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Seeking the divine in the mountains

Why do we enjoy climbing mountains? Often, it is a taxing exercise that requires high levels of fitness and endurance. There is also a risk of hurting ourselves–even fatally–if we consider steep mountains. And yet, we derive pleasure and satisfaction from it. Perhaps, we like the challenge of physical and mental exertion. Trudging through tricky terrains in extreme climatic conditions, we come to terms with human limitations. When faced with the wild side of nature, even the staunchly rational ones among us might begin to ponder about a higher power.

Needless to say, an arduous journey to a mountain top can be a humbling experience. Perhaps, this is why quite a few places of worship are located atop hills and mountains. They give pilgrims a chance to find their way uphill on foot and get in touch with their inner selves in the process. Soulveda explores a few such pilgrimage centres across the world.

Amarnath Cave Temple, India

The Amarnath Cave Temple is located in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3,888 metres. Every year, thousands of pilgrims set out on a difficult journey through the steep slopes of the Himalayas to reach this temple. Inside the cave is a stalagmite formation that resembles a lingam, a representation of Lord Shiva. According to legend, this is the place where Lord Shiva told his consort Goddess Parvati about the secret of immortality.

It is believed that Shiva chose this remote cave to ensure that nobody heard the secret. On their way to the place, he left his ride Nandi (the bull) at Pahalgam; the moon, which resides at the top of his head, at Chandanwari; the panchabhootas (five elements – earth, sky, water, fire, air) at Panjtarni; his snake at Seshnag and his son Lord Ganesh at Mahagunas Parvat. He created his own manifestation, Kalagni Rudra, to burn down every living thing around the cave, just to make sure they weren’t overheard. And then, he revealed the secret to Parvati.

However, under the deer’s skin–which the duo sat on–lay a couple of pigeon eggs. It is believed that the tiny birds inside the eggs heard the whole thing and in turn became immortal. Some pilgrims even claim to have seen the immortal pigeons near the temple.

Lake Manasarovar, the highest freshwater lake in the world, is also located on Mount Kailash. Hindus believe that drinking the holy water from the lake will help one attain moksha.

Mount Kailash, Tibet

One of the tallest Himalayan peaks, Mount Kailash is a site of religious significance according to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bön (a native religion of the Tibetans). Hindus believe that the mountain is the home of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, while Buddhists believe that it is the home of the Buddha Chakrasamvara, who represents supreme bliss. According to Jainism, it was right next to Kailash that Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara, attained moksha. In Bön, it is believed that the mountain forms the axis mundi or the symbolic centre of the world.

Pilgrims from all four faiths travel to the Himalayas to circumambulate the 52-kilometre path around Mount Kailash. Some Hindus believe that the circumambulation must be completed in a single day in order to appease the gods. However, this is no mean task, for the slopes are punishing as is the cold. Some ardent devotees even bend, prostrate, pray and rise all the way around the mountain. Lake Manasarovar, the highest freshwater lake in the world, is also located on Mount Kailash. Hindus believe that drinking the holy water from the lake will help one attain moksha.

Kumano Kodo, Japan

The Kii Mountains of Japan are known for a series of sacred trails that attract pilgrims from across the world. There are three major religious destinations in this range–Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan–which are connected to the cities of Nara and Kyoto by a complex pattern of trails. Numerous Buddhist and Shinto shrines, some of them known to have been built as early as the ninth century, form part of these trails. It is said that retired emperors and aristocrats used to undertake this pilgrimage, seeking the path of spirituality.

The tall Kii Mountains overlook the mighty Pacific Ocean and are replete with dense pine forests, waterfalls, streams and rivers. Pilgrims trek through the trails for days on end, visiting the shrines and breaking every now and then to bask in the glory of nature and meditate. The breath-taking views soothe the travellers’ aches and help them put one foot in front of the other.

Croagh Patrick in Ireland attracts a large number of pilgrims on the last Sunday of July, which is known as the Reek Sunday.

Croagh Patrick, Ireland

Sometimes called The Reek, the mountain is considered the holiest in Ireland. It attracts a large number of pilgrims on the last Sunday of July, which is known as the Reek Sunday. Saint Patrick is believed to have fasted on the mountain for 40 days in 441 AD. So, every Reek Sunday, masses are held at the chapel on top of the mountain.

Many pilgrims climb the hill barefoot as an act of penance. Some perform something known as the ’rounding ritual’, where in they do several rounds of various landmarks on their way. This pilgrimage is known to have been undertaken for the past 1,500 years, possibly even before the birth of Christianity. Experts link it to an ancient Gaelic harvest festival called Lughnasadh.

Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka

Located in the Sabaragamuva Province of Sri Lanka is a mountain commonly referred to as Adam’s Peak. It is also known as Sri Pada (Sinhalese) or Sivanolipada Malai (Tamil). The five-foot-tall rock formation near the summit of the mountain is the main attraction, as it carries religious significance in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. It is considered as the footprint of Shiva, St Thomas, Adam and Buddha by the respective sects. Pilgrims take one of the six different trails leading uphill, traditionally at night, to reach the summit in time for the sun rise.

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