THE art of pilgrimage is an age old tradition that is not lost in modern day Asia where it is still possible to follow routes with other pilgrims to holy places such as the source of the River Ganges in India, the holy mountain of Kailash in Tibet or Buddhist monasteries perched on clifftops in Bhutan. While pilgrimage is designed to attain merit, be cleansed of sins or even attain Nirvana, at the very least it’s also good for fitness, to discover meaning in life and enjoy local cultures and natural landscapes. While none of these five routes are quite as famous as the heritage listed Camino de Santiago in Spain, they are similarly open and accessible to people of all walks of life.
The trek from Gangotri to the source of the Ganges takes trekkers high into the Indian Himalaya and to places holy to all Hindus. Most start the route from the temple at Gangotri then trek 14km (5-6 hours) towards Bhojbasa. The next day is 10km (6-7 hours) to the “cow’s mouth” where the Ganges emerges from the Gangotri Glacier. Bathe in the holy waters and apparently your sins can be washed away. Those that continue on to Tapovan are treated to stunning views of the Himalayas.
While the Gangotri Glacier is an important place for Hindus, and often brimming with pilgrims and the colourful Sadhus (Hindu holy men), non-religious trekkers will enjoy the opportunity to learn more about Indian culture and enjoy the natural beauties of the region. It’s a very popular route with some sources quoting 250,000 visitors a year but in recent years a flood washed away a lot of hotels and services along the route and numbers have reduced.
Trekkers can extend their journey from Gangotri to three other holy sites in the region. The tradition is to visit from east to west which would mean going to Yamunotri, then Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The four sites are referred to as Char Dham. The best time to go is May-June and September-October, avoiding monsoon season and winter. To get there fly to New Delhi and take a train to Haridwar then travel on by private car or bus.
Takstang Monastery, Bhutan
It is said that every Bhutanese person should make the pilgrimage to the Takstang Monastery, or Tiger’s nest, at least once in their lifetime. Given that it’s situated rather dramatically on a steep cliff at 3,120 metres above sea level and 900 metres above the Paro Valley, many might be glad to only do it once. The Takstang Monastery is important to the Bhutanese because it is believed that Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated here, taming the tiger demon and also bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.
The trekking/pilgrimage route to the monastery that now sits on the same site is approximately six kilometres from the road and takes two to three hours to walk. The first part winds up through forest with spectacular views of the Paro Valley with glimpses of the monastery far above. About half way along there is a cafeteria from where there are fantastic views across to the monastery, that still seems quite formiddable in location. From here the route is far more scenic and while it looks difficult the path is quite straight forward. The last stretch is up numerous steps, over a bridge by a waterfall and finally into the monastery which consists of four main temples and residential shelters. You can visit the cave where Guru Rimpoche meditated and the monks can give you a blessing.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
Another pilgrimage said to erase the sins of a lifetime is the 52 kilometre trail around the holy mountain of Kailash in far western Tibet. It’s actually important to five religions–Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, the ancient Bon religion of Tibet and Ayyavazhi Hinduism–and popular with western trekkers who usually undertake the amazing, although rather strenuous trek, in three days crossing a 5600 metre pass before descending to a river plain. Along the way are meditation sites at waterfalls and sacred caves. The best season is between April and October. Permits and treks can be arranged in Lhasa.
Island of 88 Temples, Shikoku, Japan
The Buddhist pilgrimage around the Island of 88 Temples is some 1100km and takes 50-55 days. Fortunately there are plenty of shorter options depending on what you want to do and it’s also possible to complete the journey by bus.
All of the temples are dedicated to Kōbō Daishi, one of Japan’s most famous people. He was born in 774 and was a priest, poet, scholar, educator, advisor to the emperor, administrator,and master calligrapher. He was also born on the island itself.
Most travelers start at Mount Koya, although the route officially begins and ends at Ryzenji nearby. The signs along the route are oriented for pilgrims (hento) going clockwise.
Great Himalaya Trail, Nepal
The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) can be hiked in about four to six months and covers over a thousand miles of trail in the high Himalaya connecting existing trails and ancient trade and pilgrimage paths. If that all sounds rather intimidating, fortunately it can also be broken down into ten separate sections that can be hiked independently such as routes like Helambu, Kanchenjunga and Everest. Or if you fancy a challenge there is a plan to extend it some 3000 miles in total eventually between Pakistan and Bhutan (traipsing through India, Tibet and Nepal on the way).
The best time to trek in the Himalaya is April and October. It is best to work around the summer monsoon season and high winter. Of the shorter sections of trail the Annapurna and Mustang Trek is probably the most popular and takes about three weeks.