The book outlines the origin and development of the practice of pilgrimage in India between AD 300 and 1200 and draws extensively on epigraphic and literary data particularly the Puranic corpus to delineate the growing popularity of the ritual, spatially and chronologically.
Viewing religion as part of the social process, it seeks to explore linkages between new religious trends and changes taking place in the material conditions of life. Although there are a few references to pilgrimage centres in inscriptions of the early second century, the number of these destinations rapidly multiplied from the fourth-fifth centuries, coinciding meaningfully with widespread decay and desertion of urban places.
In an age of political disintegration and social insularity religious congregations served as the nucleus of cultural bonding. Alongside of decaying towns cult-sites relating to forests, hill tracts, deserts, river banks, sea-coasts, crossroads all surfaced as pilgrimage centres of some sort, with an attendant increase in the number of myths and legends sanctifying these places with the emergence of temple as the focal point of social processes, even large villages and marginal political centres also emerged as places of pilgrimage. A thrust area of the ritual was the changing nature of the gift-exchange system. Gifts, largely agricultural goods and inputs during the Gupta and post-Gupta times were necessary if one wished to acquire religious merit and drive away the impurities of deeds and thoughts entailing loss of social status. Charities, performed at the sacred places, were considered all the more beneficial.
The idea, that religious merit ensured a comfortable afterlife and that dying in places sanctified by God and God-men brought instant religious merit, encouraged the practice of committing self-immolation at the holiest of pilgrimage centres.