Hinduism Pandas/Pilgrimage Priests
James Lochtefeld
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0189


At many North Indian Hindu pilgrimage sites, panda (from Sanskrit paṇḍita, “learned man”) is the most common name for a class of hereditary religious guides. A grander more formal designation is the compound word tīrthapurohit, a priest/ritual performer (purohit) at a sacred site (tīrtha). Pandas are (or claim to be) that site’s “local” Brahmins, though a panda family’s original village may in fact be some distance away. In theory, each panda family had exclusive hereditary rights to serve pilgrim clients (yajmāns) from a particular area or areas of the subcontinent; these rights were confirmed and protected by detailed genealogical records. During the pilgrims’ stay, the pandas would house, feed, and guide them (including facilitating any necessary or desired ritual actions); they would also render any necessary help or support, such as tending the sick or lending money. In essence, pandas functioned as members of the pilgrim’s extended family, and were an essential support network in the days before good transportation and communication networks. For their services, pilgrims would render a token cash payment, and a more substantial pledge to be picked up at their homes later. The pandas’ regular travel to redeem these pledges helped to cement ties with their clients, but also made them far more cosmopolitan than one might expect from a “local” pilgrimage priest. This simple model was often more complex in real life, with higher and lower status functionaries—for example, many pandas employed agents to bring pilgrims to them, and also hired other Brahmins to perform the actual rituals. Twentieth-century improvements in transportation and communications networks have severely undercut pilgrims’ need for the pandas’ support network, while at the same time sweeping social and religious changes have diminished demand for ritual services. Pilgrims may still call on pandas for certain life-cycle ceremonies—particularly rites for the dead—but the panda’s status has gradually shifted from being a family member to being a contractor to be hired when needed. Panda communities are fundamentally conservative—their primary role is to facilitate traditional religious rituals—and this makes it difficult for them to adapt to change. Nonetheless, the forces generated by social and economic change are compelling pandas to adapt to new circumstances, and to seek opportunities that these may provide.

General Overviews

Pandas present themselves as a pilgrimage site’s “local” Brahmins, and on this basis claim that they alone are empowered to facilitate religious rights for their clients in those places. This claim may be based on a very generous definition of “local,” since, according to Anna Jameson, many of Hardwar’s panda lineages come from villages more than fifty miles away (Jameson 1976, pp. 101–102), and Badrinath’s pandas originate in South India. Given this model, one would expect to find pandas at sacred sites throughout India, but—as noted in Sarasvati 1983—they are largely concentrated in sites in the greater Gangetic plain: Mathura, Brindavan, Kurukshetra, Hardwar, Allahabad, Benares, Ayodhya, Gaya, Patna, Deoghar, and the Himalayan Char Dham (Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath); outliers include Pushkar, Puri, Ujjain, Nasik/Triambakeshvar, and Rameshvaram (the only one of these in South India). The pilgrim traffic coming from all over India to these sites in the Gangetic heartland would have created a market large enough both to create the need for the pandas’ services and to generate enough demand to be able to support them. The essentially atomistic quality of each place’s panda community—in the sense that it was unconnected with pandas in other places—also means that the material circumstances and relative power of each particular community have been shaped by the particular circumstances in each of these places. Given the panda communities’ essentially local quality, many of the “overview” sources focus on panda communities in particular places, and in some cases were done as an element in studies of those places. Several works focus on the Hardwar panda community: Jameson 1976 (for whom the Hardwar pandas are the primary focus), Lochtefeld 2010, and Amado 1976; the panda overview in Lochtefeld 2011 does not explicitly focus on Hardwar, but is in fact strongly influenced by that context. Prayag (Allahabad) is the study site for Caplan (Caplan 1982 and Caplan 1997) and Boisvert 2010. Fonia 1988 focuses on the Himalayan Char Dham (Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath); Whitmore 2010 has a more specific focus on Kedarnath and the Kedarnath valley. In each of these descriptions the general model for the pandas’ role remains relatively stable, but the circumstances vary according to the local context.

  • Amado, M. Pierre. “Les Prêtres De Pèlerinage Du Gange.” Annuaire De L’E.P.H. E., IVe section, 1975–76 (1976): 961–966.

    A brief article focusing on the religious importance of Hardwar’s pandas. Amado did fieldwork on the Kumbha Mela in both Hardwar and Prayag in the early 1970s, and this festival focus is what brought him to Hardwar.

  • Boisvert, Matthieu. “Facteurs contribuant à l’identité du prêtre de pèlerinage de Prayāga.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39 (2010): 57–75.

    DOI: 10.1177/0008429809355119

    This article discusses multiple factors forming the identity of Prayag’s panda community, based on their views about themselves, the way that they are seen by others, the rites they perform as their religious duty, and the religious ideas and values that shape their worldview. The panda community’s strong emphasis on endogamous marriage keeps its membership relatively homogeneous, and the community is both deeply conservative and rooted in traditional Hindu ideals.

  • Caplan, Anita. “Pilgrims and Priests as Links between a Sacred Center and the Hindu Culture Region: Prayag’s Magh Mela Pilgrimage (Allahabad, India).” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1982.

    An extended study of the role of Prayag’s panda community as intermediaries connecting the sacred center and the larger cultural region.

  • Caplan, Anita. “The Role of Pilgrimage Priests in Perpetuating Spatial Organization within Hinduism.” In Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces: The Geography of Pilgrimage. Edited by Robert Stoddard and Alan Morinis, 209–333. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

    A briefer article describing the functions played by the Prayagwals, particularly during the Magh Mela. Caplan notes that because many pilgrims are still illiterate, Prayag’s pandas display a picture or symbol as an identifying marker for their clients.

  • Fonia, Kedar Singh. A Traveler’s Guide to Uttarakhand. 2d rev. ed. Joshimath, India: Garuda Books, 1988.

    The chapters on Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath contain a section on the pandas, and their differing circumstances illustrate the vagaries of local context. At Yamunotri and Gangotri, pandas control the primary temples and take the money offered there (each family gets a defined turn). At Kedarnath and Badrinath, the Temple Committee manages the temples and keeps the offerings, though Kedarnath’s pandas perform rituals for clients inside the temple. First published 1987 as Uttarakhand: The Land of Jungles, Temples, and Snows (New Delhi: Lancers Books).

  • Jameson, Anna. “Gangaguru: The Public and Private Life of a Brahman Community of North India.” DPhil diss., University of Oxford, 1976.

    By far the longest and most detailed source. Jameson (now Anna King) examines Hardwar’s pandas in their private lives as an endogamous, status-conscious Brahmin community—in which they differ little from many other Brahmin communities—and in their public life as hereditary pilgrim guides. Of particular interest is her catalogue of the original villages of Hardwar’s panda lineages (pp. 101–102), some of which were over two hundred miles away.

  • Lochtefeld, James. God’s Gateway: Identity and Meaning in a Hindu Pilgrimage Place. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Chapter 5 examines Hardwar’s panda community as one of the local interest groups shaping and maintaining Hardwar’s identity as a sacred site. The chapter’s first part examines their individual religious roles in connection with their pilgrim clients; the latter section focuses on their corporate presence—and their attempts to influence Hardwar’s social climate—after the formation of the Ganga Sabhā (Ganges Assembly) in 1916.

  • Lochtefeld, James. “Pandas.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism: Society, Religious Specialists, Religious Traditions, Philosophy. Edited by Knut Jacobsen, 240–244. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    A brief overview of pandas’ traditional role, and the challenges posed by social and economic change.

  • Sarasvati, Baidyanath. Traditions of Tirthas in India. Varanasi, India: NK Bose Memorial Foundation, 1983.

    Sarasvati distinguishes Brahmin roles at pilgrimage sites in North and South India. In North India these Brahmins are pandas (pilgrim guides and fixers), whereas in South India they are temple functionaries who primarily serve the temples. This also reflects the temple differences between North and South India—those in the latter tend to be much larger in area, and are often small cities in their own right.

  • Whitmore, Luke. “In Pursuit of Maheśvara: Understanding Kedarnath as Place and as Tīrtha.” PhD diss., Emory University, 2010.

    Whitmore examines the influence of Kedarnath’s pandas as a primary interest group shaping Kedarnath’s identity as a sacred site.

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