Hello friends! I am writing this post from an Air India plane on my way back to Europe. I’ve had a whirlwind two weeks in Nepal and India.
After writing last Saturday’s post about what to know on your first trip to India, I thought you’d like an overview of some of the main pilgrimage centers of India. This list is by no means comprehensive. As I mentioned, there are so many incredible temple cities of India. What I’m sharing today are some that I’ve been to and have really enjoyed, including a few off the beaten track gems.
Yes, I will tell you where to do in India if you don’t want to be mobbed by other people. The list is organized by region of India to make it easier to add a temple visit into your trip.
Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, these temples are important centers of culture and give insight into Indian life. They are also many hundreds or even thousands of years old and present a wide variety of Indian architecture, sculpture, and design. I’m sure you will enjoy!
Overview of Indian Pilgrimage Cities: Where To Go and What To Do
South India is known for its incredible temple architecture. The people are known for being softer and kinder, and the temples are the center of life in South India. Here are a few gems:
Set at the very tip of India, Kanyakumari is an unmarried form of Devi, the goddess. The temple and town are located where the India Ocean and the Adaman Sea meet. This historic temple is said to have the power of all temples concentrated in it, at the tip of India. You can also enjoy the natural beauty of the ocean and the area.
Set on an island off of the Indian mainland, and one of the closest points in India to Sri Lanka, Rameshwaram is famous for its significance in the Ramayan, an ancient Indian epic. In this temple, dedicated to the God Shiva, you can pour buckets of seawater on many idols of Shiva in the shape of a Linga. Visiting Rameshwaram is said to bring fulfillment of all desires.
The temple city of Madurai has many famous temples, including a temple to another form of the goddess Devi. Ancient Indian culture knows how to worship the Divine feminine power! Madurai is located close to Rameshwaram and you can combine both into one trip easily, along with Kanyakumari if you wish.
For those interested in the system of Vedic Astrology called Jyotish, the nine planets, or Grahas, each have their own temple in Tamil Nadu. You can plan 2-3 days to visit them all, as each one has its own unique character and it is nice to have time to take them in. Each of the Navagraha Temples in also dedicated to the God Shiva.
No list of South Indian Temples would be complete without mentioning Tirupati and Tirumala. This “City of Temples” is home to the world’s wealthiest and most powerful spiritual organization. Yes, you read that right – more wealthy even than the Vatican.
The temple to Lord Vishnu in the form of Shri Venkateshwara or Lord Bala ji attracts hundreds of millions of pilgrims each year. On a slow day, there are about 100,000 visitors to the temple! There is also a temple to Bala ji’s consort, Padmavati (a form of Divine goddess) in the town of Tirupati. The drive up the hill to Tirumala, where the Bala ji temple is located, provides beautiful views of flowers, animals, and nature and it alone is worth the pilgrimage.
If you are interested in visiting the Lord Bala ji temple, bring your passport and you can go through the “special darshan” line.
North India boasts many of the most famous pilgrimage spots, including the high Himalayas. Many of the places of pilgrimage in North India are set along the Ganges River, the most important river of India of great spiritual significance. Here are a few not to be missed:
Allahabad or Prayagraj
Allahabad in located at the confluence of three major Indian rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati. It is known in Hindi as Prayagraj, which means “King of the Pilgrimage Places”.
Here, it is customary to take a dip in the sangam, or meeting point, of these rivers as a way to wash off sins and start a new life. There is also a beautiful temple to Lord Hanuman lying down, as well as several smaller temples in Allahabad. But the main thing to experience in Allahabad is a boat ride on the rivers and a dip in the Sangam.
The Ganges River flows through the heart of the colorful city of Varanasi. Thus, Varanasi’s famous Ghats are a major attraction.
Varanasi is just a few hours up the river from Allahabad. Varanasi is a city of Lord Shiva, and the Shiva temple here is one with extremely high security due to past terrorist attacks. If you really want to get in, hire a local priest to guide you through and be sure to bring your passport to get in!
Varanasi also has a thriving Yoga and western spiritual community in the area near the Ghats.
Haridwar is located further up the Ganges. It is about 5 hours drive from New Delhi. Haridwar is named after Lord Vishnu, also known as Hari. The main Ghats of Hari ki Puri has an evening arti on the Ganges that attracts many tourists.
There are three famous Devi, or goddess, temples here, two of which are set on high hills overlooking the city. The third, Yoga Maya Devi is right in the heart of Haridwar.
Haridwar is also one of the three places in India where ceremonies for ancestors are performed.
Finally, the winding streets of Haridwar are also filled with interesting shops. We like to buy all sorts of beads and necklaces here. The prices are fair and the quality is excellent.
Choti means “small” and Chardham are the 4 places of pilgrimage. However, this pilgrimage is anything but small. It is only called Choti because the other Chardham is spread out all over India.
The Choti Chardham are four of the most important temples in the Himalayas: Yamunotri, Gangoti, Kedarnath, and Badrinth. They are only open for about half of the year, from May through October, as they are buried in deep snow for the other half of the year.
You can visit one or all of them. If you visit more than one, they are always visited in the order of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath.
Yamunotri is the source of the Yamuna River and a place of Radha and Krishna – who are famous for their unwavering and all-encompassing love. A visit to Yamunotri is said to give a painless death, when the time comes.
Gangotri is the source of the Ganges River, set high in the Himalayas. You can visit in a day, or schedule 2-3 days and hike into the Gangotri glacier and the high mountain valley of Gaumukh. There are will find views of the high Himalayas as well as fields of wild flowers, depending on the time of year.
Gaumukh means “cow’s mouth”. It was names because the glacier from which the Ganges River drips looks like a cow’s mouth.
If you can stand the cold, take a dip in the refreshing waters! Dips in Gangotri are said to bring liberation. The water is also so pure above Gangotri that you can drink it with just a simple filter. Both Yamuna and Ganga are Goddesses, and there are temples dedicated to these goddesses in Yamunotri and Gangotri.
Kedarnath is the most remote of the Choti Chardham. It is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. You can either walk the 17 km (about – miles) into the temple or take a helicopter for about $100. There are very basic guest accommodations in case you choose to hike in, or you can fly out the same day.
Badrinath is dedicated to the god Vishnu. The colorful Badrinath temple’s backdrop is the spectacular high Himalayas. You can enter the inner sanctum as well as enjoy the natural hot spring pools for men and women outside the temple.
You can hike about 2000 meters (888 feet) up from the temple area to see the footprints of Lord Vishnu. This also gives spectacular views of the whole Badrinath valley.
About 15 minutes’ drive from Badrinth, you will arrive at Mana, the last village of India on the border with Tibet. There you will find the beautiful turquoise Saraswati River. There are many hiking options to waterfalls and valleys from the town of Mana.
In Mana you can find warm wool and beautiful knitting and weaving. You can bring home wool blankets, sweaters, hats, carpets and more for a very reasonable price.
Finally, since we mentioned the Choti Chardham its’ nice to know what the Chardham is. The Chardham are 4 important place of the god Vishnu in each area of India. There is Lord Jagannatha in Puri in the east, Rameshwaram in the South, Dwarka in the west, and Badrinath in the North. While I haven’t done the full Chardham, I’m sure it is an amazing experience!
Temples = Reflecting the Divine
To conclude this post, I want to remind you that I see these temples as means to reflect the Divine qualities of gods and goddesses that each of us has within us. These are qualities like compassion, forgiveness of ourselves and others, unconditional love, peace of heart and mind, and great happiness.
I view the temples as a way to remind and reconnect ourselves with our divine potential and our highest purpose, while also enjoying the most beautiful parts of India. The real temple experience comes when closing your eyes to meditate in the temple and feeling the divine power within you.
I’d like to hear: have you visited an Indian temple? How did you feel?
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