10 Sites for Modern Seekers
Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong
Taoist healer Wong Tai Sin sought eternal life on a mountain in China 1,500 years ago; today, pilgrims travel to Hong Kong to seek his eternal guidance in marriage, business, career and emigration affairs. Before the Chinese temples honoring him were destroyed, this ancient god, part Dear Abby, part Harvey Mackay, “spoke” through a medium in a trance who wrote his words on a table. Now he speaks through 100 numbered sticks in a bamboo cup. Worshippers who visit his gargantuan Hong Kong temple shake the cup and select a stick; each number corresponds to a lengthy poem, or “fortune.”
Hong Kong Tourist Association, 5th Floor, 590 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10036-4706; phone 212.869.5008
Jesus Malverde, Culiacan, Mexico
Devout drug lords and ordinary folk flock to this shrine to a modern-day Robin Hood: Jesus Malverde, a criminal hung in 1909, now known as El Narcosanton, or the Big Narco Saint. The dealers beseech his plaster image to bless their bullets and render their marijuana crops bountiful; others give thanks for drug-related employment and hospitals, orphanages, and schools endowed by drug barons. The drug biz, they reason, simply steals from the rich and gives (a little) back to the poor.
Mexican Government Tourism Office, 450 Park Av., Suite 1401, New York, NY 10022; phone 212.755.7261
Chimayo, New Mexico
More than 2,000 pilgrims gather on Good Friday alone at this sacred spot of dirt: to kneel on it, rub it on their bodies or on photos of sick relatives, and sometimes even eat it. Each year millions journey, especially during Holy Week, 30 miles north of Santa Fe to El Santuario de Chimayo, an adobe church built by Spaniards in the 1800s. It houses a pit of medicinal mud in a room called El Pocito, where pilgrims post small images of ailing body parts. Miraculously, the earth (aided by a resident priest with buckets) continues to replenish itself.
New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; phone 800.545.2070
Atomic Mirror Pilgrimage, International
Each year for 10 years, a pacifist priest plucked dirt from Chimayo and carried it to Los Alamos National Laboratory 20 miles away. In 1995, his solitary walks inspired a pilgrimage that now links nuclear sites, such as dumps, mining areas, test sites, and museums, from Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, to Hiroshima, Japan. A global coalition, Abolition 2000, has expanded the pilgrimage each year. In 1998 activists will publicize Chernobyl’s still-functioning reactor by driving an ambulance from Ireland to Kiev. Their final destination? An international agreement abolishing nuclear weapons by the year 2000.
Pamela Meidell, Director, Atomic Mirror, Box 220, Port Hueneme, CA, 93044; phone 805.985.5073
Gen-Xers from around the world converge on this small Christian monastic community in Burgundy every week to pray, be silent and perform simple, repetitive chants, known as the songs of Taize. Established in the 1940s as a sanctuary for political refugees, this community is now home to 90 monks who have led “pilgrimages of trust on earth” to every continent. In 1994 their trek to Paris attracted more than 100,000 young pilgrims.
Saut D’eau (Sodo), Haiti
For 130 years, vendors, gamblers, prostitutes, and military men have mingled freely here with the traditionally devout. These pilgrims don’t differentiate between Christian rituals (celebrating the appearance of the Virgin Mary) and voodoo rites (bathing in the waterfalls sacred to gods Ezili and Danbala.) Instead, they mix it all up in a bazaar-like atmosphere.
Office National de Tourisme, 34 Avenue Marie-Jeanne, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; phone 509 1 230723
The Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Wales
If each age creates its own form of pilgrimage, ours may be to this ecolaboratory that attracts 100,000 visitors annually. This sustainable town boasts phone booths powered by wind and sun, urinals kept sweet-smelling by plant extracts, a railway with a regenerative braking system, energy-stingy houses, and other working forms of gentle technology.
Centre for Alternative Technology Charity Ltd. Charity No. 265239, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 9 AZ, Wales, UK; phone 44 1654 7024 00
Kataragama, Sri Lanka
A two-week July extravaganza draws pilgrims from all major religions to Kataragama, Sri Lanka’s holiest place, to seek spiritual reverie through fire-walking and other rituals. (The most penitent pierce themselves with iron hooks, then hang from scaffolds wheeled to the shrine of Skanda, the Hindu war deity.) But ecstasy isn’t all. Local activists intent on protecting the sacred environment recently built a community center and brought antagonistic religious leaders together to forge a peace pact. Also hospitable is the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, which offers free insurance for festival-goers.
Sri Lanka Tourist Board, Embassy of Sri Lanka, 2148 Wyoming Av. NW, Washington, DC, 20008; phone 202.483.4025
The Hopi Path of Life, Arizona
The Hopi believe their mythical ancestors, the Kachinas, visit the earth for six months every year, bringing rain to grow corn and preserve the land and its people. While here, Kachinas are impersonated by male dancers wearing masks. In tribal rituals closed to the public, they dance, beginning in subterranean ceremonial chambers called kivas, and finally emerging from an opening at the top to bid the public farewell and return their masks to the spirits.
Hopi Cultural Center, Box 67, Second Mesa, AZ 86043; phone 602.734.2401
Shikoku Henro, Japan
Addicts, beware: The path is the goal, so some pilgrims are unable to quit this pilgrimage honoring Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi. It’s a 900-mile clockwise trek connecting all 88 Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku; each supplies a red stamp, which pilgrims collect on the short white coats they wear. Since the 1600s, the Henro has attracted fervent masses who believe they walk with the saint at their side. At each day’s end, they wash the staff they carry, as if washing the dust of travel from Kobo Daishi’s feet.
Shikoku Reijjokai, Anraku-ji, Hikino 26, Kamiita-cho, Tokushima-ken, Japan 771