Holy cow: India’s most sacred sites

THE Indian sub-continent is the birthplace of several world religions and home to numerous holy places for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and others. Whether you have a religious inclination or not, these impressive cities, caves, temples and monuments with their age-old architecture, origins and traditions will help you touch some of the spirituality so inherent in India. Here are some of these sacred sites across the country encompassing a variety of religious traditions.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi is the most sacred Hindu city in India and one of the world’s oldest continually habited cities. According to legend it was founded by the god Shiva. It’s location on the banks of the holy river Ganges where Hindus bathe to remit sins attracts thousands of pilgrims, tourists and those that come to die to achieve salvation. Some 50,000 Brahmins live in Varanasi to provide religious services to these people. There are also about 23,000 temples in Varanasi–an astonishing number–but amongst the most sacred is Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva, the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple and the Durga Temple. There are about 84 ghats too where pilgrims descend to the river to wash and seek blessings. Mesmerising at all times, these ghats are where pujas, cremations and bathing go on from dusk til dawn. A dawn boat ride is one of the best ways to explore Varanasi and touch the sacredness without having to dunk yourself in the icy waters themselves. There are dozens of ashrams in Varanasi for those seeking meditation and other courses.
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A boat ride at dawn on the Ganges river. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Amritsar, Punjab

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in the northwestern state of Punjab is the most holy shrine for Sikhs, the fifth largest religion in the world. As its name suggests, it is covered in gold, and this reflects quite beautifully in the tank surrounding it known as the Sarovar or Pool of the Nectar of Immortality. The four doors of the temple symbolise its openness to all people and religions and indeed there is a real sense of welcome here. Unlike some other religious monuments, the Sikhs allow anyone to enter the temple regardless of their gender, religion, colour or creed. They do however require you remove your shoes, wash your feet, dress appropriately and not to drink alcohol, smoke, take drugs or eat meat within the compound. Similarly anyone is welcome to eat in the huge kitchens in the same complex that can feed more than 40,000 people a day. They also welcome volunteers to work in the kitchen or help clean the facility – itself an incredible experience.
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A Sikh man enjoying the tranquility of the Golden Temple at sunset. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Bodhgaya, Bihar

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha achieved enlightenment under a bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. Today a descendant of this original tree still lies within the main temple compound of Mahabodhi. There’s also a stupa, meditation garden and pond. It’s a touristy place these days, and touts are rife so take care, but there are still opportunities to catch the spirit of enlightenment. Nuns and monks may recite prayers around the tree and you are welcome to join them. There are also numerous temples and monasteries around where you can meditate, join courses or even seek accommodation.
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Mahabodhi temple. Pic: Cacahuate, Creative Commons.

Ajmer, Rajasthan

The most sacred of Muslim holy places in India is the Dargah Shariff, the tomb of Sufi saint Hazat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. The saint was universally respected by kings and leaders and many paid homage to him and sought his help. His shrine is the main attraction but there are some magnificent monuments here, tombs, courtyards and various representations of Moghul architecture.
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Kodungaloor, Kerala

It is believed that St Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kodungaloor (also spelt Kodungallur) and built the first Christian church in India there in AD52. The Mar Thoma Church has a picturesque setting by the River Periyar and is today visited by large numbers of pilgrims who come to visit this “cradle of Christianity in India” and to see some relics of St Thomas including the bone of his right arm. The church resembles a mansion of Indo-Persian style.

Mar Thoma Church. Pic: meriyatrra.com

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh

The adopted home of the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile has become a pilgrimage centre both for Tibetans, Buddhists and sympathisers. Even those living in Tibet make the dangerous pilgrimage on foot across the mountains into India in hopes of seeing their venerated religious leader. McLeod Ganj is the centre of the Tibetan community. Here there are various Tibetan restaurants (make sure you have at least a few serves of momos, a kind of Tibetan dumpling, and the thukpa soup), hotels and craft shops plus the Tibet Museum, Tibetan Library, Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and various temples, including the famed Tsuglagkhang Complex which is the monastery of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness gives scheduled public teachings from time to time in Dharamsala or you can request a private audience.
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Tibetan flag waving in Dharamsala. Pic: J. Miers.

Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Maharashtra

These archaeological and World Heritage Sites both situated in the Aurangabad district are only 100km apart and can be easily visited in one day. The Ellora Caves contain an impressive array of Indian rock-cut architecture with Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples built between the 5th and 10th centuries. The 34 caves are a riot of early Indian wall painting, temples, monasteries, figurines and intricate detailing that is truly impressive.  The nearby Ajanta caves are cut into the side of a cliff in a u-shaped gorge – quite a dramatic setting for the 300 Buddhist caves with their paintings, figures, sculptures, murals and stupas.

Ajanta Caves. Pic: Soman, Wikimedia Commons.

Kochi, Kerala

The Paradesi Synagogue dates back to 1568 was built for the Jewish community of the city. Today it’s still in operation and also open to tourists with an impressive interior featuring Belgian glass chandeliers, hand painted porcelain tiles, an oriental rug and a wonderful 18th Century clock tower. It’s located down an atmospheric lane in old Kochi with furniture stores, spices and other gift shops that are all worth a wander too.
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Paradesi synagogue, Kochi. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com