Paying homage to deities and attaining bliss on pilgrimages

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is located in the ancient city of Madurai.

S. Ratnambal has regularly gone on temple tours to India since 2001. This grandmother of five always feels a sense of spiritual bliss whenever she steps into the many Hindu temples that are found throughout that country.

"Since India has many ancient temples, I believe there's some kind of divine vibe. I always feel very happy and blessed whenever I perform my prayers at the temples," says the 60-year-old housewife.

Among the places that she has visited in North India are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Annapurna Temple and the Kala Bhairava Temple.

Located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the most famous Hindu temples around. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganges. Mentioned in Hindu scriptures, the temple is a central point of worship for followers of the Shaiva philosophy.

The Kala Bhairava Temple is dedicated to Bhairava, one of the most important deities in Hindu mythology. And Annapurna Temple is named after the Hindu goddess of food.

"She's worshipped as a motherly figure who provides food for the whole world," explains Ratnambal, whose pilgrimages have taken her to South India. Hailed as the "Hindu heartland" of India in travel guides, that area is home to several holy sites.

The places that she has visited in South India are Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states that are popular among many Hindu travellers. During her trip to the former, Ratnambal visited the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple, a holy abode dedicated to Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu.

And while she was in Tamil Nadu, Ratnambal visited the Meenakshi Amman Temple, a historic venue located on the southern bank of the Vaigai River in the temple city of Madurai.

Built in honour of the goddess Parvati (an incarnation of Meenakshi) and her consort Shiva, the temple is of great significance to the Tamil people. It is the venue for the annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, which is celebrated in April and May, and attracts up to one million visitors.

Ratnambal has also visited the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu. Dubbed the "Big Temple", it is 10 centuries old and one of India's largest temples.

Her visit to the golden temple of Sripuram in the city of Vellore is vividly etched in her mind.

"My experience at this temple was particularly memorable because I got the chance to participate in special prayers," she reveals. In addition to that, Ratnambal also appreciated the chance to bathe in the river Ganges, which she says helps to cleanse and purify devotees' souls.

"I felt as though I received blessings from my ancestors when I dipped into the waters," she shares.

Like Ratnambal, civil servant Gobalakrishna Govindasamy, 48, also felt a sense of divine blessing during his religious travel to India. Earlier this year, he and his son Ravie Kumaran, 16, embarked on a 10-day trip to Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage centre located in the Western Ghat mountain ranges in Kerala.

Sabarimala is believed to be the place where the deity Ayyappan meditated after killing the demoness Mahishi.

"It was my first time performing a pilgrimage," Gobalakrishna reveals, "and through that trip, I do feel closer to Lord Ayyappan."

The civil servant started his journey from Erumely and travelled on foot for about 56km along the mountainous forest path to the deity's temple situated amidst 18 hills.

"The beauty of this is I saw many people, young and old, travelling along the path to Lord Ayyappan's temple. Even the elderly have the strength to climb up there. That's when I realised that God is guiding us," says Gobalakrishna.

He adds that pilgrims to Sabarimala have to adhere to a strict 42-day fast. According to Gobalakrishna, one needs to refrain from consuming meat and alcohol, getting a hair-cut and shaving during this period.

"Basically, you have to live as simple as possible. And if you're a married man, you're not supposed to be with your wife," he reveals.

Located 5km east of Kathmandu, the Pashupatinath Temple is venerated as one of the most hallowed Hindu sanctuaries in the world.

For his pilgrimage, Gobala-krishna participated in the tour organised by a group in his temple. However, travellers can also opt to enlist the services of tour agencies. One such agency is Sri Kasi Travel & Tours in Kuala Lumpur, which is partly owned by the Malaysia Hindu Sangam. In addition to temple tours to India and Nepal, the company also organises 15-day pilgrimages known as Kasi Rameswaram Theertha Yatra.

"The Kasi Rameswaram Theertha Yatra is the only Hindu pilgrimage written in the Hindu epic Ramayana. It's believed that you will cleanse yourself of sins and your past life's karma when you perform this pilgrimage," says Sri Kasi Travel & Tours managing director Major (Retd.) K. Kathitasapathy, 67.

For this particular pilgrimage, devotees stop at three important places - Rameswaram, Allahabad and Varanasi. According to the former military officer, devotees are required to perform a ritual of collecting earth from Rameswaram.

Allahabad is home to the Triveni Sangam - the confluence of rivers Ganges and Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati River.

Varanasi (aka Kasi in Sanskrit), Kathitasapathy says, is Hinduism's holiest land.

The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu is one of the largest temples in India and one of country's most prized architectural sites.

Besides India, Nepal is another popular destination for Hindu travels. According to Incentive Holidays Pvt Ltd executive chairman Hari Man Lama, the demand for Nepalese Hindu tour packages is booming.

The region, according to the 44-year-old, is home to iconic venues such as the Pashupatinath Temple, Manakamana Temple, Dakshinkali Temple and Mount Kailash in Transhimalaya.

"The Pashupatinath Temple is one of Nepal's most sacred Hindu sites. As per tradition, only those who were born Hindus are allowed to enter the premises," offers Hari.

He adds that the temple - located on the banks of the Bagmati River - is the seat of the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath.

Re-built by King Bhupatindra Malla in the 17th century after the previous structure was damaged by termites, the present-day Pashupatinath Temple is a two-tiered pagoda with golden roofs and silver doors.

"The Manakamana Temple, on the other hand, is dedicated to the goddess Bhagwati. She's believed to hear and grant the wishes of those who worship her," explains Hari.

The Dakshinkali Temple is also a prominent Hindu site in Nepal, dedicated to the goddess Kali. The shrine, according to Hari, is particularly crowded on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when animal sacrifices are offered to the deity.

The tours offered by Hari's company range from four to eight days and cover most of the significant Hindu places in Nepal.

Captivated by the Hindu destinations in Nepal, advocate and solicitor Ravindran Toplan has visited that country three times - twice with a tour group and once on a solo trip. In addition to the religious sentiments of the place, the man, who's in his sixties, also appreciates Nepal's natural splendour.

According to Ravindran, the sceneries of the lakes in Pokhara are very beautiful. He adds that there are interesting myths and stories behind many of the lakes and ponds. For instance, the water from the two ponds in front of Muktinath Temple is believed to have the power to wash away all evils.

"Many Hindus also go to Nepal to attend the Maha Shivratri festival," says Hari. Also known as the Great Night of Lord Shiva, the festival heralds the marriage of Shiva and Shakti (another incarnation of Parvati).

"For the duration of the occasion, devotees keep vigil while burning oil lamps to please Shiva.

Hari adds that the Maha Shivratri festival is one of the most popular religious events among Hindu devotees. For those who are unable to go on a pilgrimage due to certain circumstances, such as financial constraints, Ratnambal recommends temples in Malaysia such as Batu Caves, the Penang Waterfall Hill Temple and the Kallu Malai Temple in Ipoh.

"Just go with a pure heart and perform your prayers sincerely to feel God's divine power," she concludes.

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