Like A Peregrino
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.