Like A Pere­grino

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - THE TRAVEL ISSUE - By Parvez Da­ma­nia

Re­trace the foot­steps of the saints on a 790-km walk across Spain, seek­ing for­give­ness and re­liv­ing an­cient his­tory along the way

Iwasn’t ex­actly on a pil­grim­age. For me, walk­ing the 276 km con­clud­ing stretch of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, was more of a salu­ta­tion to a pow­er­ful and hal­lowed tra­di­tion. But be­cause I was tread­ing the path taken by pil­grims to the Cathe­dral or Com­postela de Santiago, held to be the burial site of St James, the brother of Je­sus Christ, I sup­pose that tech­ni­cally, I was on the path of faith too, which made me a pere­grino. Just like the true pil­grims I met on the way, in­clud­ing the 73-year-old man who was do­ing the en­tire Camino (790km) a year af­ter a triple by­pass, the cou­ple in their 70s who were do­ing it for the sixth time, kids, school­boys, and even a doughty dog be­side his mas­ter.

My route be­gan in As­torga, Spain, one Oc­to­ber morn­ing. I was with two friends, and planned to walk the en­tire route with just one con­ces­sion to my­self: ship­ping my knap­sack from one stop to the next.

I had my route mapped out in ad­vance, al­though I found that yel­low ar­rows are painted promi­nently along the en­tire route on streets, trees, posts and build­ings, lead­ing right up to the cathe­dral. I walked for 11 days, cov­er­ing 38km on my long­est day and 24 on my short­est.

I wanted to do this walk for the sake of the walk, in the spirit of the walk. With my back­pack off my back, I walked much lighter and free to rel­ish the coun­try­side, hills, forests and towns.

Pere­gri­nos stop at al­ber­gues that are gra­ciously and gen­er­ously main­tained for pil­grims. Here you can rest, clean up and get a good night’s sleep. The al­ber­gues open in the af­ter­noons and shut in the morn­ings, just af­ter the last pil­grims set out. If you cheat, you will not just find your­self wait­ing help­lessly out­side an al­ber­gue, but you will also be de­nied the pre­cious stamps on the spe­cial passports that are is­sued to pil­grims. Only if you get the cor­rect num­ber of cor­rect stamps on your pass­port will you be is­sued your for­mal cer­tifi­cate, and if it mat­ters to you, like it did to me, you never ever cheat. If you are on the Camino, walk right, walk true and walk to the fin­ish.

Stops at churches are op­tional, but I stopped at ev­ery church that pre­sented it­self, at­tended the Pil­grims’ Mass at a few of them, and soaked my­self in a spir­i­tual en­ergy that had as its foun­tain­head the heart of a great religion. The Camino is el­e­vated by the sheer good­will all pere­gri­nos ex­press to each other. Wish­ing ev­ery­one ‘Buen Camino’, you can make friends of ut­ter strangers in a mo­ment and greet each other like brethren in the evening, or as you cross paths in the towns. It makes you won­der at the po­ten­tial of hu­man brother­hood.

On the Camino, you stop at the Ferro Cruz, the Iron Cross, sur­rounded by a mound of stones of all sizes. You carry a stone sig­ni­fy­ing your sins, drop it at the foot of the Cross and ask for for­give­ness. I de­cided a mod­est peb­ble would do for me, and spent a mo­ment in prayer – and an­other two mo­ments won­der­ing at the huge stones oth­ers had left be­hind.

James, the au­thor of the Book of James in the Bi­ble’s New Tes­ta­ment, was one of the first fol­low­ers of Je­sus Christ and sup­pos­edly was the first mar­tyr. He is the pa­tron saint of Spain, and the sig­nif­i­cance of this pil­grim­age to his rest­ing place has in­spired mil­lions of peo­ple. Over two lakh peo­ple com­pleted it in 2015 alone.

In­di­ans are made very wel­come: Spa­niards hold In­dia in high re­gard. On the way, I saw gifts left by Spa­niards who have vis­ited In­dia at sig­nif­i­cant stops, in­clud­ing images of Hanu­man, Shiva

You carry a stone for your sins, drop it at the Cross and ask for for­give­ness

and Par­vati, and even an Aum scrawled on a sign­post that fea­tured the tra­di­tional icon of the Camino, the scal­lop.

The Cathe­dral at Santiago is its own re­ward. The Pil­grims’ Mass en­chants with its ritual cer­e­mony, mu­sic and the de­vo­tion of the priests and pil­grims. If you reg­is­ter early, your coun­try is in­cluded in the ros­ter of na­tions called out at the Mass. It was thrilling to hear ‘In­dia’ called out, and to know that I was bear­ing the salu­ta­tions of my coun­try and car­ry­ing back home with me the bless­ing of a jour­ney that was ev­ery­thing I had hoped it would be, and much, much more.

ON THE PATH OF SAINT JAMES 1. A pil­grim rests and looks at the Santiago de Com­postela Cathe­dral at the end of the Way of Saint James.

2. A sign­post, with the scal­lop shell logo, on the way.

3. Santiago de Com­postela, the cul­mi­na­tion point of the pil­grim­age route.

4. A church in Vil­lafranca del Bierzo, where a spe­cial mass is held to bless the pil­grims.

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