Jammu and Kashmir is home to various religions, and therefore, also to many pilgrimage sites. Two of these, Amarnath and Vaishno Maa Devi Temple are renowned for attracting a large number of devotees every year. The famous pilgrimage sites in Jammu and Kashmir possess a historical, apart from spiritual, significance. This is because many of them date back to the earliest times. The beauty enveloping the various religious places enhances the entire spiritual experience. While Jammu and Kashmir Valley are dotted with numerous temples, mosques and gurudwaras, it's an entirely different world when you head to Ladakh. Here, Buddhism is the main religion, with the landscape being dominated by monasteries and fluttering prayer flags being a common sight.
The holy shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi is one of the most visited pilgrimage destinations in Jammu and Kashmir. She is venerated throughout the world as a benevolent mother who fulfils all the wishes of her devotees. The cave is situated at an amazing altitude of 5,200 ft, and to reach it, devotees need to undertake an arduous 12km yatra. It is believed that the deity resides in these caves, and manifests herself to her devotees in the form of darshans (built in the shape of three natural rock formations called pindies). There are no statues and idols to be found inside the cave.
Jamia Masjid is another famous pilgrimage destination in Jammu and Kashmir which is noted for its 370 wooden pillars. Built in 1400 AD during the reign of Sultan Sikandar, it is one of the must visit tourist attractions in Srinagar. Built in the Indo-Saracen style of architecture, it consists of a spectacular courtyard. Muslims also attach a unique importance to this mosque, and believe that if they offer prayers in it, will be forgiven of all their sins.
Amarnath Cave is perhaps the most visited pilgrimage site in Jammu and Kashmir. Every year, a large number of devotees undertake the Amarnath Yatra. It has been accorded such an enormous importance that it's considered to be one of the 18 Maha Shakti Peethas in South Asia. The yatra begins in July every year and continues well into August. Inside the cave, which is almost 40 meters high, there is a vertical ice formation which Hindus consider to be a Shivlinga. Its religious significance is enormous no doubt, as this is where Lord Shiva elaborated on the concepts of life and eternity to Goddess Parvati, his companion.
Shankaracharya Temple has been called by different names during different periods, and yet, it has continued to charm people with an air of mystery surrounding it. Standing on a hill which goes by the same name as the temple, it was built of ancient grey stones. It possesses an enormous spiritual significance because it was here that Adi Shankaracharya preached enlightenment in 750 AD. It is accessible via a flight of stairs. Once you reach the top though, you are treated to amazing views of the surroundings.
Raghunath Temple is the largest of all the pilgrimage sites in Jammu and Kashmir. It is a collection of seven shrines, and together, they make up the largest temple complex in North India. Even though there are numerous gods inside the shrine, the presiding deity is Lord Rama, who is also known as Raghunath. All the seven shrines have their own spiral shaped towers with gold plated spires. It was Maharaja Gulab Singh who began the construction of the temple, and Maharaja Ranbir Singh who completed it. The niches of the temple are adorned with 300 icons of various gods and goddesses. Most of them though, depict stories from the lives of Rama and Krishna.
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib is counted among the most visited tourist attractions in the Ladakh region of J & K. Located about 40 km from Leh, it was built in 1517 to mark the visit of Guru Nanak to Ladakh. Unlike other gurudwaras, the presiding deity is known as Lama Nanak or Guru Gompa Maharaj. Because of this, the gurudwara is visited not just by Sikhs and Hindus but also by Tibetans, who consider Guru Nanak to be a saint.
Gurudwara Mattan, also called Gurudwara Guru Nanak Dev, is another important pilgrimage site in Jammu and Kashmir. Located around 60 km from Srinagar, it is where Guru Nanak held a discourse with Pandit Brahm Das, who, after being convinced by the Guru’s teachings, decided to follow his path. The original structure was built by Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa at the request of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The structure, as it stands today, was built during the 1980's.
In the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, the pilgrimage destinations exist in the form of monasteries. The most popular among these is the Hemis Monastery. It is the largest monastery in this region and stands at an impressive height of around 12,000ft. Tourists visiting Ladakh make it a point to visit it, since it is situated just 45 km away from Leh. Inside, there is an iconic copper gilded statue of Lord Buddha, apart from a historical and religious paintings called Thangkas. Statues of gold, silver and other metals are other items to be found inside.
Thiksey Monastery is among the famous monasteries in Ladakh which are not only large but old too. It was built around 600 years back and is a magnificent example of Ladakh architecture. First time visitors are often surprised at its strong resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The monastery is famous for hosting the Gustor Festival, an annual festival usually held between October-November. It is associated with the Gelug sect in Buddhism whose members are easily recognisable for their long yellow hats.
The first time you visit Spituk Monastery, the thought of how effortlessly it merges with the surroundings visits you. Located about 8 km from the city of Leh, it dates back to the 11th century. It consists of an enormous courtyard which is overlooked by enormous rocky mountains, while the entire structure itself stands precariously on a cliff. The major attraction of the monastery is a statue of Goddess Kali.