In a Muslim-majority country, a Hindu goddess lives on

Witness the sea of color that floods western Pakistan every spring to honor the Goddess Sati.

Hindu pilgrims climb the steep flanks of a mud volcano to throw coconuts into the crater—a ritual intended to thank the gods and makes wishes.

Video by Matthieu Paley and Muhammad Yasir Baloch
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic

The windswept hills of western Pakistan have witnessed the rise and fall of empires.

Situated on an ancient trade route between East and West, Balochistan province remains infused with centuries of Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Sufi heritage. Stretching hundreds of miles along the Arabian Sea, its otherworldly coast is considered home to the divine. Every spring, more than 40,000 people flood the monochromatic landscape to honor the goddess Sati and cleanse their sins through a series of rituals during Hinglaj Yatra—the largest Hindu pilgrimage in the Muslim-majority nation.

The origin of Hinglaj begins with a tale of ill-fated love. According to legend, the goddess Sati married Shiva, god of destruction, against her father’s wishes. To punish his disobedient daughter, he refused to invite her new husband to a sacred ceremony. Humiliated by the insult, Sati threw herself into the ritual pyre and ended her own life. Shiva carried her corpse until his grief threatened to destroy the world, so the other gods dismembered her body to halt his morbid dance. Fifty-one pieces fell to Earth, scattered throughout modern day India, Pakistan, West Bengal, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Video by Matthieu Paley and Muhammad Yasir Baloch

Shrines marking these sites became sacred places for yatrees, or pilgrims, to gaze upon the goddess and seek her blessing. Historically few could make the taxing journey to Hinglaj—a grueling trek across more than 160 miles of isolated desert to the site of Sati’s fallen head. But in recent years, new infrastructure has allowed an unprecedented number of pilgrims to enter the site, altering centuries-old rituals.

Honoring the goddess

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Pilgrims bathe and rest in the area surrounding the main shrine in Hingol National Park. “The region around the volcanoes is an incredibly bleak landscape, you might as well be on the moon,” Paley says. "To see a river with water is an attraction for spirituality, so they swim in it and they bless each other."

Traditionally, the pilgrimage route was traversed on foot—the physical toil served as penance to cleanse the soul. “The moment when you walk through the blazing desert heat, all your sins are burned out of you, you’re purified, so you can stand in front of the goddess in a purified state of mind,” says Jürgen Schaflechner, assistant professor at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University Germany and author of Hinglaj Devi: Identity, Change, and Solidification at a Hindu Temple in Pakistan.

The journey proved treacherous for many, but the completion of Pakistan's Makran Coastal Highway in 2004 connected once-remote regions, allowing devotees to drive directly to the site. During the past 15 years, traffic has grown exponentially, and pilgrims have adapted their journeys in response.

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A pilgrim faints in the extreme heat. The physical toil involved in making the pilgrimage is meant to cleanse devotees of their sins before they approach the goddess.

“They all agree that walking is the way to do it, they just don’t all have time,” says photographer Matthieu Paley, who documented the pilgrimage this past spring. “It’s the modern world taking hold—people don’t have months, they might have a week. They realize it’s not the real deal, but it’s better than nothing.”

Even during colonial periods, those who traveled by ship, camel, or donkey were considered less “pure” than those who walked through the desert. “Pilgrims try to say that the actual spiritual merit of the shrine has gone down because so many people just come as tourists,” Schaflechner explains.

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Pilgrims seek advice on issues like marriage and pregnancy from the guru in charge of the cave shrine.

For others, the highway encouraged a resurgence of walking practices, inviting people to embrace the physical and psychological rigor believed to purify their sins without the burden of getting lost or running out of water.

“The region around the volcanoes is an incredibly bleak landscape, you might as well be on the moon,” Paley says. [Related: This remote Pakistani village is nothing like you'd expect]

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After a 2017 bombing at a Sufi shrine in Balochistan, security at Hinglaj is higher than usual.

Once pilgrims arrive in Hinglaj they complete a series of rituals, like climbing the Chandragup and Khandewari mud volcanoes, considered geological rarities.

“There’s a sense of reverence in front of the volcano, this power of nature,” Paley says. “When you get close to the crater it’s muddy and steep. You have the heat, you have the dust. People slip, some are fainting from exhaustion.”

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Some pilgrims throw coconuts into a mud volcano. They believe if the coconut sinks, they have permission to enter the abode of the goddress Sati.

Devotees throw coconuts into the craters to make wishes and thank the gods for answering their prayers. Some scatter rose petals, others paint their bodies and faces with clay.

“People build symbolic miniature houses out of the cracked earth," Paley says. "They put it together with walls and a roof, like a dollhouse—their wish to have a house of their own or to get married.”

Pilgrims then take a ritual bath in the sacred Hingol River before finally approaching the shrine marking the goddess’s resting place, the main climax of the pilgrimage.

The oldest documentation of Hinglaj Yatra dates to the 14th century. When a person survived the perilous journey, they were elevated out of their caste and worshipped as devatma, or divine souls, upon death. They were buried in a samadhi, or tombs, instead of burned on a pyre—these tombstones are evidence of the earliest pilgrims, though some historians believe the tradition is older still, Schaflechner says. [Related: 38 holy sites around the world]

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Baloch Muslims stand on the rim of the Chandragup volcano to fish out coconuts and resell. “It’s a very poor region and I think they just look for some opportunity to make money—some of them keep the coconut to eat for themselves," Paley says. "It was interesting to see this collaboration between Hinduism and Islam around this holy site.”

Land of the pure

Steeped in significance for Hindus and Muslims alike, some of whom believe it was Eve and not Sati who fell to Earth here, Hinglaj is one of the only shared religious spaces in Pakistan that shifted to favor Hindu tradition after the partition of India, Schaflechner says.

In 1947, Pakistan, or “Land of the Pure,” was carved into the Asian subcontinent. That August, the nation’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, set forth a vision for a secular country in his first presidential address.

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Hingol National Park, Pakistan’s largest, extends hundreds of miles along the Arabian Sea. In addition to hosting sacred sites, the park is renowned for its diverse wildlife, including Sindh leopards, chinkaras, honey badgers, and Indian pangolins.

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State,” Jinnah famously said. “We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State.”

The same year saw a dividing nation’s bitter descent into violence during partition, when Pakistan was established as an independent state for South Asian Muslims. An estimated 14 million people fled their homes, Muslims to the north and Hindus south, in what was considered one of the largest mass migrations in history. Large scale massacres, abductions, arson, and torture claimed up to a million lives and endures in the memories of both nations. These wounds were further inflamed by decades of divisive political policy and bloody land disputes that followed.

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After days traveling from the Thar desert region near the border with India, Hindu pilgrims pay their respects to the Arabian Sea before heading to the shrine. Many of them see the ocean for the first time on the pilgrimage.

In its formative years, Pakistan’s national identity became synonymous with Sunni Islam and India’s with Hinduism. Because of their association with the horrors of partition, Hindus and their holy sites have been targets of violence in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Muslims experience similar brutalities in India.

To date, Hinglaj has proved an exception, where more Hindu pilgrims than ever visit the shrine peacefully alongside Muslims.

“Hinglaj is another facet of Pakistan. That’s why I love to spend time in this country, there are so many ways to visually express its diversity.”