As the birthplace of several world religions, the Indian sub-continent is home to countless sacred and holy sites. Below is information on a few of the most notable sites of the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jainist, and Sikh faiths:
Buddhism is a non-theistic 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.
The eight-spoked dharma chakra represents the Noble Eight-fold path taught by the Buddha
Buddha Sakyamuni. Obviously the most common image at Buddhist monasteries, and statues show the Buddha in a various number of postures, though the most common of these depicts the Buddha sitting in lotus posture with the finger tips of his right hand touching the ground.
Tara (only in Vajrayana monasteries). This female deity can be depicted in a variety of colors, though green or white are the most common. Green Tara represents the Buddha's enlightened activity. White Tara represents compassion.
Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche (only in Vajrayana monasteries, especially those of the Nyingma school). An eighth century sage credited as the founder of Vajrayana Buddhism. The most common images portray him in a sitting posture, wearing an elaborate hat and with his right leg lowered slightly. His eyes are wide open and appear to be gazing into the distance.
Prayer wheels (Tib: mani) (only in Vajrayana monasteries). There are several types of prayer wheels, and the following are some of the most common: copper wheels mounted in walls surrounding monasteries and stupas, and large wooden wheels standing alone near the gates of monasteries. In addition, there are small hand-held wheels that are carried by devotees. All prayer wheels are rotated in a clockwise direction and with a sincere motivation to benefit all beings. In this way, they are considered an effective means of developing a generous and pure mind.
There are many important sites for Buddhists in the Indian sub-continent. 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.
Founded around 4000 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 his/her fate in the next life.
At first glance Hinduism appears to have numerous gods, though ultimately they are all considered to be different appearences of the supreme spirit, Brahma the Creator. The other two most important incarnations are Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. These gods are worshiped 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 Varanasighats (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.
Om. The sacred syllable that represents God. It is often prefixed to prayers and mantras. It is pronounced as A-U-M. According to Hindu philosophy, the letter A represents creation, when all existence issued forth from Brahma's golden nucleus; the letter U refers to Vishnu the god of the middle who preserves this world by balancing Brahma on a lotus above himself; and the letter M symbolizes the final part of the cycle of existence, when Vishnu falls asleep and Brahma has to breathe in so that all existing things have to disintegrate.
Swastika. Derived from the Sanskrit term for well-being, the Swastika is an equilateral cross. Each of its arms is bent right angles in either the left or right direction. It is often decorated with a dot in each quadrant. Denotes purity of soul and truth.
Holi, March. The festival of colors, Holi celebrates the coming of spring. A huge bonfire is held in the evening prior to the festival.
Diwali, October/November. The festival of lights. Celebrated with diyas, candles, colorful lights, sweets and plenty of fireworks.
Dussehra, October/November. Held on the last day of Durga Puja. Celebrates the victory of good over evil. Huge effigies of the mythological characters Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghnad are stuffed with fireworks and burned.
Janmashtami, August/September. Celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna. Marked by devotional songs and dances.
Khumbh Mela, dates vary. This Hindu festival occurs every 3 years and alternates between Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. None of the events are small, but the Maha Khumbh Mela (held every 12 years at Allahabad) is the largest gathering on Earth, attended by millions of bathers and observers.
Mahashivaratri, March. Dedicated to Lord Shiva. At night, leaves are offered to the idol.
Ganesh Chaturthi, August/September. According to legend, Lord Ganesh was born on this day. It is at its most elaborate in Maharashtra.
Rathyatra, around July. Known As the "Car Festival" and dedicated to Sri Krishna. It is celebrated all over India, though the main activities are held in Puri, where a gigantic chariot is drawn through the town by thousands of devotees.
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:
There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His messenger
A prayer to Allah is to be made five times a day
Alms should be given to the poor at least once a year.
Muslims should fast between dawn and dusk during the month of Ramadan
Muslims should make a pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Hajj) at least once in their lifetime
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, worshipers 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 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.
Below is a list of a few of fourteen of the most notable Islamic sites in the sub-continent:
Badshahi Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan – built by the emperor Aurangzeb, in the same Mughal style as the Jama Masjid in Delhi which was built by his father
Cherman Palli in Cochin, Kerala – built during life-time of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) by his messenger Malik-Dinar, this is the world's second mosque to be constructed after Medina Mosque and first mosque in South Asia.
Dargah of Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer, India – this tomb of a Sufi saint is hugely popular, not just among Muslims, but Hindus and Christians alike. It's one of the largest dargahs on the sub-continent, and people travel from all over to pay homage
Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, India – one of the most famous Sufi saints of the subcontinent, he was a disciple of Moinuddin Chisti and his shrine is also revered among non-Muslims and very popular
Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan – One of the largest mosques in the world, the mosque and surrounding gardens can hold around 300,000 people
Eid ul-Fitr, 1st of Shawwal. Celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. Dates are usually used to beak the fast. By far the most important date in the Islamic calendar.
Eid ul-Adha, 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah. This date coincides with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice all that he cherished, including his own son Ismael, for Allah's sake.
Muharram (Ashura), 10th of Muharram. The day when Muslims remember and mourn the death of Hussain at Karbala. Devout Shias beat themselves with canes and sticks to feel Hussain's pain.
Mahavira Jayanti, March/April. Celebrates the birth of Mahavira. Jain temples are decorated with flags. The most important date on the Jain calendar.
Kali Chaudash, the day before Diwali. Jains avoid eating potatoes, onion or garlic on this day.
Mahamasthakabhisheka is an important Jain festival held once every twelve years in the town of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka state, India. The festival is held in veneration of an immense 18 meter high statue of the Bhagwan (or Saint) Gomateshwara Bahubali. The anointing last took place in February 2006, and the next ceremony will occur in 2018.
All Sikhs are originally from the state of 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.