Last Updated: July 18, 2018 Anil Rana
India is aptly known as the land of diverse cultures, traditions and ethnicities and yet, inspite of such diversity, what binds the people here is their faith in that one supreme power that dwells in different forms. While primarily Northern and Southern states of India are widely known for their temples and other pilgrimage sites, not many are aware of the fact that even the North-Eastern part of India has a rich treasure trove of religious places hidden in its store. Whether you are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jain or a Buddhist, the land of seven sisters is sure to surprise you with its wealth of pilgrimage destinations that well cater to people belonging to different religions and faiths. So, if you are a travel enthusiast or a pilgrim and planning for a spiritual journey, get off the conventional track this time and think of embarking on a pilgrimage excursion in North East part of India – a journey that is truly going to be an eye-opener for you. If you need an extensive travel guide that lists down the prime religious destinations in North East India, here is a list of 17 important pilgrimage sites, specially created for you.
Kamakhya Devi Temple, Assam
‘Kamakhya Devi Temple’, situated atop the Nilanchal Hill in Guwahati, Assam, is one of the most famous Hindu temples in North East India dedicated to Goddess Kamakhya, a manifestation of Goddess Shakti who is believed to be the master of many great tantric powers. Considered to be one of the 51 ‘Siddha Shaktipeeths’ in India where the womb and ‘yoni’ or ‘vagina’ of Goddess Sati is supposed to have fallen when she immolated herself, the temple holds a great religious significance in the hearts of Hindu pilgrims who travel here from far off corners of the country to pay their reverence and to get their wishes fulfilled. An annual 3-days fair called the ‘Ambubasi Mela’ is quite famous at the temple and is organized in the month of June every year when it is believed that Goddess Kamakhya goes through her yearly cycle of menstruation. The fair is a huge crowd puller for pilgrims, tantrics, sadhus, saints, tourists and curious travellers from different parts of India and across the globe. Main highlight of this fair are the gory acts and rituals performed by tantrics to please the Goddess. These unusual acts lure scores of international tourists and media, interested in witnessing some weird cultures and practices prevalent in the Indian society. The temple remains closed during the 3 days of the fair and on the final day, Goddess is bathed and purified by the temple priests. On the 4th day, the temple gates are re-opened with much fanfare for the devotees, waiting for hours in long queues, just to get the divine darshans of the Goddess.
Bhuvaneswari Temple, Assam
Guwahati in Assam, hides in its store, another famous temple – the ‘Bhuvaneswari Temple’ that also sits on top of the scenic Nilachal Hill, 165 ft. above the Kamakhya Temple. This ancient temple dedicated to Goddess Bhuvaneswari, another form of Goddess Durga also holds as much significance in the hearts of devotees as the famous Kamakhya Devi Temple; pilgrims and tourists travel here covering long distances from far off corners of India. Like the famous Kamakhya Devi Temple, ‘Bhuvaneswari Temple’ is also an important venue for the ‘Ambubasi Mela’ and celebrates it on a large scale. Another important occasion when the temple sees great rush is during the Manasha Puja. Besides being a pious Hindu pilgrimage destination in Assam, the temple is also noted for offering mesmerizing vistas of the massive Brahmaputra River, lush valleys and hills that surround the area. Best time to visit the temple is certainly during the sunrise; not only the sunrise views in early morning here fill your hearts with pleasure and joy but, the spiritual atmosphere too casts a magical spell, leaving you enchanted for hours. You can spend here quite some time sitting and soaking your souls in ethereal natural beauty of the place.
Billeswar Temple, Assam
If you are on a pilgrimage tour in North East India, especially in Assam, you must definitely plan a visit to the Nalbari district of this beautiful state. The town is not only famous for its ancient temples but, also provides you with a unique blend of culture and scenic beauty. The primary highlight of Nalbari is its famous ‘Billeswar Temple’ that definitely marks its place on the travel itineraries of pilgrims touring the state. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, this temple is believed to have been built around 500 years back and since then it has been luring hordes of devotees and pilgrims from many parts of the country. The history of the temple is associated with the local legend of a priest who had a cow that gave milk only on the bush of virina, a type of grass, located at a particular spot near the village. This behaviour of the cow came to the notice of the local king and he gave orders to dig that place. Surprisingly, a Shivlinga was unearthed from that particular spot and later, the ‘Billeswar Temple’ was consecrated at that very place. Interesting point to note about the temple is that though a Shivlinga was found here, the temple is primarily dedicated to Lord Krishna and devotees of Krishna from all over the country travel here to pay their homage.
Sri Surya Pahar, Assam
Located in the Goalpara district of Assam, is yet another famous pilgrimage and archaeological site of North East India, ‘Sri Surya Pahar’ – a hill showcasing cultural remains of three prime religions of India: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The site lies at a distance of approximately 140 km. from the capital city of Guwahati and is visited by hundreds of tourists, pilgrims and archaeologists alike. Nestled amidst the hilly terrain, with a backdrop of lush forests, the site is no less than an art gallery of sculptures, housing several rock-cut Shivlingas, votive Stupas and carvings of deities of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist pantheons. Many ruins of ancient temples can also be seen in the region, most note-worthy of which is the ‘Surya Mandir’ or the ‘Sun Temple’, a site where people still come and worship. According to mythological legends, ‘Surya Pahar’ was built as a city by Lord Brahma and was filled with 99999 carvings of Shivlingas in order to give it the status of second Kashi. Even today, though the exact number of Shivlingas is yet to be figured out, hundreds of them can still be seen in all sizes scattered around the site, making it a significant place of pilgrimage for Hindus.
‘Surya Pahar’ is also an important Jain pilgrimage centre in North East India, housing many carvings of Jain tirthankaras. The carving of first Jain Tirthankara, Sri Adiguru found in sitting position with two bulls in the base is one of the most note-worthy of all.
Besides Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhism also seems to have left its mark on this very sacred place. With 25 votive stupas existing in different sizes at southern fringe of the hill, the site undoubtedly makes for an important Buddhist pilgrimage centre too in North East region of India.
For those interested in combining their pilgrimage excursion with some historical exploration, ‘Sri Surya Pahar’ is a must visit place. An annual fair is also organized here every year which is a big crowd puller.
Asvakranta Temple, Assam
For Vaishnavites on a pilgrimage tour in Assam, must definitely make a visit to the famous ‘Asvakranta Temple’ located in the north of Guwahati, on a rocky outcrop touching the waters of Brahmaputra. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the presiding deity here is of ‘Anantasayin Vishnu’, Lord Vishnu in his reclining position, resting on the thousand-headed serpent. According to legends, the temple is located on the same position where Lord Krishna on his way to Dwarka, rested for some time as his horse (‘Asva’) had got tired (‘Aklanta’). Many Krishna devotees travel to this temple from far and wide to specially perform ‘Shradha’ puja for the departed souls. It is believed that performing the last rituals here on the banks of the holy Brahmaputra River, washes all the sins of the deceased and provides him a place in heaven. On the eastern side of the temple, touching the Brahmaputra, is a footprint which is believed to be that of Lord Krishna. So, before leaving the temple, make it a point to get the darshans of this sacred imprint.
Ugratara Temple, Assam
Yet another of the famous Shakti shrines, ‘Ugratara Temple’ holds a great religious significance for devotees of Goddess Shakti or Parvati. The temple originally dates back to 1725 AD and is dedicated to Goddess, Ugra Tara, another manifestation of Goddess Parvati. Unlike other Hindu temples, Ugratara doesn’t have any idol or image of the deity. Rather, inside the temple core there is a small pit filled with water which signifies the Goddess. ‘Ugratara Temple’ is also one of the 51 shaktipeeths where the naval of Sati is believed to have fallen. A pilgrimage tour in North East India is definitely incomplete without visiting this sacred shrine. Friday is considered to be an auspicious day of the week at this temple and special pujas and ceremonies are performed to please the Goddess. Besides, the festival of Navratri is also celebrated with great enthusiasm. Lacs of devotees from far and wide travel here during the nine days of Navratri to seek blessings of the mother Goddess. For tourists travelling from different countries, the festivities and rituals during the festival comprising of animal sacrifices can be little unusual, yet a great spectacle.
Hajo Powa Mecca, Assam
Situated atop the Garurachala Hills in Kamrup district of Assam, ‘Powa Mecca’, meaning “a quarter of Mecca” is an important pilgrimage centre for Muslims. The shrine is also renowned as the tomb of Pir Giasuddin Auliya, an Iraqi prince turned preacher who consecrated the site in 12th century by enshrining a lump of soil brought here from Mecca. Later, in 1657 AD, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, a mosque was built on this very site and pilgrims started pouring in to pray and worship. It is believed that offering prayers at Powa Mecca blesses the faithful with one-fourth of the merits that he would have attained by making a haj pilgrimage to Mecca itself. That is the reason hundreds of Muslim pilgrims from all across India travel to this holy site; and the number gets multi-fold during the festival of Urs which is celebrated here with great enthusiasm and zest. The site is also frequented by many Hindus too, especially on the full moon night of the month of Jaistha. So, if you are on a tour of spiritual places in Assam, do not forget to visit this sacred shrine.
Parsuram Kund, Arunachal Pradesh
Situated on the lower banks of the Lohit River in Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh is yet another famous pilgrimage destination of North East India, the ‘Parsuram Kund’. According to mythological legends, the holy kund sits at the very site where in puranic times, Lord Parsuram took a dip and washed off his sins of killing his own mother. Being a significant religious site, pilgrims in huge numbers flock here to take a dip in its holy waters and the number gets double-fold on the auspicious occasion of Makar Sakranti that falls in the month of January every year. Flanked by beautiful hills, virgin forests and blessed with stupendous natural beauty, the place is no less than a heaven; one can sit on the river side for hours, gazing the natural beauty and taking in the purity and divinity deeply filled in the air.
Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
Nestled amidst the serene Tawang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, is the famous ‘Tawang Monastery’, one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrim sites across India. Founded in late 19th century, the monastery houses a Dukhang (main assembly hall), a court used for religious fests and ceremonies, a library and residential quarters for the monks. Dukhang is the primary attraction of this magnificent monastery with its interior walls painted with splendid sketches of several Buddhist saints and Boddhisatvas. A huge statue of Lord Buddha and thangkas painted with blood drawn from the nose of fifth Dalai Lama, also adds to the artistic charm of the sacred hall. Owing to the monastery’s great religious significance, it is visited by scores of pilgrims and tourists every year. Standing tall in its enchanting glory like a majestic fortress, 10,000 ft. above sea level and flanked by picturesque Himalayan ranges, offering magical views across the valley, needless to say, this beautiful monastery also makes for a perfect destination for those seeking mental peace and solitude, away from hustle bustle of today’s fast paced lives; one can come here to stay for a couple of hours and spend a peaceful time meditating and connecting himself with the ultimate divine power.
Akashganga Temple, Arunachal Pradesh
Also known as ‘Malinithan Temple’, the ‘Akashganga Temple’ located on the foothills of Siang Hills in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh is another popular Hindu pilgrimage site in North Eastern state of India and is visited by hordes of devotees and tourists every year. Dedicated to Goddess Durga, the temple showcases a classical Odissa style of architecture. The interiors of the temple are adorned with beautiful carvings of Hindu pantheons and animal & flower motifs dating back to 14th-15th century AD. According to Kalika Purana, it is at this place where Lord Krishna and his wife Rukmini, on their way to Dwarka after their marriage rested for some time and Goddess Parvati welcomed them with garlands. Also, Goddess Parvati addressed Rukmini with the name of Malini and thus, the place and this temple got its name. As far as the date of construction of this temple is concerned, the original temple is believed to have been built somewhere between 14th and 15th century AD but, the site lay deserted for centuries till the archaeological excavations in 20th century revealed the temple ruins along with many other artefacts such as carved pillars and granite sculptures dating back to the bygone era. Soon, the temple was restored to its original glory and devotees started flocking in with their prayers and wishes. There is a sacred kund near the temple where devotees often take a holy dip before entering the sanctum sanctorum. Needless to say, a very popular religious site, the ‘Akashganga Temple’, also fascinates many archaeologists and historians who often flock here in great numbers to study the art and architecture that was prevalent in the region during olden times.
Bomdila Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
Established in 1965, the ‘Bomdila Monastery’, located in west Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, is yet another significant site of Buddhism pilgrimage in North East India. The monastery was set up by the twelfth reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche in 1965 and was further blessed by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama in the year 1997. One of the most important Buddhist pilgrim centres and a major tourist attraction in Arunachal Pradesh, needless to say, it invites countless pilgrims and tourists every year. Inside the sacred gompa, visitors will find a prayer hall, a temple of Buddha, residential quarters for the lamas and a study centre for young monks who want to pursue the monastic life. Perched at a height of 8000 ft., surrounded with snow-clad Himalayan peaks, lush forests and stupendous natural beauty, the ‘Bomdila Monastery’ is not only a place for spiritual enlightenment but, also an ideal spot to take in the essence of nature. Best time to plan your visit to this monastery is during the festivals of Losar, Saka Dawa or Lhabab Duechen when various enchanting rituals and ceremonies performed here, are sure to leave you captivated and charmed for years.
Unakoti Hill Temples, Tripura
Counted amongst the 7 wonders of India, ‘Unakoti Hills’ are a prime tourist attraction and a significant Hindu pilgrimage destination in northeastern state of Tripura. Tourists and pilgrims from far off corners of the country travel here to worship and admire the huge and fabulous rock-cut images of Hindu pantheons carved on these hills that date back to period between 7th and 9th centuries. While these marvellous carvings are a prime attraction here, the splendid mountain scenery and picturesque waterfalls just add to their magical charm.
‘Unakoti’ actually means one less than a crore in Bengali and it is believed that these many rock-cut images have been carved here. According to mythological legends, once a sculptor and a devotee of Lord Shiva requested the lord and his consort, Parvati to take him to Kailash along with them. Lord Shiva then, kept a condition in front of him asking him to make one crore statues of him in one night. The sculptor worked all night carving the images but, when the figures were counted next day, they were one less than 1 crore and hence, this place got its name.
Another legend says that Lord Shiva was once travelling to Varanasi along with one crore Gods and Goddesses including him. On the way, they took some rest around these hills and before going to sleep, Lord Shiva instructed everyone to wake up at dawn to continue their journey further. In the morning, only Lord Shiva woke up and seeing everyone else still sleeping, he got enraged and cursed them to become stone sculptures and stay here forever. Since then, the hills are believed to have these images and idols carved into them. Although, these legends may seem to be true but, in reality there is actually no proof as to who got these sculptures created and the reason of carving them in such a secluded place. The Archaeological Survey of India is yet to carry out a detailed study of the region.
While there are many carvings and stone idols that can captivate your hearts with their beauty and eye-catching work of art, the 30 ft. high carving of Lord Shiva’s head on the central hill, known as ‘Unikotiswara Kal Bhairava’ deserves a special mention. Complete with an elaborate hairdress that covers one-third of the relief structure impresses everyone with its sheer beauty and magnificence. Some of the other noteworthy sculptures include the gigantic figures of Ganesha, three enormous half-buried idols of Nandi bull and carving of Goddess Durga standing on the lion.
Unakoti probably has a story yet to be told; one finds a unique blend of folklore, religion and nature here under one roof but what’s most noteworthy is its craftsmanship. When you are in Tripura, this amazing site definitely warrants a visit. Also, it is best to be visited around the annual fair of Ashokashtmi that is held every year in the months of March and April.
Tripura Sundari Temple, Tripura
A North East India pilgrimage tour is incomplete without visiting the sacred ‘Tripura Sundari Temple’, located in the ancient capital city of Tripura, Udaipur. This ancient city has a history spanning 1170 years when it was under the reign of Manikya Dynasty, the rulers of which got several palaces, temples and mosques constructed in the region. Though many of the archaeological treasures of Udaipur have today, faded, the glory of ‘Tripura Sundari Temple’ still upholds its original grace and dignity. The main presiding deity of this temple is Goddess Tripura Sundari, a manifestation of Goddess Parvati, also known as Tripureshwari and Soroshi in local language. An interesting feature of this sacred shrine is that along with Goddess Parvati, Lord Vishnu is also worshipped here; this makes the temple an exceptional site showcasing a unique harmony between Shaivite and Vaihanvite sects of Hinduism. The temple is also considered to be one of the 51 ‘Siddha Shaktipeeths’ in India where the right foot of Goddess Sati is believed to have fallen after she immolated herself, therefore, the religious significance of ‘Tripura Sundari Temple’ is much more than any other temple in the region; thousands of devotees from all walks of life, irrespective of their caste or religion gather here every year, especially on the occasion of Diwali, to pay their obeisance to the goddess.
Besides being accounted as a significant place of pilgrimage in Tripura, the temple also ranks amongst the top tourist attractions in the state and has associated with it, a great historical significance too. The architecture of the temple with its roof designed in the shape of the hump of a tortoise, is one of its own kind. Owing to this unique shape, the temple is also locally famous as ‘Kurma Peetha’ where ‘Kurma’ means a tortoise. On the backside of the temple is a small lake called Kalyansagar which is full of tortoise and variety of fishes. One can feed these aquatic creatures with some food such as rice flakes or biscuits that are readily available on the stalls lined up near the entrance of the temple. The serene settings of the lake are also sure to leave you rejuvenated and revived from inside.
Sri Govindajee Temple, Manipur
Dedicated to Lord Krishna and his consort, Radha, ‘Sri Govindajee Temple’ is the largest Hindu Vaishnavite temple located in Imphal, the capital city of the state of Manipur in North Eastern part of India. Constructed in 1846 by the then Manipur ruler, the temple also boasts of being one of the oldest in the city. The palatial architecture of the temple adorned with two prominent golden domes, houses a paved portico and main sanctum sanctorum, complete with an ambulatory passage. The presiding deity inside the sanctum is of Lord Govindajee, another name of Lord Krishna; along with the idol of Govindajee, is the idol of his consort, Devi Radha. Idols of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra can also be seen in other parts of the temple. While many devotees and tourists throng to the temple to pray and get the darshans of the almighty, the tranquil surroundings of the place dotted with lush trees, picturesque gardens and a serene lake, makes them sit amidst nature for hours, enjoying the cool fresh breeze of air and soaking their souls in the deep aura of tranquillity and spirituality. If you are planning to visit this sacred site, if possible, plan a visit around the occasions of Holi and Krishna Janmashtmi when the temple is beaming with big celebrations and festivities; Ras Leela and Manipuri folk dance performances at the temple during these festivals are the greatest attractions and truly a sight to behold.
Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim
The largest monastery in Sikkim, ‘Rumtek Monastery’ is one of the most renowned monasteries in India and definitely, a must visit place during your holidays in this beautiful state. Serving as one of the most important seats of the Kagyu Sect (Black Hat) of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet, the monastery makes as a significant centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and is visited by countless pilgrims and devotees every year. The architecture of this enchanting monastery reflects a signature Tibetan style and is adorned with some of the rarest Buddhist religious artwork in the world in form of intricate wall murals, thangkas and statues. The monastery also enshrines a golden stupa which is believed to contain relics, ashes and religious objects & scriptures belonging to the 16th Karmapa. The Nalanda Institute is another prominent attraction at Rumtek and serves as a centre of education for the monks. On a typical day at the monastery, you can see endless streams of tourists and pilgrims flowing in to offer their prayers or to meditate amidst extreme tranquillity and solace; sit on the open terrace of the monastery for few moments and watch the devotees spin the prayer wheels, listen to the peaceful chants by the monks or just soak your souls in splendid vistas of nature, replete with lush green landscapes, misty & snowy mountains and small flowing streams. Needless to say, a day spent at the ‘Rumtek Monastery’ is definitely going to be a step towards a spiritual enlightenment and is sure to leave you with an unmatched sense of peace, divinity and solitude.
Enchey Monastery, Sikkim
Another significant Buddhist Monastery in North East India and one of the most famous tourist attractions of Gangtok, the ‘Enchey Monastery’ lies at a distance of just 3 km. from the main city centre. It is perched on the ridge of a hill offering some mesmerizing views of the Kanchenjunga range. The architecture resembles a typical Chinese pagoda with a shining golden cupola crowning its head. The interiors of the monastery are as captivating as its exteriors, with its walls covered in colourful thangkas and murals. Splendid work of Buddhist art can also be seen on its beautifully carved windows and doorways; no wonders, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful monasteries in Sikkim. An important place of worship for Buddhists in Sikkim, the ‘Enchey Monastery’ was established in 1909 and according to local legends, it is believed that Guru Padmasambhava had subdued the spirits of Mt. Kanchenjunga and Yabdean at this very monastery hence, sanctifying it with spiritual powers. That is the reason, Buddhist devotees from different corners of the world come here in huge numbers every year to seek blessings and to get their wishes fulfilled. Besides being a religious destination, the artistic charm of this monastery is so magical that even tourists travelling to Sikkim make it a point to visit here at least once. Best time to visit this monastery is certainly during the festivals of Losar and Losoong when entire Gangtok valley is beaming with spirit of festivities and merry making. The exuberant celebrations are topped with Cham dances, vibrant costumes and off-course traditional Sikkimese food.
Samdruptse Hill, Sikkim
Known for its tallest statue of Guru Padmasambhava in the world at 120 ft., ‘Samdruptse Hill’ is the major tourist attraction of Namchi town in Sikkim and an important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists in North East India. The shimmering copper and bronze statue sitting in its mesmerizing glory against the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range, undoubtedly, provides for an awe-inspiring sight, captivating the hearts of the onlookers. ‘Samdruptse’, in local Bhutia language means the ‘wish fulfilling hill’ and therefore, the place is visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike to offer prayers. The prayer halls inside the complex gives you a lifetime opportunity to spend here some time meditating and connecting yourselves with the almighty. If you are an avid photographer, needless to say, with its unmatched natural vistas, the hill is a paradise for you offering countless opportunities to capture the ethereal natural beauty of the place in your cameras forever. For those looking to spend a peaceful and tranquil time amidst nature, nothing can be better than the beautiful rock garden situated on the base of the hill; enjoy a picnic lunch here or just take a leisurely stroll gazing at the stunning scenery.
The pilgrimage tours not only embark you on spiritual journeys but also help you get closer to nature and its creations. And at such a scenic place like North East India, a religious excursion is a unique and enlightening experience in itself. Hope the above list of religious destinations help you plan for an exciting journey.
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Published: 06 Sep, 2016