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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

Pilgrims Welcome

by Justin Unrau
Aug 03,2005


Pilgrims Welcome

It was a Friday night and we'd just got into Jerusalem. The sun wasn't quite down yet and we were going through the metal detectors.

The soldier was going through my bag as we started to hear singing from closer to the wall. My buddy was already through and heading to where the crowd was building up for the beginning of the Sabbath in coolest open-air synagogue I'd ever been to.

The soldier finished checking my cameras and recorders she returned them as the disgruntled tour guide behind me made snarky comments. "That's why people don't bring all their crap in Jerusalem."

I understood though. He had 50 Nigerian Christians to shepherd through who all wanted to see the same things as me.

One of the features of places I've travelled to is a nigh constant supply of holy places. I've got most major religions covered. Christianity and Judaism? Jerusalem covers both with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall.

Islam? Okay, I've never been to Saudi Arabia so no Mecca or Medina, but I've got the Umayyad mosque in Damascus which is number 3 in the hierarchy of holy places. Add in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and that's getting respectable. Then there're some really fine mosques in India from the Mughal times.

For Hinduism I've got the temple of Mumbadevi in Bombay, Ellora's temple to Siva that was completely carved from one rock, and a major Kali temple in Varanasi (which is not underground and does not feature any priests pulling hearts out of sacrificial victims). Okay, Hinduism's difficult because it's so decentralized, but I've been to tonnes of little temples too.

Buddhism's got some of my favourites. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha was enlightened, Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon and Gorakhpur where he died. Plus the centre of Tibetan Buddhism at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

And what do they all have in common?

They're filled with people.

Pilgrims come from all over to visit these big places. If they're part of a religion that's running they're probably being used. It's a bit different from the places of holy power we often see in games.

My impression is that in most games the big popular temples are places of bureaucracy and priests and maybe a few worshippers quietly doing their thing. That's how it's played in D&D games I've been in at least.

Well let me tell you about the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

If you're travelling in India you are doing yourself a great disservice if you don't head to the Punjab region. It's in Northern India, one of the provinces that shares a border with Pakistan (I'll be talking about that border in an upcoming column). This is the home of the Sikh religion.

I won't go into a big thing on Sikhism here (here's a Wikipedia article) but I have to say with no disrespect intended it feels a classic D&D style religion. Sikhs have a proud martial history and amazing hospitality. The centre of all that is the Golden Temple in Amritsar where the holy book is kept, surrounded by a pool of heavenly nectar. Or water, but it's the symbolism that counts.

Sikh temples (or gurdwaras) are set up to take in travellers. They're like small villages. Anyone, regardless of religion, can stay for free at a gurdwara for three days. At least in India. They feed you and give you cots in a room. My buddy and I stayed at the Golden Temple and the whole time there I was thinking about how my thrifty characters are going to start trying to take a bit more advantage of religious hospitality in the future..

The sheer numbers of people at the temple were amazing. Yes, there are officials reading from the book at all times and special ceremonies going on, but there are also just regular people circling the pool that surrounds the golden part of the temple.

There are also museums and galleries showing off the (often bloody) history of the religion, when Sikhs had to fight to reclaim the temple or avenge some wrong. Some of those wrongs demanding revenge included invaders chopping off heads and throwing them in the sacred pool, invaders tossing babies on spikes and invaders doing all sorts of nasty things. There are portraits that tell stories, like the one about a Sikh whose head was cut off but he still fought his way to the temple. That revenge theme in the museum extended up to a picture of the damage done to the temple by the military in the 1980s. That attack on the temple (in operation Bluestar) prompted the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the president of India in 1984.

One of my favourite moments in India came at that temple when they were washing the floor. There was a huge procession of people with broom-like squeegees and a bucket patrol pouring water over the marble surrounding the pool, where these thousands of people walk barefoot every day. These patrols weren't priests or officials but pilgrims themselves. We barely saw any priests at all in our three days living on the site.

All of this made me take another look at how I use these religious kinds of sites. When we're playing in fantasy games we often are dealing with hidden religious places, temples way out in the middle of nowhere that the adventurers go out looking for (or stumble upon). And maybe it's just my games, but when I start talking religion in modern day settings we tend to lean towards hidden cults and secret forces way off the beaten track.

But really, religion is important to lots of people. Any religious site worth its salt is going to attract pilgrims, even if it is out in the middle of nowhere. In China there are 5 big Taoist mountains and a few big Buddhist ones that act as major pilgrimage sites. Because so many people come to them, they're set up like tourist attractions.

There are concessions and souvenir stands and places to buy the assorted crap that worshippers need to do the rituals they came all that way for. Plus things for those pilgrims to do, like the Golden Temple's museum. Around the Jokhang Temple in Tibet there are people just walking around it all day. Circumambulation, walking around stuff, is a fairly common feature of Buddhism and is an act of worship in itself. Some of these walkers are monks, but most of them are just regular devout people.

So don't forget about the people that the religion is for.

One final thought on places to go for inspiration on the temple pilgrimmage phenomenon. There's a reason we talk about some place being a "Mecca for ..." whoever. Baseball fans might go to Cooperstown. Surfers might go to Hawaii. Gamers might go to GenCon. Any of those kinds of places, where people gather in sort of a like spirit are great places to get ideas for the rest of the pilgrims in your games.

That's it for this one. If you were waiting for something on international borders like I mentioned last time, it'll be next time when I'll have just returned from a trip to a few metres away from North Korea.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda:

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