Pilgrimage, or tirthyatara, is very different from an ordinary sightseeing trip. Tir, which in Sanskrit means “other side,” refers to the journey toward the Divine. It is the spiritual preparedness and mental outlook of sacredness of the visit, which makes the person conducive to receiving the holy vibrations. Pilgrimage done with utmost faith and purity of mind may yield the most gratifying benefits.111
Some of the most important sacred places, which also include Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh shrines, are included here. Hindus frequently visit the pilgrimage places of these allied religions as well as their own. For want of space, only the names and few details are given; more details may be obtained from internet and other sources.
The North Region has many sites associated with the origin of the Vedas and Hinduism:
Mount Kailash, considered as the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort, Sri Paravati, is high in the Himalayan range. It is also called Mount Meru. The Himalayas, which literally means “Home of snow,” have been the eternal abode of sages and Rishis throughout millennia. For Hindus, the Himalayas and the Divine are inseparable!
Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath, located northeast of Rishikesh in an area known as Garhwal, are four sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites. Yamunotri is at the source of sacred River Yamuna (Jamuna), and Gangotri is at the mouth of River Ganges, Gaumukh. The mountaintop Shiva temple at Kedarnath is at an altitude of 11,750 feet. Badrinath is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is at a somewhat lower height. It is believed that no place in the world can match the grandeur of these regions. Sri Swami Tapovan Maharaj wrote, “In the valley between the two mountains Nara and Narayana there shines a celestial mass of light called Badareesa, which is the seed of this entire universe.”112
Ladakh is the location of the Buddhist monastery, Spitok Gompa, and it is built at an elevation of more than ten thousand feet.
Shri Vaishno Devi Temple is situated high in the Himalayas; this temple lately has attracted a number of devotees. They throng in thousands every day to journey up to the site, singing Jai Mata Di all the way. According to the legend, Vaishno Devi, who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, defeated a demon called Bhaironath at this temple site.
Ganga Maa, the river Ganges, figures most prominently as the most sacred river. Taking a dip in Ganga is believed to wash away the sins of a lifetime. It is mentioned in the scriptures that Ganga originated from the feet of Lord Vishnu, traversed through the matted hair of Lord Shiva, and was brought down to Earth by sage Bhagiratha to perform the worship ceremony in honor of the ancestors.
Har ki Pairi Ghat, Haridwar, or “abode of the Lord,” as it translates is one of the most popular pilgrimages of Hindus. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, it is located on the banks of sacred Ganges.
Varanasi Ghats, also known as Kashi or Benares, is the oldest holy city of Hindus. Hindus consider it most auspicious to die in this sacred place. Varanasi has been a center of ‘learning’ for over 2000 years.
Allahabad (Prayag), Sangam is the confluence (sangam) of three sacred rivers—the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the invisible heavenly Saraswati. It is the site where the most famous Kumbha Mela is held once every twelve years. This is also a most favored place for immersion of ashes after cremating the dead.
Ayodha, the birthplace of Lord Rama, the Jewel of the Solar Kings, is regarded as one of the holiest places. There are temples and shrines in every quarter of this small city on the banks of holy River Sarayu.
Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and Brindavan, where he was reared in childhood and played many a raas leela with gopis, are regarded as very sacred places for Hindus.
Golden Temple, Amritsar, the world-famous Sikh temple, was first built in 1577, but was destroyed by the Mughal emperor in 1761. It was rebuilt in 1764. In 1802 the roof was covered by gilded gold plates, which gave it a unique image. It houses the original copy of the sacred scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Anandpur Sahib Temple, or “City of Bliss,” as it is literally translated, is another equally holy Sikh shrine, situated on the bank of River Sutlej in Punjab.
Chitrakut is the holy spot, where Lord Rama stayed for some time after his exile. The place became especially significant because his beloved brother Bharata came to meet him here to persuade him to return. Rama then explained the concept of duty and observance of one’s father’s vow, pitruvakyaparipalana.
Lakshmi Narayan Mandir is located in New Delhi. The Birla industrial family built it in 1939. This is the first of its own type, where multi-deity worship was adopted. It houses the shrines of many different Hindu and non-Hindu gods.
The Akshardham Monument, the new Swaminarayan temple in Delhi, which was opened in 2005, is a landmark in the Hindu temple movement. The Akshardham Monument, built without steel, is entirely composed of sandstone and marble. It consists of 234 ornately carved pillars, nine imposing domes, twenty quadrangle shikhars, a spectacular gajendra (plinth of stone elephants), and twenty thousand murtis.
Central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh:
Khajurao Temples in Madhya Pradesh, built between CE 950 and 1050, are undoubtedly among the most popular temples for visitors. Out of eighty-five original temples of rare sculptural beauty, only twenty-two remain. Hundreds of figures decorate the walls in perfect and flawless patterns. These temples are also famous for their erotic sculptures. There have been many debates on why such overtly sexual poses have been admitted in religious places. Whatever may be the reasons, the fact remains that the Hindu society did not consider it appropriate to have such erotic figures in the temple premises in the later periods.
The Great Stupa, Sanchi, the dome shaped stupa, or ancient sculpture, may perhaps be the earliest religious site in India, as it’s thought to have been built between the first century BCE and the Common Era first century. It is a Buddhist sanctuary with four intricately carved gates on four sides.
Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh occupies a very special status in the holy map of India. It is one of the four places where the Kumbh Mela is held in rotation, once every three years.
The East-West Bengal, Sikkim, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand:
Kali Temple at Dakshineshwar, Kolkata, was built in 1847. It has become famous because the God-realized soul Shri Ramakrishna Paramhans was associated with this temple. The black image of goddess Kali represents God in the aspect of eternal Mother Nature.
Konark Sun Temple is situated about forty miles from Bhubhenshwar. This world-famous temple has been designated as a United Nations World Heritage site. Constructed between 1238 and 1264, it is famous for its huge, intricately carved chariot wheels, which form the base of the temple.
Jagannath Temple is situated at Puri, only twenty miles down the coast from the Konark Temple, and is equally famous. Jagannath has become most popular for its grand Rath Yatra—every summer, on the auspicious occasion of Lord Krishna’s birthday, Janmashtami, devotees and visitors witness a massive procession of temple carts drawn by more than four thousand persons.
Mahabodhi Temple, Gaya, Bihar, attracts crowds because it is here that Lord Buddha attained enlightenment after meditating under the banyan tree. Mahabodhi Temple, built in eleventh century is well known for its impressive gilded Buddha idols.
Brindavan is famous for the many temples dedicated to Lord Krishna. It is in the gardens of Brindavan, where the Lord played raas leela with the gopis. Brindavan has become the convergence point for all Krishna devotees who throng to this simple town.
Jain Temple, Ranakpur, built in 1439, is the largest Jain temple in India. Inside, 1,944 pillars of most intricate and enchanting carvings support twenty-nine halls. The roof and walls are covered likewise with many marble designs of exquisite beauty. The temple is hailed as a feast of art.
Pushkar is located near Ajmer, at the foot of a mountain around scenic Pushkar Lake. This peaceful, holy town affords a magnificent view to the devotees and visitors. It is also famous for the only single temple anywhere dedicated to Lord Brahma.
Jain Dilwara Temple of Abu was built between 1032 and 1233. This marble temple is among the finest Jain architecture in India. The delicacy of the interior of this and the more important Vimla Sha Temple takes marble carvings to unsurpassable heights.
Dwarkanath Temple, at a seaside location in the western part of Gujarat, has tremendous importance for the Hindu devotees. This is where Lord Krishna had his kingdom. Recent excavations have shown that the sea has submerged five settlements earlier and the present one is the sixth.
Somnath Temple is considered to be a very sacred shrine; here lies one of the twelve original jyotirlingas. It is ancient, and is mentioned in the Rig Veda. The temple was destroyed repeatedly by Muslim invaders and reconstructed. The present magnificent structure is the seventh temple on the original site, built in 1995.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves were built between the second century BCE and the Common Era seventh century. These world-famous caves are situated about two hundred miles from Mumbai in Maharashtra. Ajanta Caves are the earlier ones.
Ellora caves are more famous for their superb stone sculptures. Here, the caves are of mixed variety. Twelve caves are Buddhist, seventeen are Hindu, and five are Jain. The caves themselves have been hollowed out from the rocks, thus requiring meticulous planning in their execution. Unlike the conventional architecture, here the success depended on what was to be removed, rather than what was to be constructed.
Holy City of Nasik is situated about one hundred miles from Mumbai. It is full of temples. The Tryambakeshwar Temple, containing one of the twelve original jyotirlingas, is an ancient Shiva temple, which attracts pilgrims from all over India. There is also the ancient site Panchvati, which is on the bank of the sacred River Godavari, where Lord Rama stayed during his fourteen years of exile, vanvas.
Jain Temples, Palitan, where the hilltop Jain sanctuary is one of the most holy pilgrimages of India. Built in the eleventh century, these temples were destroyed by Muslim rulers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The existing temples are from the 1600s through the present.
Modhera step-well Temple, 65 miles northwest of Ahmedabad, is famous for its spectacular step-well, interspersed with multiple shrines, and image of sun-god Suray. Nearly 3000 such step-wells with intricate archeological designs were constructed from seventh to nineteenth centuries, primarily to hold the water to descending levels, till the year end and then get again filled in the rainy season.
Ambaji Temple, situated on the Arasur hill near Mount Abu, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites. Dedicated to goddess Ambaji, it is recognized as an original Shakti Pitha.
Shri Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple, Gandhinagar, is the new temple, which combines the traditional stone architecture with modern technology. Golden murti of Lord Swaminarayan is the chief attraction of this holy place.
Mahalakshmi Temple in Mumbai is the oldest temple in the metropolitan city. It is dedicated to Sri Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The temple is situated on small hill overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Shri Siddhivinayaka Ganapathi Temple, Mumbai, had humble beginnings in 1801. It housed the black stone idol of Lord Ganpathi. Over the years, it has grown enormously and now attracts huge crowds.
The culture of South India has its own nostalgia. The deep, thick forests have divided the North from the South since ancient times. Muslim rulers never got a strong foothold in the South, and hence, the Hindu temples were spared from repeated onslaughts and devastation. The architecture of the southern temples has retained more pure form.
Tiruvannamalai, the Arunachaleshwar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and goddess Parvati, is decorated with giant gate towers, gopuras, which are visible from a long distance. The ashram of the famous spiritual master Raman Maharishi in the vicinity has lent additional aura to this sacred place.
Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu is regarded as one of the seven sacred cities for Hindus. It is a city studded with many beautiful temples. The Ekambareshwara Shiva Ganesha Temple has a massive temple tower, which is 192 feet tall.
Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), located thirty-seven miles from Chennai, it is a seaport with many Hindu temples constructed by the Pallava dynasty. Among the important sites is an immense relief carved on the face of a huge rock, depicting the descent to earth of the sacred River Ganges through the matted locks of Lord Shiva’s hair.
Chidambaram was a Chola capital from 907 to 1310. Among the many temples is the Nataraja Shiva Temple, with 108 classical postures of the Lord as the cosmic dancer. An impressive fire ceremony conducted by the priests is the highlight of this temple.
Thanjavur (Tanjore), the famous Rajarajeshvara temple built about CE 1000, is considered to be the masterpiece of South Indian architecture. The city also has the shrine dedicated to the famous Saint Tyagaraja (1767–1847), who is regarded as the greatest musical composer of South India.
Lord Babubali Sarvanabelagola is one of the oldest and most popular Jain pilgrimage centers. This temple is famous for a huge statue of Lord Bahubali. The fifty-one-foot-high statue of the Jain saint can be seen from a long distance. It was built in the tenth century; in 1981 there was a big celebration to commemorate its thousand-year anniversary.
Tirumala and Tirupati Temples, built in the tenth century, is one of the most popular temples of India. Crowds queue to get a looks at the darshan of the Lord. The temple is dedicated to Lord Venkateswara, a Vishnu incarnation. On special auspicious days the number of pilgrims may swell to one hundred thousand in a day. Many have a deep abiding faith in Tirupati.
Shree Minaksi Temple, Madurai, a Shiva temple built in the seventeenth century, attracts thousands of devotees and visitors every day. It is dedicated to fish-eyed goddess Minaksi.
Rameswaram, built in the twelfth century, is another fine example of the Dravidian art of South India. Its magnificent corridors are lined with beautifully carved pillars. One of the corridors is four thousand feet long, the longest in India. It is a Shiva temple, where Lord Rama, who is Vishnu incarnate, worshipped Lord Shiva in penance for killing Ravana, a Brahmin and a Shiva devotee. This reflects the mindset of Hindu philosophy, where gods worship each other, and war does not breed any enmity or hatred.
Kanyakumari is the southernmost point of India, where three oceans meet. The Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea merge here. Vivekananda Memorial Temple was built on two rocky islands in 1970. The imposing beauty of this temple is enhanced by its natural surroundings.
Ayappa Sabarimala Hills, one of the most popular temples of Hindus, is situated in Kerala. Those who come here must walk through animal-infested jungles to keep their vows after receiving the divine favors. In this temple, the deity is the mythological god Lord Aiyappen, son of Lord Shiva and Mohini, the female form of Lord Vishnu.
There are also many more important temples run by different religious organizations, such as Swaminarayan, Hare Krishna (ISKCON), Shirdi Sai Baba, Radha Swami, and Satya Sai Baba sects in different parts of India.
NOTE: This chapter is adapted from Arnette Robert. India Unveiled. Georgia: Atman Press, 2006