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The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India

posted on 26.05.2017, 07:06 by Shinde, Kiran
There is growing interest in attributing sacred value to the environment for its protection and management. Claiming the environment as sacred, however, is different from the environment in sacred sites. Sacred sites, places of heightened religious and spiritual significance, are found in all societies and visited by thousands of visitors. Visitor flows affect the environment in sacred sites in direct and indirect ways. Two distinct approaches can be identified in the discussion of impact on sacred sites: one focuses on the assessment of the physical environment and the other emphasises the effects on the cultural and sacred space. The first approach reports environmental problems such as deforestation, river pollution, and real estate development without supporting infrastructure of roads and environmental services including sewerage, water supply, and accumulation of waste, but fails to explain why these problems do not deter visitors whose numbers continue to increase. The second approach, by negating the physicality of the environment and relying on subjectivity of environmental discourses, avoids questions about environmental responsibility and management. Both these approaches do not consider how the environment in a sacred site is created. This thesis attempts to explain how the environment in the sacred site of Vrindavan is shaped by socio-economic, religious and political processes that take place within, and outside the site. By adopting a historical-spatial analysis, it shows how the trajectory of environmental change in Vrindavan is shaped by broader patterns of changes in political economy, religious patronage, pilgrimage travel and institutional developments. It examines the changes in the iv pilgrimage landscape of Vrindavan through three phases since its establishment as a pilgrimage site in the 15th century: pre-colonial (15th-19th century), colonial (19th-mid 20th century) and post-colonial (post-1947). It details the ways in which social, economic, political and institutional developments from the precolonial and colonial past are linked to some of the contemporary problems and how these are translated into fragmented institutional responses. The thesis examines the contemporary environment in Vrindavan in relation to the shifts in pilgrimage economy and interactions of various actors and institutions that control and manage it. It shows that the contemporary environment in Vrindavan is a poorly regulated market of religious entrepreneurs, tourism operators and real estate developers driven by the opportunities of religious tourism. The lack of institutions to regulate these activities and the inability to cater to the increased demand for environmental services contribute to the continued degradation of the religious urban space of Vrindavan. This institutional vacuum leads different actors to use contesting attitudes in absolving themselves from their responsibility towards environmental management and articulate discourses that reinforce the idea of environmental degradation in Vrindavan. The study illustrates that claiming the sacred and making the sacred/religious environment are two different things. It argues that understanding and addressing environmental degradation in a sacred environment requires an understanding of how sacred space is produced. It shows that the environment of pilgrimage is a dynamic process shaped by the activities, forms of control, perceptions, and representations of the actors involved in the production of sacred sites. The thesis calls for a comprehensive v spatial approach to address environmental change and sustainability issues in sacred sites by integrating concerns for maintaining the religious significance of the place with the physical transformations in sacred sites.


Principal supervisor

Haripriya Rangan

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts