Rishikesh is the most silent place on earth,” says Lara Dowell from Michigan, USA, who has been traversing India for the last two years to find mental peace. “The holy place’s energy has the powerful ability to quieten the mind. After spending a week here, I feel extremely peaceful with myself, which I never felt before. No wonder it is called the world’s capital of yoga,” adds Dowell wearing a saffron-coloured tilak on her forehead. Lara Dowell is not alone in her quest for mental peace and finding it in India.
Millions have been coming to this country, aptly called ‘the holy land’, to discover tranquility, serenity and sometimes even oneself. Indians, too, have been visiting temples and shrines scattered across India to find God, peace, or blessings of a deity.
“The aroma emanating from pure fires of a yagna kund, the pure and serene environments, and the chanting of hallowed mantras can be an amazing experience in any of the holy places in India,” says Vietnamese Thinzar Zay, who quit Buddhism and left his country to become a permanent resident of Varanasi and a devotee of Shiva.
The spiritual undercurrent in India is palpable. Rich and abundant in holy places, traditions and rituals, India offers much to those who seek and practise to maximise their spiritual experience. Pilgrimage is at the heart of Hinduism. Pilgrims go to revered sites where they believe the gods may have appeared or become manifest in the world. These sites could be temples, mountains, rivers, and other sacred places or destinations.
Popularly, a pilgrimage or a spiritual journey is undertaken to see and be seen by the deity or a god or goddess; to be granted boons of health, wealth, progeny, and even moksh or deliverance after death.
India abounds in spiritual places. Almost every nook and corner of the country carries the fragrance of something spiritual. But certain sites are so revered that millions of Hindu pilgrims from all over India, and also from different countries, throng them annually or at least once in their lifetime. These spiritual journeys are different from ordinary travel, for a spiritual pilgrimage is a reminder of the power of journeys taken slowly and deliberately.
Kailash Mansarovar Yatra
Perched at a startling height of 22,000 ft, Mount Kailash is believed to be the throne of God Shiva and his divine consort Parvati. According to Hindu mythology, the Mansarovar lake was first created in the mind of Lord Brahma. Hence, in Sanskrit it is called Manasarovar (Manas meaning mind and Sarovar meaning lake). The mount is also supposed to be the summer abode of swans that are considered wise and sacred water birds. According to a religious perception, Mount Kailash is the spiritual centre of the universe or the world pillar.
It’s also called Swastika Mountain, Mt Ashtapada, Mt Kangrinboqe (the Chinese name) and Kang Rinpoche (the ‘Precious Jewel of Snow’ in Tibetan), Therefore, undertaking this yatra is considered the toughest and the ultimate pilgrimage by the Hindus, Jains and Tibetan Buddhists. The pilgrims encounter inhospitable but enchanting landscapes of the Himalayas by taking either of the two routes (one goes through Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand, while the other is through Nathu La Pass in Sikkim) to reach the peak.
Completing the 53-km circuit, also known as Kailash Parikrama, is a herculean task. Undertaken with the belief that a man will be absolved of all his sins this yatra makes the pilgrim circumambulate the Mount Kailash peak and then taking a dip in the holy Mansarovar lake. Sadhguru of Isha Foundation regularly conducts treks to Mount Kailash under his programme ‘Isha Sacred Walks’, which is undertaken by the large number of people. He says, “It’s a rare privilege of exploring the beauty and sacredness of Mount Kailash, one of the holiest and most mysterious mountains in the world. Here, the veil between the physical and the spiritual is thin.”
According to Jains, this mountain was the site where their first teerthankar received enlightenment. “Mount Kailash is a place of extreme virtuousness where one can even gain nirvana if you are a deserving devotee of God,” says Vikas Jain, 32, who has undertaken the yatra 12 times since he was six. Though Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is known for its cultural significance and religious value, a panoramic view of the stretches of infinite horizons, radiant azure lakes and snow-clad mountain peaks also adds to its value.
Char Dham Yatra
Nestled amidst the lofty Himalayas, the state of Uttarakhand seemed to have found favour with the divine. No wonder the state is known as devbhumi or the ‘land of gods’, where four sacred shrines — Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — exist. These four shrines held as ‘abodes of gods’, form a sacred pilgrimage tour that’s popularly known as chhota char dham yatra (bigger char dham yatra consists of Dwarka, Badrinath, Puri and Rameshwaram).
These four sacred sites find their mention in sacred puranas and Vedas, and also in tales associated with epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. “The journey is of great spiritual significance as for centuries, saints and seekers, in their search for the divine, have walked these mystical paths.
The yatra is also about bathing and washing away the sins of many births in the holy waters of Yamuna, Ganga, Mandakini and Alaknanda — the four rivers that flow along the four shrines,” says Swami Mritunjay, who has been conducting pujas for the pilgrims at a temple in Gangotri.
Traditionally, the Char Dham Yatra is undertaken from west to east or from left to the right. Thus, the pilgrimage starts from Yamunotri temple, the source of the Yamuna river, the westernmost shrine in the Garhwal region, then proceeding to Gangotri temple, the source of the revered Ganga river, then Kedarnath, where a form of Shiva is venerated as one of the 12 jyotirlingas, and finally culminating at the Badrinath temple, where Lord Vishnu resides in his aspect of Badrinarayan.
Sachchinanada, a chartered accountant-turned-seeker from Agra, who has twice done the Char Dham Yatra, says, “God resides in these places. You don’t have to go seeking Him elsewhere. The phenomenal energy that oozes out of these four shrines can be highly transformative to a person. It can pave way to the goal of self-realisation and eliminate all that is bad and negative within.”
Telling the reason for a continuous upward rise in the pilgrims undertaking Char Dham Yatra, Sudhir Chandra of Pilgrim Tours, a travel agency that conducts customised tours of the shrines, says, “Now, besides pilgrims, tourists too are joining this yatra for health reasons. They like the atmosphere where nature’s beauty enhances spiritual, physical and emotional fitness.” Margaret Lyn from Germany, along with her Indian friend Resham, has been coming to Uttarakhand for the last three years.
She says, “I like the ringing of the temple bells and the chanting of mantras and slokas, even though I don’t understand a word of it. The whole atmosphere transforms my mind and body. I feel absolutely relaxed after coming here, where stillness, serenity and natural beauty abound. Some of my ailments have also gone forever. The effect is magical,” she adds.
Amarnath Yatra is rooted in ancient scriptures. According to Hindu mythology, this is the cave where Lord Shiva explained the secrets of immortality and creation of Universe to his consort Parvati. Located in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Amarnath cave is one of the most famous and revered shrines for Hindus. Said to be more than 5,000 years old, Amarnath cave is visited by more than 4,00,000 people (mostly devout), during the 45-day season around the festival of Shravani Mela in July-August. One needs to fill the Amarnath Yatra Permit Form and obtain a compulsory health certificate from an authorised health institute before going on this journey.
Inside the 130-feet-high cave, the image of Shiva in the form of a lingam is formed naturally out of an ice stalagmite, which waxes and wanes with the different phases of the moon.
Water drops from the ceiling freezes and grows up vertically, taking the shape of a lingam. One can start the holy journey from either Baltal or Pahalgam. The longer and much wider route via Pahalgam is 36 to 48 kilometres, and is generally preferred by most devotees. The trek usually takes 3-5 days one way and is heavily guarded by the CRPF. The trek is strenuous on the elderly or very young people, therefore, palanquins and horses are available.
Several package tours are offered to pilgrims to undertake this yatra either by helicopter or by road. Pilgrims are picked up from Srinagar airport by a helicopter and then assisted in a smooth transfer to Sonamarg for an overnight stay. Next day they reach the cave via Sonmarg and Baltal. Along with Amarnath Yatra, some tour operators offer sightseeing in Phalgam, Gulmarg and Srinagar as well, which may take 5-6 days.
Vaishno Devi Yatra
In search of mystery, miracles and God, (goddess in this case) yet another spiritual journey or yatra that finds favour with most Hindus is Vaishno Devi Yatra. Supposed to be one of the oldest temples (bhawan as it is called), thousands throng to get a glimpse of the mata rani — as the goddess is popularly called by her devotees. Like in other holy caves or temples, there are no statues, pictures or idols inside. Instead, darshan inside the cave is in the form of natural rock formations called pindi.
The temple is recognised as one of the shakti peeths of Goddess Durga. The popular belief is that only when you hear the call of mata, you will be able to make it to the holy shrine. Feeling blessed, the pilgrims undertake an arduous trek of 13 km to reach Trikuta Mountains at a staggering height of 5,200 feet at the Himalayan foothills. Trikuta Mountains find mention in the Vayu Purana. It is believed to be the abode of 33 kuti, meaning 33 crore deities. According to the epic Ramayana, the city of Lanka was built on Trikuta.
There is no provision of a motorised transportation to reach the holy shrine. Most devout pilgrims go on foot. The popular belief is that the more the hardships one encounters when approaching the shrine, the more the devi’s blessings. Reaching there through the easy way diminishes its religious significance. With the increasing number of people undertaking the arduous pilgrimage, one wonders about the reasons of its rising popularity.
Srikant of Wonder Tours, a travel agency who organises only Vaishno Devi Yatras, says, “People’s staunch faith, accessibility of the holy place, online booking facility, and also good administration by the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board could be a few factors that have made it a popular pilgrimage site.” “Railway station of Katra is now a world-class railway station having solar energy-powered automatic escalators.
It also houses food courts, souvenir shops, waiting halls, washrooms and bathrooms. Pilgrims can also opt for helicopter services from Katra and Jammu to Sanjichat, which is the highest point on the trekking route to Vaishno Devi,” adds Srikant.
Faith with which a spiritual journey is undertaken can be quite satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding.