We continue our India month with an exploration of five sacred sites, some famous some less famous, to highlight the cultural and historical heritage of this incredible country.
1) The Taj Mahal
Wait. Wait a second. What do you mean ‘sacred site’? The Taj Mahal, India’s iconic sight, daily trampled by hordes of camera-toting, paan-spitting tourists?
The Taj Mahal is a testament to love, the last goodbye of a grief-stricken husband to his beloved wife. Everyone knows it is one of the most beautiful tombs ever built, the jewel of Muslim art in India. Perhaps not many will know that it also includes a working mosque in its precincts.
We visited the Taj Mahal very early in the morning. The sun was rising over the Yamuna, one of Hinduism’s sacred rivers. The Taj was bathed in a pale apricot light, made even softer by the mist rising over the river. We walked away from the crowds posing for pictures in front of the Taj, and started walking around it. On the western side of the mausoleum we saw people entering the mosque for morning prayer.
Suddenly, I realised there was more to the Taj than what meets the eye. It is a living place of worship, a meeting point for the community.
2) Ellora and Ajanta Caves
These two cave complexes in the state of Maharashtra (not far from Mumbai) are a visual representation of the religious diversity of India.
Ajanta Caves are the older of the two, a complex of 30 rock-cave Buddhist cave temples. The oldest group of caves date back over two thousand years. Ellora Caves were built between the 5th and 10th century BC, and include examples of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temple caves, built side-by-side, expressing the religious harmony and tolerance that characterised that period of Indian history.
Ellora and Ajanta are no longer sacred sites, having now become property of the Archaeological Survey of India. However, as it is often the case in India, the borders of sacred and secular are somewhat blurred. Walking through the dark and damp interior of the caves, people visited in total silence, marvelling at the gigantic statues; Buddha with his kind eyes and elongated earlobes, Shiva holding his wife Parvati, along the stark simplicity of Jain caves.
Varanasi is Shiva’s sacred city, built on the banks of the most sacred river of all, the Ganges. Varanasi is sacred in every stone, every twisted alleyway, every step leading to the waters of that eternal river. It is the longest continuously inhabited city on Earth; for four thousand years people have dwelled under its roofs.
Legend says it was built by Shiva, and nowadays flocks of worshippers come to Varanasi, believing that death in the city will bring salvation from the everlasting cycle of death and reincarnation. Its streets are teeming with sadhus and Hindu priests, astrologists and that particular breed of westerners that have fallen for the sacred charm of India.
No words or pictures will ever convey the emotion of floating over the Ganges at sunrise, smoke wafting from the cremation ghats, while the faithful bathe in the milky-tea waters of the sacred river.
4) Harmandir Sahib – The Golden Temple
The first sight of the supreme centre of Sikhism is hard to forget. The temple lies in the middle of a water tank, surrounded by gleaming white marble. The top half of the temple is covered in gold. Crowds of worshippers, men with turbans and women with head covered, line the arcades around the tank and the causeway to the temple day and night, paying tribute to the sacred books kept inside the temple.
Not only it is a spellbinding sight, visiting the Golden Temple is also one of the best experiences of hospitality you can find all over the world. The temple itself has four doors, symbolising the openness of Sikhism to other religions. Everyone is welcome to stay in the Golden Temple, and there is even a dorm especially for foreigners, totally free of charge. The Golden Temple kitchen serves on average 100,000 thousand people every day, a simple yet delicious meal of dhal and chapati.
5) Pangong Lake
This brackish lake lies between India and Tibet, high in the Himalaya, at over 4,000 metres. The lake is 160 km away from Leh, the closest city, but the harrowing journey on a once-monthly bus takes over 12 hours. The journey crosses a lunar landscape of rocks and towering snowcapped mountains, crossed by herds of dzo and the odd person here and there.
Then the lake comes visible, a ribbon of turquoise waters, stretching eastwards towards Tibet. Prayer flags flutter across the deep, deep blue sky, carrying wishes towards the heavens.