Isn’t life actually this way? In the process of learning about themselves and their Creator along with the purpose they meant to serve with their life, people learn about vice and virtue. However, even after receiving spiritual education since the day of their conception, they fall in the rut of committing mistakes and sins which later leads to performing penance as they prefer. Taking a sacred journey- a pilgrimage tour is only one of the many yet the most preferred way of redemption, more when it is India a pilgrim is wandering to.
The land of versatility – India is second to none, more when it becomes an object of study, analysis and attention all because of the different religions to which it serves as amalgamating pot. Every religion has its significance and a proposed way of life to live it as ideally as possible. It is possible to get a glimpse of each of them and revel in the rich knowledge, the way followers of different faiths try to connect with their Creator at various pilgrimage sites in India.
Muslims can spread their praying carpets, close their eyes chanting hymns from Quran with palms spread in worship of Allah Almighty in any of the great mosques found in different corners of the country. Hindus can embark on an arduous journey to holy places like Vaishno Devi,
Amarnath and Chardham or they can join their hands in devotion and perform various rituals during their visit to temples where God is believed to have manifested Himself in different form and incarnations like Jyotirlingas, Saktipeeths, etc. Sikhs can choose among the different Gurudwaras set up by their Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak just as the Christians can find a Church that serves their spiritual and religious needs. Jain Tirthankars on the other hand have left enough of worshiping sanctities where peace is sought after by followers of Jainism, like the monasteries, gompas and stupas stand proud to guide those who seek to be guided by the preaching and teachings of Buddhism. Pilgrimage holidays proffer the piece of life that seems lost in materialism sometimes with entertainment as well along with enlightenment as a part of holy festivals / processions one participates in.
Mind can still searches for answers of questions that most of them dread to ask for the fear of being lost in lack of wisdom beyond the religious constrains. The answer comes in the form of Sufi sites of worship, Baha’i way of thinking, Spiritual Ashrams, places like Shirdi and Puttuparthy, etc that might give just the peace you longed for. Nothing happens without cause and pilgrimage tour in India only strengthens the faith on life, humanity and God. Take one today to acknowledge the fact yourself !
1. BHIMASHANKAR TEMPLE MAHARASHTRA
An ancient shrine with dense woods and divine sceneries is lying in the Sahyadri Mountains in the charming state of Maharashtra – Bhimashankar Temple. It is amongst the 12 jyotirlingas nestled all across the country. Its natural beauty makes it a perfect place for nature lovers, adventure buffs and pious devotees. It is the destination to get nearer to God, to invigorate your mind, soul and body in unity with Mother’s Nature, resting against the surroundings of a splendid Sahyadri Wildlife Sanctuary. Constructed in the Nagara style of structural design, it is indeed a modest temple which tenders amazing views of the mountains, rivers and forts.
HISTORY: Derived its name from the River Bhima, Bhimashankar Temple was built during 13th century but still looks modern from the exteriors. An evil named Asura would stay with his mother on the lofty mountains of the Sahyadris by the name of Bhima long time back. Empathy and benevolence trembled in the existence of Bhima. The humans were petrified of him. However, he was dealt by a few questions about his own presence which incessantly stressed him. When he couldn’t retain his anguish, Bhima requested his mother to reveal the secrets of his life. With a remaining dread, his mother unveiled to him that his father was Kumbhkaran, younger brother of Brahma Rakshas king (Ravana) of Lanka. Moreover, he told that his father was slaughtered by Lord Vishnu in his embodiment as God Rama. Then Bhima took a pledge to annihilate Lord Vishnu and indulged in meditation to please Lord Brahma to get the desired powers as boon. Bust getting them he started disrupting severe penances of Shiva’s follower, which Lord Shiva couldn’t bear. Thus, Lord Shiva manifested him in the setting in the appearance of the Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : AUGUST TO FEBRUARY
2. CHIDAMBARAM TEMPLE TAMIL NADU
Positioned amidst architectural magnificence and temples of bygone era, Chidambaram is a beautiful town of Tamil Nadu. Its mores, values and pious rituals are potted with artistic exquisiteness and charm. It is festooned with a wide spectrum of beautiful ancient temples, glittering backwaters, picturesque vistas and verdant mountains, setting it apart from the rest of the country.
An abode of Nataraja temple, the place welcomes tons of devotees throughout the year from all over the globe. The hub is main sacred destination for Shaivites (Followers of Shiva) and Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu). It is said that carrying out dances in front of the Nataraja is bliss. Tons of folk dance performers get allured to Chidambaram during the festival of Natyanjali. Apart from religious importance, the place offers its visitors an excellent opportunity of sightseeing and shopping in and around the city.
HISTORY : The fable of Chidambaram starts with Lord Shiva walking into the Thillai Vanam indicating a variety of mangrove trees which can still be found in the Pichavaram wetlands in immediacy to Chidambaram. The two most renowned Rishis Vyaghrapada and Patanjali were paid a respect here in olden period. And the faith they had in the superiority of magic that deity could be controlled by magical words or rituals was achieved. On the other side Lord Shiva got delighted and it is said that during the festival of Thai Poosam, Lord makes known himself by performing cosmic dance. Subsequently, a dance hall was erected during 1251-1272 AD by Jatavarman Sundara Pandya.
3. CHITRAKOOT DHAM MADHYA PRADESH
Chitrakoot, nestled in Bundelkhand region, is a charismatic land of cultural, spiritual and historical significance to the folks traveling from every nook and corner of the world. It is a town where the past is pleasingly treasured in its colorful divine centers, while the serene rivers, peaceful woods and miraculous sights together make it a highly visited place in Madhya Pradesh, India. An illustrious place of superb fairy-tale significance, Chitrakoot imitates the quintessence of Hindu lifestyle. Fiestas and fairs in this holy town have a spiritual façade and it is geared up to eulogize the charm of Lord Rama with its different fairs. Ram Lila is the most legendary festival of Chitrakoot, held during the last week of February. People in abundance pay a visit during the festival of Mahashivratri to view the presentation of Ramayana.
According to the great epic Ramayana, God Rama stayed here with his consort Sita and younger brother Lakshman for 11 years out of the 14 years of his exile. Some of the famous sages like Dattatreya, Sarbhanga, Markandeya, Atri and many other soothsayers, pilgrims and philosophers have carried out meditation here. The triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh embodied the great sage Dattatreya also revered as ‘Lord Dattatreya’ for the triad in one body.
Also known as ‘Hills of Many Wonders’, different scriptures of ancient times have recounted the rich holiness of this pious place in a beautiful way. Valmiki addresses Chitrakoot in shining words as a great devout destination colonized by the great philosophers and many other sorts of plants and wildlife creatures. The celebrated poet Kalidas has depicted this amiable place in his epic Raghuvanshi. Not only these, several other Sanskrit and Hindi writers have paid homage to this holy town.
An exceptional experience in one of the beautiful wonders on earth in a pleasant and soothing ambience, Chitrakoot tenders to its visitors.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: JULY TO MARCH
4. DWARKA TEMPLE GUJARAT
A land of different spiritual beliefs and mores, Dwarka is among the seven pious cities of India where lots of festivals are being relished every year by thousands of devotees thronging from different parts of the world. Moreover, beautiful temples and impressive cultures inspire the folks in the charming city of spiritual enlightenment. A great religious place with much historical significance, it is tantamount with Lord Krishna and the city has achieved honors as the door to the much treasured liberation. No surprise, the place has its mention in Mahabharata and Skanda Purana. According to devout scriptures, Dwarka is one of the sacred sites that grant salvation since Lord Krishna created his earthly empire here. Its finest temples exhibits flamboyant architecture and connection with Lord Krishna, so don’t forget to pay a visit to these holy shrines offering a wholesome experience to cherish forever. Apart from this, the city is home to some of the tempting beaches where sparkling waters and salubrious climate allures the bystanders with its matchless charisma.
HISTORY: Dwarka is steeped in myths. It was known by the name of Kushasthali in ancient times. Being the most important center on the Saurashtra coast, it is deemed that after slaughtering Kansa, Dwarakadeesh left his home in Mathura. Lord Krishna moved with his complete Yadava community and arrived at the Saurashtra coast and discovered a place called Swarandwarika. As per the legends, when he was breathing his last breath, Lord Krishna requested his followers to get away from Swarnadwarika because it could be swallow up by the sea. After the death also, the city soaked in the water, destroying the whole Yadav family. Excavations have shown that the presence of well-planned spots on the coasts of the River Gomati, bestowing evidence of this celebrated faith.
5. MAHA DEVI TIRTH TEMPLE KULLU
The landscapes of Kullu and the serenity that fills the ambience created by enchanting Himalayas, Pine and Oak forests, and hot springs makes for a peaceful getaway in the abode of Maha Devi. The air filled with piety – a lingering sensation in the broad open valley of Kullu extends an invitation to the devotees of Devi Shakti who is believed to be residing in a cave.
Mahadevi Tirth Temple, located just 2 Km from Kullu Valley on Kullu – Manali road is believed to be Vaishno Devi temple in Kullu. Although the cave is newly found, devotees throng here inspired by their faith of its age old existence, hidden by Natural Forces. The foundation of the tirth was laid down by Swami Sewak Das ji who was a great worshipper of the Goddess.
HISTORY: Believers follow the person who was instrumental in locating and enshrining the place which now provides ‘Trimurti Darshana’. Swami Sewak Ji reached Kullu in 1962 inspired by his intuition and guided by an inner voice. Having reached to the place he had to face disappointment for not being able to locate the shrine. Returning did not do any good because he was sure of what he felt and thus went again. Then only he found the cave hidden by a huge stone and course of water. He worked hard to unveil the place and make it easier for devotees to come here and pay a visit to the Mother Goddess.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : OCTOBER TO JUNE.
6.MANIKARAN HIMACHAL PRADESH
The sanctity of God welcomes everyone who needs Him. This belief finds devotees of various religious inclinations at places of different faiths. One of the best examples is presented by Manikaran, 41 Km away from the hill station of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh.
This place in Kullu district holds importance for both Hindus and Sikhs, for different beliefs but for same reason of finding peace. Located in the Parvati Valley jointly formed by the rivers Beas and Parvati, Manikaran is revered by the people of both Hindu and Sikh religions. Former relates the place with the resettlement done by the Lord Manu after the ‘Great Flood’ and latter is associated with the arrival of Guru Nanak founder of the Sikh religion. As a result, a Gurudwara and many temples are present here marking the charisma of these two religions felt and impact intellect deeply.
There are many myths and legends that surround Manukaran, both Hindu and Sikh. The place is believed to have taken name from Sanskrit word ‘Mani’ meaning precious gem stones as the following Hindu myth suggests –
When Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati came to this part of earth, the goddess lost her precious ‘mani’ or jewel. Shiva sent his army to find it but they couldn’t which angered Shiva. This prompted Tandava – evoking the destructive forces of Nature. The serpent deity Sheshnaag then brought up the gemstone Parvati lost.
Another version of the story tells about Sheshnag deliberately taking the gemstone under earth, which angered Lord Shiva, forcing Sheshnaag to come spew hot water which still exists in the form of Hot Springs found in the area and with that the ‘mani’ Parvati though lost. The hot springs are known to be throwing jewels since then till the earthquake of 1905.
Sikh Legend is about Guru Nanak and his disciple Mardana having come to the place and feeling hungry, due to which Nanak asked him to set up ‘Langar’ – a kitchen for all. Mardana collected food material from the houses nearby and started making Roti. However as was no fire to cook it, Nanak asked him to remove a stone from where a hot water spring came up. When Mardana put rolled chapattis in the water as per the instruction of his Guru, it sank. Nanak then told his disciple to pray to God for the sunken chapattis to come up baked, so that donation of these could alleviate hungers of the needy. The prayers were answered, making the place pious for people of the Sikh religion.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : OCTOBER TO JUNE
The path of enlightenment begins via religious scriptures leading to the places where God has supposed to have left foot prints of His divine presence. Considered sure shot to enlightening salvation devotees embark on holy journeys – Pilgrimage, eager to measure those footprints with theirs. One such place of eternal charm is in the state of Uttarakhand, festooned with mighty Himalayas, holy Ganges and other eloquent welcoming attributes of Mother Nature – Rishikesh.
Going by the etymology, the sound of the name of the place in itself acts like an ablution for souls. Pronounced as ‘Hrishikesh’, the word breaks into ‘Hrishik’ meaning senses and ‘Ish’ meaning Master, joining to give complete meaning as ‘Master / Lord of Senses’ which refers to Lord Vishnu. There are various legends rooted in mythologies are associated with the places, making traveling to it more fun and learning. And traveling to Rishikesh is also important because it is considered to be the beginning point for the Yatra of Char Dham of Uttarakhand – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
The place has now earned a tacit reputation amongst the adventure maniacs as well who love to go to any extent to feel the rush in their blood. White Water River rafting in Ganges from various points makes for a favorite sport for them. Going to another level, they can try Bungee Jumping and some other sports that might give shock of a lifetime to those who are not into ‘adventure’ in any way.
And as if the fame was not enough, Rishikesh has also emerged as an international destination for Yoga, rightly assuming the title of ‘World Capital of Yoga’ and hence the thriving population of tourists from abroad.
The Skanda Purana tells about the penance of Raibhya Rishi, who was then bestowed by the appearance of Lord Vishnu as ‘Hrishikesh’, giving the place its present name. Another story elucidates about the place being named as Agnee Tirth – a fierce fire once broke out in the forest where the place is located, resulting in the anger of Lord Shiva. The incident was followed by the penance of Lord Agni to pacify the Lord, making it ‘Agnee Tirth’.
Pilgrims believe to escape to salvation by performing holy rituals in addition to austerities in this place. As a part of legendary Kedarkhand, the place is believed to be the one where Lord Rama did his penance for killing Ravana – a Brahmin, to wash away the sin of ‘Brahmahatya’. At one point when the brothers Ram and Lakshman had to cross River Ganges, Lakshmana built a jute-rope bridge, where present day Lakshman Jhoola stands.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : ROUND THE YEAR
8. VAISHNO DEVI TEMPLE JAMMU &KASHMIR
Energy is what has manifested itself in the various forms of life on Earth and whatever exists in this universe. This is what living beings strive for and non-living things are made up of. It is only natural that mere mortals get engaged in worshipping ‘Shakti’ as they deem fit, and Maa Vaishno Devi at Trikut Parvat is one of the most prominent of the places where devotees of Divine Mother of all the energies of cosmos is revered and venerated.
The temple of Maa Vaishno Devi in Katra located in Jammu region of the northern most state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) could be reached only after strenuous uphill trek covering 12 Km distance. Most of the devotees prefer the pedestrian way, on the road to ‘darbar’ or taking the stairs. People suffering from old age, physical ailments / handicap or any other issue can take ‘palkies’ carried by four men or on ponies / horses. During Navratri festival of 9 days held twice in the year – March-April and September-November as per the auspicious ‘tithi’ days, it gets most crowded but the devotion rings through all the more.
The cave which enshrines the three holy ‘pindis’ – stone representation of the three form of Energy – ‘Guna’- Satva, Tama and Raja, which are Mata Mahasaraswati, Mata Mahakali and Mata Mahalakshmi respectively. Although the source rock of pindis is one, they all differ in color and texture, said to be denoting the color of the goddesses they represent – slightly white for Mother Saraswati to the extreme left; to the right is black of Mother Kali, and in the middle is yellowish red of Mother Lakshmi.
The age of the cave is undoubtedly millions of years though the reference of the Goddess could not be found in age old Hindu scriptures of Puranas. The oldest reference to the Shakti is said to be found in Mahabharata, when Lord Krishna asks Arjuna to invoke the Goddess and he did, referring to ‘a goddess staying in the temple on the mountain slopes of Jamboo’. Moreover, the five stones in the mountain temple adjacent to the Trikuta hill are believed to be symbolizing each of the Pandavas.
The temple in present day is served by the descendents of Pandit Shree Dhar, and with him is attached the story of appearance of human form of Shakti in Maa Vaishnavi as young girl. Shreedhar was devout to Ma and arranged for a huge ‘Bhandara’ – luncheon in the name of Maa as per the wish of the Goddess in the girl. A Tantrik named Bhairav saw the mysterious powers of the girl and tried to get hold of Her, which She escaped but not for long. On the way, She shot an arrow from where a fountain of water came out masking Her presence. The water is present in the form of ‘Baan-Ganga’ (Baan means arrow). She then resided in the cave known as Gabha Gufa and meditated for nine months until Bhairav found Her. She then took form of Goddess Kali and beheaded him. But, She knew that the tantric was seeking her only to attain salvation, She granted his last wish and the boon of his shrine being visited by Her devotees as a completion ritual of Maa Vaishno Devi Yatra. Shreedhar on the other hand dreamt of Maa being present in the cave, followed his instincts and reached there. Since then, the priests serving the temple are of his lineage serving Maa Vaishnavi having taken the form of three pindis.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : OCTOBER TO JULY.
9. UDUPI TEMPLE KERALA
Whatever an individual does in his lifetime impacts his present as well as future and some philosophical and spiritual schools would tell about the next birth as well. The foundation of this philosophy is as old as the Hindu religion itself but Bhagavad Gita carves it in the grounds of history forever. Lord Krishna has uttered those divine words about ‘Karma Yog’ long back but the reverberations are still there, felt strongly in place like Udupi, Karnataka.
The name ‘Udupi’ might refer to a type of popular south Indian cuisine but that also takes its name from the place it has originated. The other popular names by which Udupi is reputed amongst its pilgrims are Rajata Peetha and Shivalli (also pronounced as Shivabelli). Temple festivals organized here keep the tourists and pilgrims coming here interested besides adding to their quotient of devotion and taste.
With the presence of several Ashrams and Matts (also pronounced as Muth), the Udupi, better known as ‘Parashurama Shishti’, has long served as a religious education centre. The prime among them is Asta Math, i.e. Eight Matts.
The history of the place is dominated by the presence of the Lord Krishna being present here in the idol form which is said to be as old as 13th century. The philosopher leader sage Madhvacharya propagated the idea of Dvaita (dualism) opposed to the Advaita (non-dualism) with respect to the Paramatman and the souls on the face of earth. He was the one credited with the installation of the idol present in the Krishna Temple of Udupi.
Udupi Sri Krishna MathaThe story begins with the sage magically saving a ship near Malpe beach which was supposed to have sailed from Dwaraka, the city of Krishna. The captain of the ship gifted him the statue of Lord Krishna in gratitude along with that of Lord Balarama. The idol of Balarama was installed in a temple near the beach itself while that of Krishna was installed in the temple called as Krishna Matha. It is already known that the Vaishnavite sage followed Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who is taken as the foundation of the theory of Dvaita.
He was later responsible for establishing eight of his key followers in eight different maths located around the Krishna Mutt to take care of the administration of the main temple and further enhance the preaching of the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy. These are referred to as ‘Ashta Mathas’.
Another legend is associated with the name of the place; Udu meaning stars and pa meaning Lord join to form Udupi as Lord of Stars. As the story goes, King Daksha with 27 stars as daughters cursed Moon, the husband of the daughter to lose his Shine. When the scourge took effect, Moon prayed to Lord Shiva to return his shine and the Lord blessed him. It is after then the Lord manifested himself in the form of Lingam, seen in the temple of Chandramouleshwara where Moon did his penance.
The place was under British prior to which kings who had sworn their allegiance with Mysore kings ruled it.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : ROUND THE YEAR
10. GAYA TEMPLE BIHAR
A soil of enlightenment, Gaya is a significant pilgrimage place that is steeped in great history. Equally important for Hindus as well as Buddhist, oodles of folks wish to understand, pursue and gather more information of Buddhism to bring harmony and peacefulness in their lives. This charming site is nestled on the banks of holy River Phalgu in the beautiful state of Bihar. It is a ritual site and renowned for Pind Daan. Hindu devotees from all across the world pay a visit to this consecrated place to carry out Pind Daan pooja for the liberation of the souls of their relatives. Gotten its name from the demon Gayasur, it is certainly a striking city enveloped by temple-crowned mountains. Its great inviolability, magnificent history and splendid appeal make it a must visit destination for any nature lover.
HISTORY: Gaya has its mention in the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sita, the companion of Lord Rama is deemed to have scourged the Phalgu River of which is a huge stretch of sand dunes. According to the legends, Sita had performed Pind Daan for Rama’s father Dasharatha. The story begins with Rama arriving to Gaya along with his brother and consort Sita to carry out the holy rituals for his father, Dasharatha. While the Lord Rama and Lord Lakshman were taking a bath in the sacred water, Goddess Sita was having fun with the sand. Swiftly, Dasharatha emerged of the sand and asked her to perform the Pinda herself. She was asked to make balls of sand instead of waiting for their arrivals for grains. Eventually she offered the Pinda with five bystanders including the Falguni River, a Brahmin, a cow, the Akshaya Vatam and a Tulsi plant. When Rama came back with the ingredients, Goddess Sita narrated a whole story. However, Lord Rama didn’t trust it. Thus Sita stood all her witnesses who saw the ritual happening in his absence. All of them took the side of Rama by saying a lie, while the Akshya Vatam acquainted with the reality. Seeing that, she cursed four of them by stating that a cow would never be paid homage from its front, Brahmins of Gaya would never be happy, they would always yearn for food, and no more Tulsi plants would be cultivated at Gaya. Pleased with Akshaya Vatam, she tendered the eternal blessings saying that who arrived at Gaya would do the Pinda daan at the Akshaya Vatam.
BEST TIME TO VISIT : MID SEPTEMBER TO MARCH.