A Spiritual and Cultural-Historical Journey
from Pirita to Vana-Vastseliina

Pilgrim’s route


Welcome to South-Estonia!
When the pilgrim has either swum across the river or cycled across the bridge to the southern bank of River Emajõgi, he has arrived in South-Estonia, in the ancient Ugandi (Ugala) county.
People in the northern part of Estonia tend to boast about their bigger salaries, more juniper trees and the largest city in the country, Tallinn. Even village dogs are allegedly smaller in the south. But why should the dogs actually be big? South-Estonians are fonder of their villages, valleys, forests and bits of swamp than of anything else in the world. River Emajõgi is their home border.

Puhja parish has been known as a robber parish. It was like an island, separated from Rannu by Sangla swamp and from Tartu by Kavilda primeval valley and Elva river with its soggy banks. It was difficult to escape from robbers in that area.
People who lived along the banks of River Emajõgi one hundred years ago in the current Alam-Pedja nature reserve, called Puhja Maisemaa (dry land) or Kõrgemaa (high land). Compared with Madalmaa (low land), the swamps and water meadows by the river, which could be totally flooded in spring for weeks, the surroundings of Puhja was a higher place and the farmers fared better. However, there was not enough space in higher lands for all the offspring of big farms who dreamed of a home of their own. Land drainage by the river was underway already in the early 20th century. The first to tackle this job were people from various islands, hoping to make a better life on the mainland. They started on Monday morning and finished on Saturday afternoon when the Puhja church bell ten kilometres away announced the end of the working week.

The inequality between households caused much envy and many crimes. Between 1884 and 1889 there were 17 arsons and 5 murders in Puhja. Besides inequality, the other root of evil was drinking. On the initiative of the sexton-schoolmaster Peenar, Puhja inns were closed down. According to some manuscript memoirs, people signed the petition and „the Russian ministry granted the appeal, so that altogether six inns were closed down”. The same happened in the neighbourhood as well, where pastor Villem Reiman, one of the leading figures in the national movement, managed to get all inns closed in Kolga-Jaani in 1898.
There are no problems with inns in today’s Puhja. The Piilu bar is mainly known as a daytime eatery. During the Soviet occupation, the best and most successful inhabitants of Puhja were deported to Siberian prison camps, and replaced by people coming from elsewhere to work in the collective farms and in peat industry.

If we divide Estonian churches after the balance between light and shadow into light and bright and heavy and dark, the Puhja St Dionysius Church belongs to the latter. Puhja’s neighbour, St Martin’s in Rannu, on the other hand, is light and bright.
The three-nave hall church was completed in 1494–1499, although historical documents mention it as early as in 1397. The church is among the three oldest in South-Estonia. The other two churces, Rannu and Nõo, are not far.

In the shady churchyard where the traveller can rest stands a monument to pastors connected with Puhja: sexton Käsu-Hans and pastor Adrian Virginius (the younger Virginius, whose grandfather Adrian Virginius was the first known Lutheran clergyman in Nõo, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Tartu and a master of 17th century Tartu occasional poetry).
„Oh, I am the poor town of Tartu! What’s happening now to me…” wrote the allegedly first poet of Estonian origin, Puhja sexton Käsu-Hans in his lamentation about Tartu and its university, destroyed by the Russians during the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The text grieves about professors and students who fled the town, and also expresses a mood of repentance. According to Käsu-Hans, the destruction of Tartu was partly God’s punishment for the arrogance of townspeople. The lamentation in Tartu dialect was probably written in 1708 in Puhja.

Adrian Virginius was pastor at Puhja in 1686–1694. He established an Estonian-language school there, because in 1686 an alumnus of the well-known Forselius seminar came to teach children to read. Besides German spoken at home, Virginius knew southern Estonian dialect and some northern dialect as well.
An important publication in Estonian cultural history, “Wastne Testament” (New Testament) appeared in 1686 in South-Estonian language, translated by Andreas Virginius and his son Adrian. This was the first entirely Estonian-language book. They also translated “Tarto-Ma Kele Kässi Ramat” (Tartu language grammar). On the initiative of the Virginius family, publications in North-Estonian were printed in Riga.
The Russian authorities executed Adrian Virginius in public in June 1706 by the Town Hall square in Tartu. The charge was spying for Sweden – Virginius had received a few letters from Tallinn, then still in Swedish hands, but he had failed to inform the authorities about it. Correspondence with areas in enemy possession meant a death penalty.


The pastor at Puhja has since 1990 been Tiit Kuusemaa. His wife Miina-Liisa Kuusemaa accompanies the services on the organ made in 1882 by the Tartu master Friedrich Wilhelm Müllverstädt. The organ is quite rare in entire Europe.
The landmarks in the congregation’s life in the 21st century were the new stone floor (2005) and restoring Müllverstädt’s organ thanks to the Crowdfunding portal (2014).

In the community house park in front of the church stands the monument to the War of Independence, by sculptor Anton Starkopf. The monument was erected in 1925, concealed under the ground in 1950 and restored in 1988.

St Dionysius (also known as St Denis) was a Christian saint, the first bishop of Paris, martyr, patron saint of France. Dionysius is depicted carrying his severed head. The feast of St Dionysius was initially celebrated on 9 October, now on 21 April. People have asked St Dionysius to help with headache, quarrels and rage.
In the middle of the 3rd century, the Italian Dionysius was sent from Rome to Gaul as a missionary. He established a Christian centre in Paris. Emperor Valerian did not like the success of the centre and he ordered Dionysius and his two companions to be beheaded on the hill of the martyrs – Montmartre – and throw their bodies into the Seine. Christians dragged the bodies out and buried them. In the 7th century, the basilica of St Denis was built on the gravesite. Later this became the burial place for the French kings. Many churches across the world are dedicated to St Dionysius. Puhja is the only church in Estonia bearing his name.

In 1344, Birgitta Birgersdotter, later Saint Birgitta, who was returning with her husband and entourage from a pilgrimage in Santiago del Compostela, stopped in the town of Arras in France. Here her husband Ulf fell ill. Suddenly, in her despair, Birgitta heard St Dionysius speaking to her: I came here from Rome to preach the Word of God. As you [Birgitta] love me devotedly, I can tell you that your husband will not die of this illness and that God has trusted you in my care... (Book of Revelations of Saint Birgitta, volume 6, chapter 88.)

Juhani Püttsepp, 2015

The son of the mill builder Jaan Koni became the owner of the mill and commissioned a photograph of his 20-year-old mill. 1913.

On the eastern edge of the country town of Puhja, between small residential houses in the middle of a vegetable garden stands Koni windmill. The wooden Dutch-type mill was built in 1893 by Jaan Koni, together with master builder Peter Morgen. The shingle-covered body sits on a low stone foundation. The head has the shape of a boat, the wings have not survived. The mill was still grinding animal flour in the late 1980s. One original pair of millstones is in its place, as are the mill’s main shaft, the upper cogwheel with gear and the sieving machine.