The Royal pilgrimage of the Goddess Nanda


  • William Sax University of Heidelberg


Pilgrims and pilgrimages -- Hinduism, Hinduism -- Ritual, Politics and Hinduism, Himalaya Mountains, Gods and goddesses, Hindu


Once every twelve years, when it is thought that some calamity has taken place because of the curse of the goddess Nanda Devi, a four-horned ram is born in the fields of the former king of Garhwal, an erstwhile Central Himalayan kingdom in north India (see map of Garhwal). This four-horned ram leads a procession of priests and pilgrims on the most dangerous and spectacular pilgrimage in all of India: a three-week, barefoot journey of one-hundred and sixty-four miles, during some of the worst weather of the year, at the end of the rainy season. The procession reaches Rupkund, a small pond located at an altitude of more than 5,000 metres, which is surrounded by human­ skeletons, and from there it goes yet further, to Homkund, the ‘Lake of the Fire Sacrifice’. According to the faithful, the four-horned ram leaves the procession at that point and finds its way, unaided, to the summit of Mount Trishul. As its name suggests, the Royal Procession is closely associated with the ruler of this erstwhile Himalayan kingdom: he attends its inaugural rituals, the bones that litter the shores of Rupkund are believed to be those of one of his ancestors, and the chief sponsor of the event is a local ‘Prince’ who is thought to be descended from the first kings of Garhwal. This Prince traverses the domain of his ancestors and thereby lays claim to it in the name of the goddess Nanda, who is not only his lineage goddess but was also the royal goddess of the neighbouring kingdom of Kumaon, in pre-colonial times. Although the Royal Procession ideally fosters social integration, it was disrupted in 1987 by a quarrel between two factions of priests. The goddess’s itinerary, the culminating date of the pilgrimage, the type of sacrifice to be performed, the order of procession, the participation of previously excluded persons, and the competency of certain ritual specialists—all were subjects of heated dispute between the rival groups. What was the reason for this quarrel? The whole idea of the Progress was to create unity, yet in the event they were torn apart by an acrimonious dispute. So why were they quarrelling if it was ‘only’ a ritual, a matter of mere symbols? Although we often distinguish between the realms of ‘politics’ and ‘ritual’, and although many social scientists would balk at the idea that they are one and the same, in many cases – as the author argues in this article – they pervade each other: ritual is politics and politics is ritual.



How to Cite

Sax, W. (2010). The Royal pilgrimage of the Goddess Nanda. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 22, 334–352.