In India, religion is everywhere. Some of the oldest and largest religions in the world have their roots in India, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. These are joined by the religion of the Sikhs and by Islam, which has also strongly influenced the traditions of India. India is also home to 30 million Christians. For all these religions, important pilgrimage sites have developed over the centuries and millennia. These are the holiest places in India:
Holy Places of Hinduism
About 80 percent of the Indian population are Hindus. There are countless sects and movements, all of which have their own gods, saints and pilgrimage sites. However, some cities and temples are equally important for all Hindus. Among the holiest places in India for Hindus are the following.
Varanasi is probably the holiest city of Hinduism. It is considered the city of Shiva, and the Kashi Vishwanath temple is the most important Shiva temple in the country. Whoever dies in Varanasi is freed from the cycle of rebirths, the common belief goes. That is why old and sick people from all over India come here to die and be cremated on the banks of the holy Ganges. The founders of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism preached in Varanasi, as did many central figures of Hinduism.
These two places, which are not far from Agra and the Taj Mahal, are important for all Krishna worshipers. Krishna is said to have been born and spent his childhood here. Numerous temples and places located in this region are closely connected with Krishna’s history and mythology. The Holi Festival in Vrindavan is celebrated with more enthusiasm than anywhere else in India.
Haridwar means “Gate to God”. This place of pilgrimage is located on the slopes of the Himalayas, where the Ganges first flows into the plains. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the waters of the Ganges and to visit the numerous temples of the city. Every 12 years, the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious festival in the world, also takes place here. Up to 40 million people came in April 2010.
Holy Places in Islam
Approximately 180 million Indians are Muslims, or about 14 percent. Although the major pilgrimage destinations of Islam lie outside India, there are also some places of big importance on the subcontinent. Islam was popularized my the Mughals, who ruled India for three hundred years starting in the 16th century. Islam in India is strongly influenced by Sufism, the mystical current of Islam.
Cheramaan Juma Mosque
This mosque in the southern state of Kerala is considered the first mosque in India. It was built in 629 by Arab merchants, i.e. during the lifetime of Muhammad. The original Hindu architecture has been replaced over the centuries by clearly Islamic architecture. It is an important historical and religious site for all Muslims in India.
Ajmer Sharif Dargah
In Ajmer, a medium-sized city in the state of Rajasthan, lies the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. Here is buried Moinuddin Chishti, a 13th century Sufi saint. In the past, his shrine was even visited by the Grand Moguls, who made the pilgrimage to Ajmer on foot. Today, the Sufi shrine attracts Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike. The Urs, the death anniversary of the saint, is visited by millions of people from all over India.
Delhi: Nizamuddin Dargah, Jama Masjid
Delhi was a center of Islam and Sufism in India in the Middle Ages. This is testified to by the Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque of Delhi. It is the largest mosque in India and almost 400 years old. The Nizamuddin Dargah is the shrine of the Sufi master of the same name, who lived about 800 years ago. Every Thursday, Sufi music is played and danced here. Nizamuddin Dargah is without doubt one of the holiest places in India.
The Holiest Places in India: Sikhism
Sikhism originated 500 years ago in northern India. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was the first of ten Gurus. Later, the Sikhs were persecuted by the Moghuls, which is why Sikhism was militarized. But Sikhism is a religion that is characterized by helpfulness and charity, which is evident in Amritsar, for example.
Amritsar is the cultural and religious center of the Punjab and of all Sikhs. The city was founded by Guru Ram Dass, the fourth Sikh Guru. Here lies the Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple. It is the most important pilgrimage place for Sikhs. Every day more than 50,000 meals are distributed here, and free overnight accommodation is also offered. Everybody is welcome – religion, caste and gender do not matter.
Besides Amritsar, Hemkund Sahib and Patna Sahib are two other great pilgrimage sites of Sikhism.
Holy Places of Buddhism
Today, less than one percent of the Indian population is Buddhist. In the past, however, Buddhism was one of India’s major religions. In its purest and oldest form, Buddhism is a guide to overcoming human suffering. Buddhism flourished in the centuries following the Buddha’s death, and was later exported to China, Japan and Southeast Asia, where it remains the largest religion to this day.
The Buddha (the “Awakened One”) lived 2500 years ago in northern India and today’s Nepal. After years of asceticism and meditation he attained Nirvana – i.e. liberation from the circle of rebirths – in Bodh Gaya. Today, Bodh Gaya is one of the most important pilgrimage places for Buddhists from all over the world. The Mahabhodi tree that stands there is said to be the offspring of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
In Sarnath the Buddha preached for the first time, in Kushinagar he died. These two small places in northern India are, together with Lumbini in Nepal (the birthplace of the Buddha), the most important destinations for Buddhist pilgrims.
The Holiest Places in India: Jainism
The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, was a contemporary of the Buddha. The religion of the Jains is particularly widespread in the Indian state of Gujarat. One of the most important concepts is Ahimsa, non-violence. All Jains are strictly vegetarian. Jain monks go as far as to only eat fruit that has already fallen from the tree, and wear a mouth guard to avoid inhaling insects by mistake and thus killing them.
The Parasnath, with its elevation of 1400 meters, is the highest mountain of the state of Jharkhand. On its summit there are 24 Jain temples dedicated to the 24 Tirthankaras (leaders) of Jainism. Some of them are older than 2000 years. Thousands of Jain pilgrims cover the eleven-kilometre walk every day, which passes the temples and leads to the mountain summit.
Mount Abu, which hosts the famous Dilwara Temple, is also a famous plilrimage site for Jains.
Holy Places of Chrisitanity in India
Christianity arrived in India even before it reached Rome. The apostle Thomas is said to have reached South India in the year 53, where he preached until his death. Today, around two percent of the Indian population are Christians. In Goa, a former Portuguese colony, Christians even make up the majority.
St. Thomas Basilica, Chennai
This is where St. Thomas is supposed to be buried. According to tradition, after Jesus’ death he moved to India. He was martyred near Chennai. Most of his relics were later brought to Italy, but the St. Thomas Basilica is still an important place for all Christians in India.
The Basílica do Bom Jesus in Goa is the most impressive church in all of India. It was built about 400 years ago by the Portuguese.