During the research for my book We are Pilgrims I encountered many pilgrim travellers but none quite like Martin Gray. Over the course of 38 years, this photographer and anthropologist has visited thousands of pilgrim sites and sacred places in 160 countries across the globe. His web-site World Pilgrimage Guide is an essential source of information for anyone contemplating a pilgrimage or keen to understand the phenomenon in all its diversity. Martin is based in Arizona and I am in London but with the aid of skype, we were able to hang out for a while and talk about his life and work.
“You asked me about the why and how of my pilgrimage journeys. Well I often times tell people that the situation becomes the instructor. When I had been to 40 countries I thought I knew how to travel. When I got to 70 countries I knew that I didn’t. When I got to 125 countries I was still learning and came to understand that each journey, each encounter with a place, with a set of beliefs, is unique.”
Martin’s interest in sacred sites began aged 12 when his family moved to India. “I soon became infatuated with temple architecture and beyond that, with the ideas of Hinduism. In particular the idea that we live in the time of Kali Yuga, the Age of Darkness. Associated with this Yuga is a practice called Bhakti Yoga which is the yoga of devotion. I was really influenced by that when I was a young boy in India and later became yet more enamoured with the notion of devotion. And so, in one sense, everything that I do is an expression of love or devotion. As with many things in my life, this practice is multi layered, but in essence, I’m expressing love to the earth, and to the sacred sites, by the path I have chosen.”
Martin’s insight into pilgrimage extends far beyond a direct experience of place and his knowledge is fuelled by extensive study of mythology, religious history, archaeology and anthropology. His personal library of books runs into the thousands and we talked a little about which study centre might be the right repository for his library in due course.
In 2004 National Geographic published the book The Geography of Religion, for which Gray was the principal photographer and Barnes & Noble published a large volume of his colour photographs titled Sacred Earth. His images are fantastic but he is modest about his talents. “People think I’m a great photographer. I’m not. I simply photograph great art.” Mm. I simply can’t agree with that, but for Martin the purpose of his images goes beyond colour, shape, light. “These are windows that hopefully transport the viewer to experience something of the essence of a location. Very few people are ever going to be able to go to as many of these places as I do. So, in a sense, what I do is bring something back so people can have a sort of connection to them.”
He’s right; very few of us will ever see the diversity and richness of the thousands of shrines and temples, holy wells and sacred mountains he has visited. So what is the essence? What is the connecting thread that links all of this? He prefaces his answer by distinguishing the act of pilgrimage from the everyday frame of religious devotion. “Well it took maybe 20 years before I understood this, that there are only two things happening at pilgrimage sites, irrespective whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism Christianity, Judaism. People are saying ‘please and thank you’. Praise and prayer. That’s it. You’re born into a certain religion you’re cloaked by a certain religion, but irrespective of these differences, however people conceive of a deity of divinity, they’re saying ‘please’ for something, maybe they’re asking for their children to be healthy, maybe they’re asking for their leg to heal. Then if they get whatever they’re asking for, they come back to the shrine and say ‘thank you’.”
Martin prefers to travel light, carrying only a small duffle bag and when you look at the ground he covers, it’s easy to understand why. In 2018-19 he visited 36 countries and stayed in 370 different locations. He describes how language differences mean that the “conceptual richness of the conversation is limited on the road” and he often invites a companion along for that reason. This reminds me of Robert Fitzroy – the captain of the Beagle, who invited Charles Darwin to join his voyage around South America in order to have someone to talk to. (Being the captain on a long voyage could be a lonesome business.) That journey set both men on paths that would change our understanding of the natural world. I feel sure that Martin Gray’s extensive knowledge and experience similarly adds to our collective understanding of what we mean by pilgrimage.
Finally, I just had to ask this man the obvious question anyone would ask – what is his favourite pilgrim place? He shrugged off my question with a laugh “I don’t like to speak in absolutes. Life is a balance. Perhaps I could give you my top fifty?”
(This link leads to an interactive map on Martin Gray’s World Pilgrimage Guide Site tagging hundreds of sacred sites globally).