Devotion in the Hills: 10 beautiful holy places in the mountains of India
By Saurav Ranjan Datta
Sunrise above Tungi Peak (Image: Jainvaibhav1307, CC BY-SA 4.0)
When I was a small boy, hobnobbing in a small town in one of the remotest corners of India, trying to gauge the wonderful sights and sounds all around, my father took me every Sunday to a nearby shrine. Despite those regular visits, however, he strictly told us to keep religion as a very personal thing. I remember him categorically saying that all religions are different paths, leading to one Supreme God. He often suggested that we meditate and be spiritual, and visit various shrines situated in different corners of the country. But he never imposed anything on us.
In this context, India is a wonderful country to be spiritually enriched. One of the exciting things about the country is its topography, as the country is endowed with many geographical variants. My father came from a beautiful valley, where the shrines are located on top of the hills, which were difficult to reach and thus ensuring the devotees worked hard to reach his or her God. It is probably an allegory of life that to find the Ultimate, you have to work really hard.
These are my top ten beautiful, holy spots of India, which are all situated in the mountains and hills.
Shrine of Baijnath, (Kangra District-Himachal Pradesh state and Bageshwar District-Uttarakhand state)
There are two famous temples by this name, one in Himachal Pradesh and one in Uttarakhand, two mountain states of India. The name of this famous temple has been derived from one of the names of Lord Shiva - Vaidhyanath,which means the Lord of the Physicians.
The Shiva Temple of Baijnath,Himachal Pradesh (Image: Harvinder Chandigarh, CC BY-SA 4.0)
In one of the legends, it has been said that Ravana the Asura King, after getting a powerful boon (a kind of blessing to have the desired powers) from Lord Shiva, wanted to take him to his kingdom of Lanka, in the hope that the boon would stay forever. Hence, Lord Shiva converted himself into a Shivlinga (Shivlinga is a symbol of the Hindu God ‘Lord Shiva’, which is generally in the shape of a phallus) and instructed Ravana that he could take that Shivlinga to Lanka, on the condition that it should not touch the whilst on his way home. However, Ravana was tricked by a Deva into placing the Shivling to the ground, thus enabling Lord Shiva to rest there forever, and thus this place of worship came into being. It is difficult to tell now which of the temples is associated with this piece of mythology.
Lord Shiva is one of the Gods in the trinity of Hinduism, together with Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. All three are considered to be the highest Gods in the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism. Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are extensively worshiped in the Indian sub-continent, and as such numerous shrines exist in their names and dedication. Lord Brahma is not worshipped that much here, due to a curse he received at the hands of one of his wives as per mythology.
Unakoti Hill, state of Tripura
The rock wall with stone carvings at the site of Unakoti Hill (Image: Barunghosh CC BY-SA 4.0)
This site is another attraction for the devotees of Hinduism. It doesn’t have a particular shrine as such, but it is popular for the innumerable stone carvings of Gods and Goddesses. As per the legends, one of the trinities of Hinduism, Lord Shiva, was once travelling to the holy city of Kashi with one crore (translates to 10 million) Gods and Goddesses including himself, when they stopped at this place for the night. Lord Shiva instructed everybody to get up before sunrise to continue their journey, but when the rest of the Gods and Goddesses failed to wake up, Lord Shiva set out alone, cursing all the others to turn into stone images. Hence, this place has one less than a crore stone images and carvings as per the belief, and thus its name Unakoti in the local language for the above, came into being.
Tabo Monastery, Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh
This site is one of the most popular Buddhist monasteries of India. As per the legends, this shrine is very ancient and has an extraordinary interior, featuring some of the finest Indo-Tibetan art found anywhere in the world. After a devastating earthquake in 1975, this monastery was rebuilt and is now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a national historic treasure of India. Lahaul-Spiti is one of the most popular tourist districts of India.
Painting inside Tabo Monastery (Image: Sumita Roy Dutta, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mundeshwari Devi Temple, Kaimur district of the state of Bihar
This temple is considered to be India’s oldest functional temple and one of the oldest in the country. The temple is located on the summit of a hill, which has a height of about 600 feet. The temple is octagonal and made of stone. In the eastern section of this shrine, the grand and ancient idol of the Goddess is the main attraction. The Mother Goddess of this temple is called Mundeshwari Devi and the Shivling (the phallus shaped idol and symbol of Lord Shiva) of this temple has been installed and constructed with a special stone which changes its colour according to the position of the sun rays. It is believed that ‘Pujas’ (worshipping) in this temple has continued from a very ancient age without a break, and hence considered the oldest functional temple of this country.
The Mundeshwari Devi Temple (Image: Lakshya2509 , CC BY-SA 3.0)
Shikharji, Giridih District-Jharkhand state
This shrine is a very important pilgrimage site for the Jains and is believed to be the place where twenty Jain Tirthankaras (out of twenty-four) attained Moksha. (Jains are followers of Jainism, a sect and religion developed in India during the same time as Buddhism. What Gautama Buddha was to Buddhism, Mahavira Vardhamana is to Jainism. Mahavira Vardhamana is generally considered to be founder of Jainism, though the Jains themselves believe that he was only the 24th Tirthankara-A spiritual teacher in a long line of spiritual teachers. Moksha is a metaphysical concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and some other religions in India which roughly states that the ultimate aim of life is the liberation of the soul, so that it can unite with the universal soul of the universe. It is sometimes akin to the Buddhist nirvana).
The site is located on the Parasnath hill, the highest mountain of Jharkhand. The name of this pilgrimage site translates to ‘venerable peak’, or the "peak of concentration". This shrine is also visited by followers of other religions and especially people from the Rajasthan state, where Jainism has taken a deep root. To explain the important of Jainism in India, we can give an example here – one of the greatest emperors of India, pre-Christ, was Chandragupta Maurya, grandfather of Ashoka the Great, who supposedly converted to Jainism in his final years and retired to a life of a Jain ascetic.
The Shikharji shrine is found on Parasnath hill, along with 12 others
Hazratbal Mosque, Srinagar, Kashmir
One of the holiest shrines of Islam is the Hazratbal Mosque situated in the beautiful city of Srinagar in Kashmir. This shrine is believed to have stored a very important relic of the religion, the strands of hair of the Prophet. A descendant of the Prophet himself is said to have brought this relic to Kashmir. This shrine is visited by thousands of devotees.
Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh
The pilgrim centre of Rewalsar is situated some miles away from the town of Mandi. One of the local names of Rewalsar (which is also famous for its lake) is Trisangam (the name Trisangam roughly translates to tri-confluence or the confluence of three faiths) and as such, the place is sacred to adherents of three major religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati have blessed Sage Lomas here, as per the legend. The tenth Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singhji, visited and stayed here. Yogi Padmasambhava, considered to be the Second Buddha, is also said to have lived and meditated here. Because of the mythological or practical presence of people of all these three faiths here, this place has come to be known as such. The tourists visiting the more popular destination of Mandi, can also visit this religiously significant place.
Twin hills of Mangi-Tungi, state of Maharashtra
Mangi Tuni - twin fortified hill structures in Maharashtra (Image: Deepan Choudhary, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Situated at a distance of around 125 km from the city of Nasik, this is an important holy site. According to mythology, this is the place where many Gods of Hinduism, such as Lord Rama, Lord Hanumana, Lord Balarama and many others along with 99 crore Jain monkshave achieved nirvana. Thus it is also famously known as ‘Siddhakshetra’. One can find a lot of caves and icons here, believed to have been cut over a long period in history between the 9th and 15th century CE. The entire district of Nashik itself is full of mythological tales and in fact the very etymology of the district and its headquarters has also come from mythology. As per the Hindu epic ‘The Ramayana’, this is the very place where the demoness by the name of Shurpanakha lost her precious nose to Lord Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Rama, hero of this epic. In Indian languages, nashik or nashika means nose and hence the name. So, it is not a surprise that the Mangi-Tungi hills in this district have imprints of Gods and Goddesses.
Alchi Monastery in Alchi village, Leh District-Ladakh UT
The village is a Buddhist monastery complex situated around 70 km away from Leh. It was built, according to local tradition, by Guru Rinchen Zangpo probably between 958 and 1055 CE. However, inscriptions in the preserved monuments ascribe it to a Tibetan noble of the 11th century. This gompa (the local word for a monastery is gompa or ghumpha) in this village is considered to be of unique style and workmanship and one of the oldest and most impressive. Alchi is considered to be the part of a triumvirate - a group of three villages having the same kind of monuments and architecture. Some of the oldest paintings from the Ladakh region of India which have survived to this day are found in the monuments and monasteries of these tree villages.
Fresco inside the Alchi Monastery (Image: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Uttarakhand
The temple is situated approximately 30 km from Rishikesh. According to legends, the place where this temple currently stands, is the sacred location where Lord Shiva had consumed the deadly poison called Kaalkutthat originated from the ocean when the Gods and Asuras churned it to obtain the nectar of immortality for themselves. The journey to this temple is beautiful and so is the shrine. The journey to this place traverses through the winding Himalayan roads full of nature and greenery. The town of Rishikesh is actually the place from where the Himalayan range actually starts in this part of the world. Hence this town is sometimes referred as the ‘Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas’ and as such, the road to Neelkanth Mahadev takes a steep incline towards the Shrine.
Saurav Ranjan Datta lives in Kolkata, India. Saurav is a writer for several national & international publications and a content researcher for many TV shows. Saurav is a management graduate by education and has worked in the corporate world for the last 15 years in senior positions. He has written a complete travel booklet for Outlook Publications and has contributed to an anthology of poems by the name of Harmonious Symphonies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.