From tourists to pilgrims, the pedagogy of traveling

pedagogy of traveling
pedagogy of travel
By Sharmila Govande

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

As part of our post graduation course in social work (1), we were required to get a glimpse of the local social development projects through a fifteen day journey. While I do not have memories of the projects we visited, I recall with nostalgia my short stay at a tribal household in the Aravalli ranges of Rajasthan. Appalled by their hygiene practices – no bathing for days, open fields for nature’s call, domestic animals inside their one room abode at night, children with runny noses, unkempt hair, dirty nails, the list could go on, something transformed in me when I reluctantly agreed to try their traditional attire and accessories. I happily listened to their songs, fed their livestock, ate the food they foraged from the jungle and accepted them for what they were.What touched me most was their welcoming nature and their simplicity. This unique experience has stayed alive in me and has made me more accepting and more open toward different people, cultures and traditions. 

What is Travel?

The Oxford dictionary defines travel as, “making a journey, typically of some length”. Along with this journey comes an experience – an experience that brings alive all our senses; feeding our mind with new visions, thoughts, ideas and meanings. Experiences that question one’s existing beliefs and notions, bringing new insights that facilitate learning and growth. The sounds of nature, the conversations with people, the surrounding smells, the feel of the wind, the sunlight, the taste of the food you eat and everything you see either provides new information or digs out old memories and creates thoughts in one’s mind. These thoughts question or reinforce or help you make new meanings. This is, as rightly noted by Rahul Karanpuriya (2), a journey inwards, while travelling outwards. However, travel is not only about taking, but also sharing what one has. As Rahul states, “It is like allowing the world to shape me and bring out my true self. It is a way of giving back to the love I have received from the world.”  Keeping this perspective in mind, even a short walk in the neighbourhood, if experienced with a conscious mind, is travel as there is a movement and a meaningful experience. Thus, making travel a pilgrimage – a search for meaning of life, of self. It is thereby not a means to an end, but a journey where every moment counts.  

India has a long history of travel in the sense of pilgrimage. Teerth yatras (Pilgrimage) and parikramas (circumambulation) were undertaken to the confluences of rivers and various holy shrines. The yatris (travellers) had to go on foot without any comforts. This act of hardship was considered as an act of devotion. It was believed that these yatras purified the self and brought it closer to the divine. In India, travel also became a tool to ‘create awareness’ and a ‘fight for a cause’ during pre-independence struggle and ‘post independence days’ with Gandhiji using travel on foot to spread the message of human rights and nonviolence and Vinoba Bhave following the same practice to urge people to donate their land to the landless. Satish Kumar (3) traveled by foot to spread the message of peace and request the four major nuclear weapon owners to keep away from pressing the button. 

Travel in the tourism industry is conceived as a way to  spend time away from home for the purpose of recreation, relaxation or pleasure. A tourist makes use of commercial services and carefully curated experiences. There are other kinds of travels, such as work travel where one travels for the purpose of work commitments and educational travel that is undertaken for the purpose of learning. Religious and Spiritual travels are undertaken to visit holy shrines, spread the message of God or seek the blessings of a higher being.

In our current consumer-centric world, packaged deals are being offered in every area of travel replacing pilgrimages with planned itineraries and luxuries based on the amount one can pay. Travel companies have commodified not only recreational experiences, but also spiritual, health, education and learning based travel.

Difference between Pilgrimage and Tourism 

Satish Kumar in his book ‘Earth Pilgrim’, brings out the difference between pilgrimage and tourism. According to him, a tourist consumes and looks at Earth as a source of goods and services, pleasure and enjoyment. A tourist finds gratification in the consumption of nature’s gifts. A tourist travels to arrive at a place while a pilgrim finds fulfillment in the journey. According to him life is a pilgrimage – as to be a pilgrim is to be on the move, physically, mentally and metaphorically. As a pilgrim one discovers the mystery, magic, meaning and magnificence of life in every step, in every sound and in every sight. 

While a tourist traverses on a carefully planned path and is time bound, a pilgrim decides the path during the course of the journey and doesn’t rush through the journey. Slows down, halts whenever feels the need for it. A pilgrim, thus, embraces the unknown and doesn’t bind to a place or to time. The spirit of a pilgrimage is giving back, expressing gratitude and taking care of the path and surrounding area, while the focus of a tourist is to get maximum out of the investment made. 

The intention

Amidst all popular business driven initiatives are experiments with a different philosophy of travel. One can say they are largely influenced by our tradition of Parikrama and Teerth yatras as well as the journeys undertaken for a social cause and personal growth. They attempt to blend in the spirit of a pilgrimage with a time bound experience, to shift the focus from well-serviced comfortable stays to experiencing the hospitality of the local community, from seeking to giving. The intention is social and environmental sensitization, self awareness, learning about initiatives and experiments, forming deeper connections and relationships.

Anveshan is an initiative that aims at ‘Sourcing inner wisdom to create a paradigm shift in education systemand curates river journeys that begin at the river origin and traverses along its course to reach the point where the river meets the sea. In the words of Anita Pathak, the founder of Anveshan, “The idea is to learn from the course of a river and the communities and settlements around the river. The river is the guru (teacher)”. Disturbed by the current education system and our depleting natural environment, Anita felt that nature and communities were the best learning platforms and the course of a river offers both. The outer journey takes the participant into an inner journey and raises questions about the self, the surroundings and one’s role in society (4). So far they have been on the course of Ganga, Narmada and Kaveri. 

Travellers University in India is another initiative that believes the whole world is a learning ground and that personal experiences invoke one’s innate curiosity which is fundamental for education. This initiative has programs that involve group as well as solo travels. Going slow helps us experience what nature has to offer and helps connect with people, understand the reality of the common people. According to Rahul Karanpuriya the key ideator of Travellers University, travelling questions many of our prejudices, beliefs and convictions. Rahul himself has been a solo traveller and has travelled long distances on his cycle. He travelled to various parts of the country to learn from 52 people engaged in sustainable living practices. He made a documentary series called 52 Parindey, based on his experiences and interviews (5). Ashik Krishnan, a self directed learner and now a team member at Traveller’s University, was disappointed by the education system. He planned a 100 day journey to various alternate education initiatives in India with the support of Traveller’s University.  Saptarshi, a khoji (explorer) at Swaraj University hitchhikes through his way and usually goes with the flow. He often takes rides from tempo, truck drivers, motorcycles, bullock carts, tractors etc. His initiative Homeout Traveller is about travelling and meeting new people, new places and living sustainably. It focuses on community, reclaiming life and moving out of consumerism.

Sheetal Sanghvi, founder of the Urban Ashram (6) organizes informal  journeys that go with the flow. They usually have a start point and an end point planned (mainly for practical purposes) but what happens in between these two points is unplanned.Their journeys are designed around traditional pilgrimages’ – they purposefully undertake a little difficulty to get out of comfort zone, moving along slowly in order to  learn. 

Vimukta Shisha Yatras planned as thematic exposure trips aim at providing a glimpse into the various experiments happening specifically around the field of alternative education and learning. The program is typically a journey of 7-10 days to 5-10 project locations with the intention of learning & unlearning, collective dreaming, reclaiming and re-imagining education. While visits to projects are planned, the group gets ample space for discussions, debates and conversations around ‘education and learning’. Being with a group of co-travellers passionate about the subject is important for collectively processing the experiences and building future partnerships.

Travel Dirty Excursions (7) aim at exposures to various ways of living and sustainable living practices. Aishwarya Phadke curates experiences that urge the participants to slow down, connect with nature and experience the simplicity of things staying true to her mission, “to remind people of the simple bare necessities of life.” Travel Dirty plans experiences in villages, forests, farms and mountains. According to Aishwarya, “irrespective of where you go, what you do there matters. Sightseeing is replaced by community work, selfies are replaced by conversations with the locals and mindless fun is replaced by mindful relaxation” (8).

Cycle yatras have become a ritual at Swaraj University (9) where all the cohorts travel in groups of 15-20 on cycles for a week without their mobile phones and without money. The idea is to come out of one’s comfort zone, overcome fear and trust the local communities and the universe. They are required to offer their labour for some food and a space to sleep. Such yatras are also conducted by Traveller’s University and the Swapathgami network (10).  

Some initiatives are planned with a larger purpose of spreading political awareness. Jai Jagat 2020 (11) is a march for peace and justice undertaken to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The group will travel on foot through 10 countries with nonviolence training and events on key justice themes along the way. They will be joined with separate marches starting from a number of countries in Europe and northwest Africa as well as delegates from around the world. The aim is to urge the implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a dialogue with UN agencies in Geneva. 

 International initiatives such as Think Camp  (12) organize learning journeys and hiking dialogues with the purpose of asking one key question to its participants, “What do I really, really like to do with my life, for myself, for society and for the planet?”. The hiking dialogues are also centered around social concerns and topics such as gender, religion, environment, sustainability, and ethical awareness. Their current approach emerged from the insights of the “Caravan of Change 2013”, a learning journey passing through 18 European countries. 


Travellers University focuses on three different kinds of travel – exposure travels, experiential travels and Self directed learning journeys. According to Rahul, all three kinds have some element of the other, but the main flavour differentiates them. While exposure and experiential travels are usually curated journeys, self directed journeys are planned by the traveller. Swaraj yatra explores Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj and exposes the group to Gandhian philosophy and experiments based on these ideas. 

Transit 42 is a 6 week travel experiment curated by Traveller’s University for young adults to explore, experience and expand one’s head, heart and hands in this world of infinite possibilities. The group travels through four states (Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala) from West India and engages with local experiments to address global problems, explore diversity and build perspective on the current happenings and future possibilities. Expanding one’s heart to understanding one’s own patterns of life and taking control of how one’s life shapes. Expanding one’s hands and explore the interconnectedness with nature and one another (13).

Anita’s river journeys include processes that take you from an outer experience into your inner self. The outer experience would be seeing places, talking to academicians, activists, local community, community leaders etc. “The inner journey is about understanding how the outer experience has impacted on you.”  These processes help a participant understand how an experience has impacted on the self and supports the participant to untangle thoughts and feelings and understand the experience in the light of beliefs and opinions.

Vimukta Shiksha Yatra on the other hand believes in giving a lot of free time for the participants to converse, share, discuss and debate within the  group or to spend time within oneself. According to Harsh Wardhan (curator), “ informal chats play a big role in our inward journey. They help people talk and share without time constraints. Also people decide whom they want to talk to and how they want to reflect. Some people like to reflect by writing in their journal or by spending time with the self at a quiet spot. Their itinerary thus includes one or two visits during the day and ample free time.”

Common to all these initiatives are the morning circle and the end of day reflection. Sheetal Sanghvi calls these the ‘checkin and checkout circles’. “You check in the morning to see how everybody is feeling. It is a space where the group shares their morning thoughts and feelings. The group also discusses concerns and issues, problem solves and shares the plan for the day. Morning rituals also include prayers, meditation, yoga and processes where you prepare for the day ahead. The checkout session usually focuses on the immediate reflections of the day and light hearted sharing through songs, stories, poems, artwork and winding down exercises.  

Participant led sessions too find a spot in such initiatives. These sessions led by the participants could be anything from playing a game, or singing songs, or learning some art or craft or cooking together to having a discussion or debate or leading a small excursion within the travel. During the Vimukta Shiksha Yatra I attended recently, one of the participants led the paragliding experience. A few of us led a session on sharing personal stories from our own life. “The group traveling together are co-creators. So any of my co-traveller can voice and share thoughts and ideas and since we do not have a rigid plan or itinerary, the group together decides the next days course of action”, shared Sheetal Sanghvi. 

All these initiatives have an ever evolving program with new processes and new activities being added each time. Sometimes, something that a participant brings in adds up as a new ritual. The more you get to know the community and more the trust that develops between you and them, the richer are the experiences, says Aishwarya. Sheetal Sanghvi noted that “every time you visit a place, there is a different newness to it. There is something new for you to soak in and understand and hence no two experiences can be the same”.

Orientation to the travel and open discussion on expectations, certain dos and don’ts and being sensitive to the community’s needs also forms an important part of the travel. Rahul shared that they have a ‘no drugs, no alcohol’ policy. Similarly, discussions around clothing, eating packaged foods, appropriate disposal of waste and keeping the spirit of the community are important. In spite of orientations and discussions, the initiatives face challenges around being sensitive to the needs of the community. Such challenges are also considered learning moments and are dealt using dialogue and reflection. 

The 4-M philosophy of ‘Think Camp’ sums up most of what all these initiatives do:

  • Moving – to move with your body, thoughts and mind
  • Meeting – to meet and understand other people; lead profound dialogs and share ideas and experience
  • Making – co-create a sustainable future and implement eco-social innovations
  • Multiply – sharing experience, insights, knowledge and information openly. Use creative commons


Logistics in such initiatives are an essential part of the program and is not just ‘arrangements for food, accomodation and travel’. The idea is to stay amidst local communities or at the visiting projects. Homestays, ashrams, school or community halls or NGO spaces, dormitories and camping grounds are preferred to hotels and resorts. “During my cycle yatra, I prefered to be hosted by the local families”- shared Rahul. The meals comprise of local food and at times are prepared by the participants themselves. It has become a ritual that one meal is prepared by the participants shared Aishwarya. Cooking together is a great time for conversations and bonding. The participants are encouraged to help in the kitchen, in keeping the space clean and tidy. 

Since slowing down, meeting the local communities, and soaking in the surrounding is the agenda for most of the initiatives, the chosen mode of travel enhances the achievement of this goal. Local buses and trains are preferred over private cars and luxury buses. Wherever possible one walks or cycles. “It is unfortunate that rivers in India are not used as waterways.” shared Anita. Walking is a key part of the pilgrimages facilitated by Sheetal. According to him when you slow down, you can look around and your vision and perspective expands. Once you select your path, you can speed up a little. But until then being slow is important. 

The duration of these experiences could be anywhere between a half day visit to a year long journey. On an average most experiences are planned for a minimum of ten to fifteen days. Anita shared that the duration of the river journeys depend on the length of the river – the Ganga yatra is usually completed in around 18 to 20 days, a narmada yatra takes fifteen days. Vimukta Shiksha Yatras are for seven to ten days. Duration of a solo travel depends on the plan made by the traveller. There is a lot more flexibility in solo travel. Rahul started his cycle yatra with plans to complete 100 kms, but continued after the schedule was complete and covered 1000 kms. Ashik took a halt in his 100 day plan and went to his hometown to help people affected by the flood . He resumed his journey about a month later.

The idea is to go with a minimal footprint during these journeys and all these initiatives request participants to travel light, wash and reuse their clothes and use little or no money. Some of the initiatives such as Anveshan, travel dirty, traveller’s university, Vimukt Shiksha calculate an amount for the participants to contribute toward lodging – boarding and local travel. They either use a ‘sliding scale model’ (14) or offer scholarships to a few who cannot afford to pay. Solo travellers usually create a budget for their travel. Rahul had created a budget less than 2000 USD for his year long travel for his project 52 Parindey and spent much less than this amount. Sheetal shared that they have never fixed any amount for their journeys. “Sometimes the expenses are shared, sometimes the participants take care of their own expenses and sometimes one participant spends on a meal and another one spends on the next meal. Everything is flexible during their journeys.”


Participants of a travel experience hold a key place in how the journey unfolds. While some programs such as transit 42 of Travellers University are developed with a specific age group in mind. Some others are open to a variety of people and include people of different ages and backgrounds. Vimukta Shiksha Yatra welcomes families, parents, single parents along with their children. Though Anveshan states that the river journeys are for young adults between the age group 16 to 28, they are open to younger children joining the journey if accompanied by a parent or adult family member. The general idea is that anyone who can take care of the self and the individual needs can attend such travel experience. Saptrishi was only seventeen when he traveled from his hometown in Bengal to Darjeeling on a cycle.


When I recall my experience in 1999, I recall the moment that transformed me. So far in the two years of my master’s programme, I felt that I was privileged and  tribal communities were underprivileged. They were poor and uneducated and needed to be uplifted. I had everything and they did not. I understood social work as a charity and a means to my livelihood. When I spent time in this tribal home – something shifted in me,  I started to better understand  reality and I started asking deeper questions around – who decides what is good or bad? Who and why were they earmarked as the have nots. Who says that what we have is the best? Why is empowerment or upliftment based on parameters set by those who are the haves?’.I also started asking questions around what is development? I looked at the tribal development schemes around education and livelihood and questioned whether this was the need of the tribals or the need of the city dweller.

Rahul from Travellers University shared that during his first journey without money, he had to stay with a muslim family. He wasn’t averse to Muslim and in fact did have muslim friends – but felt that he couldn’t eat at their homes – as they were non vegetarians. But staying with them and witnessing their warm hospitality, he got over this belief and saw the love they put when  cooking him a meal. 

These experiences throw you out of your comfort zone. In the words of Aneeta – they bring the worst and the best out of you. The reflection processes and sharing sessions aim at facilitating the inward journey of the participants. It helps them process their experience and the thoughts and feelings. Someone once told me that you win the biggest battle when you overcome the fear of the unknown and ask for help. It takes effort to knock on a door and ask for a place to stay or for food to eat. 

Saptrishi from Swaraj University shared once he got over his initial fear, he found many friends hitchhiking amongst truck drivers. They are a universe of knowledge. They know everything about roads and the climatic conditions. They know where to stop for food, where to find fuel and also the dangerous zones. It is also a humbling experience to know about their family lives. We see them on the move all the time – but they have a home too- shared Saptrishi. 

In Rahul’s words, “I found abundance and I found love during all my travels. Contrary to our notions, people are helpful and are willing to support you.” Once a small boy started crying when he saw him struggling with a tyre puncture. He not only took Rahul to his home and asked his mother to make tea, but also took eleven rupees from his piggy bank and assured Rahul that he would collect the rest of the money from his friends. This little boy did all this to ensure that Rahul’s puncture was repaired.

Major transformation took place in Aishwarya when she realised that life happened outside of her plan to study hard, become a lawyer and save the world. She realised that she was the happiest outside that plan – mostly when she traveled. Her horizons widened and the world expanded and she felt there were no boundaries. Experiencing a new way of life everywhere she went (even about 20kms away from home) her mind opened up to accept people for what they are, their simplicity and warm hospitality. It made her humble and showed her what really matters.

Ashik Krishnan became very conscious of the disposables he used during his hundred day solo journey. He made simple changes in his living style – carried tiffins and a bottle he could refill at railway stations and bus stops, use of public transport, hand towels and kerchiefs instead of tissues. He thereby became more and more aware of his responsibility to take care of the abundance that nature and communities have to offer. Like him travellers have made changes in their ways of living – using less non biodegradable goods, disposing waste appropriately, using environmentally friendly products such as natural soaps, selecting organic options and local food options over processed foods, adopting a minimalist lifestyle, becoming more and more conscious of one’s needs vis a vis wants. 

Sensitivity to the culture and practices of the community also develop as our minds open up and our visions broaden. When I stayed with the tribal family, it was very touching to see the family go out of its way to cook a meal that included chapatis. The family doesn’t usually eat chapati, but makes littis (roasted wheat balls) whenever they could afford to buy wheat flour. With tears in our eyes me and my co-mate shared that we would eat whatever they ate. I was conscious of the way the children stared at me. I was thankful for being instructed to wear simple cotton salwar kurtas and not any western wear during my stay. Just as I was curious about their ways of living, they were also curious about mine. They wanted to know about Mumbai lifestyle. I was surprised that the women didn’t know where Mumbai was. However, now I realise that I wasn’t aware of this tiny tribal settlement either until I got the opportunity to spend time there. They didn’t know much about Mumbai, and until now I didn’t know anything about them. 

From Rahul, who wants to spread the impact that travel had on him to many others, to Saptrishi who wants to sensitize people about the lives of truck drivers, to Anita who passionately believes that river journeys have a transformational potential, to Aishwarya who believes that travel makes us humble and responsible, the scope of the impact of using travel as a tool in learning and change is immense. As Satish Kumar has rightly said, “the significant realization of a pilgrimage is in the consciousness that the whole of the Earth is a sacred site. The sacred Earth is a gracious host to all pilgrims – but are we prepared to be gracious pilgrim guests, rather than mere tourists?”

Sharmila Govande

Sharmila Govande, is an unschooling mom to three children. She has a postgraduate degree in Social Work and worked with NGOs on child and youth development issues before becoming a teacher at her children’s school. Disappointed by the formal schooling system, she adopted an unschooling lifestyle after teaching for eight long years. At present, she is busy exploring her own passion in writing, doodling and dotting apart from supporting her children’s life journey. She shares her writings through her blog and her doodle and dot art on her Facebook page


  1. College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan (batch 1997 – 1999)
  2. Personal interview with Rahul Karanpuriya, founder Traveller’s University

  3. Satish Kumar – is an Indian British activist and editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. He has been a Jain monk and nuclear disarmament advocate. He is the cofounder of Schumacher College in the UK.
  4.  Personal interview of Aneeta Pathak, founder of Anveshan.

  6. The Urban Ashram, an urban oasis in the heart of the city of Pune, is dedicated to the work of inner transformation. It is a space where community gathers regularly for yoga, inspiring talks by incredible pilgrims, giftivism projects such as a book library and hand crafted wisdom crafts, inspirational movie nights as well as musical nights by traveling artists among other activities.Sheetal Sanghvi, the founder of this space considers himself as a pilgrim on his way back home to the source.

  8. Personal interview with Aishwarya Phadke of Travel Dirty 

  14. Sliding scale pricing provides a service or product with multiple price points. These price points are set to make the service or product accessible to people with different levels of income, so that financial resources need not be a barrier to a person’s ability to access a product or service.

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