Video: A sadhu singing by the Ganges River, Varanasi

One of the best gifts travel gives you is all the great music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Strange tunes often stick in the mind long after the memories of meals and sights have dimmed. Last week I brought you a video of a kalimba player in Malawi. Here’s a completely different tune from a completely different country, yet both tunes have gotten into my head.

This man is a sadhu, one of the countless Hindu holy men who wander the city streets and country roads of India preaching the tenets of Hinduism. He’s playing by the Ganges River in Varanasi, one of the holiest spots for Hindus. Watch how he plays two instruments and sings with ease. The camera is a bit shaky at the beginning but gets much better. Does anyone know what he’s singing?

Medieval pilgrims journeyed deep into Africa, archaeologists discover

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The Kingdom of Makuria is the quintessential forgotten civilization. Very few people have even heard of it, yet it ruled southern Sudan for hundreds of years and was one of the few kingdoms to defeat the Arabs during their initial expansion in the 7th century AD. Makuria was a Christian kingdom, born out of the collapse of the earlier Christian kingdom of Axum. Makuria survived as a bulwark of Christianity in medieval Africa until it finally collapsed in 1312.

Now excavations of some of its churches at Banganarti and Selib have revealed that this kingdom was a center of pilgrimage, attracting people from as far away as Catalonia, in modern Spain. The 2,300 mile journey from Spain to southern Sudan is a long one even today, but imagine when it had to be done on horseback, walking, and boats powered only by sails and oars. Yet an inscription records that one Catalan named Benesec made the journey almost a thousand years ago, probably to pray for a cure to an illness. “Benesec” was a popular Catalan name in the 13th and 14th centuries.

MedievalAnother inscription with an accompanying painting shows a Muslim man, Deif Ali, making a pilgrimage to the church to pray for a cure to his blindness. This isn’t as unusual as it might sound. In regions where religions mingle, some people will go to holy places of the other religion. When I covered the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela for Reuters back in 2001, I met Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs all coming to be a part of the religious festival.

Makurian artists produced some amazing religious frescoes, like this image of the birth of Jesus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, and this closeup of St. Anne, also courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Both come from the cathedral of Faras, an important Makurian city.

The churches are in southern Sudan, not the new Republic of South Sudan. The nation of Sudan (the northern one) has many sites of archaeological and historical interest and is a popular destination for adventure travel.

Stonehenge burial may be prehistoric tourist

Archaeologists call him the “Boy with the Amber Necklace”, and ever since he was discovered in 2005 they’ve known he was special. Not only would his jewelry have been rare and expensive back when he was buried 3,550 years ago, but the choice of his grave site was significant too–just three miles from Stonehenge.

Now chemical analysis on his teeth has revealed something else special about him–he isn’t from England at all, but from the Mediterranean. Tooth enamel forms in early childhood and retains oxygen and strontium. Different isotopes of these elements are found in different ecozones and regions, and show where an individual grew up. When scientists analyzed the teeth of the Boy with the Amber Necklace, they found he’d grown up around the Mediterranean. The “boy” was actually about fourteen or fifteen years old, and it’s unclear exactly why he came to southern England and the sacred site of Stonehenge.

This isn’t the first time a burial near Stonehenge has turned out to be from somewhere else. The “Amesbury Archer”, a grown man buried with some of the oldest gold and copper artifacts ever found in the UK, grew up in the foothills of the German Alps some 4,300 years ago.

So were these prehistoric tourists? Well, more like prehistoric pilgrims, or perhaps immigrants coming to work at one of the most sacred and dynamic places in the prehistoric world. People often assume international travel is a new thing, starting in the age of luxury liners and really getting going when international flights became cheap, yet daring individuals and groups have been making long journeys for thousand of years. The Boy with the Amber Necklace and the Amesbury Archer could have taken boats along the coastline and rivers, and would have had to do a lot of walking too. They may have been helped along by a simple yet effective prehistoric navigation system. In the days when the waters teemed with fish and not plastic, and the forests were filled with wildlife and berries instead of discarded soda cans, the trip wouldn’t have been as hard as we think.

[Photo courtesy webmink via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Record turnout on Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail

For more than a thousand years, the faithful have been making an arduous journey along rugged trails in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Dedicated to the Apostle St. James, it’s one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage destinations and the routes leading there are seeing record numbers of hikers.

Part of the boom is because this year St. James’ feast day lands on a Sunday, a holy event that hasn’t happened since 1993. Tough economic times have also led some people to look to religion for reassurance, and led the Galician government to promote the route in the hope of bringing in much-needed cash. At the beginning of the year the province paid for a big insert in many of Spain’s major dailies. It has even brought in major acts like Muse and the Pet Shop Boys to do concerts.

Hiking “El Camino” is popular with people of all faiths and none. Most people do one of the many routes in Galicia, although hardier hikers with faith in God and their legs start from as far away as France. Many pilgrim hostels offer very low cost accommodation, but with an estimated 200,000+ pilgrims this year, it’s best to finish your day’s hiking early if you want a place. If you want to go, several online guides offer tips, this one being one of the best.


Photo courtesy user Liesel via Wikimedia Commons.

Interfaith tourism in Syria

Who says the Middle East has to be a place of religious tension?

Not the worshipers at Deir Mar Mousa monastery. This medieval Christian monastery is a pilgrimage center for Christians and Muslims alike thanks to an open policy of worship and tolerant religious discussion.

Christians make up about ten percent of Syria’s population and there are churches in many cities, like the one in Hama pictured here. Byzantine monasteries dot the countryside, although most have been empty for centuries.

Deir Mar Mousa is located atop a rugged hill in the desert fifty miles north of Damascus. Long abandoned, its buildings and historic frescoes were restored over the past two decades and it’s now open to all. Pilgrims are welcome to stay the night for free in a stone hut in exchange for light work such as cleaning the dishes. Much of the pilgrims’ time is spent participating in long, patient discussions with people who believe differently than they do. Sounds a bit like the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

You don’t have to be of a particular religion or indeed any religion to stay, but getting there is a bit complicated and you’ll need some basic equipment. Instructions are on the monastery’s website.

The monastery is run by the Jesuit priest Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio and a group of monks, nuns, and lay volunteers. This group has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience like in most monastic communities, but unusually they have also dedicated themselves to “being in service and love for the Muslim world.” People gather regularly for prayer meetings that involve silent meditation, multilingual services, and interfaith discussion.

Father Dall’Oglio explains his life’s work by saying, “Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me.”

When speaking with the New York Times for a recent article, he put it more simply.

“We’re all in this together.”