In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tīrtha

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • History
  • Tīrthas and Dharmaśāstra
  • Tīrthas during British Colonial Rule
  • Systematizing Hindu Tīrthas
  • Rivers
  • Tīrthas and Processions
  • Tīrthas and Hinduization

Hinduism Tīrtha
Knut Axel Jacobsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0163


In Hindu traditions, a tīrtha is a place believed to possess auspiciousness and purifying, salvific power, and it is therefore a pilgrimage site, tīrthayātrā. The term tīrtha is widely used for pilgrimage place, but pīṭha is also common, especially in tantric traditions about pilgrimage places associated with goddesses. Some pilgrimage places are called dhāms, such as the Himalayan pilgrimage to the four dhāms Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri. Rivers are also objects of pilgrimage. The term kṣetra is also used for pilgrimage places, often for pilgrimage places that contain many tīrthas pilgrims are supposed to visit. Many Hindu pilgrimage places are associated with water since bathing often is part of the rituals performed at the pilgrimage places. Visiting tīrthas is a dominant feature of Hindu traditions, but pilgrimage was not part of the religion of the Vedas. The earliest Sanskrit text to promote visits to tīrthas was the Mahābhārata. The long Tīrthayātrāparvan, which constitutes chapters 78–148 of the Vanaparvan of the Mahābhārata, is perhaps from 200 to 400 CE or later. Cultural and social changes in this period led to tīrthas being increasingly promoted by bards and Brahmans. The genre of the Purāṇas was created to promote new religious ideas and practices and is dominated by the ideology of salvific space and promotion of pilgrimage travel to tīrthas. The Purāṇas contain a large number of Māhātmyas (texts proclaiming the greatness of a place), and many Purāṇas are themselves Māhātmyas of place, Sthalapurāṇas. The sacred narratives of the Purāṇas are often connected to places. In the Hindu traditions, the landscapes are adorned with narratives of gods and goddesses. For most Hindus, tīrthas have been more important than religious books, especially until the ability to read became widespread. Economic change seems to have played an important role in the development of salvific places and economic interests have been important motivations for their promotion. The salvific rewards granted by visits to the sites were often associated with gifts to Brahmans, which indicates the importance of the economic dimension in the pilgrimage tradition. Typically, in the texts promoting pilgrimage places, the salvific rewards of visiting pilgrimage centers are exaggerated, and the rewards of the Vedic sacrifices ridiculed, which probably points to conflicts in the tradition between different groups of priests. In the Hindu traditions, salvific space is a process, a way to relate to the environment, and new places of pilgrimage are continuously being created.

General Overviews

The most useful studies of Hindu tīrthas typically combine reading of Sanskrit texts and other written sources with ethnographic observations of contemporary practices and looking at the various aspects of tīrthas and pilgrimage travel as cultural practice. General overviews vary in length and scope, from Kane 1973, an extensive study of the textual sources that includes a list of around 2,500 tīrthas with textual references, and Eck 2012, which focuses on the connections between narratives and sites, to Bharati 1963, Bharati 1970, Bhardwaj and Lochtefeld 2004, Jacobsen 2009, and Saraswati 1985 that deal with basic meanings, systems, structures, and rituals and give broad overviews. Bhardwaj 1973 gives an overview based especially on the Mahābhārata and in addition attempts a quantitative typology based on contemporary observations using parameters such as ranking, average distance traveled, purpose and frequency of pilgrimage, and social differentiation.

  • Bharati, Agehananda. “Pilgrimage in the Indian Tradition.” History of Religions 3.1 (1963): 135–167.

    DOI: 10.1086/462476

    A broad overview of Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage traditions in India with many interesting thoughts about their origin and development, the role of Buddhism and Buddhist pilgrimage, different motivations of pilgrims, and the pluralistic context. Particular attention is paid to tantric elements.

  • Bharati, Agehananda. “Pilgrimage Sites and Indian Civilization.” In Chapters in Indian Civilization. Edited by Joseph W. Elder, 85–126. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1970.

    The first part of the article focuses on phalaśruti, darśan, prasād, and vrata and the role of the sādhus at pilgrimage places. The second part describes a large number of mostly Hindu pilgrimage places in India. Pilgrimage places are classified as all India, regionally important, and sites of purely sectarian importance.

  • Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

    Overview of Hindu pilgrimage places in India that argues for the integrative role of systems of pilgrimage places and is interested in understanding the nature of interconnections between the different Hindu pilgrimage places and their ranking. The book argues for a continuity of the broad spatial patterns from Mahābhārata to the modern period.

  • Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan, and James G. Lochtefeld. “Tīrtha.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 478–501. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Useful overview article that appears in a book intended as an introductory volume for university students. The article addresses the classification of tīrthas, pilgrimage texts and pilgrimage studies, pilgrim patterns and the multiplicity of pilgrims’ objectives, and changes in pilgrimage in the past century. The last part of the article deals with economic and political issues with special attention to the role of regional kingdoms for the development of pilgrimage centers, contested pilgrimage places, and contemporary politics.

  • Eck, Diana L. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony, 2012.

    A descriptive presentation of Hindu pilgrimage places with emphasis on mythology and topography. Emphasizes the polycentric and pluralistic nature of Hindu pilgrimage geography and that Hindu India is a great network of pilgrimage places.

  • Jacobsen, Knut A. “Tīrtha and Tīṛthayātrā: Salvific Space and Pilgrimage.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1, Regions, Pilgrimage, Deities. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 381–410. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Overview article that deals with the polycentric nature of Hindu salvific space. Emphasis on places as divinities and systems of ranking and argues that new Hindu sacred places are continuously being created, giving rise to new pilgrimage patterns in India and globally.

  • Kalyāṇ Tīrthāṅka. Gorakhpur, India: Kalyāṇ Kāryālay, Gītāpres, 1957.

    Important and very useful text (in Hindī) that contains descriptions of around 1,500 tīrthas of contemporary India; especially strong on North India.

  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. Vol. 4. 2d ed. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1973.

    Extensive and very useful overview that argues that pilgrimage fostered the idea of an essential and fundamental unity of India and Indian culture. The article contains many important citations from the Sanskrit texts and an extensive list of around 2,500 tīrthas (pp. 730–825) referred to in Sanskrit texts.

  • Saraswati, Baidyanath. Traditions of Tirthas in India: The Anthropology of Hindu Pilgrimage. Varanasi, India: N. K. Bose Memorial Foundation, 1985.

    Overview article that deals with etymology of the term tīrtha, the structure and organization of tīrthas, pilgrimage rituals, and the diversity of traditions. The author emphasizes the difference between kṣetra and tīrtha and between north and south Indian pilgrimage traditions.

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