Religion permeates the everyday lives of Indians, and people of different faiths co-exist in this country, contributing to its multi-religious identity. It’s no surprise that this South Asian country is rife with religious sites; we shine the spotlight on some of the most famous.
Sri Harmandir Sahib
Regarded as the sacred seat of Sikhism, the Sri Harmandir Sahib—also known as the Golden Temple—symbolizes egalitarianism and humbleness. Finished in exquisite gold and marble work with a gilded dome, it is surrounded by a holy tank (Amrit Sarovar) and four entrances that welcome people of all faiths. People from all over the world visit this holy place for spiritual peace and calmness, and pay respect to the Holy Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. It draws more than 100,000 devotees every day, and even serves free hot meals (or langar) to everyone, irrespective of religion or social status. When the golden hues of the Gurudwara reflect on the glistening water below, it is truly a sight to behold!
The most revered Hindu temple in India is Vaishno Devi, set at an elevation of 5300 feet (1615 meters) in an ancient cave in the Trikuta hills of Jammu and Kashmir state. This holy shrine is dedicated to Goddess Shakti or Parvati, and nearly 8 million devotees from across the world visit every year. It is said that you cannot visit this shrine unless and until you get a call (bulawa) from Goddess Vaishno Devi to visit her sacred abode.
To reach the shrine, devotees are required to trek for about 7.4 miles (12 kilometers) from the base camp at Katra. The trek isn’t easy, with short steep stairs and paths, but this doesn’t deter the devotees, who trek with utter enthusiasm to the seek the blessings of the deity. The entire route is scenic, and lined with shops selling souvenirs, food, and water. There are also helicopter flights from Katra to Sanjhhi Chhat, and from there it’s about another 1.5 mile (2.5 kilometer) walk to the shrine. Palanquins, ponies and porters are also on offer.
Vaishno Devi, Katra-Reasi Rd, Bhavan, Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, +91 01991 234 053
Colloquially known as ‘Tirupati Balaji’, the Venkateshwar Temple is the richest religious site in India, and pulls in nearly 40 million people every year. Dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara (embodiment of God Vishnu), this temple is set at the highest peak of Seshachalam hills in Tirupati. Built in the Dravidian style of architecture, it dates from 300 AD and has three entrances that lead to the sanctum sanctorum, where the primary deity stands. Several other deities also reside in the temple. Devotees often circumambulate the Grabhagriha to fulfil their vows.
Venkateshwar Temple, S Mada St, Tirumala, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, +91 0877 227 7777
Another significant religious site in India is Shirdi Temple, which is swarmed by nearly 25,000 devotees every day; on special occasions, the count reaches over 100,000! This temple is dedicated to Sai Baba, who believed that ‘God is One’. He was considered a faqir, or saint, and an embodiment of Lord Shiva. Both Hindus and Muslims worship him. The interior of the temple contains a Sai Baba statue, there is lots of Italian marble, and the seat on which the deity sits, as well as the roofs, are plated in pure gold.
Ajmer Dargah Sharif
Located in the foothills of the Taragarh Range of the Aravalli Mountains, the Ajmer Dargah Sharif is a supreme shrine to the Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. It has massive gates complete with intricate silver carvings, through which visitors must pass to reach the Dargah. In the inner courtyard is a tomb carved out of marble and plated with gold, dedicated to Moinuddin Chisti. Besides, the main shrine of Moinuddin Chisti there are several other mosques on the premises, built by Shah Jahan and Akbar. Millions of devotees of different faiths visit this holy site every year.
One of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites is Amarnath Temple, set at a height of 3,888 meters amid the snowy mountains of Jammu & Kashmir. Said to be more than 5000 years old, this holy site is known for its Shiva Lingam that is formed naturally by the freezing of water. During summer, this ice stalagmite thaws gradually. Legend has it that it is here that Lord Shiva discovered the secret of immortality. It is believed that Baba Bholenath (Lord Shiva) calls out to his devotees to visit his shrine. The trek to the cave (known as Amarnath Yatra) isn’t easy, but once you reach the holy cave, you’ll be bestowed with the blessings of Lord Shiva.
Located in the coastal town of Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, the Jagannath Temple is a sacred pilgrimage site dedicated to Hindu Lord Jagannath. It also serves as the dwelling place of Hindu deity Balarama and Goddess Subhadra. The temple is swamped with devotees during the chariot festival, or Rath Yatra, held in June-July. The chariots are big-wheeled wooden structures pulled by devotees, and on these chariots are placed the three main deities of the Jagannath Temple, which are taken to the Gundicha Temple, where they stay for nine days.
On the Rameswaram Island in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Ramanathaswamy Temple is yet another popular Hindu temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple houses one of the twelve jyotirlingas (manifestation of Lord Shiva). The outer corridors of the temple are considered to be the longest in the world, at 640 feet wide from north to south, and 400 feet wide from east to west.
Besides housing the shrine of presiding deity Ramanathaswamy (Lord Shiva), the temple also has shrines of Goddess Parvathavardhini, Vishnu, Ganesha and Goddess Vishalakshi. Inside the temple there are 22 holy water bodies, called teerthams or temple tanks, and every devotee is required to bathe in this holy water before entering the main shrine. One of the main highlights is this temple’s architecture, adorning the majestic gopuram that’s embellished with carvings of Hindu mythological figures.
Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, +91 04573 221 223
Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health/ Velankanni Church
The Velankanni Church is a religious hub for India’s Catholics, and nearly 20 million devotees and tourists from across the world flock here every year. It is dedicated to the ‘Lady of Health’, and legend has it that the Goddess performed many miracles here, including saving lives. As an expression of gratitude, this basilica was constructed by the local people. Its annual 11-day festival runs from August 29 until September 8, and concludes with the Feast of Nativity of Mary. The building boasts a Neo-Gothic style of architecture, with a red-tiled roof.
Temples in Varanasi
Known as the religious capital of India, Varanasi is located on the banks of the sacred river Ganges in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. This holy land is associated with Lord Shiva, and is one of the seven holy sites for Hindus. An array of temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva, as well as other deities of the Hindu pantheon. A must-visit temple is the Bharat Mata Mandir, worshipped by people of all religions. What’s interesting about this temple is that there is no image of a deity; instead, there’s a relief map of India made of marble that represents secularism.
The most famous temples to visit in Varanasi are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the Durga Temple and the Tulsi Manas Temple. There are also many ghats—or steps leading down to the river—that must be visited while in Varanasi. The main ones are Dashashwamedh Ghat, Assi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. Attending the evening Ganga aarti (worship) at the ghats is a must, along with taking a bath in the holy water of the Ganges, part of an ancient ritual of the purification of soul, body and mind. Millions of devotees of all faiths flock to this holy city to seek the blessings of the god and attain nirvana.