2002). In that period, the current route was accepted as the outer limit of Varanasi’s sacred zone. By the nineteenth century, the pilgrimage of Panchkroshi had become a popular practice where the devotional path was developed on the peripheral extent of the city creating and enclosed the sacred zone, the mandala. This zone was protected by the pilgrim path and pilgrimage practices that addressed 108 shrines of Hindu gods and goddesses along this path.

The total diametrical distance of the mandala refers to the name Panchkroshi, from panch, which means five, and krosh, which is an ancient Hindu unit of measurement approximately equal to eleven miles. The entire pilgrimage route covers a distance of 55.2 miles, 12 consisting of five parts, each part comprising a distance of five krosha, or eleven miles (Singh et al. 1993).

We have already seen that the mandala is ideally a circular form. The Panchkroshi Yatra is a closed circular pilgrimage that creates the sacred territory of Kashi Mandala (where Kashi refers to Varanasi) (Singh et al. 2002). “The sacred space includes spaces that can be entered physically, as the outer geography of a holy land, imaginatively as the inner geography of the body in Tantric yoga, or visually as the space of the mandala”). Sacred spaces facilitate communication between human and the divine through a divine hierarchy that leads to the development of the tradition of pilgrimage in Hinduism. As the sacred space is the translated manifestation of the whole cosmos, it becomes a microcosm where human meets the divine. Delimiting the sacred zone with a pilgrimage creates a distinct region outside of the designated territory that is considered impious space (Singh et al. 1993).

Ideal vs Actual Varanasi Mandala. Source: ©author

Just as space is significant, so also is time. “The idea of sacred time in Hinduism led to a perception not of time as an abstraction of our temporal being but of our temporal being as an expression of time”. As pilgrimage in Hinduism is an act of auspiciousness, people have designated certain time periods as more merit-giving whereas some that should be avoided for performing rituals. The Panchkroshi yatra is performed in specific periods when, as per mythologies, divine beings performed religious activities. Thus, devotees are hoped to sight divinities and their activities as well as mark their own presence. We have already seen that the Panchkroshi pilgrimage is performed annually as well as in the intercalary month once every three years. The most auspicious and popular time of pilgrimage is the intercalary month of the leap year, also called malamasa in Hindi, which usually falls in between July to September. The season usually is the transition of summer to monsoons in India. When the solar and lunar calendar coincide at the end of each year, there is a difference in the number of days between them and that adds up to a duration of a month after every three years. Because it is an extra month, it is considered polluted or inauspicious (mala in Hindi means “dirty” or “polluted”). Hence the act of pilgrimage brings purity to the otherwise polluted time, as well as the highest form of merit to the extra month. The annual occurrence of pilgrimage happens in February on the event of Maha Shivratri. The celebration of Lord Shiva’s wedding anniversary with the goddess Parvati, the day also marks Shiva’s victory over his enemies. Vishweshwanath, one of the most sacred shrines of Lord Shiva, is in the central zone of Kashi mandala, and this sacred place as well as the city of Varanasi as a whole is regarded as the abode of Shiva.

Timeline Calendar of Pilgrimage. Source: ©author

There are 108 sacred shrines associated with this pilgrimage, 36 of which are situated on the banks of the Ganga river. The Ganga river has a significant role in pilgrimage practice as well as in the sacred landscapes of the holy city because the Ganga river is worshiped as river goddess and the pilgrimage begins by pilgrim taking a bath in the holy water. The pilgrim then performs rituals in the riverbank temples of Dhundiraja, Dandapani, Kala Bhairava, Annapoorna and Vishweshwanath, deities of the Hindu religion, followed by an oath-taking ceremony to complete the journey. There are five major temple destination sites where pilgrims halt for the night during their long walk. When performed in the intercalary month, it takes about five days for pilgrims to complete the circuit. They rest at a destination temple site each night and then move on to the next one the next day. Each day the journey begins with waking up before sunrise, taking bath in the water tank at the temple, worshiping the shrine, and beginning to walk. By evening, they have reached the next temple site where they collectively get together and sing religious songs, cook food together, rest, meditate and pray. Beginning each day with bathing signifies purification of body and mind which prepares pilgrims for the ongoing journey. They walk barefoot to complete the pilgrimage. While marching, they pray to Lord Shiva and his consort goddess Parvati by chanting in unison:

“Hara Hara! Mahadeva Shambho! Kashi Vishwanath Gange Mata Parvati Sange.”

The concluding ritual of the pilgrimage is the return to the Manikarnika ghat after completing the circle, bathing again in the Ganga river, and worshiping at the Vishweshwanath temple. The pilgrim reflects back on his or her journey, experiences, and the effects on his or her physical and emotional being. The Manikarnika Ghat, a part of the bank of the Ganga river, marks the beginning and ending point of the pilgrimage after its completion. The landscape is a matrix of stepped riverfront with landings lined by historic structures and temples, streets-cape through fluctuating urban conditions of the city and temple shrines, big or small at irregular intervals, by the side of the roads. There is an enormous scope of landscape design for the route that exclusively focuses on pilgrimage walking experience but is well integrated with the surrounding urban setting of the city.


  • Alam, Parvez. “An Analysis of the Mughal Religious Policy with Special Reference to the Temples of Banaras (1526 – 1707 A.D.).” Islam and Muslim Societies 10, no. 2 (2017): 52-65
  • Haberman, David L. Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Singh, R. L., and Rana P. B. Singh. Banāras (Vārāṇasī): Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions: Festschrift to Prof. R.L. Singh. Varanasi: Tara Book Agency on the Behalf of Varanasi-Studies Foundation, 1993.
  • Singh, Rana P. B. Towards the Pilgrimage Archetype: The Pañcakrośī Yātrā of Banāras. Varanasi: Indica Books, 2002.

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