Custodians of beliefs of more than a billion people: the holy places of India cross the boundaries of time to sanctify the lives around them.
If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India” -Max Mueller, German scholar
India has been praised by some of the great people who have lived on the Earth. The evidence of Indian civilization can be traced back to thousands of years. No other place can vouch for the sort of diversity, which fills every nook and cranny of this incredible country. The various religions, languages, dialects, traditions and customs provide many facets of the majestic country called India.
The geographic land of India has several marks of faith spread all across its length and breadth. Certain structures have several centuries of devotion backing them, granting more authenticity and reverence.
“India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.” – Mark Twain (American author)
Indian religions, especially Hindu faith, offer numerous Gods and Goddesses to seek blessings from.
Situated close to the Alaknanda River, the abode of Lord Badrinath is located in the Chamoli district, a small town of Badrinath (Uttarakhand). This holy shrine of Lord Vishnu forms a part of the four holiest sites (Char Dhams) in Hindu religion. It is also one of the four Chota Char Dham pilgrimage sites (comparatively minor pilgrimage sites). It is one of the 108 temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu (Divya Desams), which find mention in the works of Tamil saints who existed from 6th to 9th century.
The ancient abode of Lord Vishnu can be visited only between April to November as in the rest of the months the weather is too harsh for undertaking a pilgrimage journey. Two of the famous festivals related to the temple are –
Mata Murti-Ka-Mela – in which the mother of Lord Badrinath is worshipped and it takes place in the month of September.
Badri-Kedar Festival – extending to 8 days, it takes place in the month of June and is celebrated in both the temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath.
The Sun temple is situated in the small town of Konark, which is situated in the Puri district of Odisha. This marvel of architecture is dedicated to Lord Sun. And resembling his carriage, the temple has been built in the shape of a chariot, which has twelve wheels and is shown as being dragged by the seven horses.
The temple is believed to be constructed in the 13th century by a king called Narasimhadeva. Like with most things in India, this temple too has connections with a few legends. As per one of the legends, God Krishna cursed, one of his own sons with leprosy. To seek penance, Samba worshiped Lord Sun (Surya) for a period of twelve years. Pleased with his devotion, Surya healed him. Samba made the Sun temple in return to express his gratitude.
The mesmerizing beauty of the place was best summed up by the Rabindranath Tagore through these words: ‘Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.’
Also known as Peruvudaiyar Kovil and RajaRajeswaram, this 11th century temple was built by the Chola emperor Raja Raja Chola I. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, Brihadeeswara temple is the largest temple in India that is situated at Thanjavur city of Tamil Nadu.
Cholas are known for their majestic and splendid scale of structures. The opulence and artistic proficiency of Cholas is well reflected in the grand and magnificent architecture of the temple. Made entirely of granite stone, it was built as per the principles of Vaastu Shastras and Agamas.
The most remarkable thing related to the architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is that it doesn’t leave any shadow on the ground at the noon time. The millenary celebrations of its construction took place in 2010 amid many enthusiastic and grand cultural events.
This is one of the oldest pilgrimage centres in India and finds mention in the ancient books, like Shivpuran, Skandpuran and Shreemad Bhagvat. Som refers to the ‘Moon God’, thus Somnath means ‘Protector of the Moon God’. According to a legend, Som got the temple built in the honor of Lord Shiva as it was Shiva who cured the illness, which was inflicted on him due to his father-in-law’s curse.
It is one of the most revered ‘jyotirlings’ among the 12 existing jyotirlings of India. The temple is located in Prabhas Kshetra in Saurashtra (Gujarat). Prabhas Kshetra is also the region in which, it is believed that, Lord Krishna left his mortal body.
Another interesting thing about the place is that it is built on the shore of Arabian Sea and in between the temple and the South Pole, in a straight line there is no land area. Somnath temple was destroyed and re-built many times. The place also has a Somnath museum, Junagadh gate, beach and a sound and light show to amuse the pilgrims.
Situated in the Himalayan range of Garhwal area (Uttarakhand), Kedarnath temple is one of the most sacred Shiva temples in the world. This holy abode of Shiva is said to be built by the Pandavas to atone for their sins committed during their battle with Kauravs. The temple was restored by Adi Sankaracharya in 8th century. It is one of the Chota Char Dhams of Uttarakhand and requires a pilgrim to walk a distance of 14 kms over the hilly surface. One can make use of a pony or manchan to simplify the journey.
Surrounded by the glaciers and snow-covered peaks and standing at a height of 3,583 m, the temple is closed during winters due to severe cold conditions. Even the idol of Lord Shiva is shifted to Ukhimath and worshiped there throughout the 5/6 months for which the extreme conditions prevail.
Sanchi is a village in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, which is a home to several Buddhist structures built in between 3rd century BC to 12th century AD. The most significant of them all is the Sanchi Stupa, also known as the Great Stupa. A Stupa is a holy place of Buddhist, which is built in the shape of a dome that consists of relics of Buddha.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site this famous pilgrimage site in India was built by the great emperor Asoka in the 3rd century BC. There are four intricately designed gateways surrounding the Stupa known as Toranas, each individually symbolizing the four emotions of love, peace, courage and trust. The Great Stupa is 16 meters high and 37 meters in diameter and preserves the relics of Buddha.
Rameshwaram (or Rameswaram) is a small island town in Tamil Nadu and is one of the four holiest pilgrimage places (Char Dhams) of the Hindus.
The reason for its being so sacred is the belief that Lord Rama along with his wife Sita first landed on its shore after defeating the demon Ravana (who was also a Brahmin). To seek atonement for killing a Brahmin, Rama wanted to pray to Shiva. Hanuman was sent off to Kailash to bring an idol of the God. In the mean time, Sita made a small lingam. The one made by Sita is called Ramalingam and one brought by Hanuman is called Vishwalingam.
As per the instructions of Lord Rama, Vishwalingam is worshiped before the Ramalingam, even today.
After a trek of about 12 km from Katra (base camp), one reaches the holy cave, which is the abode of Maa (mother) Vaishno Devi and is located at an altitude of 5200 ft in a mountain called Trikuta. It is situated in Jammu and Kashmir, near Katra town.
Vaishno Devi is present here in the form of three rock heads, called the Pindies, instead of a statue. Due to the strong faith of the people, every year millions of them come to take the blessings of Maa Vaishno Devi. It is said that it is Maa Vaishno who decides her visitors. It is she who calls her devotees to her doorsteps. Anyone making a successful journey to her shrine is there because of her wish. The shrine is open all year round.
Located in Prabha Devi, Mumbai, Siddhivinayak Temple was built in the 18th century. Siddhivinayak or Lord Ganesha is the supreme deity of the temple and is famous for being the first one to be worshipped before commencing any new work or assignment. That is why he is also known as Vighnaharta (the terminator of impediments).
On the wooden doors of the shrine eight impressions of Lord Ganapati (Ashtavinayak) are carved. Siddhivinayak temple consists of one of the eight images of the God. Other distinct images are spread over seven temples situated in Maharashtra. The temple is visited by the devotees all days of the year but Tuesday is the day when maximum numbers of people come to pray to the Lord for good luck.
The sacred origin of Ganga Maa (mother) is worshipped at Gangotri temple, which is situated in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. A partially submerged Shivaling lying along the temple in the waters of Bhagirathi signifies the place where God Shiva entangled Ganga in his hair. Built in the 18th century the temple is made from the white granite.
The holy temple of Gangotri opens up on Akshaya Tritiya (usually falling in the months of April or May). On this occasion, an idol of Ganga Maa is brought back from the Mukhyamath temple (her winter abode), which is at a distance of 20 km. On Diwali, every year, Maa Ganga again travels back to the Mukhyamath temple.
Sri Harmandir Sahib (also known Darbar Sahib or Golden temple) is the most pious pilgrimage place for Sikhs. The temple was built on the values of universal brotherhood and equality. The four doors, opening in the four prominent directions, openly welcome people from any faith or race to seek religious and spiritual contentment. The structure, revered for its superb architecture, is built on a level lower than that of the immediate surroundings, symbolizing the value of humility.
The holy scripture of Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, was first placed in Sri Harmandir Sahib after its compilation and first Granthi (or head priest) of this Sikh pilgrimage centre in India, was Baba Buddha ji.
Located in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Kashi Vishwanath temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, also referred to as Vishwanath or Vishweshwara, meaning emperor of the universe. The city of Varanasi is also known as Kashi that is why the temple is famously called Kashi Vishwanath temple.
The distinguished temple has been visited by many great holy men like Swami Vivekanand, Adi Shankaracharya, Goswami Tulsidas and Gurunanak. The merit or the blessings received from sighting jyotirling at Kashi Vishwanath is equal to that earned from visiting the rest of the 11 jyotirlings placed at several areas in India. A visit to the sacred temple of Shiva is believed to be one of the ways through which one can attain Moksha (ultimate liberation of the soul).
Built in the 12th century, Jagannath temple is situated in Puri (Orissa) and is popularly called Jagannath Puri. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, the temple is one of the four holiest places (Char Dhams) of India. Inside the main temple, with the idol of Lord Krishna (Jagannath) in between, the idols of Lord Balabhadra (brother) and Goddess Subhadra (sister) are placed.
Non-Hindus cannot enter the premises of the temple. They can get a good view of this magnificent temple from the roof-top of the Raghunandan Library located just opposite to the temple. The annual and world famous Rath Yatra conducted at Puri gives a chance to get a good glimpse of the Lord Jagannath along with Balabhadra and Subhadra riding on the chariots. Thousands and thousands of people pulling the sacred chariot makes for a mesmerizing spectacle.
Yamunotri temple was built in the 19th century in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand and was damaged and rebuilt twice due to the damages inflicted by the natural disasters. Dedicated to Yamuna River, which is the second holiest river of India, the temple also forms the part of the four Chota Char Dham sites.
Located at the height of 3291 meters, the shrine of Mother Yamuna holds the idol of Goddess, which is built in black marble. The temple opens up on the day of Akshaya Tritiya and closes on the day after Diwali. Mother Yamuna spends the winter at a nearby village known as village Kharsali. The area around the Yamunotri temple doesn’t have any motorable roads, so it has to be reached by trekking for a few kilometers. The surroundings of the Yamunotri temple have many hot water springs to the delight of the visiting pilgrims.
This architectural wonder is situated in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) and is dedicated to Goddess Parvati (also known as Meenakshi) and her husband Lord Shiva. Madurai is the second biggest city of India and is also one of the oldest continuously populated cities of the world.
A dip in the Golden Lotus tank, situated in the temple, is considered auspicious and is usually taken before visiting the main shrine of the God and Goddess. As per a legend, the pond was created by Shiva and is even older than the temple. The temple has a hall, which consists of 985 pillars; each pillar is differently and intricately carved. The 12th century colorful temple was among the 30 nominees of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’.
The holy cave of Amarnath is located at an altitude of 3,888 meters in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Engulfed with ice-clad mountains, the cave is also covered with layers of snow most times of the year. In the summer season, (June to August) it becomes accessible and hence opens up to receive the pilgrims.
The cave is believed to be around 5000 years old. As per a popular legend, Buta Malik (a Muslim shepherd) met a holy man who handed him a bag full of coal. On reaching home, he found that the coal has got converted into gold. Moved by the miracle the shepherd went in search of the saintly man and instead found the sacred abode of Lord Shiva. The pilgrimage towards Amarnath consists of a 5 day trek in which the devotees brave tough and uncertain climatic conditions and walk for 40 miles (distance covers journey from: camp-holy cave-camp).
Lingaraja temple is one of the oldest and largest temples of the ‘Temple City of India’ – Orissa. Drenched in the architectural style typical of Kalinga, the temple doesn’t only attract religious devotees but also the historians.
The idol of Lingaraj usually represents Lord Shiva, but over here it symbolizes Shiva and Vishnu. The combined form of both the Gods is referred to as Harihara. A large lake called Bindu Sagar touches the temple from one side and is said to have healing powers. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the premises, thus they can see the magnificent structure from a platform outside the temple. Shivratri is the main festival of the temple.
Located in the hilly town of Tirumala (Andhra Pradesh), the temple is also known as Tirumala Venkateshwara temple. The temple is devoted to Lord Venkateshwara, who is popularly called ‘Balaji’ and is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Venkateshwara Tirupati Balaji is the second richest religious site with people offering money and gold to their Lord running into millions, each day.
The ancient temple has been visited by the rulers of many grand dynasties of Southern India. The temple celebrates many festivals, most famous among them is Brahmotsavam (also known as ‘Salakatla brahmotsavam’), which goes on for 9 days and witnesses a great mass of the devotees.
The laddoos (a kind of sweet), which are given in the form of prasadam in the shrine are famous around the world for their unique delectable taste. As a religious ritual, people get their heads tonsured in large numbers over here, so much so that every year about 6 million US dollars are earned through the auction of hairs.
‘The City of Thousand Temples’ – Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu) is one of the seven sacred places in India wherein the people can attain Moksha, as per the Hindu religion. Every temple in Kanchipuram is a fascinating piece of architecture. Among the most revered temples of Kanchi 3 major ones are mentioned below:
Kamakshi Amman Temple: Goddess Kamakshi is one of the manifestations of Parvati and unlike the standing poses in which we usually find her idols, the enchanting idol at Kamakshi temple is sitting in Padmasana (a yogic sitting posture).
Ekambareswarar Temple: This shrine of Lord Shiva is also the largest among all the temples of Kanchipuram. The main lingam of the Ekambareswarar temple is made of sand and is said to be built by the Goddess Parvati.
Varadaraja Perumal Temple: It is one of the 108 temples of Vishnu (Divya Desams). This temple along with the temples of Kamakshi and Ekambareswarar are collectively called Mumurtivasam (home of trio).
Khajuraho is a town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which houses several temples built between 10th to 12th centuries. Spread across an area of 20 sq km, the monuments of the town are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples are built of sandstone and dedicated to the deities of Hindus and Jains.
The temples are world famous for the erotic cravings, which can be seen along other cravings depicting the activities of routine life. It is believed that there were over 75 temples in the area but right now about 20 exist. The temples have been divided into three zones – eastern, western and southern. The Western zone consists of the most famous temples; the largest temple of Khajuraho, Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, falls under this zone.
An annual Khajuraho Dance Festival, celebrating classical dance forms of India, is held against the background of Chitragupta or Vishwanath temple in the first week of February.
Built in the 7th century, the temple is famous for being a functioning temple ever since it came into the existence. Located in the village of Hampi, it is one of the most famous temples among the various other temples of Hampi. All heritage sites of Hampi have been recognized by the UNESCO.
A shrine of Shiva, Virupaksha temple is a very important religious as well as the tourist destination. The pilgrimage centre has expanded in scale over a period of time. Shiva in the form of Virupaksha is the consort of local goddess Pampa and that is why the temple is also called Pampapathi temple. Many festivals take place in the temple celebrating the engagement and wedding of the couple.
Constructed on the principles of Vastu Shastra and Pancharatra Shastra, this temple is situated near the banks of Yamuna in Delhi. The Indian-ness of the temple is reflected in its resemblance with ancient Indian architecture and the spirituality that the place exudes. The principal deity of Swaminarayan faith, Lord Swaminarayan, is the central figure of Akshardham. His 11 feet high idol lies below the central dome of the temple.
The structure has been built of Rajasthani pink stone and Italian Carrara marble. The magnificent temple of Akshardham looks more stunning during the night with the beautifully set lighting arrangements. There are many ways like exhibition, movie, statues and boat ride through which the information about the history and philosophy of the Swaminarayan sect and its founder is given to the visitors. Light and music show, which takes place in the evening, is the most fascinating element of the temple.
Built during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1656, Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir is the oldest Jain temple in Delhi. Made in the honor of the 23rd Tirthankara, Parashvanath, the temple is made in red sandstone.
Standing right across the Red Fort, the temple consists of a charitable bird hospital, which has different wards for different species, a research laboratory and an intensive care unit. The hospital came in to being in 1956 and exemplifies one of the basic principles of Jainism, which states that all living beings (no matter how small or insignificant) have a right to freedom.
Situated in the Shravanabelagola town of Karnataka, Gomateshwara temple is dedicated to Lord Bahubali also known as Gomateshwara. Built in the 10th century it is one of the most important pilgrimage places for Jains. The statue inspires awe among people world over because of its unique structure. Standing at an enormous height of 58.8 ft the idol is carved out of a single granite rock. This monolithic structure stands at such a great height without any external support. The base of the Bahubali idol has got inscriptions written in three different languages – Marathi, Kannada and Tamil.
The most important event occurs in the temple after every 12 years. It is called Mahamastakabhishek and is a very important festival for Jains. In which Lord Bahubali is bathed and smeared with various things like saffron paste, sugarcane, turmeric, milk and vermillion and offered various precious stones and coins (like gold and silver).
Ranakpur is a village in the Pali district of Rajasthan and falls between Udaipur and Jodhpur. One of the very famous pilgrimage sites in India, the majestic 15th century Jain temple is dedicated to Lord Adinatha. It is counted among the 5 major sacred places of Jains.
The marvelous architecture of the temple structure brought it among the list of 77 nominees at the time of determining the new Seven Wonders of the World. Completely built from light colored marble, the great structure is well supported with the help of about 1400 superbly carved pillars. The temple uses natural light of sun as the only means of illumination.
The holy temple of Sai baba was built in 1922, in the Shirdi town of Maharashtra. Located about 296 kms from Mumbai, the small town of Shirdi has attained fame due to its association with Shri Sai Baba.
Spread in an area of 200 sq. Km, the shrine was made over the Samadhi of Sai Baba. Each day around 25,000 devotees come for Baba’s darshan and on festivals the figure comes into lakhs. Ramnavmi, Guru Purnima and Vijayadashami are the major festivals that are celebrated with great enthusiasm and passion. The principles of Sai Baba (like love, charity, forgiveness) are spread through the land of Shirdi, which has been made holy by the pure soul.
Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala is the place where one of the 108 Divya Desams (sacred dwellings of Lord Vishnu) is situated in the form of Lord Padmanabhaswamy. Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple can be visited only by the Hindus. There is a strict dress code while entering the temple for men (dhoti without any kind of shirt) and women (sari or skirt and blouse).
The elegant and splendid idol of Lord Vishnu is reclining over a 5 hooded serpent called Anantha. The idol of the Lord is very fascinating as it displays the supreme trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (or Shiva). Out of the navel of Lord’s statue a lotus is seen as coming out over which Lord Brahma (the protector) is sitting. That is why Vishnu (the creator) is also called Padmanabha, i.e. lotus-navel. Under the right palm of the stretched out hand of Padmanabha there is a Shiva lingum (the destroyer), completing all three powers into one.
The holy abode of Lord Krishna, Dwarkadhish temple is situated in the Dwarka city (Gujarat). Also known as Jagat Mandir, the temple has two doors for entry and exit for pilgrims. The entry door is called Swarg Dwar (doorway to heaven) and the exit door is called Moksha Dwar (the doorway to liberation).
A part of the Char Dham pilgrimage, the 5-story structure of the temple is standing with the support of 72 pillars. Placed on the banks of River Gomti the temple reaches the height of 51.8 meters and a flight of 56 steps need to be taken to reach the Swarg Dwar. Inside the shrine, the Lord dazzles his devotees through his image built in black stone and reaches up to 2.25 ft.
Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1939, the temple was built by the industrialist Baldeo Das Birla in Delhi and can be visited by people of all castes and creed. Laxminarayan is a form of Lord Vishnu (Narayan) when he is with Goddess Lakshmi (his consort).
The primary shrine is devoted to Laxminarayan, other smaller shrines are dedicated to other Gods like Shiva, Hanuman, Krishna, Ganesh and Buddha. Spread in an area of 7.5 acres the temple is one of the tourist attractions of Delhi and has a huge garden, fountains and a large hall called Geeta Bhawan to conduct discourses, apart from the holy shrines.
Also known as the Krishna Balaram mandir, ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) was built in the year 1975. Located in the holy land of Vrindavan (Mathura, Uttar Pradesh), the land which is believed to be the abode of Lord Krishna in his young age, the ISKCON temple is well known for the utmost standard of cleanliness and worship they maintain. The chants of ‘Hare Krishna’ reverberate in the temple all hours of the day.
The temple belongs to the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect of Hinduism, which was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 16th century. Inside the temple there are idols of Krishna, Radha, Balarama, along with the idols of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Swami Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON).
For understanding India in its various hues one can start from its temples, i.e. undertake a Pilgrimage holiday in India and start to learn what binds its diverse population and begin to unravel the intriguing phenomenon called India. Mahatma Gandhi said that the essence of all religions is one; only their approaches are different. Likewise, from the different temples of India, one can realize the essence of the enigmatic land of India.
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