Some say that Indian spirituality is the landscape of the Indian consciousness and it fits perfectly with the subcontinents real landscape, both diverse and intense. Much of the world’s most sophisticated and creative thoughts have originated here during its long history. So come and explore the intellectual and spiritual challenge India poses to us.

Hadimba temple manali

Blood Offerings, The 2013 Version- Hadimba Temple Manali

For many of us India, presents overwhelmingly visual impressions. It is beautiful, colorful and sensuous; captivating, intriguing and puzzling.

My last visit to Hadimba temple in Manali had it all. I witnessed a unique Hindu ritual that has been under controversy even within Indian society for ages.

This rite is not exclusive to this region. You may see it throughout India, but it was the first time for me.

Read more

Sonia Gandhi with MWK

The Islam in India Today – The Peaceful Approach

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world with almost 200 million followers of the Islamic faith. Muslims total around 15% of India’s population, with Islam being the second-most practiced religion in the Republic of India after Hinduism. There are a lot of different sects and interpretations to Islam and the Islam in India today shaped in a unique form within the sub-continent.

 MaulanaWahiduddin Khan, a famous and world renowned Indian Islamic scholar from the Centre for Peace and Spirituality International in New Delhi, represent an interesting approach to Islam. We are happy to give stage here to this refreshing approach, described in short in the following post:

Islam literally means peace. The Quran calls its way ‘the paths of peace’. It describes reconciliation as the best policy, and states that God abhors any disturbance of peace. To promote this culture of peace, Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, in the year 2000, set up the Centre for Peace and Spirituality International in New Delhi.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan scholar of islam

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Drawing from the original sources, the Centre endeavours to help one rediscover Islam. Although various commentaries and interpretations have formed a veil over the message of Islam, the text of the original scriptures of the religion, Quran and Sunnah, is preserved; therefore all is not lost for the seeker of truth. To make the original scripture accessible, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan translated the Quran into English.

Quran, the book of Islam, is a book of peace. The very first verse of the Quran reads: “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the most Compassionate.” This verse, which is repeated in the Quran one hundred and fourteen times, clearly shows that the God of Islam is the God of Mercy and Compassion, and the book of Islam too is the book of mercy. The people of Islam must also possess the quality of mercy and compassion, otherwise they could not be true believers.

Furthermore, in his talks and books, Maulana W. Khan asserts that when there is a conflict between two individuals or two groups, Muslims ought to follow the course of reconciliation. In controversial matters, the policy of Islam is one of adjustment and not of confrontation.

Why does Islam lay such a great emphasis on peace? Because all the good things which Islam wants to see in human life can be brought about only in peaceful environment. For instance, such constructive activities like spiritual uplift, character building, educational activity, social welfare, worship and prayer can be performed only in peaceful conditions. No peace, no progress; no peace, no development. Due to this great importance, the Prophet of Islam always wanted to maintain peace even at the price of unilateral adjustment.

 

MaulanaWahiduddin Khan with India's PM Manmohan Singh

MaulanaWahiduddin Khan with India’s PM Manmohan Singh

The Prophet Muhammad advised people never to take a negative course of action, and to keep to peaceful and positive behaviour in all situations, even in the face of provocation. According to a tradition, the Prophet of Islam once observed: “Don’t wish for confrontation, instead always ask for peace from God.” This means that Muslims are not allowed to take the course of confrontation. They must rather seek the way of avoidance. The Quran, on the other hand, urges us to return good for evil. Peace, therefore, is the greatest concern of Islam. The Islamic method is a peaceful method. Islamic activism is a peaceful activism.

If you would like to know more about Islam in India today, about MaulanaWahiduddin Khan and the Centre for Peace and Spirituality International in New Delhi, visit their website or reach them on Facebook. You can also visit the center in Delhi: Centre for Peace and Spirituality International 1Nizamuddin West Market, New Delhi.

* The writer is a member in the Centre for Peace and Spirituality

Click here if you like now to listen to a divine music in the colorful Nizamuddin Dargah!

Or click here to check out the beauty of Akbar’s tomb...

 

 

Mminakshi temple-  famous temples in south india

Visit the Most Famous Temples in South India

Heavenly architecture the beautiful temples in south India

Index – Click here to find out more about:

1)  Monumental architecture temple   2)  About Madurai temple  3)  Some useful info for Madurai Temple  4)  Glimpse to the region rich history -Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu   5)  The Village of Mamallapuram  6)  Tourist activities & useful info about Mamallapuram  7)  Religious daily life of south India- Tirumala Venkateswara Temple   8)  Temple information and customs

 

Some of the most experienced travellers to India will claim that until you visit one of the famous temples in south India, you have not seen any temple at all. That is not far from the truth. South India is known for its iconic massive temple complexes that were built in this geographical area throughout the history of India. This unique building method and architecture known as the Dravidian architecture (refers to the diverse group of people whose native language belong to the Dravidian language family, mostly in southern India. South India refers mostly to 4 Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh.). In fact, this style of temple building gains such popularity and reputation, so it was copied and used in all around the region. We can find Dravidian style temples in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and various parts of Southeast Asia. The most famous complex is Angkor Wat in Cambodia. When travelling in south India, it’s defiantly worthwhile to visit one or more southern style temples. I will suggest 3 of the most famous temples in south India. In order to have some variety these 3 very much differ from one another and give a great scope of:

  1. Monumental architecture temple
  2. Glimpse to the regions rich history
  3. Religious daily life of south India

So, here we go…

1. Monumental architecture temple

Meenakshi Amman Temple (also known as Sri Meenakshi Temple), Madurai, Tamil Nadu:  

The temples are beautifully colourful

Located in Madurai is one of the largest temple complexes in India

The story

In the middle of the small and colourful city of Madurai lies one of the largest and biggest complexes of temples in India. This is like a small neighbourhood inside the city

A sculpture of the queen with three breasts in Madaurai

A sculpture of the queen with three breasts in Madaurai

and it seems like the beating heart of Madurai. The temple was built in the 17th century and is dedicated to lord Shiva and his consort Parvati.  According to mythology, Goddess Parvati, was reborn as Meenakshi (means fish eye) a daring queen with three breasts. During her conquest she met Lord Shiva and her third breast vanished. Lord Shiva called her to Madurai and married her here.

The complex

A visit to the temple is mesmerising as it contains all aspects of life – merchants, tailors, pilgrims, weddings – all is happening here. Religious life mixes with lots of different colours, smells and sounds from the temple and from the magnificent indoor market nearby. The temple contains 12 huge towers (called Gopurams), some are 53 meters high, built from colourful images of Hindu gods, heroes and mythological animals. In the entrance you will probably meet countless vendors and shopkeepers try to take you to the roof of their shop so “you can see the best temple view” and “take the best photo”, and of course they will be happy if you buy something from them…

A carving on the outside wall of one of the temples

A carving on the outside wall of one of the temples

Once in the temple compound you will get lost in the labyrinth of inner rooms, rotating around a large pool with green water. The templeP1030457 is full with worshippers all day and night and the corridors are packed. Devotees are seen offering pujas in early morning and it goes on all day till the evening. The whole atmosphere is filled with oil lamps, incense sticks fragrance and the sound of bells. Almost every night a wedding party is held, with thousands of participants. This is a golden opportunity to see an Indian wedding in Tamil style in which the bride and groom are full with colourful powders and are dressed in glamorous clothes, necklaces of flowers, fancy robes and crowns. They are led to the temple to be married, just like Shiva and Parvati.

Temple information

The temple is open from 5:00 to 12:30 and 16:00 to 21:30. It costs only 2 rupees to put the shoes in the keeper stand at the entrance.

Also nice to know: The temple was in the list of top 30 nominees of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and the annual 10 day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival celebrated during April–May and attracts 1 million visitors.

images of Hindu gods, heroes and mythological animals adorn the outside of the temples

Images of Hindu gods, heroes and mythological animals adorn the outside of the temples

Transportation

Buses: Mattuthavani is the largest bus station and located 4 km north of the city of Madurai. From here you can catch a bus to other cities in Tamil Nadu like Rameswaram and Kanyakumari

Arapalayam station located within the city. From there buses are available to other destinations in the north and west of India

Trains: The railway station of Madurai is a 10 minute walk from the temple complex and the hotels. Trains leave  north to the mountains (like Coimbatore, etc.) south to the cities in the tip of India, west to the state of Kerala (Trivandrum, Cochin etc.) and to the east towards the cities of Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Pondicherry etc.).

Air: Madurai has its own airport, located 12 km from the city centre. There are daily flights to Chennai and twice daily flights to Mumbai.

Accommodation

Most of the hotels and guesthouses are located in the streets between the temple and the train station.

Restaurants and shops align the entrance of the temple

Restaurants and shops align the entrance of the temple

2. Glimpse to the region rich history

Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu:

Part of the temple complex in Mamllapuram. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Part of the temple complex in Mamllapuram. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Complex

Elephant carving out of stone is one of the main crafts of Mamallapuram. Image courtesy of Wikitravel

Elephant carving out of stone is one of the main crafts of Mamallapuram. Image courtesy of Wikitravel

Mamallapuram is a charming small village approximately 60 km south of the city of Chennai. It has various historic monuments built largely between the 7th and the 9th centuries, and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The temples are located on the shore line next to the beach and are built in a unique style, dated back to the dynasty that ruled the area in around 700 AD. The beautiful carvings have been damaged by the sea, the wind and the typhoons that hit the area (including the Tsunami of 2004) but you can’t miss the sense of antiquity that comes while you stroll in the temple complex. However, the temples are just the icing on the cake.

The Village of Mamallapuram

The village itself has lots of interest points and the atmosphere is great and laid back. The place is very small and most points can be reached within 15 minutes walk. Mamallapuram is located between the beach and ​​huge exposed rocks, which means that fishing and stone carving (and of course tourists), are the main income source for the people of the village.

The village is famous for its temples and rock carvings, as well as the Indian dance festival held each year in December and January. Caves, wall carvings and rock-hewn temples are scattered among beautiful huge rocks and the entire area is open and people walk around freely, alongside with goats and pigs. The place is alive and atmospheric and is full of charm.

Tourist activities

Mamallapuram is very popular among Indian tourist and westerners alike. For this reason there is an abundance of great guesthouses, family stays, western style food, restaurants and Internet places. It is also a good place for shopping, especially for local craft goods of sculptors and stone crafted items. It is worthwhile to rent a bicycle and tour the area plus visit the lovely beach and go out for a boat and fishing trip plus take up some yoga classes. In short, this is a great place to spend an easy, laid back few days, or for an escape from polluted Chennai for an atmospheric day trip.

Mamallapuram Pongal Festival

Also good to know is the harvest festival known as Pongal which is celebrated in South India at the end of the harvest season. It is one of the most important festivals enjoyed by the Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and usually falls in mid-January. Mamallapuram is a great place to celebrate the Pongal as the streets are full with people, everyone is hospitable and great food is sold in the streets in a festive atmosphere.

Another tip

If you are with children the Crocodile bank at Vadanemmeli, 15 km on the road back to Chennai is a nice place to visit. You can feed the reptiles for a small fee.

Transportation

Most people arrive to Mamallapuram from Chennai or Pondicherry by road. Chennai is the closest transportation hub for trains, flights and taxis from the city will cost about 600-800 Rs. one-way (USD 15 to 20).

3. Religious daily life of south India

Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, near Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh:

Tirumala Venkateswara Temple

View of the temple complex in Tirupati. Image courtesy of vividmagazine.in

The Temple

For the Muslims there is Mecca, for the Jews it’s the western wall (wailing wall) in the old city of Jerusalem. For the Hindus, especially for the followers of Vishnu/Krishna it’s Tirumala temple. More than fifty thousand (and in some days over a hundred thousand pilgrims!) pilgrims visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple every day, which makes this place not only the biggest pilgrimage site in the world but also  the most-visited place of worship in the world. Not a lot of western tourists make their way here and it is not really on the classic tourist map of India, but once you make the effort to arrive there, it is defiantly worthwhile. Here you can find and feel an authentic religious devotion. Hindu devotees flood this remote town in the south of India from all over the sub-continent and even from abroad, walking days by foot, and waiting in huge queues (sometimes more than 12 hours!), only to get a glimpse of the site and a five second quick peek (called Darshan in Sanskrit which means a glimpse of the eye) in the presence of the icon of god. As said, the Holy Mountain of Tirumala is one of the most important pilgrimage centres in India. There is a massive organization that takes care of the crowds and the religious practices at the mountain and in the temple that is on top of it. This organization has established a complete system of accommodation for the pilgrims (mostly huge halls in which families are sprawled out in and also separate rooms for wealthy families), shops, special buses and transportation, donations and much more. This whole industry creates massive profits that is used for charity and the temple is the richest pilgrimage centre in the world, of any faith.

The story

The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Venkateswara, a form of the Hindu god Vishnu. Venkateswara is known by other names: Balaji, Govinda, and Srinivasa and so it’s believed that he has the ability to make wishes come true.

Temple information and customs

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Many pilgrims shave their heads before entering the temple and there are dozens of barbers in a special space provided. These barbers are just a small part of the thousands of employees of the Temple. There are many religious practices that take place such as sharing of candied sweets called Laddu, giving of offerings and donations. In order to enter to the holy room in the temple there is a two and a half mile stretch of people and waiting in line for at least 12 hours and you will need to be checked and searched for security measures. If you are willing to pay a small amount of money, you can wait for a shorter period of around 3 hours. The road up the hill is beautiful and the scenery is almost surreal, as you are able to see thousands of people scattered everywhere. You have to see it to believe.

Transportation

Tirupati is connected by trains and buses to the large cities of the south. It is around 600 km from Hyderabad, 138 km from Chennai and 291 km from Bangalore. The small airport is situated at a distance of 14 km from Tirupati city.

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 Interested in visiting the South Indian temples? Did you find our information helpful? Share our article with your friends so they know where to visit in South India. For more help just send us your questions and we will be happy to answer. Happy travelz!

Geography

Following the Pilgrim Route

Traveling Towards Earth’s Threshold

The ganga river in Haridwar attracts thousands of pilgrims

The Ganga river in Haridwar attracts thousands of pilgrims

One of the oldest practices in Hindu tradition is travelling. It is not travelling in the sense of site seeing but religious travelling and it is profoundly linked to specific places and geographical features such as hilltops, rocks, confluences of rivers, pools, lakes, rivers and groves of forests. Along the roads you may see groups of people walking towards an obscure destination. You may also see passionate religious gatherings in the middle of what you might consider nowhere. In the Indian subcontinent, under every rock lies a story, an ancient story, which tells about Gods, Goddess, heroes, heroines and sages.

You will find all over India small shrines in local villages

You will find all over India small shrines in local villages

In this particular geographical spot stories are very much alive, as well as the deities which are attached to them. They are often a focal point in many aspects of local lives. This is where history, religion and geography are getting united. (In some cases also economy is an integral part of the bundle as this holy place may be very profitable).

Almost, if not all these places are connected to a larger story which links the local tradition with an all-India tradition. In the thousands of particular tales which you may hear, the theme of the appearance of the divine, whether as Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, or the Goddesses comes up repeatedly. Often, the local story will subscribe to the larger one by linking its sanctity to the great events of the popular Indian Epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) and Puranas (Indian mythology).

Tirthas

The holy water of the Ganga is pilgrim site for Hindus

The holy water of the Ganga is pilgrim site for Hindus

Few places in India throughout the years have become highly significant not only for the local population but to all Hindus. Places that possess such strong religious connections that every Hindu aspires to be there at least once in his lifetime are known as Tirthas. Tirthas are where gods, goddesses and sages are breaking upon the earth. They are the ultimate places of devotion for Hindus; Tirthas are geographical thresholds of two worlds which merge into one – heaven and earth. Gods and Goddesses are descending from upper reality and manifesting in their earthly appearance, changing their form and wearing a new Avatar. Nothing can be more religiously powerful than to be present at these places.

Even the term Tirthas in the Sanskrit language suggests how big and promising the spiritual opportunity for the one who seeks to reach there. Tirtha, as a verb means “to cross” and as noun it means “crossing”. The devotee will be entitled to cross the “line” of his familiar earthly world into a higher state of consciousness which belongs to the domains of Gods. Tirtha is a domain of purification where everything is left behind desires and sins.

Tirtha Sites

Although most of the Tirthayatras ( pilgrimage to Tirthas) are usually associated with water hence rivers and pools such as the famous Ganga River, Pushkar lake in Rajasthan, Prayag in Uttar Pradesh, Yamuna river, Godavari, Narmanda and plenty of others are well known Tirthas destination, there are more geographical features which are dotted around India’s sacred geography and are targets for Tirthayatras.

Amarnath cave is a famous shrine in Hinduism located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir

Amarnath cave is a famous shrine in Hinduism located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir

The Himalayan mountains have always been desirable Tirthas for being hard to access which emphasizes the mental power essential for a spiritual growth. Chota Char Dham (Badrinath Kedernath in Uttar Khand) to Kinnor Kailash In Himachal Pradesh are only part of the Tirtha destinations up in the high mountains.

Forests too are considered as places with highly spiritual attributes. They represent detachment and freedom from earthly desires. The forest in India stands for a place where men can acquire spiritual guidance. Naimisha Forest in Uttar Pradesh is one of the most famous pilgrimage places where major parts of the Mahabharata’s narration took place.

Cities like Haridwar where the Ganaga hits the plains, Ayodhya the capital of lord Rama, Mathura Krishna’s birthplace, Varanasi the city of Shiva are also popular pilgrimage destinations.

TirthasTrust us this is only a tiny sample of endless holy places over India that attract millions of pilgrims every year. It is a fact that a major part of Indian domestic tourism revolves around pilgrims.

Throughout the years with the arrival of modernization to India it has become easier for many people to fulfill their spiritual goals and religious aspirations enabling to take to the pilgrim road by buses and trains and airplanes.

But even with the most comfortable means of transport, even with online travel booking and yatra tours agents, this journey towards the thresholds hits the most traditional nerve of every Hindu in India. For most of them it will be a journey of a life time which they will never return home the same.

Hare Krishna logo sticker. Image courtesy of iskcondesiretree.net

What is the Hare Krishna movement?

Devotees of the Hare Krishna movement dance in the street dressed in saffron robes. Image courtesy of Hare Krishna Movement

Devotees of the Hare Krishna movement dance in the street dressed in saffron robes. Image courtesy of Hare Krishna Movement

In 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna Movement, was established In New York by a Swami (a religious teacher) named Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. In sixties America this movement provided a new and refreshing spiritual concept which gained popularity amongst the hippie culture of the time and from there spread globally. However, the principles and main themes of this modern movement date back hundreds of years to India long before it arrived to the Western shores. The question really needs to be asked is how Krishna – a “classic” Hindu god, arrived and accepted in the West? Why we can find in major cities young westerners selling books about Krishna?

The Origins of the Hare Krishna Movement

The answer to that start hundreds of years back, when a religious movement began to spread out and gain lots of followers all around India. This movement called “Vaishnavism” focused on the Hindu god Krishna.  This movement support a theistic concept of Krishna – they saw Krishna as the supreme god, and the only god in India.  They praised Krishna’s images, tales and appearance and developed devotional practices, like mantras, songs, dances and such in order to worship him and gain the special bond between his love and divinity. Their main practice was to chant the names of Krishna mainly through the famous mantra (sounds or words that create spiritual transformation) “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama”.

The Hare Krishna Movement

The Hare Krishna movment interpret classic Hindu texts whilst putting Krishna at the centre of importance, mainly two of the most important texts in the movement’s doctrine – the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana – texts where Krishna is a main figure. This movement accept Krishna as the one and only god in India and their practices show their devotion and love to Krishna as the Supreme Being.

Spreading the Hare Krishna Movement in the sixties

The need of spreading the love for Krishna all around the world was one of the basic principles of the movement. And therefore, In the 19th and 20th century after the British ruled India, a group of devotees started to plan how how to bring the message of Krishna to the west. This actually happened for the first time in the 60s, when the swami arrived to America and established the first Krishna movement in the west. As said, the ideals of the orange dressed and bold head swami met an enthusiastic crowd of youngsters who wanted to rebel against their parent’s old ways, against the old religious structures and to turn to a fresh spiritual concept. The message of Krishna’s love and devotion made perfect sense to them. The movement expanded far and beyond America and reached main European cities and even Russia, China and the Middle East. Today the numbers of members in the world wide organisation is in decline.

The movement today

After the Hippie movement of the 60s and 70s slowly mellowed, and a number of scandals related to the movement’s leaders published in the 80s, only sporadic representations of “Krishna embassies” are now active, alongside with vegetarian restaurants, book publishers, charity organisations and internet sites.

The centre of the Hari Krishna movement in India

When travelling in India, the best place to admire the activity of the Hare Krishna movement is with a visit to the Krishna centre in Mathura and Vrindavan. These two towns are identified with the mythological background of Krishna and today are the beating heart of this movement. This is the best place to track down the interesting religious practices, visit the temples, the pilgrim sites and to have an insight in the daily life of the Krishna members that are coming to this center from all over the world. Mathura and Vrindavan are easy to reach by a short train journey from Delhi or Agra.

How to arrive there

Mathura the center of the Krishna movement. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Mathura the center of the Krishna movement. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Mathura is 56km north west of Agra and 141km south of Delhi. Buses go on a daily basis from Delhi an Agra. Trains run daily from Delhi to Mathura and the The Taj Express runs from Agra to Mathura. Vrindavan is a short ride from Mathura only 10km.

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ganesha (lord ganesha.net)

Hindu Deities That You Must Know

Index – Click here to meet the Deities 

1) Meet Ganesh

2) Meet Krishna

3) Meet Rama

4) Meet Kali 

5) Meet Hanuman 

In my last two posts I covered a short introduction with the three main male Hindu gods and the three main female goddesses. Of course, it is mission impossible to write about all the massive Hindu pantheon of gods. But my goal is to make it possible for every traveler in India to recognize at least the main correctors. For this purpose I will now describe some more very important deities in Hinduism. These are not the main gods like the previous, but they enjoy a great popularity among Hindus as they symbolize values that are considered to be noble. One can argue that these are more ‘down to earth’ deities, a combination between gods and folk legendary heroes. Each one of those deities has a direct linkage to one on the main gods, but they have numerous temples and statues in their honour all around India as they are considered to be more accessible and communicative with their devotees. Let’s see who they are:

Ganesh. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Ganesh. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Ganesh

The son of Shiva and Parvati is Ganesh – the god with the Elephant head. He is one of the best-known and most widely worshipped deities in Hinduism and is worshipped on many religious and secular occasions. He is known as the Lord of Beginnings, God of the intellect and the remover of obstacles. If you are buying a new car, start a new business or starting a religious ceremony (Puja), Ganesh is the one that gets the first honour. An annual festival honours Ganesha for ten days, starting on Ganesh Chaturthi, which usually takes place in late August or early September and is highly popular in the state of Maharashtra particularly in Mumbai.

Krishna

Krishna. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Krishna. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Krishna is one of the incarnations (or avatars) of Vishnu. Arguably, he is the most beloved god in Hinduism He seen by his devotees as the supreme god, and even arrived to western shores in the 60’s by the founders of the Hari Krishna movement. He appears in a few popular forms as an adorable and naughty infant (in blue colour), a young boy playing a flute and as youthful prince from the Indian great epic of the Mahabharata. Krishna’s massive popularity made him connected to many pilgrim sites, temples, arts, philosophy, celebrations and festivals all around India and beyond.

Rama. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Rama. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Rama

Rama is another avatar of Vishnu and also an all-time favourite among Hindu deities. He symbolizes chivalry and virtue, the ideal king. He is widely believed to be an actual historical figure form the great Hindu epic of the Ramayana. Rama is also celebrated publicly in many villages, towns and cities around India in The Ram Leela performances. Rama’s return to his capital Ayodhya and his coronation are celebrated as Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights (between mid-October and mid-November). The latter two are the most important and popular festivals in India and for Hindus across the world.

Kali

Kali. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Kali. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Kali is the goddess of death and destruction. She is the wife of Shiva (and therefore another form of Parvati), but she is far more frightening than her partner (who usually is not so pleasant, to say the least). Kali’s function is to destroy the demons that threaten the cosmic order. She is considered more powerful than her husband, one of the three main gods in Hindu mythology and perceived by her devotees as the supreme deity. Her practice is foul with wild violence, blood and sacrifice, even a human sacrifice in the past that was banned by the British. In any case, this is a very interesting form of the practice of the Shakti (feminine energy), and can be seen mostly in West Bengal, where Shakti practices are common.

Hanuman. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Hanuman. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Hanuman

The ape-like deity is known as the greatest devotee of Rama in the Hindu epic of Ramayana. Therefore he represents ideals of devotion, friendship and loyalty. Hanuman participated in Rama’s war against the demon king, and is the leader of the army of monkeys. He is the reason why monkeys are considered sacred in India.

Painting of Buddha

Visit 4 sacred places of Buddhism in India

Index – Click on the links to follow the steps Buddha

1) Where the Buddha was born

2) The moment of enlightenment

3) Spreading the word 

4) The end of earthly life

Buddhism was born in India. In a time of great spiritual awakening around 5th century B.C Prince Siddhartha Gautama who would become the Buddha, walked the earth in the geographical segment that today is known as north India and Nepal. There he was born, it was there he left his family in his search of enlightenment, it was there he sat under a tree in meditation and found the middle way, there he gave his first lectures to his first group of followers and it was there he had died and left his earthy body after achieving blissful Nirvana.

Statue of the Buddha in Dharamsala

Statue of the Buddha in Dharamsala

The story of the Buddha and the story of early Buddhism is a classic and epic tale, made in India. Today, Buddhism no longer exists in India. It has spread out to all Asian countries and also vastly to the West, but has almost disappeared from India. The cause of this disappearance lies within a long historical process that I will not go into detail in this post.

Life of Buddha, BBC documentary

But India is still the best place in the world to trace the origins of Buddhism and this fascinating religion (some would say a philosophy or a way of life, and not a religion). While traveling in India, we can visit some of the most important places of Buddhism,  places that are connected directly to the historical life of the Buddha:

Lumbini

Lumbini was where the  Buddha born, raised and lived until the age of 29. This is the habitat of the Shakya tribe where his father ruled and he was a prince.  Modern Lumbini is located in south-west Nepal on the footsteps of the Himalayas, only 20km from the Indian border and north of the Indian city, Gorakhpur. Lumbini is not a very interesting place, but has a number of important temples and is the first station in Buddha’s life.

Bodhgaya

Arguably the most important station in the Journey of Buddha’s life. Here Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree known as the ‘awakening tree’ and searched for the solution of the suffering in the world. After a deep and long meditation he found the solution to the problem of suffering and became the Buddha. Today, the tree is still there (well, at least from the same roots…) and everyone is welcome to try it. The modern city of Bodhgaya is a bustling centre of pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world. Here every Buddhist country has a temple dedicated in its countries name. In the middle of town lies the huge Mahabuddhi temple, which is a must visit. Bodhgaya is located in the state of Bihar in North India, 15km from the city of Gaya that is well connected by trains to all big cities and transportation hubs.

Sarnath

Sarnath is located 13km north-east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India. According to tradition, here in a deer park Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma – the Buddhist teaching, and is where the Buddhist Sangha (community) came into existence for the first time. Today it’s a pleasant green park with an old Stupa (Buddhist monastery) and temples. It is an interesting day trip from Varanasi and well connected to the city by buses and Rickshaws.

Kushinagar

Kusinagar is a town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 50km from the city of Gorakhpur on the banks of the river Gorga. It is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site, where Gautama Buddha had died in great pains from severe food poisoning. This is the last place that the Buddha had walked the earth. From here he would no longer be reincarnated after attending the great Nirvana.

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So if you are interested in Buddhism in India check out one of these historical places

The 3 goddesses know as the Tridevi

Hindu Goddesses Revealed

Hindu Gods and Goddesses

In our last article How to Navigate the Hindu Gods we described the main 3 gods in Hinduism known as the Trimurti. Needless to say, all the Hindu gods, and specially the main three – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, have a long genealogy starting with the old sacred texts of the Vedas and lasting even until our days. Thousands of stories, legends, folk tales and alike had been written about them. They have millions of devotees and many pilgrimage sites identified with them or with their different incarnations. But the picture of the three main Hindu gods is not complete. They are in fact very powerful deities, but as we all know, a man need his woman and the Hindu gods are no different. They need the female energy, known as Shakti, in order to put all their action in to force in the universe. One can say that without this energy of life, motherhood and creation, the alfa-male gods (especially Shiva) are quite impotent…

Feminine Energy and the Tridevi

The feminine energy manifests in the characters of the wives (known as the consorts) of the male gods. They are known as the goddesses of the Tridevi, the three female consorts of the three main Hindu gods. The concept of feminine divinity exists from the beginning of Hinduism. The goddesses were always there, and always very important and powerful. From the old scripts of the Vedas the ancient goddess Devi (Mother and fierce destroyer) embodied the concept of shakti which continues today, the goddesses are well loved and respected, and have a central role in the Hindu Pantheon. Let’s take a closer look at the goddesses:

Saraswati

Saraswati daughter and sometimes wife of Brahma. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Saraswati daughter and sometimes wife of Brahma. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Beautiful Saraswati appears sometimes as the daughter of Brahma and sometimes as his wife.  She is known as the goddess of knowledge, science, poetry and music. In a way she is similar to a muse for all people that are involve with the arts and learning. She will always appear as a beautiful women holding a book and playing music with the veena – an Indian music instrument similar to the guitar. Pujas (religious ceremonies) for Saraswati take place all around India and devotees offering honey to this goddess, as honey represents perfect knowledge.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi the consort of Vishnu. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Lakshmi the consort of Vishnu. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

The consort of Vishnu is the goddess of prosperity and good luck. She is identified with wealth, prosperity (both material and spiritual), fortune and happiness. Lakshmi is a devoted wife and appears next to him in his various incarnations, especially as Rama and Krishna where Lakshmi takes the shape of Sita the wife of Rama and as Radha, wife of Krishna. In those ‘roles’ she is celebrated as the symbol of the perfect devoted Hindu wife.  Hindus worship Lakshmi during Diwali, the festival of lights (November 3rd 2013). According to tradition, people put small oil lamps outside their homes on Diwali in hopes Lakshmi will come to bless them. Today we can find the image of Lakshmi also in modern shopping malls, greeting the shoppers with a good fortune.

Parvati

Parvati the wife of Shiva. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Parvati the wife of Shiva. Image courtesy of Useful Charts

Beautiful Parvati is the daughter of the Himalayan Mountains. The Shakti, or wife, of Shiva, is also a dedicated wife and mother and embodies merits of the model Hindu women. But Parvati also holds a somewhat dark and fearsome side. She can manifest as the goddess Durga and Kali. In these forms of the goddess, the feminine energy of Shakti becomes wild. They are dangerous and ferocious goddesses that save the world after the failures of the men gods to do so. Parvati is also celebrated all around India in her different forms. In Karnataka and Maharashtra She is worshipped as the goddess of harvest and protectors of women in the Gauri Festival. In West Bengal, which is known for its many Shakti centres and festivals, she is celebrated as Durga in nine days of the Navratri festival (5th – 13th October 2013), in which all her manifestations are worshiped.

The Trimurti. Image useful charts

How to Navigate the Hindu Gods

When I was travelling in India for my first time, I could not help to notice the large variety of symbols, temples, statues and all religious related symbols and monuments India holds. It looked like there were so many of them! More than this, there is not only one religion in India – Hinduism, but a few major ones, that each has more gods, temples and symbols… I was confused. When I asked people their answers make me even more baffled… In fact, the Hindu belief system can seem complicated because it contains lots of layers and structures. Of course it is mission impossible to learn the matrix of Hinduism from just a few posts, but I will try my best to introduce the India Travelz guide to the Hindu gods for the confused tourist in India. Which will cover at least the basics. I will start with a short presentation of the main Gods in Hinduism.

Statue of Shiva

Statue of Shiva

The Trimurti

Westerners like to see the three main Hindu gods as ‘the trinity’. Actually, there is no similarity what so ever to Christianity. Also the perception that each god is ‘responsible’ for one thing is not accurate. But anyway, we can start with a quick (and somewhat superficial…) overview of the three gods that complete the Hindu Trimurti – the 3 headed cosmic function of creation, maintenance, and destruction. The three principals are personified by the forms of three Hindu gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.

Brahma. Image from Useful Charts

Brahma. Image Useful Charts

Brahma

Brahma’s role as the creator of the universe doesn’t make him the main god to worship. As his work finished with the creation, he spends the rest of his time in meditation and does not get involved in the world, unlike Vishnu and Shiva. This is probably the reason why he is not widely worshiped and you can find only a few places and temples that are dedicated to Brahma, unlike the thousands for Shiva and Vishnu. The most famous one is the Brahma temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, next to the sacred Pushkar Lake that is mytho logically connected to Brahma.

Shiva

Shiva. Image Useful Charts

Shiva. Image Useful Charts

Known in more than 1008 names, in my opinion Shiva is the most interesting god from the three. He is interesting because of his dualism and complexity. From one hand he is the destroyer of the universe and symbolizes a dark and wild energy but from the other hand, without his destruction creation could not take place and the universe could not progress to different ions. He is the lord of yogis dwelling in the serenity of the Himalaya but also smears his naked body with the ashes of the cremations from the Ganges banks in his city Varanasi. He is the Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance of the universe (especially in south India) and also Pashupati, the champion of the animals. Due to his great and creative energy, he is worshiped many times as a Lingam, a phallic symbol which represents his unique powers. We can find Shiva Lingams all around India. For example, a natural huge Lingam made out of ice, is in Amaranth cave which is one of the centres of pilgrimage for Shiva followers.

Vishnu. Image Useful Charts

Vishnu. Image Useful Charts

Vishnu

Known as the preserver or sustainer, Vishnu is always associated with the protection on everything that is good in the universe, with the right choice and action, with law and order and with the perfect image of the devout Hindu. Usually, Vishnu is not very accessible and quite indifferent, but he intervenes in the universe whenever he is needed and in a time of danger through his Avatars (yes, like the movie…), a deliberate descent of the deity incarnations to earth. His main 10 avatars include a fish, a boar, a turtle, half man-half lion and more, all based on rich mythological stories. His main two avatars that are most popular and highly beloved by Hindus, are those of Rama the hero prince, and Krishna, maybe the most loved deity in India. Like in the case of Shiva, you can find Vishnu and his avatars in many places in India: Dwarka in Gugarat is the epic capital of prince Rama, Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh are the mythological habitat of young Krishna, in Puri, Orissa he is Jagannanth, the lord of the universe, and the list goes on.

Shiva Lingam made from ice at the Amaranth cave

Shiva Lingam made from ice at the Amaranth cave

 

See part 1 to learn about Hinduism before your travels

 

A Hindu woman by the Ganges with a pooja ready for prayer

Beginners Guide to Hinduism for Travelers

 Hinduism and the Hindu Gods

I will start with an astonishing fact: in India there are more than 330 million deities! Yes, it’s true – more the 330 million gods, goddesses, semi-gods, demons and angels. This in itself shows just how complex Hinduism is. And don’t worry, it gets even more complex than that… But as travelers to India, I think it necessary to start with the basics and to try and understand first and for all in a simple and non-academic way, what is Hinduism.

Along the main Ghat

Varanasi also known as Banares attrracts thousands of Hindu pilgrims along the banks of the Ganges

Firstly, it’s important to understand that Hinduism does not fall into exactly the same categories that we are more familiar with from the religions of the western world – the Monotheistic (who believe in one god) religions of the Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Hinduism does not have a founder, nor central authority or hierarchy. It does not contain one obvious sacred book with revelation or have prophets.

The term “Hinduism” was created when the first Europeans arrived to India. From the 19th century they tried to study it and used the term as a code name for all the

A main temple in Delhi

The Laxminarayan Temple also known as Birla Mandir in Delhi is a Hindu Temple dedicated to Vishnu

religious phenomena of the local Indians. In fact, Hinduism is an umbrella for many beliefs, colours, sounds, smells, gods and goddesses, rituals, ceremonies, opinions, philosophy, languages and dialects, culture and ways of life of hundreds of millions of people in a huge geographical unit. Of course, diversion exists in every culture, but the Indian variety is so vast, even to a point that it contains many tensions and paradoxes within itself. According to some scholars, the differentiations between the different cultures and religions that developed in the sub-continent are in fact so large, that the term Hinduism made by European colonialism can be seemed as false artificial description. On the other hand, more “positive” scholars do find few guide lines that are common for all ethnic and cultural diversities with in the sub-continent. I will present them here (in a quite superficial way…)

Some of Hinduism guide lines:

1. A linkage to the old scriptures of the Vedas and to the great Indian eposes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata

2. Obligation on some level to the social order of the caste system

3. Links to key terms like Dharma (law, correct order, appropriate behaviour) and Karma (account of past deeds)

(note that the terms of Dharma and Karma also exist in Buddhism, but have a different meaning)

4. Earthly life is cyclical – Samsara (endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth)

5. Life has stages:  chaste student, house ownership and renunciation of worldly things

6. All humans should try and gain liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This can be achieved in different ways. Some of them are through knowledge, yoga, meditation and devotion to a personal god (Bhakti)

Attracts over 15000 visitors a day

The Hindu Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu dedicated to the Goddess Parvati. Built in the 1600s

I presented here key terms that are the core of  Hindu philosophy and beliefs. Thousands of books and texts have been written on this subject and I will take the opportunity to discus more about it in other posts of mine. But these principals give us for now at least an infrastructure to understand what Hinduism is, and give us an opportunity to reveal at least some of its depth, creativity and thought. The magical melting pot of Hinduism has inspired many throughout the years – from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and European romantics that saw the spirituality of Hinduism, to even the Nazis that admired the racism of the upper Hindu classes over the lower casts.   Missionaries, travellers and philosophers, each one of them viewed Hinduism in their own perspective.

So, after this short introduction, we are ready to look more closely. Let’s start with getting familiarized with the Hindu gods. Check out part 2.