10 Gorgeous Pilgrimage Sites You Need to See
By Steve Wiegand
location: Puri, India
most frequented by: Hindus
Festivals are an important part of Hinduism, and Ratha Yatra is certainly one with a lot of pull "¦ and pulling.
The celebration takes place in June or July of each year in Puri, a city on the southeastern coast of India. Why Puri? It's home to the 12th-century Jagannatha temple and three roughhewn (and highly sacred) wooden statues. They represent Jagannatha, an incarnation of the Hindu Lord Krishna; his brother, Balarama; and his sister, Subhadra. Hindus believe that around 5,000 years ago, devotees of Krishna pulled the chariots of these three siblings to the family's nearby childhood home. Each year, as many as 1 million faithful visit the temple to re-enact the event, dragging the statues in giant chariots. And we do mean giant: The largest is 45 feet high and sports 16 wheels. Devout Hindus believe if they help transport the chariot bearing Jagannatha, they will be granted the opportunity to serve him in the spiritual world.
During Ratha Yatra, some of the more enthusiastic pullers have been known to deliberately throw themselves under the chariots' wheels. Fortunately, the frequency of this practice has waned in recent years, but the popularity of the festival certainly hasn't. In fact, those who can't make it to Puri for Ratha Yatra can participate in smaller versions in cities all over the world, from Kuala Lumpur to New Orleans.
And if you think Jagannatha bears significance for Hindus only, you're wrong. Turns out, the statue is credited with giving the English language the word "juggernaut." In the 17th century, British travelers returning from India brought back lurid (and highly exaggerated) tales of the festival in Puri, describing hordes of people being squashed by the chariots. "Juggernaut" is an Anglicization of Jagannatha, and the word has since come to mean "a massive, inexorable force that crushes everything in its path." That certainly describes a four-story-high chariot.
2) Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion
location: Aksum, Ethiopia
most frequented by: Ethiopian Orthodox
Anyone who's seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" knows that the Ark of the Covenant is the chest containing the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed. Aside from that, you can forget all the other Indiana Jones nonsense. The most prominent story of the Ark comes from Ethiopian tradition. According to that legend, the biblical Queen of Sheba was actually Queen Makeda of Ethiopia. After adopting Mosaic laws for the Ethiopian people, she sent her son Menelik and members of his staff to steal the Ark and bring it to Aksum. There, ostensibly, it remains—housed in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, a relatively modest 17th-century stone building. Who gets the honor of guarding the holy relic and, consequently, being the only human on Earth allowed to actually see the Ark? That job goes to an especially holy monk, who's tasked with the duty until death. In accordance with tradition, he names his successor with his dying words. So, if you want to know whether or not the Ark is really there, you'll have to take the guardian's word for it.
There are more than enough people, however, who don't need any visible proof. Every year, thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit Aksum, a small mountain town about 300 miles north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to see the shrine protecting the Ark. Aksum is considered one of the holiest sites for followers of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, which counts itself among the oldest forms of Christianity.
3) Sri Harmandir Sahib
location: Amritsar, India
most frequented by: Sikhs
Most Westerners know Sri Harmandir Sahib simply as "The Golden Temple," so named for its structures adorned with gold and gold paint. But to the world's roughly 20 million Sikhs, it's their religion's most sacred site. In fact, followers pray daily for a chance to visit the temple at least once during their lives.
Sri Harmandir Sahib is in Amritsar, a city about 240 miles north of New Delhi. Built in the late 16th century, the temple's impressive architecture was designed to represent the magnificence and strength of the Sikh people. Sikhism itself is an offshoot of Hinduism founded about 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, a government accountant who rejected both Hinduism and Islam.
The temple at Sri Harmandir Sahib occupies a small island in the middle of a pool and is connected to land by a marble causeway. Every year, it attracts millions of pilgrims. In 2004 alone, more than 2.5 million Sikhs visited The Golden Temple to take part in a five-day celebration marking its 400th anniversary. Sadly, however, the temple has also attracted its fair share of violence, including attacks and conquests by Mongol, Arab, Afghan, and British armies. Perhaps the most notable incident occurred in 1984. Sikh separatists, feeling oppressed by the Hindu-dominated Indian government and seeking an independent state, occupied the temple and refused to leave. When Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered soldiers and tanks to attack, more than 1,000 people were killed, and some of the buildings around the temple were badly damaged. Gandhi received scores of death threats and was assassinated a few months later by Sikh terrorists.
4) Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
location: Mexico City, Mexico
most frequented by: Roman Catholics
The story of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins on a frosty December day in 1531, only a decade after the Spanish conquistador HernÃ¡n CortÃ©z toppled the Aztec empire. A 50-year-old Indian peasant named Juan Diego was trudging along between his village and modern-day Mexico City when he encountered the Virgin Mary, who told him to build a church on the site where they were standing. Not one to ignore an order from the mother of Christ, the peasant relayed the request to the local bishop. A bit suspicious of Diego's claim, the bishop demanded proof of Mary's request. In response, the Virgin (who conveniently appeared to Diego again) supplied the peasant with a bunch of roses in the dead of winter. Needless to say, the bishop was pretty impressed with the bouquet, but even more so by the likeness of Mary that was mysteriously imprinted on Diego's cloak, and a church was promptly built.
Today, the site houses the old Basilica as well as a newer one, and millions of Catholics travel the world for a chance to walk inside. Pilgrims praying to the Virgin Mary there have reported miraculous cures, particularly for alcoholism. (Why alcoholism? We have no idea.) Diego's cloak is also on display at the site, though it's an object of controversy. Scientists argue about the authenticity of his cloak, and historians quibble over the authenticity of Juan Diego himself—some doubting such a man ever existed. The arguments, however, had a hard time competing with former Pope John Paul II's stamp of approval. He visited the Basilica several times, and on a 2002 journey there, he made Juan Diego a saint.
5) Shatrunjaya Hill
location: Palitana, India
most frequented by: Jains
Shatrunjaya Hill just might have been what Led Zeppelin had in mind when the band wrote "Stairway to Heaven." The site has no fewer than 3,950 steps—enough to make you think you can reach heaven (either by looking up or keeling over) by the time you actually get done climbing it.
Located in the western Indian city of Palitana, Shatrunjaya (or Satrunjaya) Hill is the primary pilgrimage destination for followers of Jainism and home to 863 temples dedicated to the Jain religion. Founded in India about the same time as Buddhism, Jainism teaches the path to spiritual purity through a life of discipline, austerity, and non-violence. In fact, this aversion to violence has led many among India's Jain community (which consists of about four million people) to shun most occupations outside of commerce and finance. Jains not only frown upon killing people, but animals as well. For that reason, none of the temples at Palitana contain ivory (since that would mean dead elephants) or even clay (since it contains dead insects and micro-organisms). Instead, they're constructed of marble, bronze, or stone. So if you're going, don't wear anything made of fur, leather, or any other part of a dead animal.
Oh, and about those steps up the Hill to the temples: It can take as long as three hours to climb up them, depending on your level of fitness. The elderly and ailing go up in a dholi, a small seat attached under a bamboo pole, carried by two men who take a few jouncing steps at a time. If ever an employee deserved a great tip, it would be one of these guys.
6) Destination: Sri Pada
location: Sri Lanka
most frequented by: Everyone! (It's multi-denominational)
Sri Pada is the only mountain in the world sacred to four major religious groups. Oddly enough, it also happens to be nestled in Sri Lanka, a country ravaged by civil war for the past 20-plus years.
Sri Pada is a modest, cone-shaped peak on an island in the Indian Ocean. At the top of the mountain, you'll find a 1,600-square-foot platform on which there's a depression the shape of a human foot—a very large foot, about 1 yard wide and nearly 2 yards long. (See how carefully we avoided measuring the foot in "feet?") Buddhists believe the footprint to be Buddha's. Hindus think it belongs to the god Shiva. Christians claim St. Thomas left it there before he ascended into heaven. Muslims believe Adam made it after he descended from heaven (hence the mountain's nickname, Adam's Peak).
Despite the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese government and Tamil separatists, hundreds of thousands of travelers of all religious stripes make the pilgrimage up the mountain each year. The climb up Sri Pada, which can take three to four hours, is marked by crumbling steps, hundreds of colorful butterflies, lots of leeches in the surrounding forests, and tea houses for breaks along the way. In some places, there are iron chains to help out climbers who wish to pull themselves up. It's said that Alexander the Great left them behind when he visited the site in 324 BCE. There's no record regarding who Alexander believed created the footprint, but if we had to take a guess, we think he probably told people that it was his own.
location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
most frequented by: Muslims
A trip to Mecca isn't likely to be confused with anything but a pilgrimage. Located in a drab, sandy valley about 50 miles from the Red Sea (where summer temperatures can easily reach 115 F), it's hardly a vacation destination. Regardless, it's a must-see for followers of Islam "¦ and we do mean "must." Mecca is the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and therefore the holiest city to Muslims. In fact, one of the religion's "Five Pillars" requires followers to attempt a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once during their lives if at all physically and financially possible. Not ones to take pillars lightly, more than 2.5 million devout Muslim pilgrims flock to the city each year.
The hajj takes place during Dhu'l-Hijja, the last month of the Muslim calendar year (which is based on lunar cycles, meaning the hajj dates change annually). While there, pilgrims follow a pattern of devotional duties. One such ritual involves circling the Ka'ba, a cube-shaped building said to be the first place Mohammad preached and the holiest shrine in Islam. In addition, pilgrimages include the ritual kissing of the Black Stone.
Although not a formal object of Islamic veneration, the Black Stone is believed to be a meteorite and is revered by pilgrims as a traditional symbol of Mecca. According to Muslim legend, it was originally a white stone given to Adam after he was expelled from Paradise, and since then, it's turned black from absorbing the sins of all those who have touched or kissed it.
Sadly, pilgrimages to Mecca are sometimes marred by tragedy. In 1990, a human stampede in an underground pathway resulted in nearly 1,500 deaths. And in 2004, another stampede killed 251 worshippers. More recently, cases of polio discovered in the city led health officials to fear a situation in which returning pilgrims could spread the disease around the world. But Mecca's potential dangers are less of a threat to non-Muslims. Members of all other religions are banned from the city to prevent its sanctity from being "polluted."
8) Western Wall
most frequented by: Jews
In Hebrew, it's known as ha-kotel ha-ma'aravi. In English, it's usually referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall. But whatever you call it, it's old "¦ as in 2,000 years old. The Wall is all that remains of Jerusalem's Second Temple. King Solomon built the First Temple around 960 BCE, but after the Babylonians destroyed it and expelled the Jews from the region, construction began on its replacement. The Second Temple's luck wasn't much better. In 70 CE, the Romans flattened it—all but the Western Wall. Some historians claim Emperor Titus left this small section standing to remind the Jews who was in charge. The Jewish faithful, however, choose to view it as God's way of showing them that He hasn't forgotten about their whole "chosen" pact.
Westerners, observing Jewish worshippers crying over the destruction of the temple, dubbed it the Wailing Wall. But the appellation belies the site's much greater religious significance. For Jews, the Wall symbolizes God's presence, which is why millions of people come from all over the world to pray before the structure and insert written prayers into its crevices.
Unfortunately, as in just about everything else in the Middle East, the Wailing Wall is a point of controversy between Muslims and Jews. That's because the site is also home to the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in the Islamic religion. Muslims believe it's where Mohammed ascended into heaven with the messenger archangel, Gabriel.
9) Mount Athos
most frequented by: Eastern Orthodox
Depending on your views on gender equality, this one's either going to entice you or make you really, really angry. It's for men only. The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX officially banned women from Mt. Athos in 1045, but he didn't stop there. He also prohibited female animals and children, as well as eunuchs. These days, the eunuch ban isn't strictly enforced (how could it be?), and you might be able to find a hen or two walking around. The rule excluding women, though, is still very much in place, despite the ardent efforts of feminist groups, not to mention the European Union, to pressure the Greek government into lifting the ban.
Mt. Athos, a self-governed region on a peninsula in northeastern Greece, is the Rolls-Royce of meditation retreats. The 6,670-foot peak is populated by 20 monasteries sprinkled across dazzlingly beautiful marble cliffs and ancient evergreen forest. There, monks practice Heyschasm, a lifestyle in which followers seek hesychia, or "divine quietness," a practice common to the Eastern Orthodox Church. As for the religion itself, it arose after a split with the Church of Rome in 1054, largely due to questions concerning the authority of the pope.
To visit one of the monasteries, men must obtain permits in advance, and crowds are limited to 100 per day. Once there, serious contemplation and meditation are encouraged; gawking tourism is not. Visitors are allowed to eat and room with the monks, as well as participate in daily work routines. More than 350,000 men travel to Mt. Athos annually. In recent years, England's Prince Charles has been a regular visitor.
10) Destination: Bodh Gaya
location: Bodh Gaya, India
most frequented by: Buddhists
For years, Siddhartha Gautama tried to find an end to human suffering through, well, human suffering. He nearly starved to death following a life of extreme self-denial. When that didn't work, he decided to try sitting under a tree and meditating. Luckily for him, after a few weeks, Gautama found Enlightenment—the understanding that suffering comes from desire—and thereafter became known as Buddha. Thus began one of the world's great religions.
In a nutshell, that's why an average of more than 2,000 people per day visit the small town in northeast India known as Bodh Gaya. For Buddhist pilgrims and tourists alike, there are two main attractions: the Mahabodhi Temple, a pyramid-shaped building first erected in the 3rd century BCE; and the Bodhi Tree, said to be a direct descendant of the tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment.Buddhists regard Bodh Gaya as the first place Buddha began teaching his reap-what-you-sow idea of karma. Ironically, the city has the unsavory reputation as the center of one of the poorest and most lawless regions in India.