Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent

As the birthplace of several world religions, the Indian subcontinent is home to countless sacred and holy sites. This article is about a few of the most notable sites of the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jainist, and Sikh faiths.

Buddhist

See Buddhism for an article on Buddhism from an international point of view.
The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya

Understand

Buddhism is a religion founded around 400-500 BC by Sakyamuni Buddha. Born in Lumbini as heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Sakya (in present day Nepal, near the Indian border), Prince Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha's former name) discovered that a life of luxury did not lead to peace of mind, and that the rich, like the poor, still suffer the torments of old age, sickness and death. He therefore renounced his title and abandoned his wealth in order to seek a way that could lead all beings, without discrimination, to freedom from suffering. He spent six years experimenting with the various common methods of the day, but to no avail. Finally, at the age of thirty-five and while meditating under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, he awoke to the insights he had been seeking. The essence of the Buddha's discovery are categorized in his first teaching that was delivered to a group of five ascetics at the Deer Park in Sarnath and is called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha finally passed away in a copse of sal trees at Kushinagar. He was believed to be over 80 years old at the time.

For many centuries, Buddhism was the major religion in India, and was supported by many great kings, with Asoka the Great (273–232 BC) perhaps the most famous. Buddhism's influence in India waxed and waned over the next millennium, and during the 6th and 7th century support was mostly confined to Southern India. However, perhaps the single most significant blow to Buddhism in India occurred in 1193 when Turkic Islamic raiders burnt the great Buddhist center of learning in Nalanda (in current day Bihar), and by the end of the 12th century it had all but disappeared from the lowlands, though it continued to thrive in the Himalayan regions.

Buddhism as a philosophy and religion can roughly be divided into two schools: Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada school which spread to Thailand, Sri Lanka and other South East Asian countries promotes personal liberation from suffering, whereas the Mahayana, which is prevalent in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Bhutan and Tibet, emphasizes the liberation of all beings. The Vajrayana school, which is often called Tibetan Buddhism, is an offshoot of Mahayana and differs from it only in method, not philosophy. A common thread throughout all Buddhist schools is the cultivation of wisdom and compassion as a basis of interacting with the world, and the total rejection of religious conversion. All schools of Buddhism recognize karma (the law of cause and effect) as the creator of our illusory universe, which Buddhists refer to as samsara.

Common images and symbols

The eight-spoked dharma chakra represents the Noble Eight-fold path taught by the Buddha

Respect

Notable sites

Below is list of fourteen of the most notable Buddhist sites in the subcontinent:

Taktsang Monastery at Paro in Bhutan

Itinerary

There are many important sites for Buddhists in the Indian subcontinent. Undoubtedly the most notable are those connected with the four main events in the Buddha's life: his birth, enlightenment, first teaching and death.

There is no special order that these pilgrimage sites should be visited. Sarnath is the nearest to Delhi, while Bodh Gaya is the closest to Kolkata. However, those who wish to visit Lumbini and return to India should ensure that they have a multi-entry visa. Otherwise, travelers planning to visit Nepal can place Lumbini last on their itinerary, and so eliminate the need to return to India. Likewise, travelers heading to India from Kathmandu should ideally visit Lumbini first. Seven or eight days is sufficient to make a short visit to each site, but travelers who wish to spend longer at each destination, and possibly visit other sites of interest in the area, should allow for two weeks, minimum. Among these sites, Bodh Gaya is considered the most sacred and is the most active, so if time constraints only allow a visit to one or two sites, then the place of the Buddha's enlightenment should definitely be given priority consideration.

For a fictional account of a Tibetan Lama on pilgrimage to these places, see On the trail of Kipling's Kim.

Festivals

Vajrayana tradition

Theravada tradition

Hindu

Pilgrims bathing on the ghats, Varanasi

Understand

Founded around 4,000 years ago, Hinduism was the first religion in the subcontinent and is considered amongst the oldest in the world. Hindus believe in a set of ideas called the dharma, or truth. According to Hindu philosophy, all living beings have an atma (soul) that is reborn several times, in both human and animal form. The karma (actions) of people in one life will decide their fate in the next life.

At first glance Hinduism appears to have numerous gods, although ultimately they are all considered to be different appearances of the supreme spirit, Brahma the Creator. The other two most important incarnations are Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. These gods are worshipped in a temple (known as a mandir in Hindi or a Devalaya in Sanskrit), most of which are elaborately decorated with carvings and sculptures. Each temple has its own priest(s) who carry out the puja (prayers) and rituals.

The Ganges river is considered to be holy by most Hindus, who believe that bathing in it will wash away their earthly sins. Millions of pilgrims take a dip in the holy water from the Varanasi ghats (the steps along the river-bank) and take some Ganga Jal (holy water) with them back as a blessing. Haridwar is another auspicious place for a dip.

The majority of Hindus live in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. There are small minorities in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Nepal is the only Hindu state in the world, although a significant minority of Buddhists live there as well.

Common images and symbols

Respect

Notable sites

Below are some of the most notable Hindu sacred sites in the subcontinent

Festivals

Diwali - the festival of lights

Islamic

Jama Masjid, Delhi

Understand

Founded by the Prophet Mohammed in 570 AD, Islam literally means submitting to the will of God. Muslims believe that when the Prophet was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca, the archangel Gabriel came to him and told him that there is one God but Allah and that Mohammed should become the messenger to carry out God's will and convey God's ideas to people. When Mohammed first began to preach he had difficulty in attracting followers, and the rulers of the city attempted to silence him, as they feared his preaching contradicted and threatened their profitable kaaba-based religion. In AD 622, the Prophet with his followers fled to the town of Yathrib (later renamed Medina). This flight, called the Hijra, marks the start of the Islamic calendar.

At Medina, Mohammed declared that people should peacefully live together, rather than fighting between tribes. The words of Allah, which Mohammed passed down to the people, were compiled in a holy book called the Qur'an.

To Muslims, Islam is a way of life supported by five pillars:

Muslims worship in mosques (masjid in Arabic/Urdu) and are called to prayer five times a day by the muezzin, at times set by the Qur'an. A Muslim religious leader is called an Imam. During prayers in the mosque, worshippers stand in a straight row behind him. Women usually pray in a separate area at the back of the mosque or just outside. Friday is the holy day for Muslims, when they gather in a mosque to offer namaz (morning prayers) and listen to a talk by the Imam. This occasion gives Muslims a chance to know each other, particularly in areas where Muslims are a minority.

India ranks second behind Indonesia with over 150 million Muslims. There are several Islamic sites in India, many are highly sacred. Most of the Indian Muslims are within the Sunni sect with believers adhering to two main schools, the liberal Shafi'i school mainly having its base in Kerala and South Indian states as well as conservative Hanfi found in other parts of India and a sizeable Shia sect mostly in Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh.

Respect

Intricate calligraphy at Qutb Minar, Delhi

Notable sites

Below is a list of a few of the most notable Islamic sites in the subcontinent:

Festivals

Jain

Fylfot, a modified version of the swastika, is the symbol of the Jains. It is often laid out with rice grains outside the temple altar.

Notable sites

Below is a list of a few of the most notable Jain sites in India:

Festivals

Sikh

Golden Temple, Amritsar

Understand

Sikhism originated in the Punjab. Sikhism began in 16th century Northern India with the teachings of Guru Nanak and nine successive Gurus. The Sikh system of philosophy is heavily based on the teachings of the Gurus, and is hence known as Gurmat. Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, was born as a Hindu in the year 1469. He believed that ceremonies and rituals divided people of different religions and that it was the beliefs and actions of the people that really mattered. The teachings of the Gurus are compiled in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. According to Sikh philosophy, there is one God who created the Universe. A Sikh place of worship is known as a Gurudwara. It is derived from the Sanskrit words Guru and Dwaara and literally means the gateway to the Guru. Sikhism is unique in that there are no priests. Readers, called Granthi, conduct services and read out passages from the Guru Granth Sahib. However, any member of the congregation may speak during a service.

Worldwide, Sikhs number more than 23 million, but more than 90% of Sikhs live in the Indian state of Punjab, where they form close to 65% of the population. Large communities of Sikhs are also found in the neighboring states and across India, though they comprise only about 2% of the Indian population. Migration beginning from the nineteenth century led to the creation of significant communities in Canada (Brampton, Ontario; Surrey, British Columbia), the United Kingdom, the Middle East, East Africa, Southeast Asia and more recently, the United States, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

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Notable sites

Below is a list of some of the most notable Sikh sites in India:

Festivals

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