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Updated: February 20, 2014 17:06 IST

In true spirit

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Green Pilgrimage Network aims at countering the ecological challenges posed by the crowds that converge at pilgrim centres across the world

Every day, hundreds of thousands of us humans head to pilgrim spots across the globe. Most of these beautiful and holy sites are now reeling under the ecological impact of such massive floating populations, who leave behind millions of litres of untreated sewage, filth, plastic and paper litter, air pollution from huge vehicular traffic, ground water depletion, and infringements upon the associated ecosystem, since most pilgrimage spots are located near natural reserves or other fragile ecosystems.

India faces a particularly huge challenge, since there are more popular pilgrimage destinations in many Indian states than in entire countries themselves.

To name just a few, the hillside town of Tirupati receives over 40,000 pilgrims every single day. Fifteen lakh pilgrims participate in the 10-day annual Velankanni festival. The Nagoor festival draws hordes of pilgrims. Yatras like the Amarnath and Sabarimala and melas like the 30-day Shravana mela in Jharkhand and Kumbh Mela draws massive crowds for days together....

Significant network

Well, the urgent need to counter this ecological challenge gave rise to the Green Pilgrimage Network, an operation hosted by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and supported by the Bhumi Project of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, established by the Oxford University.

“We work at pilgrimage centres of various traditions in Europe, USA, India and East Africa. We work with local governmental and non-governmental partners and help in networking and setting up of sustainable systems and policies,” explains Gopal Patel of Bhumi Project, who recently visited the city to launch the Green Pilgrimage Network in the city, in association with the C.P.R. Environment Education Centre (CPREEC). For instance, GPN has done an environment assessment and action plan of Rishikesh and Ujjain and is now looking at sources of funding for it. In Puri, GPN has networked with the temple authorities and to make the area around temples free of vehicular traffic, remove encroachments, clean gardens, and install solar power plants. Bhumi project is also developing a green temple handbook.

Meanwhile, as part of its GPN initiative, CPREEC’s projects include raising awareness and in setting up of source segregated garbage bins, replacing of harmful invading plants like velikathan with indigenous species like neem, creation of a green map that will list green shops in the locality, etc.

“CPREEC will begin this GPN initiative at Rameshwaram, and will extend it to other pilgrimage centres later,” informs Nanditha Krishna, director, CPREEC.

An exhibition on Green Pilgrimages can be viewed at the C.P. Art Centre until March 1.

Incidentally, the notion of green pilgrimages is embedded in Indian thought since ancient times. In fact, the Shastras list specific rules for pilgrimages that include eating a single meal a day and carrying of less baggage, which minimise ecological impact. The Arthasastra prescribes punishments for destroying trees and plants and warns of climate change as a consequence of ecological plunder.

Ancient sages revered earth as mother earth and rivers as goddesses, trees as vriksha devata (god), mountains as giri devata. Our religions teach us to love the earth and treat it with care. “But now, ironically, we worship Mother Ganga and Cauvery when inside the temple, but defile the rivers with filth when outside the temple,” points out Krishna.

In the midst of this insensitivity, the inspiring fact is that many pilgrim centres have embraced conservation. At Tirupati, the Tirumala Tirupati Devastanam has encouraged solar water heaters in all the lodges and ashrams, besides solar cooking systems, wind mills and water recycling systems.

Jerusalem has outlawed vehicles in its old city area. In Indonesia, it is mandatory for Haj pilgrims to plant a tree before leaving for Mecca. Well, if every pilgrim and every pilgrimage spot in the planet takes such a green route, our holy places will turn verdant and beautiful once more.

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