Flower-like the heels of the wanderer, his body groweth and is fruitful; all his sins disappear, slain by the toil of his journeying." This Rig Veda hymn (Aitareya Brahmana, 7.15) is one of the earliest mentions of the ancient Hindu practice of Tirthayatra–literally "journey to a river ford." Sacred rivers were among the earliest pilgrimage destinations. Today there are tens of thousands of holy sites across India which attract hundreds of millions of devotees yearly. In this four-page special section, we explore the tradition of pilgrimage, list five of the most sacred destinations for each Hindu sect, and map out major holy sites of India.

Pilgrimage is universal; and the reasons for it are much the same in all religions–boons, expiation of sins, nearness to God and enlightenment. Even the pilgrims are the same. What Hindu would not recognize the characters of the Christian novel Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan–Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mrs. Hopeful, Mr. Faithful, Mrs. Much-afraid and Mr. Ready-to-halt? The ancient Egyptians visited the shrines of their deceased kings. The Christians of the Middle Ages visited the holy city of Jerusalem, often at great personal peril. Muslims are expected once in their life to perform the hajj, the visit to Mecca, holiest city of Islam. Buddhists travel to Buddha's birthplace in Rummindei, Nepal, and to Bodhgaya and Nalanda in India.

Pilgrimage is not a vacation, a chance to "get away from it all," to enjoy beautiful scenery in far-off lands. While those are some of the benefits, pilgrimage is first and foremost a religious discipline, one of five duties of all Hindus. Pilgrimage is a symbol of life itself, the journey of the seeker to spiritual places–a trek mirroring his journey through life's experience in fulfillment of dharma and the search for a higher truth. Life's ultimate goal is moksha, enlightenment and liberation from rebirth. On sacred journeys one strives for that goal. Pilgrimage is taking all of your problems, sins, misgivings and ignorance and placing them at the feet of God. The Lord replaces ignorance with intelligence, deepens the soul, and enhances inner values and principles.

For Hindus, the concept of darshana is inextricably woven into pilgrimage and all of its encounters. In fact, one cannot understand how a Hindu experiences pilgrimage without a deep appreciation for the beautiful concept of darshana, which means "sight or vision." The direct encounter, or seeing, of the Divine, is the ideal that carries a Hindu on pilgrimage. He wants to see holy men and women, to see holy shrines, to see the images abiding in the ancient sanctums. Ultimately, he wants to see God, to have a personal, life-changing, bliss-engendering, karma-eradicating vision of God within himself. The pilgrim also wants to be seen by God, to reveal himself, uncover himself, stand before God and be known to Him. Darshana is the essence of every pilgrim's journey, the rationale, the inner goal. And the pilgrim works diligently with himself, observes his yogas and his disciplines, so that his seeing may be pure and untainted.

"Pilgrimages," explains Swami Chidanand Saraswati (Muniji) of Parmath Niketan, in Rishikesh, "may be undertaken for realizing specific desires; as a prayashcitta for cleansing one's sins or for spiritual regeneration. Seekers go on pilgrimages in quest of knowledge, enlightenment and liberation. The great acharyas like Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva went on pilgrimages to spread Sanatana Dharma." Pilgrims perform the shraddha rites at an auspicious place in honor of their ancestors. They seek the company of holy people. By such proximity the pilgrim hopes to absorb a bit of the saint's or saints' religious merit. "Mother cooks and all children get food," said Ma Yoga Shakti, a contemporary woman saint, "Similarly someone does penance, and the fruit of the penance is shared by all people."

The Mahabharata, in the Tirthayatra Parva section, lists hundreds of holy destinations. Sage Pulastya describes to Bhishma a tour circumambulating all of India in a clockwise fashion, beginning from Pushkara in Rajasthan, then to Somnath and Dwarka in the West, to the Himalayas, across the top of India through Varanasi and Gaya to the mouth of the Ganges in the East, then southward to Kanyakumari, back up the western side of India to Gokarna in Karnataka, and ultimately back to Pushkara. The existence of this pilgrimage route in ancient times proves that India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) was a one culture unified by religion. In Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India, Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj states, "The number of Hindu sanctuaries in India is so large and the practice of pilgrimage so ubiquitous that the whole of India can be regarded as a vast sacred space organized into a system of pilgrimage centers and their fields."

What makes a place holy to Hindus? Traditionally there are four types of tirthas: 1) daiva tirthas, considered the most auspicious, resulting from the benevolent act of a God; 2) asura tirthas, where a God subdued one or another demon; 3) arsha tirthas, created through the tapas, sadhana and sacrifice of great saints and sages; and 4) manusha tirthas, least auspicious, places of worship established by kings.

The continuous circulation of millions of pilgrims throughout India has forged a national unity of great strength. Swami Chidanand explained, "Pilgrimages have culturally and emotionally unified the Hindus. They have increased the generosity of people. Pilgrims learn and appreciate the many subcultures in the different regions, while also appreciating the overall unity."

The American Indians spoke of the "vision quest," a spiritual journey of great austerity to seek a revelation from God. This, too, in the Hindu tradition is among the pilgrim's highest aspirations. "When you go to these places," said Ma Yoga Shakti, "you uplift your whole mind and you shed your weaknesses. You can look at your life very clearly. You get inspiration of what your life's mission is." A pilgrimage to achieve such a result requires careful preparation beforehand, proper conduct while traveling and reflection upon returning.

Sri Swami Satchidananda of the Integral Yoga Institute told Hinduism Today, "There is a tradition that when you take a pilgrimage you temporarily become a sannyasin [renunciate]. It is called yatra sannyasa. You go as a sannyasin, doing with simple things and depending on God." In the Mahabharata, sage Pulastya mentions qualities of the pilgrim–contentment, self-control, freedom from pride and anger; light eating and regarding all creatures as his own self. "The pilgrims," said Ma Yoga Shakti, "should not entertain anything which is not spiritual. A pilgrim must go with total surrender, with a total faith in God that it is only with God's grace that he can finish the pilgrimage." All along the way, there is help. "People know you are a pilgrim," Swami Satchidananda, continued. "They say, 'We cannot go ourselves. We are all busy in the world. Please, by helping you, you can go and get some benefit, and parts of it will come to us.' "

Aside from the normal attendance at temple events, the pilgrim's devotional practices include circumambulation, bathing, head shaving, kavadi and prostration. Prostration and circumambulation are sometimes combined in the discipline of "measuring one's length"–prostrating, rising, stepping forward two paces and prostrating again around a sacred site. There are pilgrims who undertake this arduous penance the entire 33-mile path around Mount Kailas.

Pilgrims pay obeisance to every Deity and shrine along their way, including those of other Hindu sects. In a temple, after paying respects to all the shrines, one sits in a quiet place in meditation. Manasa puja, "mental ritual worship," is then performed to the Deity who stands out most strongly in one's mind, explained Swami Satchidananda. It is not enough to run from shrine to shrine taking darshana. One must also reflect internally in meditation and thus become open to receiving the gracious boons of the God.

H.H. Swami Prakashanand, an ardent devotee of Radha-Krishna, explains how to conclude a sacred journey. "Normally while going to a holy place people think of God, but as soon as they have the darshan of the Deity and they start back home, their mind is totally engrossed in business affairs. This is not correct. The success of a pilgrimage is becoming immersed in thoughts of God. While coming back he should be further engrossed in feeling the closeness of God. This is the correct way. Otherwise it becomes like a sight-seeing trip."




This is the foremost Siva Nataraja temple, site of the Linga of Akasha, located in Tamil Nadu. It was here that Lord Siva danced the Tandava dance of creation, overcoming the arrogance of the rishis, and where sage Patanjali later lived and wrote the Yoga Sutras. Here also lived Rishi Tirumular, author of the Tirumantiram. The glistening solid gold roof of the main sanctum contains 17,500 tiles, one for each breath a human takes in a day.


High North in Uttar Pradesh is Kedarnath, one of the 12 Jyotir Linga temples of Lord Siva. It was established at the foot of the Himalayas by the five Pandavas after the Mahabharata war to atone for their sins. Recent improvements have made the previously arduous ascent to this 12,000-foot sanctuary easier, but pilgrims are still cautioned against the cold and the 5,000-foot hike from Gaurikund, the last motorable outpost.

Mount Kailas

One of the greatest and most austere pilgrimages of all, Mount Kailas, Himalayan abode of Lord Siva, is sacred to five religions. Pilgrims perform a three-day, 33-mile circumambulation of the sacred peak. At the foot of Kailas lies Lake Manasarovara, symbolizing a quieted mind, free from all thought. Kailas is the Mount Meru of Hindu cosmology, center of the universe. Within 50 miles are the sources of four of India's most sacred rivers.


The Ramanathaswamy Siva Linga Temple near India's southern tip was built by Lord Rama in penance for killing Ravana. Two Lingas are worshiped there, established by Sita and Hanuman. Each day the abhisheka is performed with Ganges water. The temple is enormous in extent, with a mile of stone corridors. Pilgrims bathe in the sea and at the temple's 22 wells, each of which purifies the bather of a particular kind of sin.


Pilgrims to Siva's City of Light bathe at the ghats along the River Ganges to cleanse the sins of a lifetime. Most pilgrims attend Siva Linga puja at Kashi Vishwanatha, one of 1,500 temples here. A profound observance is the six-day circumambulation of the city along the Panchakoshi Road. Varanasi–also called Kashi and Banaras–is one of the oldest living cities in the world. The devout journey here at life's end (photo below).



At the very tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meet, is the ancient temple of Kanyakumari enshrining Goddess Parvati as the eternal virgin. It was here She defeated the asura Bana. This temple's tirtha is the sea itself, most auspicious for bathing. Boats take pilgrims offshore to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, where the young swami cognized his mission to begin the Hindu renaissance.


Madurai, the Athens of India, proudly holds the labyrinthine Meenakshi Sundaram temple. Here Siva came as Somasundarar to wed the Pandyan Princess Meenakshi, a manifestation of Parvati. Thus, this edifice encases two temples, one to Siva and one to Shakti. The tall gopurams, 1,000-pillared hall, sacred tanks and shrines vibrate with thousands of years of worship at this seven-walled citadel on the Vagai River (photo below).

Vaishno Devi

Those who walk the mountain trail to the Vaishno Devi temple in the Trikuta mountains north of Jammu are rarely disappointed in their imploration for the Goddess's boons. It was here in the Himalayan foothills that Vaishno Devi, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, defeated the asura Bhaironatha. Though hidden deep within a cave, the shrine receives more than 20,000 pilgrims a day, even when wintery snows are piled deep outside.


Only a few centuries ago this temple to Kali, the fierce aspect of the Goddess, was established in what was then a remote jungle near the river Ganges. The now highly congested Calcutta expanded to envelope the shrine, which is filled daily with devotees' cries of Kali Ma, Kali Ma, beseeching blessings from the incomparable protectress and mother of liberation. Unlike many Hindu temples, non-Hindus are allowed entry here.


Kamaksha is the Goddess of Love. Her holiest sanctuary is a small temple built on the rock of Nila Hill near Gauhati in Assam. The town and its legends are described in the Mahabharata and the Kalika Purana. This temple of magic for the sincere devotee contains no image of the Goddess, but in the depths of the shrine is a cleft in the stone, adored as the yoni of Shakti. As at Kalighat, here animal sacrifice is part of the worship.



At Ayodhya, birthplace of Lord Rama, "jewel of the solar kings," devotees worship and seek the blessings and boons of this seventh incarnation of God Vishnu. This orthodox Vaishnava town in Uttar Pradesh is among Hinduism's seven most sacred cities. Temples and shrines in every quarter honor famous sites of Rama's celebrated life, including the Ram Janmabhhoomi shrine and a temple to His devout servant, Hanuman.


This is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, eighth incarnation of God Vishnu. Mathura and nearby Vrindaban and Gokula are an outdoor paradise for devotees visiting places of the Lord's youth. A ten-mile circumambulation of the city, or a 30-mile walk, takes enchanted pilgrims to dozens of shrines and bathing spots for this beloved God's blessings . It is said Krishna mercifully condensed all holy places into this one blissful area.


Puri, in the state of Orissa, is the site of the famous Rathayatra, car festival, held around June each year at the immense, 900-year-old Jagannatha temple complex. A million pilgrims flock for darshan of God Vishnu as Lord of the Universe, and his brother and sister, Balabhadra and Subhadra, as a throng of devotees pull their 40-foot-tall wooden chariots by 500-meter ropes to the Gundicha temple two miles away (photo below).


Along with Yamunotri, Gangotri and Kedarnath, Badrinath lies in the area known as Uttarkhand, high in the Himalayas. During the half-year when not blocked by snow, hearty pilgrims climb 10,000 feet to the temple of Badrinarayana, where God Vishnu sits in meditation with a large diamond adorning His third eye and body bedecked with gems. Pilgrims take a purifying bath at the Tapt Kund, a sacred hot water pool.


India's richest and most popular temple, Tirupati draws 25,000 pilgrims a day who joyfully wait hours for two seconds of darsana, sacred sight, of the two-meter tall, jet-black idol of the wish-fulfilling Sri Venkateshwara, or Balajji, whose diamond crown is the costliest ornament on earth. The temple is a Dravidian masterpiece of stonework, gold and jewels. Head-shaving here is a prized testimony of penance and devotion.


Kumbha Mela

Acclaimed in the Guinness Book of World Records as earth's largest gathering, the 1989 Kumbha Mela at Prayag drew 30 million devotees. The month-long festival is held four times in each 12-year cycle of Jupiter, once each at Haridwar, Prayag, Nassik and Ujjain. A bath in India's sacred rivers yields immeasurable blessings. Hundreds of thousands of holy men emerge from caves and forests to bestow their blessings on humanity.


The town of Haridwar, where the river Ganges enters the Gangetic Plane, is the gateway to the sacred Himalayan shrines, tirthas and ashrams. It attracts thousands of pilgrims year round. The Kumbha Mela, when Hindu religious leaders–swamis, yogis and sadhus–come forward to preach to the people, is held here when Jupiter is in Aquarius and the sun in Aries–next occurring in April-May of 1998 (photo below top).


Prayag, "place of sacrifice," attracts millions of devotees who travel great distances and endure hardships for a purifying bath to absolve sins and seek moksha, freedom from rebirth, in the confluence of three rivers–Yamuna, Ganga and the invisible Sarasvati. This city holds the biggest Kumbha Mela of all, when Jupiter is in Taurus and the sun in Capricorn. The next one will be in January-February of 2001 (photo below bottom).


Near the source of the Godavari River in Maharashtra, Nassik is revered as Lord Rama's forest home during exile. One of ten cave temples here was Sita's abode, from which Ravana abducted her. Shrines of the area include the Kapaleshvara and Tryambakeshvara Siva temples. The Mela here (as at Ujjain) is much smaller than at Haridwar and Prayag. It next occurs in August-September 2003, when both Jupiter and the sun are in Leo.


The historic city of Ujjain is one of India's seven cities of liberation. This site of the 1992 Kumbha Mela, on the holy Shipra River in Madhya Pradesh, shelters an array of pilgrimage destinations, including the Mahakala Siva temple and the Amareshvara Jyotir Linga. It is also sacred to the Goddess, Shakti, and to Lord Krishna as well. The next Kumbha Mela here will be April-May 2004, when Jupiter enters Leo with the sun in Aries.


The Government of India's Tourist Office might as well be called the pilgrimage office, for tourism in India really means "pilgrimage." Nearly all major tourist destinations are holy places. Even the most determined atheist could hardly travel across India without daily, even hourly, encounters with sacred places, sights and sounds. All of this means it's easy to take a pilgrimage in India, the 1.3-million square mile holy land for earth's nearly one billion Hindus, thanks to modern transportation and government promotion and improvement of pilgrimage sites.

In ancient times pilgrimage was quite perilous, and the custom of not asking when someone intended to return may well have arisen from the uncertainty of whether they would ever return. As a result, most undertook holy treks in their advanced years. Today some still believe that pilgrimage (and many other religious practices) are only for the elderly. Sant Ma Yoga Shakti recently told Hinduism Today, "I would suggest that people do pilgrimage at a young age. Then it will put good samskaras in them, and their whole life will be very happy and peaceful because they get the message at a very early stage."

It is easy to plan a pilgrimage. In India the local government of India (GOI) tourist office will help. Overseas, specialty travel agents can, working with the Indian embassy and GOI offices, set up an itinerary. Pilgrims are advised to find out the historical background of each site they plan to visit. They should dress in traditional garb. Many pilgrimage groups wear the same color clothing, such as all white, all green, black, blue, yellow or red, and are thus easily recognized and respected by communities they pass through. Visitors from overseas, and even Indians traveling to distant states, always take precautions to guard their health from unaccustomed altitudes, climates and diseases. Pilgrimage is not supposed to be easy. Even today some pilgrims, eschewing motorized transport, walk hundreds and even thousands of miles to their destination. The more effort expended, the greater the merit of the journey.

Inner preparation and sadhana prior to pilgrimage is serious and extensive. Pilgrim S. Rajeev of San Francisco, a computer engineer, describes the 41 days of preparation before visiting the shrine of Lord Ayyappan in Sabarimalai in central Kerala: "The penitent, as soon as he dons the distinctive rudraksha and the black or blue clothes of renunciation, gives up, in word, deed and thought, all that is nonsattvic: meat, liquor, tobacco and sex. He may even cut his hair or beard. He takes on the responsibility to be pious, attending temple services in full surrender to the God. "

Arriving at each destination, it is important to take one's time. While some may take the darshana, sight of the Deity, quickly, the inwardly devout pilgrim may spend up to an hour or two at each shrine, singing hymns, offering prayers, then meditating facing the wall at a secluded spot, absorbing the shakti of the God. The slower, more contemplative approach will yield better results, for good health, sustainable wealth, harmonious family and longevity for this and future lives.

What about bringing the children? Sant Ma Yoga Shakti advises, "Very small children should not go unless they can begin to understand, unless they can walk and participate. Children under eight years old should not go. New mothers never go, as their first duty is to look after their babies, because God is born in the form of human beings." Swami Satchidananda told Hinduism Today, "Well, there is a little sacrifice in taking the family. You don't go only for your own welfare, you are planning to expose the family members and the children. They will behave and worship properly if they are trained properly at home. They should not be made to think they are just going there to see the sights and jump around and play."

The map below is derived from a plot of Indian holy sites in, A Historical Atlas of South Asia. But remember, holy sites in India are so numerous–in the hundreds of thousands–they defy agreement as to which are most important. The symbol adjoining the name indicates the major Deity worshiped at the site.

Our thanks go to the sanga who helped in preparing this center section,

Rev. Sri Swami Satchidananda

H.H. Swami Prakashananda

Swami Chidanand Saraswati (Muniji)

Sant Ma Yoga Shakti

S.S. Bhatt (Chicago)

Ram Bali (India Tourist Office, Los Angeles)

S. Rajeev (San Francisco)

Sri Patita Pavanadas, Ph. D.

Dr. P.K. Vedanthan

Kesavan Sreeprakash