A makeshift altar has been set up at a new exhibition on pilgrimage in Oxford for offerings from Hindus keen to see a holy manuscript on display. In an age of mass tourism, why do sacred journeys hold such power? Susan Roberts reports.
The world is a book, said Saint Augustine. Those who do not travel read only one page. In many ways, travel has never been easier and never more popular.
But there are still some journeys that aren’t easily made and whose results are far from predictable. Pilgrimage still holds a special fascination – witness the nearly 180,000 people who made the long trip to the tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in the Holy Year of 2004.
The artefacts of pilgrims from different faiths over centuries are currently gathered together at an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
On display are maps, travel aids and prayers, as well as the badges proving that the pilgrim has arrived and the amulets and talismans brought home.
Not least are the accounts of the journey, among them a 15th century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales and an Englishman’s account of his journey to Jerusalem in 1462. Alongside the very old is the recent – a robe worn by a pilgrim to Mecca last year.
The exhibition is the first in a series planned by the newly set up Ashmolean Inter-Faith Exhibition Service. Post 9/11 and the 7 July bombings in London, it was felt that something needed to be done to draw attention to common themes held by all religions. Pilgrimage holds a special fascination, says curator Ruth Barnes.
'The overall aspect of pilgrimage is striving for one goal,' she says. 'It’s a place where you hope you can unburden your problems, whether in a very physical or mental way – and where you can get close to the sacred.'
There are differences in approach between different religions. For Christians the journey is important; for Muslims, the actual journey to Mecca is less significant than the spiritual journey that starts on arrival. But all pilgrimages follow a common pattern of travelling through various stages – departure, the journey, arriving at the sacred place and the return.
The exhibition collects together treasures from the University and one highlight is the Shikshapatri Manuscript, written by the founder of Swaminarayan Hinduism well known in the UK for its temple in Neasden, London.
Several hundred followers have been to see the manuscript and left offerings at a makeshift altar set up Ruth Barnes. 'It’s very moving for the Museum to play this role,' she says.
Emotion is one of the more extraordinary aspects of pilgrimage, and Marion Marples of the Confraternity of Saint James is very familiar with this. The Confraternity was set up 1983 to support people keen to undertake the 800 km pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela.
Many people make a pilgrimage at a time of change in their lives and not necessarily for religious reasons, she explains. 'Most people are not going in a church-y kind of way but because they’re looking for some kind of spiritual benefit.'
On the continent, younger people tend walk to Santiago as a gap year-type experience before settling down. British pilgrims are rather different.
'Here we find that it’s much more something that people come to in later life – after divorce, the death of a partner or a medical scare. People tend to make the pilgrimage for one of two reasons, either wanting to give thanks for their recovery or because they want to take time out to think how to relaunch themselves into life.'
It works, she says. If forced to carry everything you need on your back, you swiftly realise what you can do without. 'Your view of how you interact with the world changes because of walking every day. You see the world in a different way and everything slows down…'
Judy Foot from Dorchester, Dorset, first walked to Santiago in 1997. Unusually among pilgrims, she embarked on the pilgrimage to raise money for research into breast cancer as a close friend had died from the disease. 'That was really my reason,' she says. 'But it became much more to me than raising money.'
It was a long, hard trek. But if you are tested physically, you are tested mentally as well, she suggests. She thought constantly of her friend Lesley Elliott and at a Mass at the end of her pilgrimage was taken by surprise by the power of the experience.
'At the beginning the list of pilgrims who had arrived the previous day was read out. I heard my name, Judithian Foot, and that I had walked from St Jean Pied de Port, then some Spanish and quite clearly, loud and strong, the name Lesley Elliott.
'This sound in the vast Cathedral, so many many miles from home, was like an arrow piercing my soul. This was the reason why I was there… I also knew that for me, my walk was not over, it had only just begun.'
Pilgrimage: the sacred journey is on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 11 January-2 April 2006. For more information, visit www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk
For more about the Confraternity of Saint James and Judy Foot’s account of her journey, Foot by Foot, visit www.csj.org.uk