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There's this 14 km long road that's one of the main attractions in Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India. The road goes all the way around a small mountain called Arunachala. The mountain is considered holy. The road is a road for pilgrims. They walk around the mountain as an act of worship. The whole road around the mountain (almost all 14 km of it) is considered a sort of holy site. The path is like this:

enter image description here

Here are pilgrims walking around the mountain. enter image description here

There are millions of pilgrims walking around this mountain every year. I've never seen any of them wearing footwear of any kind. There is the paved road, and there is asphalt on the side. The pilgrims walk barefoot on both. The whole road around the mountain is considered holy, similarly to a temple. Wearing footwear in a Hindu temple is considered a serious offense.

Now, I want to join the pilgrims and walk this 14 km road. But I have never walked such a distance barefoot before. It's hard concrete/tiles/asphalt.

How will it be received by the pilgrims and locals if someone walks with some type of footwear on such a road? How bad is it compared to walking with footwear into a temple (the latter being totally unacceptable.)

Has anyone here tried walking such a long distance barefoot on stone? Should I just go for it?

I guess if the pilgrims can do it, then so can I! I think I'll just go barefoot. But maybe I can get some helpful advice here.

If I do go barefoot, how can I, as a barefoot-noob, mitigate the discomforts that come with that? (Heat, stepping on stuff, hard stone base, etc.)

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    I can't comment on the acceptability of footwear, but I can suggest that you could do some training for walking barefoot on concrete. Start with shorter distances and build up over time. If your feet develop blisters, pause and let them heal; the skin will be tougher afterwards, and you can resume your training. – phoog Aug 16 '16 at 21:50
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    Would you do the walk as an act of tourism or of religious devotion? If tourism, you should check into whether that is acceptable, regardless of the footwear issue. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 16 '16 at 22:08
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    @PatriciaShanahan Yes, I have checked that. Everyone is welcome on the path as long as they behave politely. (People of any religion, etc.) There's a widespread belief that the power in the mountain will bless people even if they do the walk without spiritual motives. – Revetahw Aug 16 '16 at 22:12
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    Pilgrimages aren't supposed to be easy :-) I say consider the training, challenge and discomfort part of the experience! Pilgrimages are supposed to be character-building ;-) – user568458 Aug 16 '16 at 22:19
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    Has anyone tried walking such a long distance barefoot on stone? Yes the pilgrims do! – Pureferret Aug 17 '16 at 8:29

10 Answers 10

3

I'm extremely late to answer, but I just found a product that seems perfect for the OP's situation. Hopefully it will be useful to others who find this.

You can buy sole stickers to put on the bottom of your feet.

Imag4e from Banggood product page.

Note that I buy electronics and such from the linked vendor, but I'm not affiliated with them and the link is not an affiliate link.

55

I have personal experience of walking around the mountains of Thiruvannamalai on a full moon day along with other devotees. Most of the devotees walk barefoot and so did I. The asphalt road is used not only by the devotees but also by other local peoples for transportation. So you will see many people wearing footwear on the asphalt road, who are not part of the pilgrimage. So even if you wear any footwear while walking along the asphalt road, I don't think it will offend anyone. However remember to take off your shoes while entering any temple premises and while walking on the tiled road.

As I discussed with Fiksdal in the comments, there is a difference between the asphalt and the tiled road pictured in OP. Footwear is not acceptable on the tiled road, but I think it will be fine on the asphalt.

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    By road, do you mean only the asphalt, or also the special paved pah for the pilgrims (the first picture in OP)? – Revetahw Aug 17 '16 at 11:04
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    @Fiksdal Only on the asphalt. When I took the tour in 2014, there was no paved path for walking. – boroxun Aug 17 '16 at 11:49
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    @Fiksdal May be you are right. It was dark and there were a huge crowd. – boroxun Aug 17 '16 at 11:54
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    You can pave with asphalt, so putting the two in opposition to one another does not clarify. It just confuses. It confused me. Right now I can't think of how to word it clearly though. – hippietrail Aug 17 '16 at 16:53
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    I would like to add that, as long as you don't attempt to walk into the temple or shrine with footwear, you will not offend anyone. This is called a Parikrama and can be done in anyway a person chooses. There's a nice article on wikipedia about the topic - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parikrama – nikhil Aug 17 '16 at 17:26
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Walking barefoot probably won't be as bad as you expect.

For one thing, that trail is walked barefoot by a lot of people, all the time. A lot of the things that make barefoot walking painful are likely to be accounted for - the will brush the path for small stones or sharp bits that would hurt to step on. For walking on the road, it might be wisest to stay close to the middle, since that part will be cleanest (I mean from pebbles and painful-to-step-on things). It should be pretty smooth. When I have been to India, it's pretty typical to find places where people are expected to be barefoot to be pretty careful about how foot-friendly the floors are, even if most people have tougher feet.

The texture might be a little rougher than you're used to, but since it is meant for people to walk barefoot on, they will probably have paid more attention to texture than roads or tile walkways where people are expected to wear shoes. If everyone is welcome, they may have taken extra care for people not much used to walking barefoot. I think it won't be too much different from walking barefoot on inside floors, except for the longer distance. If you're worried about direct heat from sun-warmed floor, it usually isn't bad if you're walking since your foot keeps moving - just watch where you stand while resting. Places that have smooth, worn stone are often more comfortable for walking on then earth or grass (the different textures can feel rough or conceal pokey little bits).

I can't say how offended anyone will be if you wear shoes, that will depend on how flexible they're willing to be. If the path is open to everyone, and they get a lot of tourists, they may be resigned to it (though they will still prefer not). Taking off shoes has to do with cleanliness, not tracking dirt in from outside - although for something like this it's much more symbolic than literal. If you are thinking about having a backup, having an obviously new, clean pair might help (sort of like inside vs outside shoes), and be more respectful - although that will only matter to those who know that's what you are doing. I would recommend you try barefoot, and only pull out shoes if you really can't, but it is between their tolerance and your choice.

Alternately, you might consider socks for your backup... the act of taking your shoes off is the relevant part, so for some reason I think that socks might give a little protection without offense. You can take off your shoes, and wander around in socked feet while still being 'shoe-less'. I have seen it in some places (including temples), but again the tolerance of the people there will be the deciding factor. For myself, I think walking in socks is more annoying than barefoot, but a thick pair might cushion your feet if you're having problems. I would suggest you carry them, and only put them on if needed, though. Also, they will get dirty, and can't be washed as easily as feet, so you might want to think about that, and the wear and tear vs the quality of your socks, and how thick they are in terms of heat as well as protection.

Beyond that, take all precautions due to the walk itself - make sure you're up for the long walk (or be prepared to stop or leave if you aren't), take breaks if you need them, have enough good drinking water (don't get dehydrated), have anything you might need for the time or length of walk, snacks or a hat or whatever (or know what will be available nearby). Walking barefoot is only part of the experience - part will just be walking the distance.

Also, walking barefoot more (as others suggested) might help toughen up your feet a little - but I would actually suggest walking in sandals would be a lot more helpful in preparation. The way your foot moves and flexes when walking in sandals is different from walking shoes - it is more similar to walking barefoot, the sandal protects the bottom of your foot from pebbles on the ground and adds a little cushioning, but that is mostly all. It will help you figure out how the lack of extra support from your shoe will effect you walking over longer distances - especially if you pick up the cheap flat sandals, instead of the extra cushioned support ones. And it will be easier than needing to actually find distances that are barefoot friendly.

  • If you're going for socks, you can get some with grip/extra cushioning on the soles, that will still go under normal shoes and still look like socks. – Chris H Aug 17 '16 at 8:12
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    Having learnt to run barefoot, I disagree with your first sentence. It is worse, and not for the reasons you think. Quite simply walking with shoes is completely different from walking barefoot. If you tried to walk like you do with shoes on, your heels would be killing you by the time you reach the 500m mark. Basically learn to walk barefoot... – Aron Aug 17 '16 at 9:17
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    @Aron - yeah, it is pretty different walking barefoot from walking with shoes - but it is also different from running barefoot. People walk barefoot indoors, people walk essentially the same way in flat sandals, it is a little different from sneakers but not impossibly so. Walking that distance on a hard floor is likely to be difficult - that is part of the point - but it is also likely to be less problematic than walking the distance over rough ground, as the OP seems to be worrying about. – Megha Aug 17 '16 at 9:44
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    I went to Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu (southern India) this summer. I only visited Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka and only Hindu Temples in Tamil Nadu. It was perfectly acceptable to wear socks in the Buddhist Temples - but no shoes. In the Hindu Temples I took my shoes of, of course, but the guard insisted that I take my socks of as well and go barefoot. Not sure if this a Buddhist vs Hindu or Sri Lanka vs Tamil Nadu thing though or whether it's completely random and just my luck to have picked the Temples this way. – Sumyrda Aug 17 '16 at 19:09
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    the main problem westerners have walking barefoot (besides cultural aversion to being seen barefoot) is that the soles of their feet tend to be tender, causing discomfort (sometimes to the point of pain) when walking barefoot on any rough or hard surface. Practice can get you over both in short order. – jwenting Aug 19 '16 at 13:10
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Just couple of months ago, during peak summer season, I completed this 14 odd km walk around the mountain and I did not do it barefoot. I was probably one of the few wearing my slippers among thousands of devotees but there was no glances of disapproval. Everyone does their own thing. I could not have completed the walk if I was barefoot because it was really hot and sweaty. Although it was evening time (4 PM - 7 PM), the asphalt road was very hot. Good luck with your walk!

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    +1 for a personal reference and also confirming that this isn't considered offensive – nikhil Aug 17 '16 at 17:33
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Being an Indian & Hindu, I can say that it is not mandatory for anyone to walk barefoot for such a long distance. However, due to some religious principles you will be requested to remove shoes while entering into temple. If you are entering into a temple which is quite big then you might have to walk for around 5-10 min barefoot(inside temple only). Based on my experience, I haven't seen anyone (temple staff) being rude to any foreigner, may be they understand about culture difference. So, if you have any question regarding that you can ask temple staff without any fear.

One more advice (Not related though):

One thing I can suggest you to check for photography permission while taking snaps inside temple. Not all but majority of big temples doesn't allow photography inside temple without permission.

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I don't expect walking barefoot will be any trouble, but if you feel like having a backup plan, I suggest you equip yourself with adhesive bandages. Pick the ones without absorbing pads, and preferably matching your skin colour:

enter image description here

Apply these on parts of your feet which are most likely to get blisters:

  • front area next to the toes
  • outer part which makes contact to the ground
  • around the heel, if you happen to have soft skin there

Don't wait for the blisters to appear before putting bandages on, they hold much better on a non-damaged skin and walking with blisters is painful regardless of bandages. The slight sensation of heat in your feet should alert you that you'll soon have trouble walking.

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    Do be careful if deciding to go this route. If you don't affix the bandage correctly it can rub against your skin causing worse blisters than you would get by just going barefoot. – TaylorAllred Aug 17 '16 at 16:58
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    @TaylorAllred Fair remark, though this mostly applies to bandages you wear inside the shoes, where the lack of space makes the loose ends rub against your feet.. – Dmitry Grigoryev Aug 17 '16 at 17:03
  • @DmitryGrigoryev no, the edges can cause severe blisters on any part of the bottom of the feet when walking. Do NOT rely on bandaging to walk quasi "barefoot" for any distance at all. – jwenting Aug 19 '16 at 13:11
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I have done this pilgrimage with shoes on (trainers in fact). No one seemed to frown upon it, but like you mentioned, walking inside a temple or such is highly taboo.

It also depends on why you are doing this. If it is for religious or spiritual purposes, I don't see how walking barefoot or with shoes makes too much of a difference, as long as you pray/meditate or whatever. However, if you are there just as an experience, then I suggest going all the way (maybe take shoes in case).

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I do not know about local customs, but a very handy piece of equipment for training barefoot walking/running are Vibram Five Finger shoes (no link, google will find it easily). If you get the size that fits you perfectly, you will almost not feel them and will mechanically walk just like if you were barefoot (minus the pain from rough surfaces).

enter image description hereImage attribution.

So if eventually going that distance barefoot is a spiritual goal for you, then by all means use them for training.

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    xkcd.com/1065 – Revetahw Aug 17 '16 at 15:23
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    That might help with training your muscles, but in my view the worst part of going bare foot for a long distance is that your skin is likely too soft and will rub down to nothing. Finger shoes, whatever brand, will not help you with that, it will do the opposite, keeping your skin soft. Better to walk barefoot wherever/whenever possible, training your muscles as well as hardening the skin. – Willeke Aug 18 '16 at 17:06
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    You are correct, @Willeke. The finger shoes give the user time to adapt his muscles and walking movements (i.e., get rid of a pronounced heel strike). When one feels really fine walking in them, then there's plenty of time getting the skin up to speed... just going 100% barefoot from always being in shoes before seems a bit rough for most people. And depending on his social context at home it might just be too much for him to go barefoot everywhere. – AnoE Aug 19 '16 at 9:09
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If you want to go barefoot, with the pelgrims in the same way they do, you can prepare and train yourself for that.

If you have the time, harden the skin on your feet slowly, taking it step by step.
Walking bare foot indoors and on thin slippers or sandals where you can not be sure the ground is safe to walk on. For this reason you want cheap sandals, which are only protecting the soles of your feet from the roughness of the street, not the expensive ones that cushion and restrict the movements of your toes.

Do not go for long walks until your feet are adjusted to walking bare foot or the cheap sandals. Better do an hour for the first time, building up from there, rather than go for the whole 14km in your first attempt.
But that really depend on how used to bare feet you are and how hardened your skin is by then.

You should be alright walking on your skin where the locals do, but be aware that any cut and open blister will allow illnesses to come in. So do use plasters/adhesive bandages, to protect yourself.
When using plasters make sure that the ends of the sticky bit are up from the ground when walking. It may be needed to add a layer of sports tape, which is basically the same but without the white gauzy part.
If it is a tricky point, have the tape go all around your foot and stick to its other end on the top of your foot.

I would not use plasters or tape if the skin does not have problems, having your skin toughing up slowly should be enough.

Do take care you wash your feet often, when going bare foot. Cultures where walking bare feet is common often also have a wash your feet before religious duties and before sitting down for dinner culture, making the people keep their feet relatively clean and well cared for.
And inspect your feet whenever you wash them, specially cuts but all things that break the skin are reasons to go back to footwear temporarily at least.

In any case, take some footwear, shoes or expensive sandals which do cushion the feet and support the arch, to give your feet a different position when you feel the need for it.
It is possible to walk barefoot, even in cities. I met a one young lady in Paris one New Year Eve and in London the next and she had walked all year without proper shoes, totally without shoes unless it snowed. The average temperature those weeks was around freezing.

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This is certainly not a full answer to the question, but I'm hoping my experience may be useful to others as supplementary information. (I didn't want to clutter up OP by adding this, neither did I want to add it in comments.)

While I'm sure I could indeed have gotten away with footwear (as several answers have suggested), I decided that I want to walk barefoot, similarly to the pilgrims.

Last night, I did a full barefoot walk around the mountain. The sun was down, so there was no problem with hot stone. The tiled road (picture in OP) was there for maybe 60-70% of the distance. Walking on the tiled road was relatively alright. But on some parts of it the tiles had been taken off and there was just some sort of very rough concrete, so I opted to walk on the asphalt on the side (parallel to the tiled) instead for those small portions. And for a significant part of the distance, asphalt was the only option. But asphalt was also sort of alright.

I believe that many people would feel uncomfortable walking on the asphalt in some places, as there are trucks, buses and other vehicles passing at high speed, sometimes quite close to pedestrians. However, on full moon this will be no problem because there are so many people that any veichles will be forced to drive extremely slowly.

The most uncomfortable thing was when there were small (sometimes sharp) stones, etc. in the road that I inadvertently stepped on. This would make me jump a little bit. But it's not unbearable, and you get used to it.

I took several breaks, sitting down in coffee shops, etc. The whole walk took around five hours.

Being used to footwear, I was used to having some sort of soft support under my feet. By the end of the trip, the mere hardness of the stone had made my feet quite tender. The skin on the soles of my feet was also burning. It felt very good to take a shower and rest.

But now, after a night of sleep, my feet feel fine. I can walk around perfectly normally, and I feel that my feet are now stronger, and the skin on my soles more hardened. If I repeat this a few times, I feel perfectly confident that I can walk together with the pilgrims on the next full moon.

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