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SHRINES are places or containers of religious presence. One of the distinctive features of religion is that its objects do not "exist" in the ordinary sense of the word. Deity, spirit, soul, afterlife, and other familiar categories of religion lie outside the realms of everyday objects in time and space. However, human beings across multiple cultures experience the presence of these religious realities at particular times and places and in relation to material objects. Much of the work of shrines is to provide habitations for sacred presences within the everyday world. As places having a particular shape and materiality, shrines give particular density to complex sets of religious associations, memories, moods, expectations, and communities. Shrines may be seen as sites of condensation of more dispersed religious realities, places where meanings take on specific, tangible, and tactile presence.

The English word shrine is derived from the Latin scrinium, meaning a box or receptacle. The shrine is the receptacle within the material world for the religious association that believers experience when they come into the presence of these receptacles. Many shrines are unambiguously religious, linking events, persons, and places central to religious traditions. Mecca (Saudi Arabia), Jerusalem (Israel), Canterbury (United Kingdom), Nara (Japan), and Varanasi (or Benares, India) are sites that immediately come to mind as centers of religious density, hosting many places of sacred value to various religious communities. Other shrines may be more open-ended, not tied to particular religious traditions but linked strongly to a particular regional or national identity. In the United States, for example, sites such as Niagara Falls or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draw pilgrim-tourists out of motivations and meanings that may be closely tied to religious ones.

Shrines and Sacred Persons

Shrines are often associated with the physical remains of persons understood to have been exemplary in spiritual attainment. The bones and teeth of the body of the Buddha that remained after his cremation have become objects of great veneration because they enable the devotee to link the meaning of the Buddha's message (dharma ) with the trace of his physical presence in the world. In medieval Europe, fragments of wood believed to have been part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified took on a similar status of veneration. In South Asia the graves (dargahs ) of Muslim saints serve as centers of access to spiritual presence for Muslims and non-Muslims because they are understood to be magnets for transformative power from which the devotee may draw for various life-enhancing purposes such as health, wealth, and success in the ordinary world. Across much of the landscape of Europe, Christian shrines from the medieval and early modern periods located within or near churches contain the graves of saints and martyrs, persons who exemplified the highest achievement of religious values.

In Durham Cathedral in the north of England, the body of Saint Cuthbert (635?687), a preacher, healer, and leader, lies behind the altar. When the cathedral was completed in 1104 and Saint Cuthbert's body was exhumed, it was reported that the body had not decomposed. Hence, the deceased but intact body, located in close proximity to the altar, reinforces the Christian belief in the resurrection of the exemplary leader of the church, whose body remains suspended between a natural deceased state and a transformed resurrected state. The cathedral, and the shrine to Saint Cuthbert within it, marks a place for Christians where the religious configuration of reality overtakes ordinary experience. A visit to the site reinforces the pilgrims' hopes and confidence in their religious commitments.

A secular version of a shrine and sacred persons may be seen in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Located on the Mall (the open corridor that extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial) the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a simple, black marble, V-shaped wall that gradually extends down from ground level to a depth of six feet. Visitors file past the wall, descending to grave depth and then ascending back to ground level as they see the names of the 58,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War. The polished black marble serves as a mirror to those who gaze at the wall reading the names even as they see their own reflections. The Vietnam Memorial carries no explicitly religious symbolism. Instead, its minimalist aesthetic creates an open space for grief and awe into which visitors may bring their own religious understandings. While the shrine is not located on the site of the events commemorated, it is located on the site of the nation's center, symbolized by the markers of its progenitors: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. In this way the particular meanings of the Vietnam War's history reside surrounded by the associations of national identity and the collective sense of the "soul" of America.

Shrines as Thresholds between Nature and Culture

In some religious traditions, shrines may be located at important intersections of nature and culture. In the north of India, for example, shrines at Yamunotri and Gangotri mark the places where the two sacred rivers, the Yamuna and the Ganga (Ganges) emerge from the Himalayan glacier and begin their descent to the sea. These temples house the images of the goddesses and link them to the rivers that are their embodied forms in the world. Hence, pilgrims make the arduous journey to the sources of these rivers in order to fulfill vows of devotion and to be in the presence of the goddesses at their most primordial moments of appearance in the ordinary world. At the temples, Hindu priests provide a variety of ritual services and record the visits of pilgrims in temple archives.

In the United States, some extraordinary geological sites have taken on a religious or quasi-religious significance for visitors. Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks offer sites that fit into an American sensibility about nature that endows it with religious meaning. The National Park Service, an administrative unit of the federal government, maintains access to these natural sites. While no specific religious meaning within a particular tradition is referred to, the pamphlets and brochures published for visitors evoke the language of awe and reverence that resembles more traditional religion.

Shrines as Markers of Historical Significance

Events occur in particular places, and events that later take on meaning for religious communities become important sites for shrines. For Jews the remaining wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce, remains a sacred place of pilgrimage. To stand at the wall, facing the temple, for prayer and meditation brings additional intensity for Jews as they remember the sacred history and the hope for the coming of the Messiah. Visitors write prayers on small pieces of paper, roll them up, and place them in the cracks between the stones. It is said that all prayers placed there will be answered. Close by is the Muslim shrine called "The Dome of the Rock," an octagonal structure built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691. The site marks the place where the Prophet Muammad ascended into heaven. For Muslims, visiting and praying at the shrine connects them to the person of the Prophet. A bit farther away is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the site of Jesus' burial and resurrection. Pilgrims often walk the streets through Jerusalem that are said to be the route Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa, and end their journey at this church. Such a journey enables the pilgrims to take the story of Jesus into a temporal and spatial intensity by being in the places where these events that have become formational for Christian religious identity occurred.

Shrines may also mark places where one religious history displaces another. In the town of Chimayó in northern New Mexico, there is a small church, El Sanctuario de Chimayó, which has become an important pilgrimage center for Spanish-speaking Americans and Native Americans. The foundational story is that in the early nineteenth century a Spanish peasant, Bernardo Abeyta, came across a healing site used by the local Tewa Indians. The site consisted of a hole within a rock surface that was filled with dirt. As he passed by, a white light that came out of the hole blinded Abeyta. Then there appeared a crucifix of Christ that resembled one that was venerated in Guatemala. Abeyta took the crucifix to the nearest church, but miraculously the cross returned to the site where Abeyta had found it. Subsequently, Abeyta and a group of Catholic laymen established a shrine there. Over the following two centuries, El Sanctuario has become an important pilgrimage and healing center. During Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, thousands of pilgrims walk the road to Chimayó, many fulfilling vows for having been healed. In a room next to the sanctuary there is a display of prosthetic devices, photographs, letters, and works of art presented by grateful devotees. The hole that contains the sacred healing dirt, El Posito, remains an important part of the pilgrims' journey, for pilgrims gather a handful of the dirt to carry back home. The site combines Catholic traditions of saint veneration and pilgrimage with a Native American emphasis on healing power that comes from the earth itself.

A site of a very different sort that has taken on characteristics of a shrine is the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, in Poland. During World War II the Nazi regime set up many sites for mass extermination of Jews and others by applying the modern technology of gas chambers and crematoria. Many Jews and others have made visits to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the camps, to come face-to-face with the place of horror that took so many lives. Many groups of Jewish young adults make pilgrimage visits to Auschwitz and other sites of Jewish life in eastern Europe that were destroyed during the Holocaust and complete their journey in Israel. In this way the groups move together through the historical nightmare of the recent past and enter into the place of present and future hope for the Jewish people as a community bound together by religiously shaped memory and anticipation.

Shrines as Centers of Service and Commerce

Because shrines anchor the worlds of religious belief and material location, they frequently double as centers that provide various services and commodities. Shrines associated with sacred substances may offer medical and therapeutic as well as spiritual services. In the southwest of France, a healing center grew up around the site of a natural spring where a young woman had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. The shrine at Lourdes has become a major center in which religious and medical services are provided for pilgrims.

Indeed, stalls and shops surround many shrines, with vendors offering ritual supplies, food, and memorabilia that enable the visitor to perform important ceremonial obligations and take away mementos of the experience. In India, family descendants of a saint whose shrine has become a center of pilgrimage are frequently the heirs to the income from donations and sales of commodities at the site. In this way the shrine provides for both the religious and material benefit of the descendants.

Shrines as Destinations

An important function shrines serve is to provide points of destination to groups of pilgrims who join together on the road and forge temporary bonds of solidarity under the umbrella of shared beliefs and attitudes. The shrine may be located at the end of the road, or a network of shrines may serve as nodal points along the way, but often the migration of the pilgrims is as important, or more so, than the shrine itself. Pilgrims may walk for several days to reach a shrine, only to stay just a few hours. The journey may be more important than the destination, yet without the destination and what lies waiting for the pilgrims' arrival the journey would have no compelling rationale.

The examples discussed here suggest some of the ways in which shrines occupy the location between the worlds of religious belief and understanding and the material, spatial, and economic aspects of life. As places grounded solidly in the natural and constructed world of material objects, the shrine also grounds the more elusive and other-worldly dimensions of religion, the dimensions that lie beyond, in the realms of belief, longing, and wonder.

See Also

Center of the World; Jerusalem, overview article; Pilgrimage; Relics.


Martin Robinson, Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths: An Anthology of Pilgrimage (London, 1997) provides a general overview of shrines and pilgrimages. Studies of shrines are often located within the frameworks of presentations of particular religions. For India, see Surindrer Bhardwaj, Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), and Roy Burmah, The Hindu-Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities. (New Delhi, 2002). For Christian shrines, Linda Lehrhaupt, Pilgrimage in Modern Ireland (New York, 1990); National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Shrines and Places of Pilgrimage in the United States (Washington, D.C., 1992); and Sidney Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989). For Jewish tradition, there is Sidra Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (Berkeley, Calif., 2000). For natural objects as shrines, see Patrick V. McGreevy, Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls (Amherst, Mass., 1994). A detailed consideration of theories of shrines can be found in Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago, 1987). For useful collections of essays on shrines in popular culture, see Ian Reader, ed., Pilgrimage in Popular Culture. (Houndmills, U.K., 1993). An excellent treatment of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. as a pilgrimage site, see Raymond Michalowski and Jill Dubisch Run for the Wall: Remembering Vietnam on a Motorcycle Pilgrimage (New Brunswick, N.J., 2001).

Paul B. Courtright (1987 and 2005)