10 Offbeat Pilgrimages Across India

From Bhopal to Kohima, a list of not-so-famous shrines that travellers should consider visiting.  
Chausath Yogini Temple

Chausath Yogini Temple, Madhya Pradesh

As far as ancient and urban myths go, this temple has quite a few. It is located in Morena, only an hour from Gwalior, and inside the Chambal Valley, once home to Phoolan Devi. Chausath Yogini is believed to be one of the rare surviving structures dedicated to the 64 yoginis of goddess Durga. Inside the temple are 64 chambers and a central sanctum with carvings of Hindu deities. Traditionally, yogini temples have been linked to tantric beliefs and practices. Legend also has it that the temple’s circular configuration might have been the model for the Indian parliament—it is sure to evoke déjà vu among some visitors. Did Edwin Lutyens chance on a lithograph or painting of the temple before embarking on the project? There is no evidence today to corroborate this but it only adds to the air of intrigue surrounding Chausath Yogini.

 

Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat

Sarkhej Roza

After being declared a world heritage city, Ahmedabad has found itself at the centre of tourist attention. There’s a lot of heritage to explore in the capital of Gujarat. One of them lies in the suburb of Sarkhej Roza, which houses the tomb of Shaikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Bakhsh, a Sufi saint and advisor to the family of Ahmed Shah I. The latter was instrumental to the creation of Ahmedabad. Apart from the tomb, the Sarkhej Roza complex houses a mosque, a library, a cultural centre and ruins of old palaces. The mosque is a fine example of Indo-Saracenic construction, with intricate lattice work, a Persian-style design, Indian-style carvings and Jain- influenced art. Across Gujarat, Sarkhej Roza is revered as an important centre of Sufi culture and is widely sought after by the devout. Even if you aren’t one, the wonderfully placid banks of Sarkhej Lake are inviting enough for an evening of quiet contemplation.

 

Daitya Sudan Temple, Maharashtra

Daitya Sudan Temple v

Lonar, an old town of crumbling homes and narrow streets, in the state’s Buldhana district is a curiosity. For starters, it sits at the edge of the only hyper velocity impact crater in basaltic rock. This lends the place a desolate starkness. Inside the town is the Daitya Sudan Temple, which was built by the Chalukyas between the 6th and 12th centuries. Numerous stories have swirled around the shrine’s origins. One claims that a demon named Lavanasura was the tormentor of nearby villagers. His reign of terror came to an end after he was vanquished by Daitya Sudan, an avatar of Vishnu. In a fierce battle, Vishnu pummelled the demon into the ground with such force that it left behind a huge crater. The temple is also full of erotic carvings, some of which rival the ones in Khajuraho or those inside Hoysaleswara Temple in Karnataka. Despite this, its beauty remains a secret that only the occasional visitor discovers.

 

Church of the Holy Cross, Tamil Nadu

Church of the Holy Cross

Nowadays the sleepy fishing village of Manapad, four hours south of Madurai, is well known as a water sports destination. But long before that, this was a place of religious importance for Christians who came here to worship at the Church of the Holy Cross. The church, which stands in all white against the blue skies, cuts a stunning image and has an equally compelling parable behind it. In 1540, a Portuguese trading vessel on its way to the east was caught in a violent storm near Manapad. The ship’s captain, prayed for safety and after days of being battered, he and his crew washed ashore here unhurt. In gratitude, he erected a cross built from the original mast of the ship on top of a hillock. Drawn to this cross, in 1542 St. Francis Xavier, who was on an expedition to these parts, made Manapad his home and eventually became the patron saint of the village. The current larger church atop a hillock is only a few decades old.

 

Anandpur Sahib, Punjab

Anandpur Sahib

If Amristsar and the Golden Temple is the heart of Sikh culture, then Anandpur Sahib is its soul. For non-Sikhs, the Golden Temple has embodied the religion’s generous spirit. But Anandpur Sahib is the birthplace of Khalsa and home to the largest encampment of Nihangs, a blue-robed Sikh warrior class. Founded in 1665 by Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru of Sikhism, this town has more gurdwaras per square inch than any other part of the country. Main among them is Kesgarh Sahib, one of the five major seats of the religion. The sprawling white gurdwara holds several relics of Guru Gobind Singh, including his personal dagger, all of which is on display. Like all the other small shrines, Kesgarh Sahib is clean and quiet, with most devotees often lost in singing kirtans. Other visitors often make their way to the rooftop, where they are greeted by a breathtaking view of the vast expanse of white domes that dominate the
town’s skyline and the towering Himalayas in the distance.

 

Taj-Ul-Masajid, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Taj-Ul-Masajid

It’s a common mistake that Jama Masjid in New Delhi often gets anointed as the largest mosque in India. Jama Masjid is certainly very famous and important but the biggest is Bhopal’s Taj-ul-Masajid, which can rival the former in terms of pure architectural grandeur. The nawabs of Bhopal bequeathed the city with an elegance that is perhaps best captured in this shrine’s pink facade, its two 18-storey minarets and the pond inside its courtyard that reflects the mosque’s marble dome. The mosque can hold almost two lakh visitors at any given time. Taj-ul-Masajid’s origin dates back to the 1840s, when Nawab Shah Jahan Begum kick-started work on the monument, which was later continued by her daughter Sultan Jahan Begum. Through the 19th century, the mosque remained unfinished owing to invasions and wars. The final structure, as we see it today, only came to be in 1985, when a grant by the Emir of Kuwait allowed for its renovation. Among the flourishes that were added was a Mughal-style entrance gate erected using ancient motifs from Syria. Taj-ul-Masajid holds great importance for the Deobandi sect of Islam. However, the mosque welcomes people of every faith and standing under the shadow of its staggering onion domes, as the azan rings out, is a humbling experience.

 

The Kohima Cathedral, Nagaland

The Kohima Cathedral

Kohima, Nagaland’s capital, is a picturesque sprawl amidst the hills. Perched on top of the Aradura Hill, this cathedral is a place of worship and a monument of remembrance. Towards the end of World War II, Kohima became the site of several clashes between the British Indian troops, fighting for the Allied Forces, and the Japanese, on the other side. In the 1980s, families of fallen Japanese soldiers contributed to the construction of this cathedral, which today is one of the most important Christian holy sites in the Northeast. The church’s architecture mirrors that of a restrained Naga home. However, there are a few grand touches like a stained glass roof that maximises natural light and a 16-foot-high carved wooden crucifix, one of the largest in Asia. The cathedral also hosts regular reconciliation meetings between British and Japanese war veterans, adding to its poignancy and purpose.

 

Hoysala Temples, Karnataka

Hoysala Temples

The Hoysala group of temples in Belur and Halebidu in Karnataka are the epitome of storytelling in stone. The main temples in these temple complexes were built in black granite over a period of 100 years. Belur’s 900-year-old Chennakesava Temple, dedicated to Vishnu, was constructed by King Vishnuvardhana to commemorate his victory over the Cholas. Throughout the complex, there are detailed carvings of elephants, lions, celestial nymphs and scenes from daily life. The Hoysala rulers were great patrons of the arts and religious pluralism, and standing in awe of their creation with a lone priest and hardly any worshippers, you silently thank them for leaving this rich legacy behind.

 

Namdroling Monastery, Karnataka

Namdroling Monastery

Most Tibetan settlements in India are concentrated around Himachal Pradesh or Sikkim. However, the first significant integrated settlement was set up in Bylakuppe in Karnataka, up in the hills a few hours from Mysore. This monastery is the main attraction of Bylakuppe, also the second largest Tibetan settlement in the country. It looms large above everything else in the town and is a serene sanctuary for many pilgrims, complete with tapestries and thangka paintings. Inside the sanctum, there are three enormous golden statues—the Buddha flanked by Padmasambhava and Amitayus. The idols are the only extravagant touch here; the rest of the monastery is a study in aesthetic understatement. As you stand inside Namdroling and take in the elegant carvings, prayer wheels turn in the distance inviting you to enjoy the tranquility for as long as it lasts.

 

Moorish Mosque, Punjab

Moorish Mosque

Kapurthala, the town where this mosque is located, is an anomaly. Built by its erstwhile ruler, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, the place reflects his sophisticate interests. Singh was a well-travelled Francophile, who created his kingdom in the image of a Paris or St. Petersburg rather than any part of Punjab. There are several structures here that recall ancient European glamour. In the midst of all this majesty is the Moorish Mosque, which Singh modelled on the Grand Mosque of Marrakech. The only one of its kind in this part of the world, the structure has orange and red walls, and only a single minaret but no domes, reminiscent of similar structures in Morocco and Alhambra. On close inspection you can see designs on the main altar commis-sioned from art students of Govt. M.A.O College, Lahore. The mosque is a testimony to Singh’s inclusive sensibilities and chancing upon its imperial grandeur in rustic Punjab feels like a moment of unexpected glory.

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    Ambika Vishwanath is the co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. A junkie for new places, she loves random chats over coffee (or whisky) and believes that there is a story to be found around every corner. She tweets @reDiscoveryProj and @theidlethinker.

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    Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. He is currently working on a long-term project focused on capturing the history and culture of India through its people, festivals and monuments.

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