From the majestic Himalayan Mountains in the north to pristine Kerala backwaters in the south, there is a spiritual ambiance that pervades throughout all of India. From the vast Thar Desert in the west to the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal, an incomparable mystical radiance illuminates some of the world’s most sacred cities. The enchanting lands of India, unlike any place on earth, play host to a diverse collection of spiritually significant destinations that are cherished by some of the world’s most prominent religions.
Although Hinduism is widely known to be India’s predominate faith, a number of other significant religions also have roots that trace back to what many consider to be the world’s holiest lands. In addition to an array of sacred Hindu cities, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims also consider particular Indian destinations especially important to their respective faiths.
An In-Depth Exploration of India’s 5 Most Sacred Cities:
While it would certainly be easy to explore five sacred Indian cities associated with Hinduism alone, our list aims to examine a diverse set of spiritual destinations significant to the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Additionally, it should be noted that while the following five destinations could be considered most important depending on the religious perspective one views them, our list isn’t meant to rank the sacred cities in any particular order.
Varanasi – The Spiritual Center of India:
Because the city of Varanasi (pictured above) has long been held in high regard by Hindus, Buddhists, Jainis, and Sikhs alike, it has gained a reputation as being the spiritual capital of India. The vibrant, colorful, and bustling town that sits along the banks of India’s holiest river, the Ganges, is especially important to Hindus who consider it the most important of seven sacred pilgrimage sites collectively known as the Sapta Puri. Hindu theology tells us that Varanasi, which is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh and commonly referred to as Banaras, was founded by Shiva, who is one of the religion’s most important Gods. Many of the most sacred Hindu scriptures, such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata, also prominently mention the city as being a true spiritual wonder. Additionally, Buddhists believe that the Buddha founded Buddhism near Varanasi around 528 B.C.E., Jains recognize the city as the birthplace of four of the religion’s most revered Tirthankaras or spiritual saviors, and Sikhs attribute a visit to the city by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, as playing an important role in the religion’s creation.
Even though it is estimated that there are 23,000 Hindu temples in and around Varanasi, the mystical spiritual ambiance the city is known for is most apparent near the holy waters of the Ganges. It is here where visitors will find the infamous Varanasi Ghats or embankments of stone steps that connect the city to India’s holiest river. Hindu theology tells us that both the Ganges River and the city of Varanasi are blessed with mystical spiritual powers, unlike any place on earth. Not only do Hindus believe that washing one’s self in the Ganges will cleanse them of a lifetime of sin, but also that dying in Varanasi assures Moksha or eternal liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Additionally, It is because of the city’s mystical spiritual potency that a number of Ghats have become globally recognized as the places where families publicly cremate their deceased loved ones. University of Harvard comparative religions professor and celebrated author Diana L. Eck tells of the holy city:
The city illuminates truth and reveals reality. It does not bring new wonders into the scope of vision, but enables one to see what is already there. Where this eternal light intersect the earth, it is known as Kashi [Varansi].”
Bodh Gaya – Where The Buddha Attained Nirvana:
Whereas the city of Varanasi is considered to be the most important spiritual destination for Hindus, the city of Bodh Gaya in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar is recognized as the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world. It is because Bodh Gaya is believed to be where Siddhārtha Gautama transcended the normalcy of human existence, by attaining spiritual enlightenment, and forever became the Buddha that followers of the religion hold the esteemed city in the highest regard. By traveling to Bodh Gaya, Buddhists are enriched with meaningful spiritual inspiration and reminded of their inborn potential to achieve the ultimate goal of Nirvana. Over the past fifty years, the sacred city has transformed into a diverse spiritual metropolis with Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, and Japan living amongst monasteries and temples architecturally built-in styles commonly found in their respective countries.
While the city has a variety of noteworthy sites that shouldn’t be overlooked, it is the temple at the city’s center that is Bodh Gaya’s main draw. It is here where visitors can walk on hallowed grounds inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex and feast their eyes on the spot underneath the infamous Bodhi Tree where the Buddha is said to have attained the most distinguishable spiritual goal. While the history of the Mahabodhi Temple isn’t entirely known, it is believed the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka initially built the temple some 250 years after the Buddha passed away. It is not believed that the Bodhi Tree currently being protected within the complex’s walls is the actual tree that the Buddha sat under but rather a descendant of the original tree. Buddhist Folklore tells us that Ashoka’s wife secretly cut the original Bodhi Tree down after becoming jealous of the amount of time the Emperor was spending there. Beyond the famous Bodhi Tree and Mahabodi Temple, there are also a number of other important sites in Bodh Gaya that draw the attention of visitors including a 82-foot tall Buddha statue that acts as a breathtaking welcoming monument for the city. Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, tells us of the holiest Buddhist city:
Bodh Gaya is a land of enlightenment. Years ago, what Bodh Gaya got was Siddhartha but what Bodh Gaya gave to the world was Lord Buddha, the epitome of knowledge, peace and compassion.”
Palitana – Home of the Jains’ Holy Hill:
The ancient Indian religion of Jainism considers the city of Palitana in the Indian state of Gujarat as their most important spiritual pilgrimage site because the Shatrunjaya Hill or the ‘hill that conquers enemies’ is located there. Atop of this sacred hill, which is situated 164 feet above sea level, master Jain craftsmen have built more than 900 white marble temples on the same grounds where some of the religion’s most important leaders gave sermons, meditated, and attained spiritual liberation. For example, it is believed that Adinath, the first of the religion’s 24 Tirthankaras, gave his first teachings on top of the hill and many of the other great Jain leaders are said to have attained enlightenment here.
For the nearly 7 million devout Jains around the world, climbing the sacred Shatrunjaya Hill at least once in their lifetimes is considered one of the most important spiritual goals. Reaching the sacred mount’s summit, however, is no easy task and those who make the grueling two-hour journey up 3,572 steps must follow a strict Jain code of conduct which includes not bringing or eating food along the way. Throughout one’s journey to the breathtakingly pristine temple village, visitors will encounter Jain devotees dressed in all white wearing gauze masks to assure they don’t harm even the smallest creators. Upon reaching the sacred hill, individuals have a limited amount of time to spend exploring the beautiful temples because visitors must begin their descent before sunset as no soul can remain atop the sacred mount during nighttime hours. It is said of the holy hill:
This Shatrunjaya is compared to a big ship in the ocean of worldly miseries. Sit in it and your are saved, leave it and you are drowned. The fierce crocodiles and alligators of anger, pride, sensuality etc. cannot harm you. Standing on the bank or at the dam, and looking at the holy hill, one is apt to see the form of ship with a flag of main temple, waving to and fro.”
Haridwar – Hindus’ Gateway to God:
The city of Haridwar is located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India and, in addition to Varanasi, is considered one of the seven most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus. It is in this mystical and legendary city where India’s holiest river first enters the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India. Not only is the Ganges River a lifeline for millions of Indias who live along its course from Haridwar to the Bay of Bengal, but Hindus also believe that the river personifies the Hindu Goddess Ganga and that the river’s sacred water will wash away one’s sins. It is for this reason that over one million individuals bathe in the sacred river on an annual basis.
According to Hindu theology, the city of Haridwar is rich in spiritual history and is blessed by the presence of the religion’s three major Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In fact, because of Vishnu and Shiva’s presence, the city’s name is spelled two different ways, Hardwar and Haridwar, which respectively translates to mean ‘The Gateway to Lord Shiva’ and ‘The Gateway to Lord Vishnu’. Generally speaking, the city is known has the ‘Gateway to God’ because of it’s historical religious significance and proximity to the source of the Ganges. Additionally, Haridwar holds some of Hinduism’s most important festivals and is one of four rotating cities that hosts the infamous Kumbha Mela pilgrimage once every 12 years. The previously mentioned Diana L. Eck writes of this sacred city:
When Ganga was brought to Haridwar, then all the Gods asked: ’We wash all sins, but who will wash us?’ Ganga said this to Lord Vishnu:’Lord Vishnu Bhagwan, tell us, what should we do?’ Then the Lord said: ‘As many sadhus and saints are living in this world, every time they will bathe in Ganga, all your sins will be washed away [automatically].”
Amritsar – Home of the Awe-Inducing Golden Temple:
The northwestern city of Amritsar, which is located only 20 kilometers from the Pakistani border, is one of India’s true spiritual treasures and considered the holiest pilgrimage destination for followers of the Sikh religion. It is because the bustling Punjabi city is home of the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, that people from all over the world travel to Amritsar. While visiting the Golden Temple certainly leaves nearly every visitor in awe, it is actually the body of water that the temple seemingly floats on top of that is most spiritually significant for Sikhs. The religion’s theology tells us that the fourth Sikh Guru, Ram Das, founded the holy city in 1577 before building a tank believed to have healing powers which he called Amritsar or ‘Pool of the Nectar of Immortality’.
It wasn’t until the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan, that the Golden Temple was built in the center of the holy water. His goal was to build a mystical place where men and women from all walks of lives, and all religious backgrounds, could come together and equally worship their respective Gods. The Temple itself was built with an enchanting mixture of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles and then covered in pure gold. Visitors are free to venture inside the awe-inducing temple for short periods of time where they will find priest and musicians chanting spiritually transcending tunes from the Sikh’s holiest book, the Adi Granth, which also rests within the temple walls. While the holy pool and Golden Temple are the biggest draws for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, they are only part of a much larger complex which includes a kitchen that offers free meals every single day of the year. It is estimated that the Golden Temple attracts over 100,000 people each day, which is more than the Taj Mahal, most of whom will eat a meal or two for free. Unlike many of the world’s most significant religious pilgrimage sites, visitors of Amritsar are welcomed with complete openness from their Sikh brothers and sisters. Sikh author Sewa Kalsi emphasis these feelings when he tells us:
In Sikhism, the diversity of God’s kingdom is perceived as a dynamic and positive force. …Sikhism rejects the view that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly regarding ‘Absolute Truth’. Sikhism strongly rejects the practice of converting people to other religious traditions.”
12 Additional Sacred Cities of India:
Just as the five cities listed above will likely be ranked in regard to spiritual significance based upon individuals’ religious beliefs, so too could a variety of other sacred Indian cities that we will look at here. In fact, depending upon the perspective you take, it would be quite easy to consider any of the following 12 holy destinations as being more important then the ones we explored above. Moreover, while we will only briefly explore these additional cities here, there are a plethora of other Indian destinations, considered sacred to various groups of citizens throughout the country, that won’t get mentioned.
Allahabad: The ancient city of Allahabad, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, has played a central role in some of Hinduism’s most important scriptures. The city’s original name Prayag translates to mean ‘Place of Offerings’ which is representative of the city being location where three important Indian rivers, The Ganges, Yamuna, and Sarasvati, come together. Today, Allahabah is one of the four rotating destinations that hold the all important pilgrimage festival known as Kumbh Mela.
Ajmer: The Rajasthani city of Ajmer is one of the most important spiritual destination for practicing Sufi Muslims as the shrine of their great saint Garib Nawaz is found here. Additionally, the bustling city is considered an important spiritual destination for Hindus and Jains.
Ayodhya: The ancient city of Ayodhya is located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and considered to be the birthplace of the beloved Hindu God Rama. Moreover, Ayodhya is celebrated as the setting of the great Hindu epic The Ramayana and is considered as one of the seven holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites.
Dwarka: The city of Dwarka, which is located in the western Indian state of Gujarat, is considered as another one of the seven holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites primarily because it is believed to be the precise location of Lord Krisnha’s ancient kingdom. Dwarka’s rich religious history can be illuminated further by pointing out the the fact that the city’s name translates to mean ‘Gateway to Heaven’.
Kanchipuram: The city of Kanchipuram is located in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and has long been thought of as an educational center focused on the advancement of religion. It, like a number of other cities we have discussed, is considered as one of the seven holy cities that collectively make up the Sapta Puri. Unlike a number of the other Sapta Puri cities we have explored thus far, however, Kanchipuram is recognized for being instrumental in promoting Jain and Buddhist theology.
Kushinagar: It is believed that the city of Kushinagar is where the Buddha passed away and attained Parinirvana or the release from the cycle of rebirth. The northern India city is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh is considered to be one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
Mathura: Similar to Ayodhya and Varanasi, Mathura is one of the seven holiest Hindu pilgrimage destinations and is located within the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Mathura is most notably recognized as being the birthplace of the great Lord Krishna.
Rishikesh: The northern India city of Rishikesh is located in the state of Uttarakhand, 30 kms north of Haridwar, and is referred to as the Yoga Capital of the World. Since the Beatles visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s, Rishikesh has become a favorite destination for foreigners looking to learn meditation and yoga.
Sarnath: Buddhist theology tells us that the Buddha gave his first teachings in a deer park located within the city of Sarnath. The hallowed city is located 13 kilometers north of Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and is considered to be one of the four most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists around the world.
Tirupati: The southern Indian city of Tirupati is located in the state of Andhra Pradesh and is considered as one of the seven cities that collectively make up the Sapta Puri. While the city is home to a variety of spiritually important sites, none are as important as the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple which is visited by 30 to 40 million people each year.
Trimbak: Trimbak is an ancient Indian town that historically has played host to the all important Hindu pilgrimage festival of Kumbh Mela. The city is situated in the Indian state of Maharashtra, only 28 km from the also sacred city of Nashik, and is home to one of India’s most sacred temple, the Trimbakeshwar Temple, and is believed to be the birthplace of the celebrated Hindu God Ganesha. Additionally, the sacred Goradvari River originates from here.
Ujjain: The mystical city of Ujjain is located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and garners the nickname for being ‘The City of Temples’. The spiritual importance of Ujjain is clear to all the are familiar with India as the city is home to thousands of temples, is one of four cities that hosts Kumbh Mela, and is considered one of the seven holiest cities in Hinduism.
Even beyond the fifteen sacred cities we have explored throughout this article, India is blessed with a wide variety of other spiritually transcendent destinations that draw the attention of Indian citizens and foreign visitors alike. In the estimation of many, the Subcontinent has an incomparable religious history that makes it an unrivaled destination for spiritual seekers. It is precisely because of India’s mystical spiritual ambience that celebrated American author Mark Twain once proclaim:
India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most constructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”