An Epic Pilgrimage Across Three Great Religions

IN LA PAZ, Bolivia, one afternoon at the beginning of the year, I sat in an aerie of an apartment overlooking an Andean amphitheater of bare scarified mountains. I was in the home of Eduardo Quintela Gonzáles, a 40-year-old musicologist, as he told me how his late father would take him on pilgrimages to the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana. They would walk for three days from their home in La Paz, the Bolivian seat of government, to the pilgrim town of Copacabana, at the edge of Lake Titicaca, 95 miles to the northwest. “Walking alone at night changes one’s perspective of things,” Quintela said. “When you set out, you think you’re going to talk to the people you’re with. But after the first day, you find you have nothing to say. It’s just you and your will to reach your destination.”


The idea of a sacred destination, reached through penance and hardship, that reconfigures one’s view of reality, is a feature of pilgrimage everywhere, but Quintela’s return to Copacabana later that week for the Feast of the Virgin on Feb. 2 was underpinned by a special sorrow: His father, the man who had made the trip to Copacabana 15 times in his life, had died the year before after a bout of Covid-19, which was followed by a diagnosis of brain cancer, an operation and then six months in a coma. “I prayed to the Virgin because he asked me to, but he died anyway,” said Quintela, who was dressed in a black hoodie and jeans, as we sat on folding chairs in a room hung with stringed instruments and masks. I was headed to Copacabana, too. Quintela and his band were due to play at Mass on the morning of fiesta. It would be his first trip back since his father had died, and he was intent on honoring him at the site of his deepest devotion.

I was on a pilgrimage of sorts myself. From my home in New York, Bolivia would be my first stop in what I had envisaged as three journeys across three great faiths, spread out over a year: fiesta high in the Andes, where pre-Hispanic ritual and belief underlay Catholicism; a spring of pilgrimage through Buddhist and shamanic Mongolia; and lastly, a time of mourning in Shiite Iraq.

The Island of the Sun in Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca, a pilgrimage site since before the Inca Empire.

I was interested in pilgrimage as a kind of ur-travel, crucial to so much that we associate with the modern industry of tourism, from early inns, hostels and brothels to guidebooks and travel writing. In their 1978 book, “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture,” the British and British American anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner imagine pilgrimage as two roads, one inbound and one outbound — one sacred, the other profane. The road in is a spiritual journey, “exteriorized mysticism,” to use the Turners’ phrase. The road out is less about faith and more about travel itself — that radical business of leaving the safety of one’s home to journey, as Chaucer writes in “The Canterbury Tales” (1400), “to ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes” (“to far-off shrines, known in sundry lands”). The word “pilgrim” itself derives from the Latin peregrinus, meaning “one from abroad” — a foreigner. In India, where I grew up, and where the sacred topography of pilgrimage stitches the land together, the Hindi word for traveler, yatri, is still the same as the word for pilgrim. I remember afternoon naps with my grandmother in Delhi on days of savage heat, when she would exhort me to take her to the various holy sites, now the shrine of Vaishno Devi in the Himalayas, now the temple town of Varanasi, curled languidly about the Ganges. As in medieval Europe, pilgrimage, not tourism, was the primary motivation to travel at all for someone like my grandmother; years later, I was amazed to find that it was the same for my husband’s grandmother, an evangelical Christian living in the American South. The first time Lyra Skinner, at 85, got on a plane and left the Deep South was to go to the Holy Land. Pilgrimage made familiar the unfamiliar, allowing those who might not be persuaded to go to the nearest big city to venture thousands of miles away. Standing in the garden of Gethsemane, Lyra was struck most by how at home she felt.

On the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, where a pre-Inca deity is said to have first ordered the heavenly bodies to ascend to the sky.

In my 20s, I set out on my own pilgrimage, to Mecca, among other places, in search of the country and faith of my Pakistani father, who was a stranger to me for most of my life. At the time, I had felt my own lack of religious belief as a severe limitation. I was too young then to see that faith, though a crucial ingredient in pilgrimage, was not all. “A cocktail of motives” — to borrow a term from the British writer Victoria Preston’s 2020 book, “We Are Pilgrims” — sets us on the road to pilgrimage. In medieval times, one might be sent on a pilgrimage by a magistrate as a sentence for a crime. The Prophet Muhammad, having conquered all of Arabia in 630, clearing Mecca of its pagan idols in the process, went back two years later on a triumphant pilgrimage. The Crusaders saw themselves above all as pilgrims. Long before Quintela, the grief pilgrim had walked Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, merging private anguish with the suffering of Christ.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana in Bolivia is home to a 16th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary that draws thousands of pilgrims every February.

I was interested in this other human side of pilgrimage — the road out, as it were. I imagined it to be full of danger and fun, populated with bawdy characters such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. I had chosen three faiths that were at odd angles to my own background — my father was Muslim, but not Shiite; my paternal grandmother was Christian, but not Catholic; my mother was Sikh, which made her part of the Indic fold, but not Buddhist. A few months before I began my three pilgrimages, I found myself stricken with a loss of my own. Zinc, our beloved shepherd-lab mix, became gravely ill and died soon after. For so many of us, pets become our whole lives. “Grief has its own exigencies,” writes V.S. Naipaul in an essay about the death of his father, his younger brother and his cat, Augustus. “We can never tell beforehand for whom we will feel grief.” My husband, Ryan, and I had both known the oblique grief of trying to mourn fathers from whom we were estranged — both of whom were killed at gunpoint — but the sorrow we felt over Zinc was as direct a thing as we had ever known. On that first morning in La Paz, sitting in that garret of an apartment in Vino Tinto, a working-class neighborhood of winding treeless streets, listening to Quintela speak of his year of loss, I felt myself overcome with emotion — whether from the rawness of Zinc’s death, the altitude or the ghost of my unmourned father.

A painting of the Virgin of Copacabana and her namesake basilica hanging in a courtyard behind the church.

I WAS TO LEAVE the city the next day at dawn with my guide, Monica Machicao. The plan was to drive deeper into the Altiplano, which is a world unto itself, a vast expanse of tableland spread across Bolivia, Chile and Peru. We were headed to the edge of Lake Titicaca, about two hours away. The entire basin of the holy lake had been a site of pilgrimage long before the Spanish conquest, indeed long before the Incas themselves. On the way to Copacabana for fiesta, I wanted to make a brief stop at the romantically named Islands of the Moon and the Sun. They sit across the bay from the sanctuary of the Virgin of Copacabana and played a central role in the creation stories of this enclosed alpine culture.

At over 12,000 feet, the air was as thin as glass. Nicholas Casey, the former Andes bureau chief for The New York Times, had warned me about the effects of the elevation. He advised that I start taking medicine to ward off altitude sickness while I was still in New York but, despite the pills, I couldn’t believe what the air in the Altiplano did to my body: the searing shortness of breath, the piston beating of my heart, the throbbing headache.

“We have millions more red blood cells than other people,” Monica said, “plus our lungs are bigger.” It was Casey who had introduced me to Monica, a veteran journalist in her 50s. In learning of her antipathy for the nativist politics of the former Bolivian president Evo Morales — the country’s first Indigenous president, the man under whom the nation had been refounded in 2009 as the Plurinational State of Bolivia — I was given a foretaste of the inner tensions of the society I found myself in.

I grew up in postcolonial India, sloughing off two (or 10, depending on whom you ask) centuries of foreign rule, both British and Muslim. In one sense, the history of Bolivia resembles that of India. Both countries were subjugated by a European colonial power: Britain started conquering India two centuries after Spain’s conquest of the Americas. Bolivia attained its independence from Spain in 1825, 122 years before India pushed out the British. In both countries, the preconquest society is in many ways intact. In Bolivia, whole nations of pre-Columbian peoples, such as the Aymara and the Quechua, have lived on, under varying layers of Hispanization, which has seeped through into every aspect of identity, from religion and culture to language and race.

If India was like Bolivia in one respect, it was like medieval Spain in another: Both countries had known centuries of Muslim rule until, in 1492 — the year that Columbus sailed to the Americas — a resurgent Catholic Spain expelled its last Muslim emir, completing what came to be called La Reconquista. It was that New World power that, under men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, would go on to conquer Aztec Mexico in 1521 and Inca Peru and Bolivia in the 1530s.

Copacabana and the basilica at center as seen from Calvary Hill.

On that first day with Monica, listening to her speak of feeling like a racial outsider in a country where her ancestors had been for five centuries, I began to understand how fresh the wounds of this history still were. “What do they see when they see you?” I asked. “A white woman,” she said. “And it’s not true! My father’s mother had Indigenous origins.”

Leaving La Paz past shanties, glitzy cholets (party halls) and shops full of televisions and washing machines, I soon set eyes on the Cordillera Real (the Royal Mountain Range) for the first time. The city was behind us and we were in a vast grassland speckled with tiny habitations when, hovering to our right, there appeared the black and jagged shapes of high Andean peaks, their hollows filled with waxy disks of sunlit snow. Monica had spoken earlier of the holiness of mountains in Andean culture. One famous image of La Virgen del Cerro, the Virgin of the Hill, depicts her whole figure, save her hands, consumed by the mountain. “They are the true Hindus,” a friend of mine with a long experience of South America messaged me, referring to the hybridity he had witnessed in the Altiplano. “They absorb everything and remain themselves.”

Gazing at these holy eminences, their bases shrouded in mist, the summits piercing a band of clear blue sky above, I was intimately aware that this was part of the staggering spectacle of nature that had first inspired worship among the people of the Altiplano. Then, shortly after, the lake itself appeared. On that day of many moods, Lake Titicaca’s pellucid waters were shades of silver, slate, blue and charcoal and edged with reeds. It is an inland sea the size of Puerto Rico and, at 12,500 feet, the highest navigable lake in the world. A red-bottomed hydrofoil awaited at the small town of Huatajata, ready to take us deeper into what our guide on the boat described as the “sacred lake for our Andean civilization, the Andean Mecca.”

During the fiesta to celebrate the Virgin of Copacabana, Aymara women decorate the road that leads from the basilica to the shore of Lake Titicaca with flower petals.

On that bright January morning, the hydrofoil slipped through a narrow strait and the full immensity of the 3,200-square-mile lake — nearly half of which is in Bolivia, the rest in Peru — came into view. An hour or so later, the Islands of the Sun and the Moon appeared. They had low crested hills, with Inca terraces, that rose out of the leaden water. On their summits I saw wheeling flights of mountain caracaras, coral-faced birds of prey. It was here that the pre-Inca deity Viracocha was said to have ordered the heavenly bodies to rise for the first time. On the Island of the Sun, I had wanted to hike the five or six miles to see the rock from which it’s said that the sun had first risen, since this older site of pilgrimage was an antecedent of the Christianized fiesta, but, within hours of arriving, we were informed that it was unsafe to go to the sacred crag on foot. A conflict had broken out between two local communities, and the only way to reach the northern tip of the island was by boat. Our informant was Pablo Quisbert, an Indigenous researcher who had come over from Copacabana to join us for the day.

A replica of the Virgin on parade.

The lunch group Monica had assembled had all the makings of a three-men-walk-into-a-bar joke. In addition to Quisbert, there was the Rev. Leandro Chitarroni, an Argentine priest whose numerous Bolivian parishioners influenced his decision to return to Copacabana for the Feast of the Virgin. There was also Andrés Eichmann Oehrli, a professor of Latin American literature at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. Over peanut soup and steak with fries, I asked Father Chitarroni about the Roman Catholic Church’s appropriation of Andean sanctity. “The problem we have all over the Americas,” he said, “is when you give people the Good News and it is contrary to their local beliefs. We can introduce new things,” he added, “but we have to let people keep their roots — the thoughts of their parents.”

I was intrigued by Father Chitarroni’s open embrace of syncretism. The Spain that conquered the New World, full of the religious zeal of La Reconquista (and the Inquisition), had been uniquely incapable of understanding how among the earth religions, like that of the Incas, it was possible to adopt new deities without forgoing the old gods. In “Conquistadores” (2021), the Mexican historian Fernando Cervantes writes that the arrival of every new bishop in the New World instigated a campaign aimed at the “extirpation” of “idolatry” in the Americas.

THAT AFTERNOON, WE all took a boat with a smoky outboard motor to the tip of the island. At sunset, we walked a short distance uphill to the sacred rock, which the conquistadors had stripped of its gold and silver sheeting. In his 1653 book, “Inca Religion and Customs,” the Jesuit priest Bernabé Cobo writes that the reddish-green rock that we were now in front of, its vertical face some 18 feet high, had been a gathering place for large groups of pilgrims who had come from far away. “Thus this place became so famous that its memory will live on among the Indians as long as they last,” he writes.

No pilgrim now came to the spot where the sun had first risen, even though we all felt its strange Ozymandian power. What looked like a sacrificial table of white sandstone, surrounded by andesite blocks, prompted Quisbert to speak of capacocha, an Inca ritual in which children of both sexes were selected for sacrifice. The table was the object of tourist lore, scarcely a few decades old. Just as Catholicism had appropriated Andean sanctity, so now did tourism titillate visitors in a place where pilgrims had come with holy dread in their hearts.

Across the bay, a ghostly white basilica was preparing for its biannual fiesta, which would take place over two days and include several nights of revelry. Copacabana had been home to a pre-Christian shrine featuring what a Spanish chronicler had called a blue-stone idol, which was possibly female and fish-bodied. It had been part of this ancient nexus of pilgrimage that had included the Islands of the Sun and the Moon but, in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish, its old sanctity had been reconsecrated in the figure of the Virgin. Standing between these two poles of pilgrimage, one defunct, one active, I couldn’t help but wonder who the ultimate victors are in a land where conquest has brought about a rupture with the past, yet where the old culture has so thoroughly assimilated the new as to leave it unrecognizable.

Edgar Quispe and his wife, Tatiana Huayhua, two of the prestes, or fiesta officials who help organize and sponsor the two-day biannual event.

This idea is embodied in the statue of the Virgin of Copacabana that the Indigenous artist Francisco Tito Yupanqui sculpted in the mid-1570s. The Spanish had been on the Altiplano for less than 50 years when the native sculptor, born in Copacabana, began depicting Mary in ways that subverted unspoken aesthetic norms of her as white and European. On seeing Yupanqui’s early efforts, the Spanish bishop was brutal in his contempt, telling the artist that his depictions of Mary looked like a bearded man and that he was better suited to paint la mona con su mico (“a monkey with her baby”). But Yupanqui persevered, said Father Chitarroni: “His religious search had to fulfill a European aesthetic, but the image he did is mestizo.”

Arriving in Copacabana the next morning by boat, I wandered through streets of red cinder block and brightly colored corrugated metal, all coalescing around the hulking mass of the basilica, which, with its tiled domes of greenish brown, dwarfed the pilgrim town of about 10,000. Inside, at the center of a baroque altarpiece, was Yupanqui’s Virgin, bathed in white fluorescent light. Rarely had I seen so arrestingly beautiful a rendering of Mary, dark and solemn-eyed. “The singularity of this Virgin,” said Quisbert as we peered at her through the gloom of the basilica, “is not merely that an Indigenous artist created her — she’s also an Indigenous Virgin. Not white, not Black, but morena.” A beautiful word, to which the English “brown” does little justice.

Wandering the bowels of that vast church preparing for fiesta, we encountered the head priest, Friar Abelino Yeguaori, in his cocoa-colored Franciscan habit. He stood in a room that contained the Virgin’s many dazzling outfits — with pinks, lilacs, blues and reds and embroidered gold. They had been donated by devotees and included one in a plain forest green, with an insignia of two crossed rifles under a condor, for she is the patron saint of the police, too.

Friar Yeguaori was to lead the procession the next day but was full of worries. The weather was changeable, now rain, clouds and mist; now bursts of bright mountain sunshine. The border with Peru, a major source of pilgrims, had been closed because of postelection turmoil there. He feared there would be scarcely one or two thousand pilgrims, instead of the usual 30,000 to 40,000, which would be bad not just for morale but because fewer pilgrims meant a sizable loss in donations. Nor did it help that evangelism was on the rise all over South America. “They tell them they cannot adore images,” Friar Yeguaori said, his brows beetling. “First they tell them God will punish them, then they take their money, saying, ‘If you give us money, God will give you more.’ ”

BY MORNING, A sharp alpine sun had banished Friar Yeguaori’s fears of a poorly attended feast. Black smoke from firecrackers drifted across the blue sky, and the calm of the square outside the church was broken by the mournful martial thud of drums and the asthmatic hiss of trombones. A full brass band, in gray suits and sunglasses — the Real Andinos (or Royal Andeans) — was preparing to welcome the first pilgrims to the Feast of the Virgin of Copacabana. A stream of beribboned SUVs stood outside the church awaiting blessings. In front of them were offerings of sparkling wine and, on paper plates, petals, red-capped bottles containing a dark viscous brew of alcohol and coca leaves and clear plastic pouches of rice, sugar and cinnamon. “My father used to bring me here,” said Irene, a 65-year-old fruit and vegetable seller in a blue polka-dot dress. She had come from La Paz with her daughter, Juana, and their white terrier, Blanquita. “In those days we came in trucks. There were no buses, and the road was just sand. He would tell me to get down on my knees and ask the Virgin for favor, and we would encircle the church just like that.”

Irene’s face shone with piety but, like the hajji, whose pilgrimage to Mecca gives him immeasurable esteem in his community, there was also an element of self-satisfaction. Pilgrimage cloaked itself in godliness and sacrifice, but its motivations were not always altruistic. In Varanasi, at a house of death where old people came to breathe their last — for to die in the holy city was to be free of the cycle of life and death — I had witnessed firsthand the sacrifices of children who left busy modern lives to fulfill the spiritual ambitions of their parents. Naipaul, in “India: A Wounded Civilization” (1977), describes the Hindu quietism of a fictional character in a well-known Indian novel as “parasitic: It depends on the continuing activity of others, the trains running, the presses printing, the rupees arriving from somewhere. It needs the world, but it surrenders the organization of the world to others.” I wondered now if pilgrimage did not have something of that same quality, self-indulgence sublimated into piety.

Two kids came cartwheeling up to us in costume. There was an 8-year-old boy with a green-and-yellow mask and red coat dressed as a kusillo, a little devil, or trickster. His 11-year-old sister was a milkmaid. They were performing a rustic dance called the Waka Waka. Their mother, Aracely Alcón, in white tights and pale orange eye shadow, was there, too. When Santiago, the boy, was 4, Alcón told us, he fell from the second floor of a building and hit his head. “We thought he was dead,” she said. He was paralyzed and could only move his head. “Our family are true believers of the Virgin, and I prayed, ‘It’s my son, don’t take him away.’ The Virgin is a mother, too. She understood my pain.” A week later, the paralysis broke and, after a year of rehab, Santiago was back on his feet. “He’s a walking miracle,” Alcón said. “We come here dancing to thank the Virgin.”

Copacabana’s Fraternidad Morenada Transportes Manco Kapac performing at the fiesta.

Father Chitarroni was dancing, too. He came up to us in a rented brown poncho carrying a staff. He was to play the key role of the jilakata (village leader) in the dance that was to ensue. “For these people, dance is like an offering, a prayer,” he said. All around us festivity was erupting. It was noon and there were dozens of people in the forecourt of the church, with dozens more pouring in from the main square and surrounding streets beyond. A line of milkmaids in hoop skirts of bright green and orange came trundling into the church. The clamor of numerous brass bands filled the air. Old Aymara women in multilayered polleras (frilled skirts), in maroons and oranges, with aprons and bowler hats, appeared on the sloping street that led from the church to the sacred lake. Armed with bags full of petals, trumpet flowers and leaves, they moved swiftly down the axial street ornamenting it, there with the Inca sun, here with the sign of the cross.

Dancers preparing for the Waka Waka, a traditional pastoral dance.

The westering sun burned away every trace of a morning drizzle. I was heading down the main street looking for Monica, when suddenly, resplendent in the daylight and framed against the mountains, there appeared a replica of Yupanqui’s Virgin, dressed in white and gold. She was on a palanquin carried on the shoulders of six men. Behind her came an impressive formation of church and municipal leaders with satin sashes across their breasts. Friar Yeguaori was there, too, again in his Franciscan habit. Behind them were women in brown vicuña mantas and bowlers. The townspeople threw flowers at the procession as it went by, up to the gate of the sanctuary, where the Virgin was enthroned at the entrance. The local leaders sat on a podium facing her. “Today we celebrate the arrival of the Virgin of Copacabana, who came here in 1583 from Potosí and was made by the hands of Tito Yupanqui,” began Copacabana’s council president, who wore a blue-and-white sash.

The area outside of the church had become a great stage. Troupe after stupendous troupe, consisting of musicians and dancers from all over Bolivia and as far afield as Argentina, made their way up the street performing for the Virgin. Among the most striking dances was the Morenada, which some believe emerged from the plight of Black slaves in the silver mines of Potosí. The dancers wore white metal masks, green-and-white feathers and hoop skirts with tassels. After sharing capfuls of Scotch, they began their dark dithyrambic dance, rattling the matraca, an instrument that Monica said imitates the clanking and heavy tread of slave chains. It felt like a protest dance, percussive and hypnotic, unashamed in its embrace of the signifiers of enslavement.

The most beautiful of the acts was Uma Marka, a troupe whose name means “land of water.” At the center was a man who played an Andean trumpet of war called a pututu. “I came from afar to fulfill my promise / because I love you with my soul,” the man sang. “I will always cherish you, my beautiful little morenita. / I will always adore you, Copacabeñita.” Then, almost in the same breath, he began to sing in praise of Pachamama (Mother Earth), “shin[ing] in the cosmos.” He was a schoolteacher from Warisata, one of the lake towns. When I asked him how it was so easy for him to sing to both the Virgin and Pachamama, he said, “Both of them are the same for us. The Virgin is the mother of God. Pachamama is the mother of the earth.”

As the formal acts began to wrap up around 7 p.m., the spirit of fiesta started to spread through the confetti-strewn streets of the town. The members of Uma Marka passed around handles of Scotch. Half-consumed cans of beer lay at their feet. I was chewing a mouthful of coca leaves from a green plastic bag and they gave the afternoon a wonderful, thrilling edge. There is always an underlying darkness to carnival, the creeping strangeness of masks and extreme drunkenness. As night fell, this mood, tinged with hints of dislocation and panic, took hold. Young men with haggard faces and gaping mouths roamed the streets. A featureless pounding music, emanating from an indoor arena, drifted up to my hotel room until well after 3 a.m.

I had spoken that evening to Amaru Fiorilo Barrios, the 29-year-old half-Dutch, half-Bolivian son of the owners of the Hotel La Cúpula, where we were staying. Dressed in a pink hoodie and turquoise cap, his long hair windblown, he told me of the powerful epiphany he’d had during the pandemic related to pilgrimage. Even as the tourist industry vanished from the face of the earth, “we were full all the weekends with pilgrims,” Fiorilo said. The border with Peru had been closed, as it was now, but they came by foot. The Altiplano, said Fiorilo, goes beyond borders. It was an important point: Pilgrimages are located within national boundaries even as they transcend them. The shrine of Santiago de Compostela is in Spain, but the pilgrimage does not belong to Spain any more than the pilgrimage to Mecca belongs to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the sacred landscape of the Buddha’s life to the modern states of India and Nepal. Nations, of course, try to draw validity from being home to major pilgrimage sites, but the 19th-century nation-state, a jealous and petty master, can never quite attain to the subtle complex of belief and belonging that pilgrimage engenders. Fiorilo, who’d grown up in a westernized atmosphere in La Paz, was conscious of the need to honor the old religion of the Altiplano. “It’s very important to keep it” — that is, to adhere to it, he said — “because it’s the identity of the people.”

Pilgrimage is bigger than the nation and, though it derives its authority from religion, it’s often bigger than religion, too. Like the journey to Mecca, which started as a pre-Islamic pilgrimage common to many tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, this fiesta is at bottom an emanation of Andean culture. The religious component acts almost as a framing device for the expression of distinctive cultural elements, rituals, customs, song and dance, such as the Waka Waka, or the ancient pre-Christian use of llama parts in sacrifice.

Valeria Alcón (right) and her brother, Santiago, dressed as a milkmaid and a kusillo, or little devil, for the fiesta; a village leader carrying a pututu, an instrument of war and assembly; Laureano Jose Quisbert, from one of the local fraternities; and Elena Ticona Flores, also from a local fraternity.

ON THE WAY to Mass the next morning, we passed young men still in their suits eating fricase, a pork stew of potatoes and hominy, from plastic containers. “Hangover food,” Monica said. The church was full when we arrived. The air smelled of lilies. Worshipers streamed in and out with replicas of the Virgin in plastic cases stuffed with fake U.S. dollars. In an altar to one side, Eduardo Quintela’s band, Ensamble Sincrético (Syncretic Ensemble), was warming up. It gave me a pang to see him, still in his black hoodie, surrounded by a padre-violinist in a Franciscan habit and female vocalists with shawls about their shoulders. Watching Quintela, his face drawn inward in concentration, I felt all the power of his tribute to his father, who had first brought him on pilgrimage to Copacabana.

One of the several open-air stages erected for the fiesta around the main square in Copacabana, where the festivities carry on late into the night.

This was the road into the shrine, the spiritual journey, in which pilgrims came before the Virgin bearing grief, joy and gratitude in their hearts. Her cult was fed by this stream of humanity, each confiding in her, and she, in turn, edified the private circumstances of each individual life through her munificence, making the one feel part of a whole. For her, of seemingly limitless patience, no human drama was too insignificant, too tawdry, too wretched or alien. Her maternal consolations rested on her acceptance, her love, her understanding. “What is secret in the Christian pilgrimage, then, is the inward movement of the heart,” write the Turners.

As Mass got going, Ensamble Sincrético filled the gold-and-blue vault of the church with haunting music. “A Vuestros Pies Madre” (“At Your Feet, Mother”), they played. It evoked the spirit of an older Europe, even as it sounded unmistakably Indigenous — so much so that the Europeans who came after the original missionaries didn’t recognize it as their own until they were shown the sheets on which it had been carefully scored. It was Christian missionaries — that endless flow of Jesuit, Augustinian, Dominican and Franciscan friars — who primarily brought baroque music to Bolivia. It formed a deep synthesis here with a culture for which music was already a form of worship. As Quintela explained to me, referring to the Guarayos, an Indigenous group in northeastern Bolivia: “When they die, they must pass several tests [in order to reach the afterlife. One of them] is to cross a river on the back of an alligator who only advances to music. If he [the deceased] is not a good musician, the alligator devours the soul of the Guarayo.”

Altar boys, swinging silver thuribles, came down the nave of the church, incense smoke wafting up behind them. Then came members of the clergy, some of whom, including Father Chitarroni and Friar Yeguaori, I now knew, but who had been utterly transformed by pomp and circumstance. The Bishop of El Alto led the Mass, and dignitaries, such as Senator Rodrigo Paz Pereira, whose father had been a president of Bolivia, were part of the congregation.

Lake Titicaca, which has been considered a sacred site for centuries, is, at 12,500 feet, the world’s highest navigable lake.

As Mass ended, we filed out behind the Virgin. The senator, dressed down in a brown jacket and jeans, said that Yupanqui’s Virgin had a special importance against the background of postcolonial history. “She’s a unifying figure, as well as their protectress,” he said. “Through her, they can talk, they can communicate.”

Outside, the streets were thronged with brass bands. One of the prestes — a key official in the organization of the pilgrimage — was bedecked in garlands of spring flowers like a fertility god. In the main square, Friar Yeguaori was leading the Virgin in a procession, stopping at every corner to ask for a special blessing — for the children, the town, the leadership, the country. I had wanted to find more examples of how the old pre-Columbian religion of the Altiplano merged with Catholicism. That afternoon I got my chance. Climbing Calvary Hill, where stations of the cross were installed in the 1950s, I could see the bay and town, rain washed red against dark hills. At its summit, amid tombs and sleeping dogs, women sold models illustrating another key ingredient of pilgrimage: want, hard material want. There were plastic replicas of every conceivable kind of habitation, from empty plots of land to little green-roofed houses and condos; toy models of every brand and style of car, from SUVs to racy two-doors, and crude piles of fake American dollars and euros. Monica, with a son in college and a daughter who is about to start her master’s degree program, bought two folders of academic degrees to be blessed by the Virgin. It was oddly moving to have this concrete insight into people’s lives through the things they wanted most.

Descending Calvary, we came across a young couple standing in front of a statuette of the Virgin and a bright red model car. The woman was weeping, wiping away strands of long black hair from her face. An older man was performing a ritual of sorts with a little brass bell, burning coals and incense. Another, in a red bolero, stood at his side. Everyone seemed very drunk. Cups of beer were being passed around, some sipped, some deliberately spilled in honor of Pachamama.

When the ritual was done, we approached. They were Argentines of Bolivian origin who lived in Buenos Aires. They had come by car, driving for three days, bringing with them their own statuette of the Virgin. It seemed like a long way to come, but “if you love the Virgin, it doesn’t matter how long the road is,” they said. When I asked them about the rite, which would hardly have been out of place on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, the younger man, Axel, explained that it was a blessing. The man performing it was an amauta, a shamanic figure. The young couple desperately wanted a car of their own. “Whatever we desire, the Virgin will give us the power and the will,” said Axel. Pilgrimage, though couched in spiritual aims, often bordered on sheer cupidity. Some wanted peace, love and health, others an automobile, but everyone wanted something. When I asked Axel why his wife had been crying earlier, he said, “We need to have faith, and there’s a lot of emotion [involved].” But was there no conflict between these two systems of belief, the Virgin and the amauta? “It’s just a belief,” the man in the red bolero said, casually expressing a great truth about the unthinking quality of its hold over us. “We believe in the priest, and we believe in the amauta.”

The wizened-faced amauta sang. He rang his bell. He used incense, a holdover from the classical world everywhere, to entreat the Virgin to give the couple what they wanted. When he was finished, I asked him what his religion was. “Católico,” the amauta said. But what about this rite? That was surely not Catholic. “It’s from our ancestors,” he said. “This was from before we were Catholic.”

The fiesta ended as all good parties should: in shame, debauchery, ignominy and tears. All around the main square, open-air stages had been erected. Boy bands in sequined jackets were dancing and playing. Men with their arms draped about one another’s shoulders reeled through the streets. In a gold-pillared room with neon orange beams, one couple — she in red lace, he in a burgundy suit — had fallen asleep in each other’s arms. A visibly drunk young man in a gray suit with a red tie strode up to me. He had seen me that morning at Mass taking notes. Turning to a toy representation of the Virgin, he said, “This is our culture, these are our values, this is our tradition. Everything we have, we owe to her.” Then he implored me to drink and spill. “You have to ask,” he said, looking at the doll with fresh urgency. “Whatever you want, she will give to you.” I was not above asking. I had come out of a year of illness and malaise, in which my grief over Zinc had gotten tied up with my fears about a new novel. My longtime publisher had sat on it for months before passing. I was midcareer. I was afraid of being put out of business. In writing, as in life, we fetishize the beginning, all that youth and ambition. We love the idea of peace or resignation at the end, in our twilight years, but we speak so little of the middle, where most of our lives are spent. For many of us, nothing so grand as even a midlife crisis materializes. There is just the great slog of carrying on without losing one’s nerve.

I had not arrived as a pilgrim to Copacabana but, in being someone who also had something to ask of life, I became one. I asked that my novel find a publisher. “If it comes true,” my new friend said with a grin, “you’ll have to come back, you know?”

La Paz, the country’s seat of government, to which the writer Aatish Taseer traveled for the first of his three pilgrimages.

Go behind the scenes to learn about Aatish Taseer’s pilgrimage, including the dozens of
books he read before his trip.

I GREW UP in India with all the major world religions. I attended a Christian boarding school in a Hindu-majority country that is roughly tied with Pakistan for the second-largest Muslim population in the world. My mother’s family were Sikhs, and I counted among my closest friends a Jew from Bombay and Buddhists from Tibet. Pilgrimage is common to all of these faiths, even as it is utterly distinctive. In Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca is an ordained pillar of faith that the Prophet Muhammad performed himself. In Christianity, the culture of cherishing relics and visiting holy places is said to have begun with Saint Helena — the mother of Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity in 312 — rushing off to the Holy Land in search of the True Cross. Some pilgrimages enshrine sorrow, like the Ashura in Iraq, which would be the last stop on my journey; others, like fiesta in Bolivia’s Copacabana, are pilgrimages of joy and rapture. Some are historical, like the Jewish commemoration of exile; others, like the Mecca pilgrimage, represent the repurposing of an older sanctity, in this case that of pre-Islamic Arabia. Some pilgrimages focus on a single day, others a season, a month, an auspicious alignment of the stars. In India, which has some of the greatest scenes of pilgrimage anywhere in the world, such as the Kumbh Mela, where every 12 years the largest gathering of humanity on earth — more than 100 million — comes together at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, I had also witnessed the touching intimacy of a family or group of friends who set out for a holy place on a Sunday, just as someone might go fishing or to a national park in the United States.


It was the ordinariness of this latter kind of pilgrimage, away from the grand spectacles of Ashura and fiesta, that I had hoped to capture in Buddhist Mongolia. I had imagined springtime pilgrimages, people visiting monasteries as the weather warmed. If La Paz is the highest capital in the world, Ulaanbaatar is the coldest, with January temperatures reaching minus 30 degrees. In fact, even as I was setting out at the end of May, my guide and translator, Orgilbaatar Tsolmon, who goes by Orgil, was sending me videos of snow showers in the Mongolian capital.

My flight from New York connected through Istanbul; the first leg was 10 hours, and from there we flew another eight hours in a level line across the face of Asia. The Black Sea gave way to the Caspian and, beyond, to a land of mountain, desert and steppe. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan and his descendants, poured over the steppe in the 13th century and, in the words of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon, “the caliphs fell, and the Caesars trembled on their throne,” even as representatives of the major faiths — from Islam and Nestorian Christianity to Taoism and myriad forms of Buddhism — would come before the great khans to make their case for why their particular creed ought to be the official religion of the empire.

My first glimpse of Mongolia was of rolling hills draped in thin emerald grass, of cloud shadows the size of lakes and of raking beams of morning light breaking through a heavy sky. “Nomadism,” I scribbled in my notebook in a sleepless haze, “captures the very spiritual heart of pilgrimage, which is to wander.” If the Latin peregrinus gives us “pilgrim,” it also gives us “peregrination.”

Orgil was waiting for me at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar with a red Nissan SUV. My first thought on seeing him, with his long hair and light beard, was of the Nepalese artist Araniko’s late 13th-century rendering of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. “In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree. …” The Coleridge poem was the first I had committed to memory as a child, during a blackout in Delhi, but Kublai was more than the figment of an opium dream. He was a full historical personage who founded the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) in China and established Beijing (then known as Dadu) as its capital, and was the man whose conversion to Buddhism around 1258 brought shamanic Mongolia into the orbit of Tibetan Buddhism.

A tourist camp about 50 miles east of Erdene Zuu monastery.

The influence of Buddhism grew sporadically for almost seven centuries in Mongolia, merging in profound ways with its ancient worship of nature — of mountains, water, the eternal blue sky. But then, in the early decades of the 20th century, Buddhism encountered a mortal enemy: Soviet-backed Communism. Even by the standards of a tumultuous century, the Stalin-directed purges of the late 1930s stood out for their systematic eradication of Mongolia’s religious culture. The great majority of the country’s monastic institutions were leveled to the ground; some 18,000 monks were killed; and, in a society where about one-third of the adult male population were lamas (though not all living in monasteries), Buddhism was ripped out root and branch.

In 1990, with the fall of Communism, religious freedom was established in Mongolia and Buddhism was allowed to be practiced again. My first destination was the Khamar monastery, 300 miles south in the Gobi Desert, which had been all but destroyed in 1938. It was said to be situated at one of the portals to Shambhala — a mythical kingdom of peace and tranquillity in the Buddhist imagining — and had been founded in the century before by an artist, saint and sybarite called Danzanravjaa, known as the lama of the Gobi. Bolivia had given me new respect for the survival of the sacred, despite great political and historical upheavals, and I was curious to see what pilgrimage would look like in a place where it had been stamped out for generations — curious to see the old pilgrim routes leading back to the locus of sanctity, like neural pathways reforming around an area of trauma.

A fertility shrine in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert a short drive from the Khamar monastery. Founded in the early 19th century by an artist and saint known as the lama of the Gobi, Khamar was left in ruins after the Stalin-directed purges of the 1930s.

MONGOLIA, BROADLY SPEAKING, is a country with half the landmass of India and a population smaller than that of Los Angeles proper — some 3.3 million people — of which about half live in Ulaanbaatar alone. As we left the capital’s new Japanese-built airport armed with supplies of chips, Snickers, Coke Zeros and vodka as offerings, I gained a first impression of an unnerving emptiness. After some initial settlements of white yurts, or gers, as they’re known here, and houses with brightly colored corrugated roofs behind dark wooden stockades, all signs of habitation fell away. On that morning in late May, spectral wisps of snow blew over the long two-lane highway, and the wind was so strong that I found it difficult to put my jacket on outside the car.

A site with caves near the Khamar monastery, where monks would meditate for a period of 108 days, the span reflecting a symbolic number in Buddhism.

Amid what seemed like trackless wastes there periodically appeared the giant ragged form of an ovoo, or cairn. Its beanpole of a body was bandaged in blue khadags (prayer scarves), its stony mound of a base littered with vodka bottles and the occasional skull of a dead animal. The ovoo is a monument to the spirits of the natural world, known here as nagas and savdags. Orgil, following the custom of honoring these easily offended beings, lest they punish you for your neglect, honked three times as we went by. “This is the Gen Z way,” he said, grinning, “but I prefer the old way,” which involves circling the ovoo on foot three times in a clockwise motion.

But it was too cold to stop. It was too cold to smoke, too cold to take a pee. The temperature was only in the low 30s, but the wind bit through me, and it was hard to believe that this was a relatively mild spring day by Mongolian standards. Outside Choir, a dust-bitten town halfway to the monastery, we inhaled a lunch of mutton broth and dumplings, fried rice and a meat-stuffed pastry called a khuushuur. Then we drove on, another four hours. The land turned arid and flat. Double-humped Bactrian camels appeared along the side of the road. An enticing band of opalescent sky offered the relief of a horizon after hours of rain and snow.

Orgil, in between telling me of his days in a metal band, when “I drank beers left and right,” would occasionally grow serious. “During Communism,” he said, “we lost our national identity.” The purges of the 1930s plundered the country’s monasteries and temples — there had been some 700 in the 19th century — which Orgil described as repositories of folklore, history, traditional medicine and learning. Mongolia, after winning independence from Qing China in 1911, began those early decades of the 20th century as a feudal theocracy with a godlike figure, akin to the Dalai Lama, called the Bogd Khan at its helm, overseeing around 80,000 monks. (The Dalai Lama recently introduced a Mongolian child as the 10th reincarnation of the Bogd.) “They shot all the head lamas,” Orgil said. “They murdered all the teachers.” The fires from the monasteries were rumored to have burned for weeks. Christopher Kaplonski, a social anthropologist who has conducted research in Mongolia, has written that, though the total number of Mongolians killed between 1937 and 1939 is unknown, “credible estimates range from 35,000 to 45,000.”

As evening fell, we arrived at the ger camp on the edge of the Gobi, a short drive from the Khamar monastery. We were the only ones there. Orgil had made me worried that there would be no pilgrims at all. Bolivia was a lesson in the imperishability of the sacred, but it had also shown me how places of pilgrimage, like the sacred crag on the Island of the Sun, could die. If you ban a religion for more than half a century, murder its clergy and raze its monasteries, as the Communists had in Mongolia, then maybe you do deal it a death blow?

I was full of dark thoughts when the ger camp began magically to fill. I’d just finished a dinner of banshtai tsai, dumplings in a goat milk and tea broth, and retired to my ger, where I was watching the wood-burning stove cast shadows on the wooden lattice and felt walls, when I heard electronic music blaring into the Gobi. I stepped outside to see the neat rows of gers now brightly lit, noise and chatter pouring out of their doorways. Bottles of soda were being ferried back and forth and mixed with vodka. Prim, lightly made-up girls sat on the edges of what looked like the Mongolian equivalent of a frat party. “Who are these people?” I asked Orgil in amazement. “Pilgrims,” he answered. Some were part of a construction company, others students with exams on the horizon. They had come to draw energy from Shambhala. The rites the next morning were to begin before dawn, yet the pilgrim parties, with their Chaucerian feeling of intimacy among strangers, continued raucously into the night.

Just before daybreak, at 4:20 a.m., we joined a cavalcade of SUVs off-roading through the desert, drawing ruby red parabolas over the dunes. Our first stop was a fertility shrine near the monastery. On a hill were two mounds of sand and rock with stone finials, connected by a beam that was wrapped in the blue prayer cloths. Women in puffer jackets with cartons of milk went back and forth between the shrine and the edge of the hill, casting their offerings of milk into the air. Orgil told me that no man could perform the rite unless his mother had died in the past 49 days, in which case he could perform it on behalf of her spirit.

The sun rose over the Gobi, showing reddish earth and black-edged dunes. The sky was a cold, motionless blue. While the women performed the ritual, I spoke to a group of men in their late 30s and early 40s who worked for a real estate company in Ulaanbaatar. One was an economist, another a lawyer, a third a businessman. They had arrived by train from the capital. “I came here to recharge my energy and cleanse my spirit,” said Egi, the economist. (Mongolians use patronymics rather than Western-style surnames; in conversation, people often go by just one name.) “This place is a world energy center.” When I asked if the ritual had been handed down to him by his parents, he said, “They knew about it, but they were not authorized to come. We are the lucky generation.” He added: “This Shambhala reminds us that we are not just ordinary nomads. We had an enlightened one [Danzanravjaa] live among us.” Since the transition to the democratic era, Egi said, “Mongolian people have come to know that we have a great religious and cultural heritage.”

Munkhdul, the businessman, said in halting English, “It’s a reconnection in modern times to the past of our life.” Some moments later, our band of pilgrims (about 50 to 100) reconvened outside the gateway to the Shambhala complex, where a pair of mesmeric half-closed eyes, painted on a wall of pinkish orange, gazed out at us, symbolizing the inward-turned sagacity of the Buddha. Stepping across the threshold, we found ourselves in a rectangular enclosure of red earth marked out by a perimeter of white stupas. It was like being in a Zen garden, where one proceeded from one station to another, performing a series of rituals and rites under an open sky. In the distance, the level sands of the Gobi fell away as far as the eye could see. It was an austere, heart-stopping glimpse of the void.

Our guide, Haidav, was from the Gobi region. In his early 30s now, he had been selected as a boy by Gandantegchinlen (often referred to simply as Gandan), the country’s main monastery in Ulaanbaatar, to spend four years in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where, at a center of Tibetan Buddhism — the Namdroling monastery, popularly known as the Golden Temple — he had been educated in the religion of his forefathers with the express aim of reintroducing it to Mongolia. As he led us into the Shambhala, he seemed less like a guide than like a monk re-educating his countrymen about a faith whose core precepts, such as the belief in karma and reincarnation, had survived the ravages of Communism, but whose rituals had to be relearned from scratch. Our group was composed almost entirely of Mongolians, but no one knew what to do at the various stations any more than I did.

An 18th-century thangka adorning Erdene Zuu.

At the genie’s belly, a low mound of dark rocks, Haidav told us to exhale all of our sins and bad thoughts, intentional and unintentional. At the site of Danzanravjaa’s ger, which was just a circle in the sand, we offered handfuls of grain. We wished that “with the help of the enlightened one, we would be reborn into the Shambhala.” Then we went to three other circles representing past, present and future. Haidav told us to walk not through but around them. We had open bottles of vodka in our hands and made offerings into the air. (Milk and vodka! It was a combination I would encounter time and again in this nomadic post-Soviet society.) Haidav told us not to wish for money or material things but only that which was regenerative — a child, rain or power. He placed a special emphasis on looking in, on harmony and balance. He said that all the bad things that happen to us, whether ill health or failure in our careers, were emanations of what was within and, in cleansing the inner sphere, we could succeed in the outer.

Pilgrims to the Shambhala often roll on the ground to draw in the energy of the place.

If pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism, a way for human beings to grasp spiritual truths, the Shambhala felt almost like a cosmogram or mandala, a metaphysical scheme writ small. We came to a circle of red rocks that was the energy heart of the whole enclosure. Here, we sat down. Some lay on the rocks and rolled from side to side. The aim was to draw in the energy of the place. I talked to Samdanbazar, a 78-year-old herder from Töv Province, in the environs of Ulaanbaatar. She wore a gold-and-purple deel, a long coat of sorts, fur lined in the winter, with tiny earrings, her dyed hair whitening at the roots. Watching her roll back and forth, taking such obvious pleasure in the rite, I couldn’t help but ask what it had been like to be denied all of this for the first 45 years of her life. “We had to hide everything,” she said. “My father was a lama, so we had to hide our thangkas [Tibetan Buddhist cloth paintings], Buddhas and religious artifacts.”

Our last station was the Golden Skull Hill, where a central ovoo overlooked the desert beyond. There we chanted, “Um sain amgalan boltugai” — “may there be peace with you” — and sang “Ulemjiin Chanar” (“Perfect Qualities”), a Mongolian folk song that Danzanravjaa had composed himself. Haidav was almost scolding in the care with which he instructed us to sing as a chorus. “Whatever your failures,” he said at the end of our morning at the Shambhala, “it’s because of your mind.”

The Shambhala complex at Khamar.

THE EMPHASIS ON interiority, on isolating the self as the site for spiritual advancement and failure, felt very different from the Christian pilgrimage in Bolivia. The focus there had been outward: on Mary, her miracles, on what she could give you. Here, almost everyone spoke of enlightenment from within and of certain corrosive human emotions, anger being among the gravest of them, that would impede that progress. In Mongolia, the texture of sin felt less like a crime against God than against oneself. Three symbols are often associated with Danzanravjaa’s life and thought: a female figure representing his love of pleasure; a swan symbolizing the arts; and, lastly, a scorpion signifying the human potential for self-destructiveness. Outside our ger camp, there was a giant metal sculpture of a black scorpion, its tail raised, surrounded by desert sands on all sides. It stood as a reminder of the cardinal sin in the Buddhist scheme: rage, which, like the myth of the scorpion, makes us our own worst enemies, liable to sting ourselves in the head.

Kublai Khan may have laid the foundation for the rise of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, but it was a man called Zanabazar — a monk, scholar and artist — who solidified its position. In everything from scripture to ritual, temple design and even religious fashion, including monastic robes with blue cuffs evoking the blue sky that Genghis Khan claimed to worship, the hand of Zanabazar is visible.

At the Erdene Zuu monastery, founded by Zanabazar’s great-grandfather in the 16th century after the declaration of Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion of Mongolia, I witnessed an amazing scene, proof of the cocktail of motives that puts us on the road to pilgrimage. Erdene Zuu, with its green-tiled roofs in the Chinese style, is Mongolia’s oldest monastery, built in 1586. It is also located near the ruins of the Mongol capital at Karakorum, about 530 miles from Khamar monastery. On entering Erdene Zuu’s vast, grassy complex, with its perimeter wall crenelated with white stupas and nothing but big sky on all sides, I felt the spirit of a Mongolian camp. Nomadism harbors a disdain for materiality, yet it was hard not to feel myself on consecrated ground, even if only in historical terms. It was mainly from here that the descendants of Genghis Khan in the 13th century brought the world to its knees, from present-day Ukraine to Korea. The site had more recent memories, too. Of its 62 temples and some 500 facilities, the vast majority had been destroyed during the ravages of the 1930s. All around me, amid a handful of stupas and temples, were the flattened foundations of buildings in the religious complex. There had been 1,500 lamas here in the 19th century; there were fewer than 50 today. At the entrance, I spoke briefly to Mandakhtsog Monkhbaatar, who was in his early 20s, dressed in orange-and-red robes with those huge turquoise cuffs and high boots with blue piping. Like Haidav, he had spent years studying at the Golden Temple monastery in India, relearning the traditions that Communism had left Mongolian Buddhism too depleted to teach. Monkhbaatar’s great-grandfather had been a prominent lama in the southwestern province of Bayankhongor. When I asked the young monk about him, he said casually, “He was murdered,” then rushed into the great complex, where the morning chants were set to begin.

A plump child lama in a plumed yellow cap appeared on the wooden watchtower of a temple whose sloping white facade evoked the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet — the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas. A conch shell sounded three times. Knots of pilgrims and tourists milling about outside drew near. Inside, monks sat chanting on wooden benches in a blue-ceilinged room hung with thangkas. Sutras wrapped in yellow silk rotated on a turnstile. As bells and chanting reached a crescendo, amid clouds of incense, a woman in a black-and-copper deel, her schoolteacher’s face tremulous with ardor, came rushing in. She then began to perform full-bodied prostrations in the aisle between the monks, some chanting, others laughing or charging their phones. Again and again, as the tempo rose around her, this thin, bespectacled woman prostrated herself in ecstasy, doing what is known in Sanskrit as ashtanga pranam, or the eight-body-part salute: hands, feet, knees, chest and chin. Watching her, I was reminded of a pilgrim I had once seen at a shrine in central India. He had looked like a bureaucrat or bank clerk, the ordinariness of his appearance only amplifying the extraordinariness of his actions. I’d watched him take a rock and place it on the floor a few feet away and then lie flat on the ground face down and wriggle his way toward it. He’d repeated the same gesture several times until he circled the shrine. “This,” the young Brahmin whom I’d been traveling with said to me, “is bhava” (a kind of rapture). Later, I learned that the woman at Erdene Zuu was a 40-year-old herder from Inner Mongolia, the region of the country that had remained part of China after present-day (Outer) Mongolia won its independence in 1911. She told me that she’d been a devout Buddhist since she was a child. “It’s the most perfect religion because it enlightens from within,” she said. But it wasn’t just Buddha who had brought her to Erdene Zuu. She said she came for Genghis Khan, too. “He was our ancestor,” she said of the founder of the Mongol Empire — who was not Buddhist but shamanic. “I wanted to receive the particular energy of this man here, in what was the capital of the Mongol Empire and of Buddhism.”

Mongolian tourists on the outskirts of Nalaikh, one of the eastern districts of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

“So is this a religious pilgrimage for you, or a nationalistic one?” I asked.

“It is both,” she said. “For Mongolians, this is a sacred place. This is ancestral land.” When I asked her if she felt Chinese at all, she said, “I’m 100 percent Mongol, even if I live in the part that’s China. We may live in different locations, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re all Mongols.”

When I asked for her contact details, she demurred, explaining that to share them was unsafe. Then, as I was walking away, she came rushing after me, imploring me not to post the pictures we had taken together on any social media or mention her by name in whatever I wrote. It was a reminder that political peril had always been part of the calculus of pilgrimage, whether in the Middle Ages, when Islam’s conquest of the Holy Land gave rise to local shrines, such as Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury, or now, for this pilgrimage-within-a-pilgrimage of a Mongolian herder, honoring her ethnic and spiritual ancestor, irrespective of any national boundary.

A tourist camp at the foot of Khogno Khan Mountain in Bulgan Province, the site of a nature reserve.

Growing up in India, I witnessed the intersection of religion and nationalism canalized into a militarized form of pilgrimage. In 1990, the Hindu nationalist leader L.K. Advani led a rath yatra, or “chariot pilgrimage,” from Somnath temple in the western state of Gujarat, where a major Hindu temple saw the first of many assaults upon it in the 11th century. The yatra, steeped in historical pain and revenge, was headed for the city of Ayodhya, a thousand miles away in Uttar Pradesh, where a 16th-century mosque — named after the Emperor Babur, who, incidentally, was a descendant of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Mughal (derived from Mongol) dynasty — stood on the alleged site of what was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The yatra was stopped before it got to Ayodhya, and Advani arrested, but the rage he had tapped into was not so easily contained. Two years later, on Dec. 6, 1992, a mob of kar sevaks, or religious volunteers, some coming as pilgrims with bricks for the construction of a new temple, destroyed the mosque. Religious riots ensued, and hundreds died. Ayodhya was the crucible that led to the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism in India. Two decades on, it gave rise to the majoritarian politics of Narendra Modi. Pilgrimage offered a release from the monotony of daily life, but it also galvanized people in the service of faith, often at the expense of other faiths, and over such a wholesale recruitment of people sent away from home full of religious zeal there forever hung the specter of a crusade.

ORGIL AND I drove some 1,500 miles in five days, off-roading over what felt like the spine of Asia: valleys of spring flowers with ancient burial sites encircled by gently creased hills of green velvet. Orgil let me drive. The full expanse of the steppe, streaked with islands of shadow, opened up around us. Sometimes the sky would darken and a storm would roll in, turning the furrowed hills a morose green; then a herd of semi-wild, rain-drenched horses might assemble at the center of the road. I had never seen such emptiness. I felt myself in a country where animals outnumbered people many times over. It was as exhilarating as it was disquieting — the solitary sight of a ger in the distance, the cattle-covered crest of a hill dotted black, beige and white, as if the fickle hand of nature had taken up pointillism. It was easy to imagine this changeless landscape as one where people were especially attuned to the spirits of the natural world. “Throughout Mongolia it is believed,” Orgil said, “that if you pollute the water, the savdag will be angry at you, so we don’t even pour milk into the water, which we consider to be the purest thing.” That shamanic worship had fertilized Mongolian Buddhism, giving it its distinct character, which in turn, because of the influence of Tibetan Buddhism, already included certain esoteric teachings, practices and rituals, known in classical India as the Tantras.

Monks praying at Erdene Zuu monastery.

I hardly saw Ulaanbaatar until the end of my time in Mongolia. The location of the capital once known to Mongols as Khuree, meaning “monastery,” and later to the Russians as Urga, had not been fixed until the late 1700s and, even today, the city of nearly 1.7 million has the air of a giant encampment. A suburban sprawl of ger neighborhoods — ramshackle houses and yurts — surround a Soviet-style city center of decaying apartment blocks and bureaucratic behemoths touched up with blue glass and steel.

Here, the Gandan monastery, the de facto Vatican of Mongolian Buddhism, was the only such institution allowed to remain partially open during Communism. Although it was closed during the purges of the late 1930s, Munkhbaatar Batchuluun, 45, a jovial lama who handled communications for the monastery, explained that it owed its survival to a cynical act of tokenism. Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president at the time, was in Mongolia on a fact-finding mission in 1944, and the Communist government wanted to show that some modicum of religious freedom existed in Mongolia. Thus the Gandan, though hollowed out, was permitted to stay open as a Potemkin monastery. Mongolia had come as close as any society to having eradicated a religious way of life, with deep roots in the social fabric, yet here, too, as so often on this pilgrimage of mine, the sacred had triumphed in the end. The newly built main hall of the Gandan was swarming once more with pilgrims and lamas. The recitation of the sacred Ganjuur sutra — a practice that had been repressed in Mongolia for decades, the renewal of which I was there to witness — was underway. Sitting in the coffee shop downstairs, in a building that was a teeming complex of ATMs, broadcast studios and what Munkhbaatar referred to as “donation receiving desks,” akin to cashiers at a bank, for the performance of various religious services, he described Buddhism as never really lost “but preserved in the minds of people.”

Prayer scarves near an ovoo, or cairn, atop Khan Bayanzurkh Mountain, west of Khamar monastery.

As a boy in the countryside in the 1980s, he recalled his grandfather — a lama who disrobed after the execution of his teacher — performing Buddhist rites under cover of darkness at an altar he kept hidden in his home behind a curtain. The other villagers, who praised Communist ideals of progress by day, would by night call on his grandfather, the disrobed lama, to perform healing rites. The Buddha outlined three freedoms, Munkhbaatar explained, of behavior, speech and mind: “The Communists controlled the first two, but they could not control our minds,” he said.

On my penultimate night in Ulaanbaatar, I went to meet a woman named Gerelmaa, who went by Giimaa for short, for a shamanic ceremony. She lived in a ger neighborhood in a small house, with a yard full of rubble and rotting armchairs. A white Hyundai sat on cinder blocks, framed against the setting sun. Giimaa, a stout chain smoker in her 60s with a single upper tooth, had been an East German-trained electrical engineer under Communism before becoming a shaman in 1991. She’d often travel up to 5,000 miles a year on pilgrimages to Uvs Province in the west of the country to draw energy from the place where one of her ancestors, a powerful shaman in his day, had once lived. As we sat in an upstairs room full of taxidermy birds of prey, she told me that she mostly uses her shamanic powers to help people cure illnesses and dispel dark energy.

Giimaa donned her heavy reindeer-skin coat, hung with a bear’s foot, a vulture’s claw, a wolf’s paw and brightly colored tassels. She made offerings of milk and vodka, which her spirit, like those of most people in Mongolia, seemed to relish. With a veil over her face and feathers on her head, she began to beat a pentagonal drum, dancing about the small room.

The 17th-century Tuvkhun monastery in central Mongolia. The country had some 700 monasteries in the 19th century, but the great majority were destroyed during the decades of Communist rule.

Once the spirit took hold, Giimaa slumped down on the floor and began to speak in the gravelly voice of her male ancestor. She had told me not to be scared, but it was scary. The spirit asked about my life, and I gave him the salient details: I was the love child of a Pakistani politician and an Indian journalist. My father had been assassinated by his own bodyguard. I was married to a man from Tennessee and had been unable to return to India to see my family since 2019, when Modi’s government had stripped me of my overseas citizenship only months after I wrote an article critical of his re-election.

The spirit saw darkness in my life. He asked me to envision my home in the United States and, touching me, flew there to dispel that dark energy. My mind zoomed up, too, giving me an aerial view of this scene of a shamanic ceremony in a little house with the sun setting over the hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar. I thought of my fellow pilgrims: Eduardo Quintela, and his quiet tribute to his father; Aracely Alcón, full of gratitude for Santiago’s restored mobility; and the woman at Erdene Zuu on her perilous journey.

Pilgrimage in that moment seemed less to me like exteriorized mysticism and more a rite of remembrance. The world would have us forget what is painful. It would have us move on and be free of the past; but both as individuals and societies, we have our loyalties to what we have known and endured. Pilgrimage gave us the illusion of a forward movement across space, even as it allowed an inner journey toward communion with our past. It was a crystallization of the poet Joseph Brodsky’s idea that “if there is any substitute for love, it’s memory.”

Go behind the scenes to learn about Aatish Taseer’s pilgrimage, including the dozens of
books he read before his trip.

GRIEF, MEMORY, LOVE. I had not planned for this trinity of themes to become the substratum of my pilgrimage. Yet six months on, to arrive in Iraq in the nights leading up to Ashura — the climactic 10th day in a ritual period of mourning for the world’s more than 150 million Shiite Muslims — was to be confronted by a grief so fresh that the event that inspired it, the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in 680, might have occurred yesterday.

In July, William Keo, a 27-year-old French Cambodian photographer, and I flew into the holy city of Najaf, 110 miles south of Baghdad, arriving just after 9 p.m. We were met at the airport by Khuder al-Harooni, our guide and translator, an avuncular figure in his mid-50s. Driving in from the airport, we watched the modern city of Najaf fall away in a blur of overpasses, brightly lit shops and restaurants and a headlight parade of white sedans. Outside the pedestrianized medieval center of town — where our hotel was situated — our taxi stopped in a sea of black. It was as if the whole city of one million were in mourning. “The ladies, too,” Khuder said, pointing to a group of women in abayas. The majority, though, were beautifully barbered young men in long robes, many with hipster haircuts and beards trimmed at the chin, all making their way to the center of the shrine city. A motorbike with two men riding pillion swerved to a stop in front of us. It had small red-and-black flags on its handlebars. The green letters in Arabic script read “Labaik ya Hussein” (“I am here, O Hussein”).


To be Shiite was to live with the pain, never more acute than at Ashura, of not having been there for Hussein when it mattered most. In 680, Hussein had hearkened to the call of Muslims in the garrison town of Kufa, a few miles east of Najaf. His grandfather the Prophet had been dead for less than 50 years. In that time, the small community of believers had grown into the vast Arab Muslim empire. Hussein’s father, Ali — the Prophet’s beloved son-in-law and cousin — was the last of the four Rashidun (“rightly guided”) caliphs until he died in 661 at the hands of an assassin who struck him with a poisoned sword as he prayed. The Shiat Ali (Partisans of Ali) were at first merely his followers, people who believed that the mantle of the Prophet could only be assumed by one of his bloodline. So when, in 680, Muawiya, the first caliph since Ali, died and the caliphate passed to his dissolute son, Yazid, the Shiat Ali implored Hussein to take his rightful place at the head of Islam.

He would have believed he was defending the true faith of his father and grandfather when he rode out from Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, with 72 of his companions, to the Plain of Karbala, 50 miles north of Najaf. On the way, many tried to dissuade him, telling him that “though the heart of the city [of Kufa] is with thee, its sword is against thee,” but he rode on, like a man running to meet his destiny — a Christlike figure who sought to redeem the religion of his grandfather by forfeiting his life. At Karbala, Hussein found himself quite alone. Yazid, having subjected the living descendants of the Prophet Muhammad to days of heat and thirst, slaughtered them in a massacre that traumatized Sunni and Shiite alike. The main difference was that the Sunnis, who today are a vast majority of 1.9 billion Muslims, were able to move on, whereas the Shiites dedicated themselves to bearing witness to Hussein’s sacrifice — the word for martyr in Arabic, shahid, like the Greek martur, means “witness.”

The mourning for Hussein was a dramatization of a historical wound. It gave Shiite Islam, with its origin in pain and defeat, an entirely different complexion from its Sunni coeval, which was energized by the political triumphs of that first century of Islam after the Prophet’s death, when the entire classical world, from India to Spain, succumbed to the new empire of faith. The split between Shiite and Sunni started as partisanship over who should succeed the Prophet. After Karbala, it hardened into something of a schism, even though the relationship between the two strains of belief was more symbiotic than mutually exclusive.

At center, the holy shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, among the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, contains the tomb of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin.

NAJAF ON THAT first night was like a town preparing for a medieval battle. We entered on foot through narrow side streets with knife sharpeners at every corner, whetstones crackling and sparking. Broad-bellied iron vats on low blue gas fires held vast quantities of rice and qeema, a spiced stew of meat and chickpeas made especially at Ashura. We dropped our bags at the hotel and walked into the floodlit precincts of the shrine of Imam Ali. A siren sounded, as if summoning soldiers to their stations. The dandyish men I had seen earlier stood in a line on a red carpet, brandishing swords in long, sweeping movements. Farther along, in an arena of sorts, the neighborhoods of Najaf were marching in procession, bearing banners, coats of arms and liquid-eyed images of Hussein wearing a dark, youthful beard and a green turban. At the center of each procession, a strongman carried a mashael (an iron chandelier) on his muscular shoulders, its 27 flaming lamps doused in crude oil. He plowed it into the crowd like a battering ram, wielding it around and around to the sound of drums, cheers and an excited cleric speaking into a microphone like a sportscaster. The crowd eddied, some with batons dancing concentrically around the wheel of fire, others collecting around two young men in white. They had cut their heads in a ritual called tatbir, and their faces were streaming with blood. As the tempo rose, a perimeter of cellphone screens formed around them. The modern technology, with its direct link to social media, amplified certain elements of bravado and exhibitionism that were already part of the performance. One of the men, bearded and handsome, who looked like he might be in his early 20s, fell to his knees and sliced at his bleeding head with the two daggers he carried in his hands, as if he’d meant to scalp himself. “We have come to return the sacrifice of Imam Hussein,” said the 18-year-old friend of the man on his knees, by way of explanation of his actions to me. “Imam Ali was killed by the sword. Now we remember their sacrifices.”

In Najaf, Iraq, the night before the Ashura holy day, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in 680.

I had been on the ground in Najaf for less than two hours, having flown 16 from New York. The heat, the swords, the blood, the air thick with the stench of oil — it was overwhelming. Khuder, sensing my fatigue and alarm, said, “All this was banned under Saddam, so the people are starved for such festivals.” Looking around, I realized that most of these men could not have been even a few years old when Saddam Hussein fell in 2003.

Processions center on a flaming mashael, or iron chandelier.

As we took a break on a quieter street leading away from Bab al-Tusi, the northern archway of the shrine, illuminated red that night, we came across a small stampede in the courtyard of a mosque. A young boy in a gold tunic and a green spiked helmet, astride a white horse, was surrounded by a crowd of older men. He was meant to be Qasim, Imam Hussein’s teenage nephew, Khuder explained. “Will I also be among the martyrs?” he had asked his uncle before riding out to his death.

Najaf had its own version of Bolivia’s prestes, honored members of the citizenry who funded and organized service stations for pilgrims called mawkibs. Some provided food and water, others street theater and rites of mourning for Hussein. At one such mawkib, run by a black-turbaned cleric — the color denoting descent from the Prophet — I met Yasir Yaseen, a 23-year-old medical student from Najaf who lives in Istanbul and had returned to his hometown for Ashura. He had a light beard and a smile that exposed uneven teeth. He said that each night from now until Ashura was dedicated to a different episode in the re-enactment of the tragedy of Hussein, which was a procession of deaths — those of Hussein’s son (Ali Akbar), his nephew (Qasim), his half brother (Abbas), his 6-month-old baby (Ali Asghar) and others — culminating in that of Hussein himself. Looking down at the rectangle of men at our feet, many of whom had removed their black shirts and were thumping their bare chests in a slow, hypnotic movement, Yaseen, perhaps afraid I would misunderstand, said, “We’re not hurting ourselves for nothing. Fourteen hundred years ago, Imam Hussein went for something, and we were not with him, so one of the things we say during this period is ‘Ya letna kona ma’km,’ ‘We wish we were with you.’ ”

Penance has always been a key element of pilgrimage. All major religious cultures use physical endurance and even pain as a conduit to draw closer to God. In Bolivia, some pilgrims made the approach to the shrine on their knees. Francisco Goya’s “A Procession of Flagellants,” painted between 1808 and 1812, shows figures in white with conical hats beating their own backs with flails. In India, I had seen exquisite examples of the mortification of flesh, almost as if it were necessary to negate the body for the spirit to speak. What made Ashura unique was its use of theater to create a two-planed reality: We were both in the present, mourning the past, and with Hussein circa 680 on the Plain of Karbala. Pilgrimage is nothing if not a spectacle, here in the dances for the Virgin of Copacabana, there in the different stations of remembrance at the Shambhala, surrounded by the drama of the Gobi on all sides. In Najaf, I felt part of an immersive street theater that erased the line between audience and actor and used the short plays unfolding around us to bring about that original Greek sense of catharsis as a cleansing or purification for our complicity in the events of the past.

A likely apocryphal story states that Qasim had been betrothed to Hussein’s daughter on the eve of the battle and, at one mawkib, hundreds of young men under satin flags of black, green and red edged in gold sang to the poem “Groom of Karbala.” “This is a bride of sacrifice, a bride of blood,” Khuder translated. A cleric on the stage began the verse, and the young men, some carrying flowers in their hands, saluting in time to the music, sang the chorus back — “Beautiful as Joseph, this Lion of Karbala” — a cappella, their voices carrying up into the night air. The sight was mesmerizing. “They didn’t know Saddam’s persecution,” Wissam al-Turfi, an older man managing the crowd at the mawkib, told me, scanning the expanse of intent faces, “but their parents told them about it.”

Given my experience of Mongolia, where Communism had driven Buddhism underground, and where the cycle of erasure and return was still playing out, I was curious to know what that persecution had looked like. “We still met,” al-Turfi said, “but in secret,” adding that not all displays of religion were suppressed under Saddam — it was the Shiite outpourings of passion around Ashura and Arbaeen, the commemoration of Hussein’s martyrdom that occurs 40 days later and entails a 50-mile walk from Najaf to Karbala, that were banned. “What was Saddam so afraid of?” I asked.

“Imam Hussein,” al-Turfi said. “Imam Hussein is revolution.”

The Great Mosque of Kufa during Ashura. For Shiite women, Ashura is a quieter affair. One night is dedicated to Zaynab, Hussein’s sister and the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter.

WE HAD BEEN out all night, walking the streets of Najaf. As this last gathering broke up, plastic containers of freshly cooked qeema and rice began circulating. It was nearly dawn by the time we returned to the hotel.

When I woke at noon it was 115 degrees outside and getting hotter. Looking out through an inch-wide opening in the heavy curtains, I saw a beige, treeless city of red plastic water tanks, cluttered rooftops and telephone towers. Our hotel was full of pilgrims. In the elevator, I met a Kuwaiti who said he had come to Iraq to witness the museebat, or “tribulations,” of Hussein. Downstairs, the lobby was packed with members of the mercantile South Asian community of Bohras, who were also part of the Shiite fold. The men wore gold and white, the women bright two-piece garments consisting of hooded smocks and skirts, the hem of one matching the hem of the other.

The Shiite world is wide and various. There were the Ismailis in South Asia and Tajikistan, Zaydis in Yemen and Alevis and Alawites in Anatolia and Syria. Each group took a different line on succession to the Prophet, and each had a different focus of devotion, but none was indifferent to Ali. It is hard to overstate the mystical power of Ali as a counterpoint to Muhammad, not just within Shiite Islam but in Islam more generally. “His refusal to play the dirty game of tribal power politics,” writes Barnaby Rogerson in “The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad” (2006), “would always have frustrated him from becoming an effective political leader of the Arabs. … Ali is testimony to the fact that the most beautiful ideals must perish in the sordid world of human politics.”

Ali is my middle name. It was given to me by my non-Muslim grandmother in India, which itself is testament to the wideness of his appeal. She would never have offered Muhammad — Muhammad was for believers. Ali was for all. On that first morning, watching Khuder kiss the door of the shrine of Imam Ali, it occurred to me that another way to think of the Sunni-Shiite split was in terms of what had been a recurring theme on this pilgrimage of mine — namely, the ancient division between materiality and pure abstraction that had riven Byzantine Christianity no less than Islam. On the one hand were shrines, images, sacred objects; on the other, a fierce love of formlessness born out of a loathing of consecrated ground, idols and clergy. The Wahhabis, who dominate the religious landscape of Saudi Arabia, practice an extreme form of Sunni Islam. To them, even the Prophet’s house in Medina could be destroyed without a thought (as it was in 1925) lest it become a shrine. Shiite Islam, by contrast, is a religion of touch and physicality, of clergy and sacra. People here made turbahs (clay tablets) from the earth of the two shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. In this culture of the physical imbued with the sacred, Najaf and Karbala, with their grand ayatollahs and seminaries, along with the mosque in Kufa, where Ali died, form the points of a sacred triangle.

The Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala the day after Ashura.

Later that morning, we left Najaf through its vast necropolis, roughly four square miles of graveyard, with earth-rimmed roads running like avenues past graves of varying shapes and sizes, some simple constructions of brick and marble, others as big as mausoleums. Driving down the 45-mile road to Karbala, every inch of it lined with resting places for pilgrims, some mere sheds, some grand structures, I was confronted by another unintended symmetry of this pilgrimage: the return of the sacred, despite great political and historical upheaval. Iraq is one of four Shiite-majority nations in the world, the others being Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. Saddam Hussein had deprived the Shiites of what was something of a holy land to them. When he fell, there had been a spontaneous eruption of Shiite pilgrimage. This year, the Arbaeen would welcome as many as 25 million people, making it the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. When I expressed my wonder that such a vast event could have been suppressed, Khuder said, “It happened, but in secret.” He himself had done it on multiple occasions, picking his way through fields at night.

I had so far avoided the subject of the U.S. occupation of Iraq but, on the road to Karbala, Khuder began pointing to places where he had seen special operations involving Apache helicopters, or where, in the center of Najaf in 2004, he had witnessed a brutal showdown between the Mahdi Army, led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and U.S. forces with Abrams tanks. We had a young, restless driver whom Khuder kept chiding for his inability to sit still. That, he remembered, was what had gotten a driver he used to work with killed at a U.S. checkpoint. Upon hearing this, our driver, who loved biker stunts and made TikTok videos, casually said that his father had been killed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia whose hatred of Shiites was legendary. “Madness,” Khuder said, “tragedy in every house.” The Shiite pilgrimages of Ashura and Arbaeen had themselves been targeted several times since 2003 by Al Qaeda and ISIS — and with each attack the Shiites, whose faith had been born in tragedy, drew an inexorable line to the primal sacrifice of Hussein.

A child dressed as Qasim, Hussein’s young nephew who was killed in the same battle on the Plain of Karbala as his uncle.

Outside the gilded dome and red air-conditioned maw of the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, William was stopped on account of his camera. “They’re worried about tatbir,” Khuder said. “They’re afraid it will give the wrong impression.” The head-cutting practice remains controversial even among Shiites and has been banned in Iran by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since 1994. Standing in the afternoon sun, I felt a chill as I saw younger and younger boys go by, dressed conspicuously in white, like sacrificial victims, in anticipation of performing tatbir. One boy actor, dressed in a green sequined tunic and a metallic helmet with a white plume, was surrounded by squadrons of drummers and flagellants beating their backs rhythmically with symbolic cat-o’-nine-tails called zanjeers. Another man, with a tank on his back bearing the image of Hussein with flowing hair and beard, threaded a course through the pilgrims, spraying them with rose water. Some mawkibs were handing out ice water, others, with garish signs, the lettering dripping red paint, poured lamentations into the street through loudspeakers: “We love you, Imam Hussein, with our body, our spirit, our blood.” As Khuder wrangled with the authorities, trying to persuade them to let William bring his camera into the shrine, I felt I understood the role of blood in the Shiite scheme. It was the ultimate line of continuity, a vessel for the transmission of memory, as well as raw genetic material — it spoke to that question of lineage that had torn apart the early Muslim world.

When finally we were let through, we found ourselves on a palm-lined concourse. A red carpet, with misters overhead, led between the shrines of Hussein and his half brother, Abbas. The two-way traffic of pilgrims revealed Omanis in fine-hemmed robes with embroidered caps gliding past ruddy-faced farmers from Multan, Pakistan, stylishly turned out in black and gold. “Look at their faces,” Khuder said, overcome by their devotion. “They’re poor, but they come thousands of kilometers for the love of Imam Hussein.”

PILGRIMAGE WAS A great equalizer. Within the elliptical sphere created by the road in and out of the shrine, a kind of democracy did seem to prevail. Men and women came as one before their maker. Occasionally the spell of equality was broken by the obvious prosperity of Gulf Arabs (or in Bolivia, of the richer Aymara women) in comparison with the poverty of their coreligionists, but it would be churlish not to admit the fellow feeling that pilgrimage engendered. At times, when it was edged with religious passion, it unnerved me. My father, who had been a governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, was assassinated in 2011 by a religious fanatic whom clerics and broadcasters had worked into a frenzy. The killer became a hero in Pakistan and when, after a delay of many years, he was executed, there were tens of thousands at his funeral. They used the same title for him that was used here for Hussein — shahid — and there is a shrine in his name on the outskirts of Islamabad where devotees bring offerings. As a reaction, no doubt, I was suspicious of the kinds of fraternities that religion fosters. In Karbala, I certainly felt a sense of shared humanity, but I never doubted it was an illusion. Even within Islam, on that concourse between the two shrines, the promise of fraternity was belied by the tales I heard of the oppression that Shiites faced at the hands of Sunni majorities.

Twenty-three-year-old Farman Ahsan, with a prominent black mustache, had come by car from Lahore (my father’s hometown) via Iran, stopping along the course of a monthlong journey to do ziyarat, visiting Shiite holy places. “In Pakistan, you know how it is?” he said to me. “They throw stones at us. We need a permit to do anything. Here we’re free, we can do maatam [mourning rituals] wherever we want.” There was the 19-year-old Muhammad, who had come the long way to Iraq from Saudi Arabia via Kuwait using removable paper visas to avoid detection in his own country. “Otherwise, they kill him,” Khuder said, laughing mirthlessly. In Karbala, I met Syed Salman Raza — a Pakistani Shiite from Karachi — who had been coming to the shrine city for 35 years. He had seen it littered with bodies in 1991, when Saddam, in the wake of his invasion of Kuwait, brutally crushed the Shiite uprising, killing as many as 150,000. In his 50s now, he remembered having to bribe Saddam’s spies in order to perform the basic rites of Ashura. “We had to pay them just to be allowed to wear black,” he said, “and we were forbidden from talking to any Iraqis.” Raza also spoke of “the revolution of Imam Hussein.” When I asked him what made it revolutionary, he said, “It gives every oppressed man the courage to stand up to his oppressor.”

As Ashura approached, the warlike atmosphere in Najaf reached a fever pitch. Empty days of blinding white heat gave way to nights of blood and ferment. The number of knife sharpeners in the side streets multiplied, even as the age of those with shaved patches on their heads, wearing what I now recognized as the white vestments of tatbir, fell into the single digits. “Why are they so young?” I asked Khuder.

“They want them to not forget Imam Hussein,” he said.

A mourning ritual observed at a mawkib, one of the outdoor stations that are set up for the holiday in Najaf and Karbala.

A field hospital had materialized opposite the entrance to the holy shrine, ready for the bloodletting that was to ensue. Everywhere I could hear swords being drawn from their scabbards and the swooshing and hissing of blades slicing the torrid night air. Every evening outside of the shrine, we had seen two or three flagellants, some seeming almost to dance as they flicked flails equipped with blades across their backs. As the night of Ashura descended upon us, the scale of what was about to happen became clear. I had my heart in my mouth as I watched boys of 12 and younger approach a bald mustachioed man sitting at a stall like a street barber and wince as he used a dagger to draw blood lines across the patches of shaved head they proffered him.

Then, at sunset, it began. Men came in battalions, some carrying gilded replicas of holy shrines, some led by the haunting figure of Imam Hussein in a white veil holding the arrow-pierced body of his infant in his hands. Behind him were streets full of men and boys in white bleeding from their heads. They seemed just to tap their scalps with their daggers, even as they dug deeper into pre-existing wounds.

William and I wandered through neighborhood gatherings, where children with batons danced around a strongman bearing a mashael that dripped fire and oil. We saw grown men faint and be carried out by other bleeding men, their chests hard from the rust of dried blood. The security was heavy. Iraq’s interior minister was in town from Baghdad for the big night. We passed clothes racks hung with robes for those ready to exchange their funereal black for sacrificial white.

Around 1 a.m., Khuder dropped us off at our hotel, imploring us not to step outside until he returned in the morning. A Russian Israeli doctoral student at Princeton had been kidnapped in Baghdad earlier this year, and throughout our time in Iraq, Khuder told anyone who asked that I was “Pakistani” and William “Cambodian.” “We have to be careful,” he said cryptically when I asked why, but I sensed it was his way of dissociating us from rich countries that could pay large ransoms.

From the tinted windows of the hotel lobby we watched a predawn procession of men, hundreds upon hundreds, in states of elation and rapture, laughing, weeping, bleeding. The day broke over a ghost town whose dusty streets were full of oil stains and blood-soaked rags. Khuder picked us up just before 9 a.m. to take us to a passion play, known as a tashabih. Now and then, we passed an impeccably dressed cleric in light, floating robes with a black turban and green scarf. In his wake, like survivors of a carnage, came bandaged, bloodied men, their arms draped over one another, making their way home as if from a night of revelry.

At the edge of town, an air-conditioned walkway, akin to what one might find at the airport in Doha, Qatar, led to a desolate stretch of pale, hummocky land enclosed by barbed wire. Beyond was the Sea of Najaf, a brackish lake, glittering feverishly in the distance. On a natural stage of sorts, fashioned from ravined earthen walls, a captivated audience in black of some several hundred formed a perimeter, while familiar short plays unfolded below them. The forces of Yazid, in yellow and red, as if color itself were a sign of corruption, were arrayed against Hussein’s beleaguered camp with satin flags in green, black and white. With every death, the women of the house, in white gloves and veils, ran between the battlefield and the tents emitting wails of sorrow into a loudspeaker. The role of Zaynab, Hussein’s sister and the Prophet’s granddaughter, was especially important. It was she who would live to tell the tale — she who would protect Hussein’s sole surviving son, Ali Zayn al-Abidin, who was too sick to fight, and thereby the bloodline of the Prophet. With each loss of life, Hussein addressed the audience, who stood agog in the heat with cardboard boxes over their heads to shield them from the fierce morning sun, asking if anyone was with him or whether he was alone. “Labaik ya Hussein,” came the solemn chorus of surrounding voices. It was a theater of the people in that most affecting sense, where even the poverty of the staging — the sun-bleached flags, the crackling loudspeaker, the melodrama and the audience in thrall — served only to deepen the pathos. On our return through the now-deserted town, we saw the field hospital had been cleared away.

I was never more aware than at that moment of the creative power of pilgrimage. We think of tradition as static, its rituals fixed for the ages, but in fact within certain parameters it is constantly evolving, incorporating new elements and technologies. It was this inner vitality — “the modernity of tradition,” to borrow a phrase from the American political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph — that gives pilgrimage its ability to endure. Whether through the introduction of vodka into Mongolian Buddhist ritual, the use of cellphones and social media to enhance the performative aspects of Ashura or even the spirit of one pilgrimage resurrected in another, as in the case of fiesta in Copacabana, the survival of pilgrimage depended on its talent for balancing continuity with change.

Tatbir, a controversial practice among Shiite Muslims performed during Ashura, is a ritual bloodletting, where men cut the tops of their heads with daggers or use blades attached to chains to self-flagellate as a way to honor the sacrifices and martyrdom of of Hussein.

The last night — Zaynab’s night — belonged to women. “Never was there a woman of Zaynab’s courage,” Zahraa, a 22-year-old accounting student who co-owns a flower and gift shop in Najaf, said to me on the night of Ashura. “She’s an inspiration to all women.” We sat in Cafe Maram, a modern coffee shop hung with fake pink blossoms. Zahraa, whose family had a mawkib on the road to Karbala, was dressed in a black abaya. Khuder had discouraged me from approaching women during my time in Iraq — “It’s not in the culture” — but Zahraa seemed keen to talk. When I asked her how Ashura was for women, she said it was a quieter affair that played out in houses, with older women taking the role of the sheikh, and of the attendees together reading the “Ziyarat-e-Hussein,” a homage in verse to Hussein. Did she want to join the mayhem outside, I asked.

“No,” she scoffed, her face brimming with amusement, adding flatly, in relation to tatbir, “It’s wrong.”

Khuder, who was translating, nodded. “I agree.”

During the holy days leading up to Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram (the first month of the year in the Islamic calendar), whetstones are set up throughout the streets of Najaf to be used by pilgrims who take part in the tatbir ritual.

A new flag — red letters against a white ground that read “Haidar,” a name for Ali, which, Khuder explained, was what people said when they practiced tatbir — rose over Karbala. After the male hysteria of the hours before, there was a feeling of exhalation. “We feel Imam Mahdi is here, even though we can’t see him,” an Omani pilgrim said to me, referring to the 12th and last imam, whom the majority of Shiites believe was occulted in the 10th century and who would return at the day of judgment astride a white horse. In that lighter air of expiation, women lit candles on the edge of the street that led from the shrine to the place that marked Hussein’s camp on the field of battle. Vendors sold balloons bearing Hussein’s likeness. Drifting past us in their abayas, a few women stopped to rock a cradle that contained a plastic doll wrapped in green gauze, standing in for Hussein’s slain baby.

I WAS IN the final hours of my six-month pilgrimage, and certain historical synchronicities were coalescing. It was here in Iraq in 1258 that Hulegu the Mongol, Genghis Khan’s grandson, shattered the power of the Arab Muslim empire by destroying its capital at Baghdad. In accordance with the Mongol prohibition against spilling royal blood, the last caliph with wide acceptance among a majority of Muslims was wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death. Only 10 years before, on the far Western edge of the Muslim world, Ferdinand III of Castile — the patron saint of what would be called La Reconquista — had, with the exception of Granada, brought five and a half centuries of Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula to an end in Seville. It was that revitalized Catholic Spain that went on to conquer the Incas of the Altiplano, sowing the seed of its zealotry in the New World. These were the accidents of history, the butterfly effect that ran through the three very different societies my pilgrimage had taken me to. The Shiite movement, which the writer Vali Nasr has described as an ethno-racial protest of a newly subjugated people (Persians, namely) against Arab rule, was a prequel to these intersecting histories — and, as the darker, bloodier hours of Ashura unfolded, I was struck by what William said: “It’s a protest. They want to be seen.” Ashura is both protest and theater, but that does nothing to diminish its power.

A concourse, with misters overhead, leads between the holy shrines of Hussein and his half brother in Karbala.

Back in January, I had begun this pilgrimage full of modern fears related to faithlessness and the heightened sense of individuality that prevails in the West. I did not feel like that by the time I left Najaf. I had glimpsed something in Iraq, something I felt as true, inexpressible and frightening, which I knew would soon be lost to me. It had less to do with faith than with the sheer communal power of the medieval world. If pilgrimage, as Victor and Edith Turner, the British anthropologists, write, is meant to be “a release from the ingrown ills of home” — ennui, sameness, predictability — this had certainly been that. It had forced unassimilable dualities upon me: of the sacred and the profane, experience and innocence, wonder and fear, the primeval and the modern, Najaf and New York. It was the discomfort of these irreconcilable realities that gave my pilgrimage its liminal quality. Eduardo Quintela in La Paz back in January had been only half-right: Pilgrimage did indeed remake my view of reality, but not because a sacred destination had swung into view. It was rather the strain of balancing different planes of existence in my head that put the worries of the past in perspective. The road in and the road out. I now felt an almost sensual longing for the idea of home. Like this night of candles coming after a fever dream, I wanted to be released from the terrifying simultaneity of living between worlds — Bolivia, Mongolia, Iraq — even as I already felt bereft of their intensity.

Outside the Great Mosque of Kufa. The cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kufa form the points of a sacred triangle.

Watching the desert sun set on my last night in Iraq, color returning magically to the blanched dome of the sky, I thought of my 25-year-old self in Mecca at the beginning of my writing career, assailed by feelings of doubt and inadequacy. Then, I had known the need for a mode of appreciation that lay between dry intellectuality and the ardor of faith, a kind of felt thought. We who live in atomized societies, with loneliness and the loss of God, are sometimes prone to fetishizing the passions of societies where rapture lives on. Twenty years later, I could see that it was that same faithlessness, which did not privilege one religion at the cost of another, that had made possible this comparative pilgrimage across three great faiths. It allowed me to see the idea of pilgrimage, in all its richness, as an integral journey, more fundamental to religion than divinity itself.

We tend to think of pilgrimage as a well-trodden path on which only the faithful have the right to travel. In fact, even today, the world is full of people making these intrepid journeys of inner significance, in private and public ways, to see a cherished work of art, to Graceland, to a castle on the coast of Africa where their ancestors were shipped out as slaves to the Americas. If the metaphor of pilgrimage remains as potent as it does today — and we hear it used all the time — it is because it speaks to our undiminished need for awe, risk, adventure and, most of all, a release from the mundanity of our daily lives in order to commune with something sacred. We channel these impulses into modern travel, filling it with expectation and dwelling on its shortcomings. In fact it is we, with our fixed ideas of what travel should give us, who fail the journeys we undertake. The pilgrim spirit is one that wanders away from the comfort and safety of home secure in the knowledge that the transformation the pilgrim will undergo over the course of his journey is the destination. The shrine is a mere decoy. Pilgrimage is above all an inward journey, free of external ideas of outcome: To be disappointed in one’s aims only reinforces faith. This is what separates a pilgrimage from a business trip, say. The true lesson of pilgrimage in a secular context instructs us to set out into the world with a questing spirit that is unafraid of looking without finding, allowing curiosity, sympathy and self-improvement to do the work of faith.

The bravest pilgrims are those who go first, tracing paths of devotion through a trackless wilderness, inscribing the land with meaning. In those last hours in Iraq, I recalled reading that there had been pilgrims at the site of the Battle of Karbala as early as four years after the massacre, wandering among ghosts, wretched with guilt and grief.

Go behind the scenes to learn about Aatish Taseer’s pilgrimage, including the dozens of
books he read before his trip.

Page credits

Digital production and design: Nancy Coleman, Danny DeBelius, Amy Fang, Chris Littlewood, Jamie Sims and Carla Valdivia Nakatani.

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