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Travel, faith and healing

Medicinal water from Lourdes, France, 1920-1928

Medicinal water from Lourdes, France, 1920-1928

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Many religious traditions have important holy sites to which followers are encouraged to travel. Every Muslim, for instance, is expected to undertake at least one trip to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam, in his or her lifetime - a spiritual journey known as hajj. Journeys are important in Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic and Christian faiths. Though they have different names assigned to them, all translate as ‘pilgrimage’. People go on pilgrimages for all kinds of reasons. But often, especially in Hindu and Christian practices, the motive is medical.

The tradition of visiting religious sites: ancient Greece and Christianity

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In ancient Greece the popularity of the cult of the god Asklepios led many visitors to travel to healing temples dedicated to him called asklepeia. Later, the Christian church encouraged its followers to undertake similar journeys to holy shrines. These were often associated with particular patron saints, who had either cured or suffered from a particular condition. So the shrine of St Anthony was visited by pilgrims seeking a cure for erysipelas, a terrible skin disease known also as ‘St Anthony’s fire’. St Artemis was called upon for genital afflictions, St Roch for plague buboes, St Lawrence for backache, and so on. Many shrines or statues were regarded as especially powerful if they contained a physical relic of the saint, such as a fragment of his bone or his blood.

Hindu and Muslim holy places

Hindu shrines which are believed to have special healing powers include Ochira, in Kerala, sacred to the goddess Parvati, and the Bedla Mataji temple near Udaipur, which thousands of pilgrims visit every year. The temple of Mira Datar, a Sufi Muslim shrine in India, is believed to help those with mental illness.

Practices at a holy place

On arrival at a holy place, Hindus make offerings of money and coloured powders which each have a specific meaning, and pray to the god or goddess for help. In certain branches of Christianity it is traditional to light votive candles and kiss the statue of the local saint. When they return home, pilgrims often leave behind a votive offering as a thanksgiving. They might also take away a souvenir or curative item to continue the health benefits associated with the shrine.

Religious journeys for healing today

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Religious believers still go on pilgrimages and new pilgrimage sites have grown up in recent centuries. The most notable Christian example is the shrine of St Bernadette at Lourdes, France, visited by over 5 million pilgrims a year. Over four thousand medical cures have been attributed by the Roman Catholic Church to this location’s healing waters since the first visitors came in 1873. The Church asserts that these cures are so rapid, and so complete, that miraculous powers are the only explanation.

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Bibliography

P Brown, The Cult of Saints. Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980)

R Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (London: Penguin, 2000)

D Wujastyk, ‘Indian medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993)

Glossary:

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