By Swati Chopra
There have always existed some places on earth that have a special energy about them. These are places we pilgrimage to, that we believe provide access to the mystical. What gives these places their power? Do they form through human faith, or are they a property of the earth?
“Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, a different vibration of chemical exhalation, a different polarity with the stars; call it what you like. But the spirit of a place is a great reality.”
—D.H. Lawrence, 20th century writer
For all of history, and as far back as human memory can reach, there have existed in almost every region of every continent places specially revered and regularly visited. Their magnetic charm has drawn billions of people into their bosom since the dawn of time. Across the planet, these ‘power spots’ exist in the form of sacred mountains, healing springs, oracular caverns, enchanted forest glens, and places of divine revelation.
The passage of time and the onslaught of rational modernity seem to have diminished none of the charisma of these places, nor their ‘effectiveness’. For these places often lie at the climax of arduous pilgrimage, and in hosting ‘greater powers’ that grant wishes and blessings, represent for many the fruits of faith. Even today, reports of extraordinary experiences of healing and grace appear routinely, as if inspired just by being within the area of influence of these places. For an example we don’t have to look far; the red and yellow threads tied to walls and railings of ancient ‘wish-fulfilling’ shrines across India testify to the enduring promise of benediction that sacred sites hold out.
Centuries of intense devotion and awe, often coupled with mythological connections, have lent an air of the unexplainable to power spots, which makes it easy to brand them as ‘exotica’. The danger is when a place alive with energy becomes ossified as an archaeological case study, or worse, as an entertainment theme park for first world tourist traffic.
This is largely what has happened to the Native American culture, with traditionally sacred lands either built over and rendered unrecognizable, or turned into tourist attractions. Other cultures on display are of the Australian aborigines and the Hawaiians, where sacred dances and rituals are performed on demand, and tourists taken on guided tours of sites worshipped for centuries. While there is nothing wrong with sightseeing per se, using sacred sites as entertainment fodder does seem a bit of a travesty.
In a world where the truly sacred is retreating from all spaces physical and mental, it is worthwhile to re-evaluate sites and spots that still afford some access to mystical experience. To do so, we need to question what gives these places the power they obviously have, and whether they form through human faith, or are they an inherent property of the earth at specific locations. Also, can we in some way measure or quantify the energy quotient of an area? And are these places always ancient, formed at the very beginning along with the earth, or are new power spots developing even now?
In finding answers, while we must take into account the tools afforded by modern science, we must brace ourselves for dissatisfaction with these, for contemporary science tends to discard what it cannot dissect and explain to its own liking. Nevertheless, principles of energy flow and even geometry will come in handy in this exploration.
As Martin Gray, anthropologist and inveterate traveler to sacred places, of which he has explored 1,000 in 50 countries, says in his Places of Peace and Power: “To gather information on sacred sites I have used two methods: the objective method of the scientist/observer and the subjective method of the mystic/shaman. Neither method is inherently a better way of knowing; each merely offers an alternative view of what is essentially a unitary reality. While both methods are valuable and complementary, mystical experience has as its source a direct and personal experience of the sacred.”
Our primary path, then, must be of the pilgrim. For the key that often opens doors that seem impervious to all else is the ability to intuit, to connect, and to feel with an open heart. Garments and masks that the chattering mind acquires to deal with everyday reality must be peeled away, for a while at least, so that it becomes possible to know what the heart hears and the mind recognizes instinctively. Laying aside the worldly spectacles of conditioning, we must see anew, as if for the first time. And walk as the pilgrim does, head bowed and hands folded, ready to receive.
Only then can we hope for the spirit of these special places to become apparent to us.
The First Seed
Somewhere between constructing the first sacrificial altar to all-powerful elements and watching seeds sown in the earth’s womb sprout forth, our foremothers and fathers seem to have developed a sense of place. The shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer-food grower changed and deepened the relationship with what had previously been simply the ground beneath their feet.
It is possible that this heightened awareness of surroundings (as opposed to the earlier ‘terrain skill’ required for the hunt) and the initial stirrings of the sacred in the human psyche happened almost simultaneously. For both impulses can be traced to a common link—the beginning of agriculture circa 10,000 BC, when rudimentary villages began sprouting around rivers and Neolithic man beat his spears into ploughshares. Cycles of crop sowing and harvest enforced for the first time a settled life, and along with the wheat and yams that he watched over, early man too began to put down roots and grow close to the earth he lived on.
As his commitment to his land grew, and he came to count on the cycles of nature for survival, so did man’s fear of losing all, say due to excessive rain, or the lack of it. Together with the sense of awe that he had always felt for nature, and the immense power of birth, nurture and annihilation it seemed to represent, there was sown in man the seed of the sacred, the impetus for belief in energies, spirits, and powers beyond his own.
As the great civilizations developed, the primal earth mother became channelled into goddesses with specific functions like Isis (mother of gods) and Tefnut (rain)
Earth as Goddess
The earth, with its awesome power to bequeath and nourish life, soon came to be identified with the feminine, more specifically, the mother. Just like the human mother, she gave birth, nurtured and took care. For this, felt man, she required respect and worship. Most ancient agricultural communities, from the Mesopotamian to the Harappan, fashioned images of the earth as a fecund woman with bountiful breasts and bulging abdomen, and it is now established that as man awoke to the sacred, he turned to the earth as his principal deity.
A little later, as the great civilizations developed, the primal earth mother became channeled into goddesses with specific functions. Although the Egyptians had Isis, mother of all there is, they also thought up other earth and nature-related goddesses like Tefnut (rain), Satet (flooded Nile) and Nut (sky). The Greeks went from revering Gaia, the earth in its entirety, to a slew of goddesses that represented different aspects of her, like Artemis (nature) and Demeter (seasons). They actually came upon an interesting idea, of the anima mundi, ‘soul of the world’, which referred to a destiny that plays itself out in everyday events.
Power spots often occur at apex of pilgrimages. The performance of the ritual of pilgrimage is important if the intent is religious merit or healing
Despite this particularization of the earth as a female form worshipped through her images and temples, some cultures continued to hold land features, the actual earth, as sacred. Remnants of this practice are found among the Australian aborigines, for whom every rock formation, mountain and hill is connected to ‘dreamtime’, when creation came into being, and so is revered.
It is in the Indian subcontinent, however, that the direct worship of the earth is a powerful, living tradition that finds expression through the exaltation of the land’s physical features like mountains, rivers, even trees. These are either deities in their own right, like the river Ganga, mother of an entire civilization she has fed on her fertile plains, or are manifestations or abodes, such as Mount Kailash in Tibet, where Shiva resides, and Mount Arunachala in Tamil Nadu, which is Shiva. So while the simple element-worship of the Vedic religion of the earliest Aryans has developed into the huge Hindu pantheon we find today, the most powerful icons of the culture, from which it derives its essence, remain the ones found in the natural environment, whose veneration requires direct communion with the earth.
A little known fact is the existence of prehistoric megalithic shrines personifying the mother goddess. The ones in India date back to 8,000 BC, like the one in Bolhai, Madhya Pradesh, which is a seven feet long oval stone, coated in red, that rings like a bell when struck. In Kaimur in central India, there is a monument dating from the Upper Palaeolithic era (30-40,000 years ago), in which the goddess is still venerated as Kalika Mai (mother Kali). In Conception in Chile is located a Catholic shrine of the Blessed Virgin, which houses an ancient rock-drawn figure ‘discovered’ in the 18th century.
In his Kali, the Feminine Force, Ajit Mukerjee speaks about the ‘retreat’ of the mother goddess some 1,500 years ago, under the advance of the patriarchal Aryan culture. She did re-emerge several centuries later, as the object of Shakti worship in Tantra treatises. Elsewhere in the world too, as male God-centric religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity arose, the earth mother was relegated to playing a supporting role as ‘God’s creation’ or ‘holy mother’. Man had moved away from the direct worship of the earth. The reverence of sacred places continued, however, in the guise of pilgrimages.
Power of Pilgrimage
Power spots often seem to occur at the apex of pilgrimages. Though these can be visited otherwise as well, the performance of the ritual of pilgrimage is accorded importance if the intent is either religious merit as in the case of the obligatory Islamic hajj, or physical or spiritual healing. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia mentions: “Pilgrimages may be defined as journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.” There is another, hidden category of pilgrims, those who seek inner awakening and come to these places hoping for triggers to transcendence.
So from the earliest times, human beings have set off on arduous, sometimes life-threatening journeys to sites sacred to them. The Egyptians trekked to Sekket’s shrine at Bubastis or to Ammon’s oracle at Thebes; the Greeks sought counsel from Apollo at the Delphic oracle and cures from Asclepius, god of healing, at Epidaurus; Mexicans gathered at the huge temple of Quetzal; Peruvians massed in sun worship at Cuzco and Bolivians in Titicaca.
One way in which pilgrimages are thought to have originated is the idea that each area is governed by its own deity—a belief that still informs the world-view of many in India. These deities could exercise control only over definite forces or within set boundaries. There were gods of the hills and gods of the plains who could only work out their designs, and favour or destroy men within their own locality. Hence when somebody was away from his locality and needed divine help, he journeyed back to petition his gods.
Roger Housden, traveller and student of Indian spiritual traditions, upholds this view in his Travels through Sacred India. He says: “The (Indian) village is a cosmos, animated by the divine power of the local goddess. In return for worship and sacrifice, she ensures good crops, rain, fertility, protection from demons and disease. When the villager leaves the magic circle of the village, he falls outside the protection of the goddess.”
Saints and Prophets
In Judeo-Christian religions, pilgrimages acquired the character of adoration, either of places associated with prophets, such as Mecca and Medina, or where, in the words of the Bible, God was believed to have “dwelt among us”, such as Bethlehem. The human need for petitioning a greater power to tide over problems remained, and continued to be expressed in different ways.
In Catholic Christianity, cycles of venerated shrines sprang around saints, who were thought to intercede with God on behalf of those who prayed to them. Even after their deaths, the tombs and scenes of martyrdom of saints were considered to be capable of removing the taints and penalties of sin. Accordingly it came to be looked upon as a purifying act to visit them. This made Canterbury, that holds the tomb of St Augustine, the spiritual nucleus of England in medieval times, before secession from papal authority under Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Other places are visited because they house ‘relics’, actual remains of the body or belongings of Jesus Christ or other apostles and saints. In India, the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa houses the embalmed body of the 17th century Spanish saint, Francis Xavier. Preserved in a silver casket, it is brought out for viewing every few years on days of ‘public exposition’, when thousands gather in the cathedral for a glimpse of ‘Goencho Saib’ (lord of Goa), as he is locally known.
Aachen in Rhenish Prussia also owes its fame to an extraordinary list of relics, which includes the swaddling clothes of baby Jesus, the loincloth he wore on the cross, and the Virgin Mary’s cloak. As in the case of the controversial Shroud of Turin, supposed to have been wrapped around the body of Christ after crucifixion, the authenticity of these relics could be debatable. But this does not deter thousands from making the pilgrimage to view them on designated days, the places having become hallowed for them by the very presence of these relics.
If we look closely, we find that certain practices and rituals that are born of the most basic of human impulses have mirrored one another despite having arisen perhaps on opposite ends of the planet. Almost as if providing examples of the inherent oneness underlying all differences and barriers, ideas and feelings originate in places far removed from one another, find expression in ways that seem to echo one another, and then dissolve into the larger consciousness that connects us all. So that everything exists simultaneously, as if in Vishnu’s ksheersagar (cosmic ocean), wave transmuting into wave, constantly alive in a timeless present.
So the earth worship of yore continues, literally, as in India, and in the form of traditions of pilgrimages to holy lands elsewhere. The relic veneration of Catholics finds resonance in the most atheistic of all eastern religions, Buddhism, where some time after the Buddha’s death, his remains were interred in spherical mounds called stupas and visited periodically by his followers. That this happened to the teacher who spoke of impermanence and sunyata (emptiness) might be seen as ironical. A gentler view would take into account the need to venerate, and to go on journeys that lead to ground made sacred by a revered presence.
At this point, it would be interesting to contemplate whether sacredness, and therefore energy, is a characteristic of the place, or does it reside in the hearts and minds of those who revere it. Of all the great world teachers, of the Buddha we can say with certainty that he was a human being like us, who achieved insights and clarity through diligent striving. Does that make him divine? Or an avatar? And does it imbue his mortal remains with the power to bestow good karma and take away bad karma?
Returning to the issue of resonating sacredness, especially interesting are places reverenced by multiple religions and cultures. Jerusalem is an example, as it contains within its circumference shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Another such is Carmel in Palestine, which has been for centuries a sacred mountain, both for the Hebrew people and for Christians. Since the 18th century, Muslims, Christians and Jews have celebrated the feast of Elias in the mountain that bears his name.
Mount Kailash in Tibet is revered by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Tibetan Bons equally, each having structured appropriate mythology around it. Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka too is holy to different religions. On its summit is an impression, which the Muslims assert to be the footprint of Adam, Hindus of Lord Ram, Buddhists of the Buddha, Chinese that of Fu, and Indian Christians that of St Thomas, the apostle credited with bringing Christianity to India.
Miracles of Faith
The most visited and venerated shrines are those credited with working miracles, effecting healing, and fulfilling wishes. The argument of believers is: who or what accounts for these supernatural phenomena if not divine intervention?
A remarkable shrine in this respect is Lourdes in south of France, which according to records of that country’s Southern Railway Company, receives a million pilgrims each year. The source of healing is a natural spring revealed to a young girl in 1858 by an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Since then, although only 65 certifiable miracles have happened in Lourdes, millions more claimed to have been cured by bathing in the miraculous spring.
Says Rev Kevin Wallin, an American priest who has made seven pilgrimages to Lourdes since 1987: “Lourdes is a place where the sick, the poor, those with emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical handicaps find encouragement, solace and hope. Here, the downtrodden of the world, who always had a special place in the heart and activity of the Lord Jesus himself, become the focus of the community’s activity and care. Each day the sick are taken to the baths, brought in procession with the Blessed Sacrament around the main esplanade of the shrine, and taken to visit the sacred grotto.” The real miracle of Lourdes, then, is love, and the open-hearted acceptance of sufferers and their suffering, and an all-inclusiveness where nothing and no one is beyond the promise of hope.
As it is in the dargahs of India, where people of all ages and religious and economic persuasions gather to honour and petition pirs, mostly medieval Sufi saints who spoke of love beyond boundaries, for self, God and humanity. One of the most powerful dargahs is that of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, which since the 12th century has been a source of benediction and brotherhood. The nickname for the saint is revealing; he is ‘Garib Nawaz’, friend of the poor and needy.
Author Peter Lamborn Wilson explains the importance of dargahs for the Sufi. “In ordinary pilgrimage, the traveller receives baraka (spiritual energy) from a place, but the dervish reverses the flow and brings baraka to a place. To the ordinary stay-at-home people of the mundane world, the Sufi is a kind of perambulatory shrine.”
In an article titled ‘Hearts in Harmony’ (Resurgence, May/June 2003), author William Dalrymple describes a visit to Ajmer Sharif during the especially auspicious 786th Urs (death anniversary) of Garib Nawaz. In an atmosphere laden with the belief that the Khwaja never returned anyone ‘empty handed’, he recounts meeting a couple from Gujarat, whose child was cured here. Dalrymple quotes the father: “We were desperate, so we got on a bus and came to Garib Nawaz. One of the pirs (representative of Khwaja) cured our child. What could not be done in 12 months, he did in a minute. Each year we come to thank Khwaja.”
The Khwaja, in his beneficence and the emotional relationship his followers have with him, is reminiscent of a mother you can demand, plead with and cajole for your needs. Like the Catholic saints, he and other pirs like him, are ‘beloveds’ of God and so seen as a bridge between Him and humankind. In a way, since they rose from human ranks, they might seem more accessible than an all-powerful, superhuman presence. Perhaps this is also why Mary, mother of Jesus, and indeed of all those who appeal to her, is a popular emblem of mercy and several shrines of healing around the world attribute their miracles to her. In India too, she appears as ‘Our Lady of Health’ in Velankini in Tamil Nadu, where in the manner of Lourdes, she dispenses miraculous cures to visitors who petition her with gold and silver replicas of ailing body parts.
In India pirs, masters and holy men have the proclivity of becoming synonymous with the places they live and teach in. So much so that years, even centuries after their physical demise, devotees report feeling their palpable presence in these places. It is as if the saint’s essence has become one with the soil, which might actually be so in the case of burials. For the lakhs who visit Sai Baba’s shrine in Shirdi, the town in Maharashtra where he lived and worked miracles in the 19th century, it is as if they are visiting ‘Baba’ himself. And Dalrymple says about Ajmer Sharif: “By the way the pilgrims talk about Garib Nawaz, you might imagine they were coming to see a living holy man.”
Tales of actual appearances are also rife among devotees, and many journey to these places in the hope of a glimpse of their beloved master. “Garib Nawaz is still here,” says a visitor to the dargah in Dalrymple’s article. “Many people see him in the crowd. He looks after every one of his followers.” Those who receive help from unexpected quarters during their pilgrimage often tend to attribute it to a visitation by the saint.
“There was a long queue and I was despairing whether I will be able to get darshan before the six o’clock closing time,” says Delhi-based Dr Sarala Basu about her visit to Ajmer Sharif. “Suddenly, a young man appeared before me and asked me to follow him. The crowd seemed to melt before him and before I knew it, I was at the shrine. Later, I looked for him, but he had disappeared.” Similarly, visitors to difficult hill shrines like Vaishno Devi talk of assistance in their journey, and those to Shirdi seem to see Baba’s luminous eyes shining at them from strangers’ faces.
A lot of this might have to do with intense faith and its ability to manifest what one absolutely believes in and is looking for. If we do, however, give credence to the supposition that our bodies emit vibrations, and that intense meditation, yogic kriyas, self-realisation, even deep feelings of compassion and love somehow leave energy imprints in the atmosphere, then we can see why these places carry the presence of masters long dead physically. So that people continue to experience the immovable silence of Ramana Maharshi in his ashram in the shade of Mount Arunachala, and those visiting Meher Baba’s samadhi at Meherabad come away feeling blessed.
Myth and Form
It has been the urge of humankind to honour sacred places with spectacular constructions—physical and mythological. In a culture of unbroken continuity, such as the Indian, myths have survived and offer us what is believed to be an ‘encoded knowledge’ of the energy of sacred sites. So we know that the Ganga is not just a river but the liquid essence of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh; of creator, preserver and destroyer, and unites all spheres of reality. This makes her central in life and in death: with your ashes in the Ganga, you can be sure of a safe journey to the land of the ancestors. Then, we know that there are four sites—Badrinath in the north, Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east and Rameshwaram in the south—that have marked the cardinal directions since time immemorial.
We also know that there are 51 places around the country where pieces of the goddess Sati’s body fell. Shiva, cr
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That the earth emits energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation has long been known. But now, there is an instrument that can pick up this energy and even measure it. Based on the principle of measuring energy with folded rods, pioneered by Austrian- German physicist Ernst Lecher in 1890, the ‘Lecher antenna’, as it is known, was developed by German physicist Reinhard Schneider in 1975.
The Lecher antenna has been able to detect the earth’s energy grid, thought to be made of magnetic lines of varying widths and intensities. The antenna also allows one to read and verify vibrations of the human body. Since its invention, the antenna has been used by dowsers to divine energy patterns, and by healers to detect disease causing negative energy within and outside the human body. Architects are beginning to make use of the antenna too, since it helps identify energy lines on a plot, thereby making it possible to construct walls on negatively-charged energy to prevent humans from interacting with it.
In India, vastu experts Delhi-based Ajay Poddar and Pondicherry-based Prabhat Poddar have improved upon the Lecher antenna and are using it to detect health-related problems. They use it in conjunction with principles of vastu and ayurveda to suggest remedies for physical, emotional and spiritual problems. The Lecher antenna can detect even subtle energy fields affecting the body’s aura, thereby giving clues to what’s causing these problems.
The Lecher antenna functions on the principle of resonance. It determines energy impulses based on the principle that anything that vibrates faster will have a shorter wavelength. The length of the antenna rods is selected on the basis of half-wavelengths or their multiples. According to Ajay Poddar, a person can use the antenna to determine and realign his own energies.
Create Your Own
To find your power spot, close your eyes allowing your inner self to guide you. You may sense a strong glow from a particular spot. On finding your spot, mark the centre, calling upon the earth and the sky simultaneously. Place markers in four directions and crystals in the centre to amplify energy. Other ways of concentrating energy to create your personal power spot are:
• Feng Shui: This Chinese technique believes in utilising the chi, energy, for healing and bringing good fortune. It provides an ‘energy map’ that divides a space into eight segments, each representing an aspect of life. Feng shui uses symbolic elements, like the three-legged frog, tortoise, mandarin ducks, wind chimes, mirrors and artwork placed in the eight corners to enhance a specific segment of one’s life. The whole house can then be compartmentalised in accordance to energy spots.
• Merkaba: Merkaba activation yantras are modern visual and energetic interpretations of ancient Egyptian pyramids used to create protected portals of energy to higher dimensional realms. The yantras work on the principle that when you change the energy vibration patterns, you can change the way matter manifests, matter being a form of energy.
• Crystals: Healers believe that crystals possess dormant energy due to their origin from the earth’s crust. Wearing them with skin contact helps to release their energy. Simply holding crystals in your palm gives the feel of energy synthesizing. A stone and crystal garden is ideal for meditation. A flowing crystal waterfall at home is said to increase the healing potential of stones manifold.
• Pyramid yantras: ‘Pyra’ refers to the universal life energy, little wonder then that pyramids are known to harness cosmic energy. Etymologically, ‘mid’ refers to the middle, indicating that the energy harnessed is preserved in its bosom. Exposure to the vibrations of the pyramid affects one’s aura which is a field of electromagnetic energy. Pyramid yantras in homes and offices enhance auras. Even miniature pyramids harmonies the space where they are kept.
Sacred as Social Strategy
Though we usually think of the sacred as related to God, it could also be a great social strategy. The sacred is what we revere and cherish. In all ancient traditions, rivers, mountains, the land, forests and trees were considered sacred in recognition of their vital role in sustaining life. Their private ownership was inconceivable, since these formed part of the ‘commons’—they sustained everyone and all had a responsibility to care for and protect them.
By considering natural resources as common, there formed a relationship of use marked by respect and care. These were not to be spoilt, but to be revered and be grateful for. Even when private ownership of land occurred, this culture continued to recognize the dependence of humans on nature and there remained forests, lakes, springs and rivers that villages shared. It is a fact of social history that making them sacred encouraged people to care for them.
The forests in India were common land cared for by tribes and villages. Nobody cleared away forests for timber; each tree was cut with a prayer only when it was absolutely necessary. Our rivers were goddesses, our springs often Devi shrines. The mountains were made abodes of saints and gods. We sanctified these common resources and assets and formed relationships with them where it was a sin to harm them and a blessing to look after them and use them worshipfully.
This strategy of making natural resources sacred is now deeply eroded. Monotheistic cultures saw nature as being there for man’s use, and a river became water, just another element to be manipulated at the whim of God’s chosen ones. Science, the great reductionism, went even further from the sacred by reducing water to just H2O—two atoms of one element and one of another, something inert that could be used heartlessly and mindlessly.
Then, with the deluge of globalisation and the market economy, all commons disappeared. Nature came to be owned by individuals, corporations or governments. The great mother goddesses Ganga and Narmada could now, at human will, be dammed and damned. No need to keep the river clean, for Ganga water could be owned by a private water company that would purify it with modern technology and sell under a registered brand name. In a sense, with the loss of the ‘commons’, there was no need now to regard these natural resources as sacred.
I quite like sacred stories of river goddesses and mountain gods. And whether or not there was something innately ‘sacred’ in them, they were sacred to us and to life. Losing them is more than the loss of tales and a belief system; it is the loss of a social strategy that effectively protected our environment for centuries. The sacred feeling may be an old human response to Life: its mystery, beauty and complex interconnectedness. Maybe we should hold on to it for environmental and social reasons too.