views updated


CIRCUMAMBULATION is a ritual term meaning literally "to walk a circle around" a holy place, person, or object. Such rituals are related to the widespread significance of the sacred circle, which is the architectural ground plan and ideational scheme of such monuments as the stupa, such cities as Banaras and Jerusalem, and such ritual constructions as the medicine lodges and Sun Dance lodges of the North American Plains Indians. Thus, this topic is related to that of the sacred circle or the maala and is its ritual extension. One walks around what is set apart, circumscribed as charged or sacred; one might even say that circumambulation sets something apart by circumscribing it with one's own body. It is also to be noted that circumambulation, as a rite of both centering and bonding, is related in some ways to the many types of circle dancing such as the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians, the maypole dances of the British Isles, and the circular dances and marches of the Shakers; such dance forms, however, will not be discussed here.

Circumambulation is a fundamental rite of orientation, and is often thought of as a human repetition of the apparent movement of the sun. The Lakota would walk "sunwise" around a fire or a ritual arena. The sense of this direction as the natural order also appears in Hindu ritual texts such as the Śatapatha Brāhmaa and the Ghyasūtras, which speak of the sunwise movement of ritual performance in rites meant to secure the blessings of the gods. This sunwise circling is known as pradakia, "going to the right." Pradakia around the sacred fire or the teacher, and later around the temple, became an act of centering and honoring in the Hindu tradition.

In Native American and Hindu traditions, as in many others, reversing the direction of circling was considered a reversal of the natural order and was associated with catastrophe or death. This circling to the left, contrary to the apparent course of the sun, was called prasavya in the Hindu tradition and was associated with the left hand and with rites for the dead, for the ancestors, and for the nāga s, or serpents. Anticipating or recovering from disasters, the Lakota circle counterclockwise after the fashion of the "thunder beings," whose movement, unlike that of the sun, is antinatural. In sixteenth-century England this turning in an unnatural direction came to be called widdershins and was associated with danger, magic, and witches.

In the Hindu tradition today, pradakia is simultaneously an act of taking a place, deity, or person as one's center and of honoring that center, keeping it ever on the side of the auspicious right hand. The most concise pradakia honoring the sacred place on which one stands, is simply to turn all the way around in place, as pilgrims do at the very southern tip of India at Kanyā Kumārī. The most extensive is the pradakia of the entire subcontinent of India, from the north at Badrināth, to the east at Purī, to the south at Rāmeśvaram, to the west at Dvārakā (Dwarka), and back to the north again. One of India's great rivers, the Narmadā of central India, has a traditional circumambulation in which pilgrims, beginning wherever they wish, walk its entire length of 801 miles from Amarakanaka to the Bay of Cambay and back again. Mountains too are circumambulated, as in the well-known routes around Kailāsa in the Himalayan north, Arunācala in the Tamil country of the south, and Kamadgiri and Govardhan in the northern sanctums of Rāma and Ka, respectively. Many of India's sacred cities also have pradakia routes, the best known being the Pañcakrośī pradakia of the city of Banaras (modern-day Varanasi). This sacred circuit of the city takes pilgrims five days to perform, passing 108 shrines along the way and circumscribing with their footsteps the perimeter of the sacred zone of the city where simply to die is to attain moka ("liberation").

More common, however, is simply the pradakia of the sanctum sanctorum, the garbhagha, in a Hindu temple. Depending upon the size of the temple, the pilgrim will circumambulate either the entire complex or merely the inner courts before approaching the deity for darśana. There may be several circumambulatories, which usually will include their own circuit of ancillary shrines. In some popular temples, especially in the North, this is a very "close" circumambulation, with the devout running their hands along the temple walls, frequently stopping to touch the place at the back of the temple nearest the image of the divine inside. In the South, however, especially in Kerala and Karnātaka, there are often circumambulatory markers, outside of which the honorific circuit must be made, at a respectful distance of several feet from the temple itself.

The circumambulation of a center also formed a strong part of the early Buddhist tradition of worship, especially the circling of the stupa with its hemispherical dome, originally said to house a relic of the Buddha. The dome of the stupa, called the aa ("egg"), was said to have cosmic significance as the dome of heaven: the smaller superstructure on top was Mount Meru, and the surmounting umbrellas signaled the Buddha's world-kingship. The entire stupa was surrounded by a fence, with gates in the four principal directions. Between the fence and the aa was a pradakiapatha, a circumambulatory path. Very often, as in the case of the stupa of Amaravati in the Andhra area of India, there was an upper circumambulatory of the aa itself, with its own enclosing rail. The famous stupa of Borobudur in Java was built in nine levels, with a circumambulatory around each of the lower six levels that took the pilgrim not only around the stupa but also past bas-reliefs depicting the earthly life, the previous lives, and the instructive deeds of the Buddha.

The circling of the stupa, called the chedi in modern Thailand, continues as a common part of festival rituals. In the evening during the Thai celebration of Viśākha Pūjā (the day of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death) monks and laity circle the chedi three times, holding lighted candles. Other festival days are marked with a similar threefold circumambulation.

The divine also circumambulates, reaffirming the sacred claim upon the territory circumscribed by the route. In Sri Lanka, for example, the annual procession of the relic from the Temple of the Tooth takes a circumambulatory route through the city of Kandy. In South India, such annual circuits of the gods are common. During the Chittarai festival in Madurai, for example, when the goddess Mīnākī moves in her giant chariot through the concentric rectangular circumambulatory streets of the city, she reclaims the four directions as her own.

In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the story of Joshua's siege of Jericho displays the power of the Lord in encircling the city. For six days Joshua's army, led by the ark of the covenant and seven priests with seven trumpets of rams' horns, made one circuit a day around the city; on the seventh day they made seven circuits and the city wall fell (Jos. 6). In the later tradition, circumambulatory circuits (haqqafot ) are performed both to mark holy ground and, it would seem, to remember the power of the Lord that was with the children of Israel in the siege of Jericho.

The most festive haqqafot take place during the Feast of Booths, Sukkot, when those present make seven ceremonial circuits carrying the festal bouquet of willow branches and lemons around the altar in the synagogue. In the time of Philo Judaeus the procession, like that of Joshua, took place once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh. At Simat Torah, haqqafot are performed with the scrolls of the Torah being carried around the synagogue.

Christian worship has tended to focus the attention of the worshiper directionally toward the east or vertically toward the vaulting heavens, rather than inward toward an encompassed center. Even so, Christian architecture displays a tension between the center, which can be circumambulated, and the "transcendent" or the "east," which cannot. In the Middle Ages, churches were built with ambulatories to facilitate the movement of pilgrims through the church and around the altar, beneath which or near which a relic was enshrined. Circumambulation is an important part of pilgrimages, such as that of Saint Patrick's Purgatory on an islet in Lough Derg in Ireland, where pilgrims walk around the basilica four times, saying seven decades of the rosary beads. In the Christian tradition, as in others as well, circumambulation is often part of rites of consecration. For instance, when the new basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City was consecrated in 1976, the consecrating procession circled the building sprinking it with sanctified water, anointing it with holy oil, and fumigating it with incense.

The Muslim ājj has the circumambulation (awāf) of the Kaʿbah as one of its central rites. The original meaning of ājj is "to describe a circle," and this circling of the Kaʿbah is a pre-Islamic rite, said to have been done naked, a practice that was prohibited by the Prophet. Here the circles are made with the left side, said to be the side of the heart facing toward the sacred Kaʿbah. The awāf consists of seven circuits of the Kaʿbah. The full pilgrimage contains three awāfs: the initial awāf on arrival, which is part of the ordinary ʾumrah, or lesser pilgrimages; a awāf on return from the journey to Arafat; and a farewell awāf before leaving.

The awāf is interpreted in a spiritual way by theologians such as al-Ghazālī, who describes awāf as a form of prayer. awāf is not merely the circling of the body around the Kaʿbah but the circling of the heart around God. In doing awāf, the faithful are like the angels circling the throne of God. Some Sūfīs were believed to have reached such a high peak that the Kaʿbah came to circumambulate them, and not they the Kaʿbah.

In many traditions, circumambulation is associated not only with places of holiness or of worship, but also with life-cycle rites. Marriage rites often involve circling, since a wedding is preeminently a rite of bonding and union. In some traditional Jewish communities, the bride makes either three or seven haqqafot around the groom at the wedding. The circling establishes a common world for the couple. Roman weddings, for instance, called for the circling of the bride and groom around the family altar. In the Agni Pradakia rite of the Hindu marriage, the bride follows the groom three times around the sacred fire, her sari tied to his dhoti. The rite immediately precedes the "seven steps," the legal culmination of the marriage ceremony. Interestingly, this rite repeats the groom's three circuits around the sacred fire during his initiation rite, the Upanayana, just before he received the sacred Sāvitrī mantra from the gurū and thus established the primary bond of his years of education.

In addition to being a rite of honoring, centering, and bonding, circumambulation also can set apart what is circumscribed. This is especially the case for the "dangerous holy," that is, the dead. Both the dead and places associated with the dead are circumambulated, sometimes counterclockwise, as a protective or apotropaic rite to keep the spheres of the living and dead apart.

In the Sephardic and Hasidic traditions of Judaism, seven haqqafot are made around a cemetery prior to burial. It has also been the custom in Ireland, Holland, Germany, and elsewhere in northern Europe to carry the casket in procession three times, sunwise, around the cemetery before burial. According to the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, five hundred of the Buddha's disciples circled his body before his cremation pyre was lit. The Hindu cremation rite today begins as the chief mourner, usually the eldest son, circles the pyre four times counterclockwise, carrying the flaming bundle of sacred kuśa grass and touching the body symbolically with each round, finally lighting the pyre at the head. In Buddhist Thailand as well the body is circumambulated three times before the cremation. In the case of a king or member of the royal family, a special palace-mountain pavilion called the phra meru is built for the cremation. On arrival, the body is borne around the phra meru three times, uttaravatta, in a "left-hand direction," before being placed upon the elaborate pyre. While the threefold circumambulation in the Buddhist tradition ordinarily marks reverence for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Samgha, here it is said to remind the living of the three wearisome worlds of sasāra that of earth, of heaven, and of hell.

See Also

Circle; Maalas; Pilgrimage, article on Muslim Pilgrimage.


Heiler, Friedrich. Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion. Stuttgart, 1961.

Pandey, Raj Bali. Hindu Saśkāras. 2d rev. ed. Delhi, 1969. A description of the major saskāra s, or sacraments from birth to death of the Hindu Brahmanical tradition.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York, 1978. An anthropological study of Christian pilgrimages, looking at both Mexican and Irish pilgrimages as well as Marian pilgrimages in other countries.

Von Grunebaum, G. E. Muhammadan Festivals. New York, 1951. A discussion of Muslim worship, including the rites of the pilgrimage to Mecca, the ājj.

Wells, Kenneth E. Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities (1939). Reprint, Bangkok, 1960. A study of daily, weekly, and yearly Buddhist rites and festivals in Thailand, with discussions of major life crisis rites such as ordination to the monastic order and funerals.

New Sources

Deegan, Chris. "The Narmada: Circumambulation of a Sacred Landscape." In Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, pp. 389400. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Nakamura, Susumu. "Pradakshiā, A Buddhist Form of Obeisance." In Semitic and Oriental Studies: A Volume Presented to William Popper on the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, edited by Walter J. Fischel, pp. 345354. Berkeley, 1951.

Peters, Francis. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, 1994.

Sudhi, Padma. "An Encyclopaedic Study on Circumambulation." Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 65, nos. 14 (1984): 205226.

Diana L. Eck (1987)

Revised Bibliography