There is perhaps no place in the entire world more identifiable with spirituality than India. Its glorious and ancient spiritual culture has drawn pilgrims, seekers, and philosophers from all around the world for thousands of years, and continues to do so. But what really makes this spiritual destination unlike any other is that no matter which major world religion you adhere to, there is a spiritual experience waiting for you. So go find yours.
The beach town of Puri in Orissa is one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in India and is best-known for the Puri Jagannath Temple, a major site of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists. Located on the pristine southern coast of Orissa along the Bay of Bengal, Puri annually hosts the famous Rath Yatra (chariot pulling) festival, during which three massive chariots are pulled through Puri town. Interestingly, it was this age-old spectacle that gave rise to the English word ‘Juggernaut’! While the festival, which occurs in June, is an affair unlike any other, Puri is also a pilgrim paradise all throughout the year and one of India’s greatest spiritual destinations.
The Kumbh Mela stands at the pinnacle of all spiritual experiences in India and takes place on a rotational basis at four major pilgrim sites in India – Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Nashik-Trimbak, and Ujjain. While you’d have to wait until January 2019 to be able to visit the next Kumbh Mela (Ardh Kumbha at Prayag), this spectacle is one well worth waiting for! Visited by philosophers, devotees, saints and commoners from all over the country, the Mela is a quintessentially Indian experience and also one of the greatest human feats. To put things in perspective, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (Prayag) 2013 still holds the record for the largest human gathering in the world, with a staggering 30 million pilgrims visiting on a single day!
Dating back centuries, and in some cases, even millennia, the ancient living temples of Tamil Nadu are a testament to the state’s continuing legacy of spiritual pursuit. Of particular note among several others are the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, and the Srirangam Temple in Trichy. Every year, thousands of devotees and seekers visit these temples to witness and take part in a spiritual experience that has virtually remained unchanged for more than a thousand years!
The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, or as it is locally known, the Velankanni Church is famed across the world as a church of miracles! It draws devotees from every religion and creed in India and stories of devotees claiming to have been cured by the Mother Mary here are not few. However, whether you believe in miracles or not, there is no disputing the fact that the fervor and spiritual devotion of pilgrims visiting the Velankanni Church remain unmatched. This is especially true of the annual Feast of Our Lady of Good Health, which draws one of the largest numbers of international pilgrims across religious festivals in the country.
Kasi or Varanasi is one of the few places in the world where an entire city is considered spiritual! Often called the ‘City of Gods’, legend has it that the city was founded by Lord Shiva himself and that a single visit to the Ganges river in Kasi is all it takes to wash away one’s sins! Today, this sprawling and heavily populated religious and spiritual center is home to the most number of saints and sanyasis in India and is visited by a large number of international and local devotees every year. The city is home to the temple of Kasi Viswanath, one of the most popular sites of pilgrimage in Hinduism. The everyday evening aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat is a spectacular affair that can put even major festivals to shame in terms of grandeur, leading people to claim that in Varanasi, every day is a festival!
The most important site of pilgrimage for followers of Sikhism, the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar is as majestic as it gets. While the temple complex is lined with copper and marble, the shrine within was laid with actual gold foil by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the year 1830. On a daily basis, the temple’s langar, a free meal service, feeds a whopping 100,000 people, making it one of the largest free kitchens run anywhere in the world. While eating a meal at a langar is sustenance for some, it is deeply spiritual for others and is a spiritual experience unlike any other.
The largest Buddhist monastery in India and the second largest in the world, the Tawang Monastery, located in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is one of the most important spiritual sites in Buddhism. The main temple of the monastery is known as the Dukhang and is a majestic structure that features a beautifully decorated 18-foot statue of Buddha. Along with its steep history and tradition of spirituality, Tawang is one of the chief centers of Buddhist monastic learning across the world and routinely draws a large number of spiritual seekers.
Unlike other spiritual destinations, Auroville is not dedicated to any particular religion, instead, it claims as its chief philosophy the idea of ‘human unity’. Founded in the 1960s by spiritual guru Mirra Alfassa, the Auroville started as an experimental community that quickly gained popularity as a philosophical and spiritual destination, drawing seekers from all across the world and continuing to do so today. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Auroville as a spiritual and philosophical destination is that the township and its residents make very little use of money if any, and instead use assistance in maintenance and work.