Pilgrimage has always played a very important role in our Indian society. Irrespective of any walk of life or faith, every person has some time or the other in their life travelled on a pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages become even more interesting if one is keen on knowing about the art, architecture, history and era associated with the pilgrimage site. Take the ancient Sun Temple at Konark, Orissa, for instance. This particular temple can make you marvel at its sheer size, architecture, and chariot-like structure and even give the modern-day architects a run for their money!
In South India, dynasties like the Cholas, Pandyas and the Pallavas built many temples during their reigns that boast of the ancient Dravidian style of architecture. Numerous dargahs were also built during the Islamic Sufi period, along with many churches as the colonial era came to power. As a result, numerous pilgrimage sites are found in this part of the country that invites all, irrespective of their religious beliefs, to their premises.
Some of the top and most visited pilgrim destinations of South India are as below:
1. Tirupati Balaji, Andhra Pradesh
Tirupati, also known as the 'Spiritual Capital of Andhra Pradesh', is located in the Chittoor district of the state and is home to the important Hindu shrine of Lord Venkateshwara Swami.
'Tiru' in Telugu means Shri (Lakshmi), and 'Pati' means husband, so Tirupati means the husband of Lakshmi, i.e., Lord Vishnu. Legend says that Lord Rama resided here along with Sita and Lakshman on their way back from Lanka.
The temple was built in the 8th century by king Thondaiman, is situated on top of one of the 7 peaks of the Tirumala hills and is thronged by scores of pilgrims all year round.
2. Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu
Rameshwaram, located in Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu, is separated from the mainland of India by the Pamban Channel and is just 40kms away from Mannar Island, Srilanka. Pamban Island is connected to the mainland of India via the Pamban Bridge.
Rameshwaram is one of the holiest places in India for the Hindus and is also a part of the Char Dham pilgrimage. According to ancient texts, Lord Ram built a bridge across the sea to Lanka to rescue Sita. He prayed to Lord Shiva for victory by building a Shivalinga made of sand- which is believed to be the same Shivalinga enshrined at the Ramanathaswamy Temple.
Located in the centre of town, the Ramanathaswamy Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines, where Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of a Jyotirlinga, meaning "pillar of light". The temple was built in the 12th century by the Pandya rulers and has the longest temple corridor compared to the other temples of India.
3. Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
Kanyakumari, also known as Cape Comorin, is the southernmost point of the Indian mainland and is also referred to as 'The Land's End'. Kanyakumari serves as both a popular tourist destination and as a pilgrimage centre. Kanyakumari has been named after the Goddess Kanyakumari or 'The Virgin Princess', who is considered an avatar of Goddess Parvati and the sister of Lord Vishnu.
Legend says that Kanya Devi was to marry Lord Shiva, but he failed to show up on his wedding day, so the wedding was never solemnised. Kanya Devi is considered to be a virgin Goddess who blesses all pilgrims who visit the temple. The Kanyakumari temple or the Bhagavathy Amman Temple is a 3000-year-old temple. It is considered one of the 108 Shaktipeethas in India, dedicated to Goddess Kumari Amman or Kumari Bhagavathy Amman.
The temple is said to have been the first Durga Temple created by Lord Parshuram and finds mention in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
4. Chamundeshwari, Mysore
The Chamundeshwari temple located on top of the Chamundi Hills in Mysore is one of the 18 Shakti Peethas in India. It is said that the hair of Sati fell here when she self-immolated herself. The shrine is said to have been built in the 12th century by the Hoysala dynasty rulers, and the temple was named Chamundeshwari after the fierce form of Shakti.
It is believed that Goddess Durga slew the demon king Mahishasura on top of this hill which was the demon's abode. The place became known as Mahishooru, which later became known as Mysore by the British.
The most important festival that is celebrated here is Navaratri. Mysuru Dasara is celebrated as the state festival of Karnataka, called Nada Habba in Kannada. During Navaratri, the idol is decorated in nine different ways to depict the nine different forms of the goddess known as Navadurgas.
5. Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, Velankanni
Velankanni, located in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, lies on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. Once a port that traded with Rome and Greece, the town is now home to one of the most visited and the country's biggest Roman Catholic Latin Rite Shrines called the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. The origin of the Basilica can be traced back to the 16th century. It is popularly also known as the 'Lourdes of the East. The church was originally built in Gothic style and was later modified and further expanded by the Portuguese.
6. Shravanabelagola, Karnataka
Shravanabelagola is an important Jain pilgrimage centre in Karnataka. Shravanabelagola is home to the 58 feet high statue of Lord Gometeshwara and is considered one of the world's tallest free-standing monolithic statues.
It was constructed in 981 AD by Chamundaraya, a warrior, and it is carved out of a single block of granite that looms on the top of the Vindhyagiri Hill. The statue is visible up to 30 km away, and there are nearly 700 steps carved into the rock, which must be climbed to get a close-up view of this magnificent structure. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya died here in 298 BC after becoming a Jain monk and leading an ascetic life.
Every twelve years, thousands of devotees gather to perform the Mahamastakabhisheka, a spectacular ceremony in which the statue is anointed with water, turmeric, rice flour, sugarcane juice, sandalwood paste, saffron, and gold and silver flowers. Recently the Mahamastakabhisheka was held in 2018 February. The next Mahamastakabhisheka will be held in 2030.
7. Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Kerala
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a Hindu temple located in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. It is considered the richest place of worship in the world. The name of the city 'Thiruvananthapuram' translates to "The City of Lord Ananta" (The City of Lord Vishnu).
According to the existing Tamil hymns from the seventh and eighth centuries, the temple is one of the 108 principal Divya Desams (Holy Abodes) in Vaishnavism.
The temple has been built in a fusion of the Chera and the Dravidian style of architecture, featuring high walls and a 16th-century gopura. The principal deity Padmanabhaswamy is enshrined in the "Anantha Shayana" posture, the eternal yogic sleep of the infinite serpent Adi Shesha.
The deity is made of 12,008 saligramams. These saligrams were brought from the banks of the Gandaki River in Nepal. The deity is also covered with 'Katusarkara yogam', a special ayurvedic mix made of 108 natural materials collected from all over India that gives coat-like protection and helps keep the deity clean.
8. Nagore Dargah
The Nagore Dargah, also known as the Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah or Nagore Andavar dargah, is a dargah built over the resting place of the Sufi saint Shahul Hameed in the 16th century. The dargah is located in Nagore, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu.
The saint Shahul Hamid was believed to have performed many miracles in Nagore. He had cured the physical affliction of the Hindu king Achuthappa Nayak, the 16th-century ruler of Thanjavur.
Shahul Hameed is locally referred to as Nagore Andavar, meaning the 'Ruler of Nagore' and the dargah is believed to have been built by ardent devotees of Shahul Hamid with major contributions from the Hindus. There are five minarets in the dargah, and the tallest minaret was built by the Hindu Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, Pratap Singh, in the 18th century.
The dargah is a major pilgrimage centre attracting pilgrims from Islam and Hinduism, symbolising the peaceful coexistence between the two religions. The most prominent event celebrated at the Nagore dargah is the Kanduri festival, a fourteen-day festival commemorating the saint's death anniversary.
So, the next time you plan on a vacation, do take time out to visit some of these pilgrimage centres and witness the magnificence and enthusiasm of these places yourself - for seeing is believing!