We asked the artisans to share their favorite temples and places of worship with us. Read more about the history and importance of each temple below.
Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple, Andhra Pradesh
Located on the 7th peak of the Tirumala hills above Tirupati in south India, the Venkateswara Temple is associated with superlatives: busiest, richest, most holidays, most hair. Temple historians claim that construction on the site began in 300 A.D. It’s mentioned in many historic documents as it was supported by most of the important dynasties of South India, with the leaders donating jewels, gold and other valuables. Dedicated to an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, the location is believed to be the place where Vishnu himself manifested in order to guide people in the present age of quarrel and strife.
The temple is Dravidian style, with a tall tower covered with carved figures (goparam) rising above each entrance. Because it is a major pilgrimage site, it is surrounded by a large complex of buildings to cater to the 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims who pass through on an average day. There are dining halls for free meals, simple lodging, and two buildings designed specifically to organize the flow of visitors. In special rooms, pilgrims can have their heads shaved, a common sacrifice, and donate their hair. The temple sells it to international buyers to use in cosmetics, wigs, and extensions. Collecting over a ton of hair a day, this adds $6 million to the treasury every year. Other buildings dispense prasad, foods blessed by the god, including the unique “Tirupati laddu,” a round sweet. In a room dedicated to the Thulabaram ritual, there is a giant balancing scale. A devotee pledges to donate an amount of something which weighs more than a person. The individual (often a baby or child) sits on one side, while some material (anything from basil leaves to gold) is added to the other until it tips the scale. In the sanctum sanctorum under a gilded dome stands an 8-foot tall statue of Sri Venkateswara adorned with gold, diamonds, and flowers. Tirupati is also a place of many festivals, over 433 a year. Some involve processions, chariots, and floats.
The Golden Temple, Amritsar
More properly called Sri Harmandir or Darbar Sahib, this Sikh Gurdwara (place of worship) is widely known as the Golden Temple because of its amazing gold covering. Located in Amritsar, it is one of the most revered sites in the Sikh religion. From the very start, however, the Golden Temple was intended as a place of worship for all men and women regardless of caste, religion, ethnicity or social or economic status. The building has 4 entrances, one for each direction, symbolizing the openness of the Sikhs towards all.
Building began in the 16th C. with the construction of a man-made lake at a spot where the first Sikh Guru regularly said his prayers. The square temple is situated within the lake, reached by a walkway across the water. It was placed at a lower level than its surrounding to emphasize humility. Throughout history, the Gurdwara and its complex were destroyed or desecrated numerous times but was always restored. In 1809 the temple was renovated in marble and copper. A donation of gold in 1830 was used to overlay the temple with gold foil. Inside is housed the Holy Scripture, with the interior decorated with floral designs on marble panels and holy Sikh verses in gold letters.
Over 100,000 people visit every day. They may walk around the lake on a marble path, bathe in the pool, and worship. Many take part in a Langar, a communal meal embodying Sikh values of service, egalitarianism, and generosity, which is an institution at Gurdwaras. Simple vegetarian meals are served all day to guests seated in rows on the floor. There is no charge, although one may volunteer to help serve or clean up. The idea of all walks of people eating together as equals set Sikhism apart from the caste rules of Hinduism.
Jivdani Mata Temple, Virar
You can spot Jivdani Mata temple from the train as you travel to this district about 40 miles northwest of Mumbai. Atop a hill this Hindu temple is dedicated to a form of the Goddess, Jivdani, whose name means “Life-giver.” To reach the temple visitors climb 1400 steps, a hike that can take between 30 and 60 minutes. There is a cable car trolley that goes up the mountain, as well. For many devotees, however, it is an act of faith to walk up the route. Busiest times on the route are early morning and after 5 p.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day. In the evening there is the additional benefit of a breathtaking sunset. Many climb barefooted, an act of penance for a prayer either answered or yet to be fulfilled. They may also light candles or draw Hindu symbols on each step. Along the way are shops selling flowers and other items used in the religious rituals. Popular offerings to the Goddess include sweets, bangles and coconuts. At the top the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the surroundings: towns and villages, running trains, ponds and, to the west, the wide Arabian Sea. They can enjoy the fresh breeze on a recently added viewing platform.
Two origin stories are associated with this temple. In ancient times the Pandavas, legendary heroes of the epic Mahabharata, prayed on this mountain, carving out a cave and installing an image of the Goddess. Later Jivdani appeared in the form of a beautiful woman. She rewarded a virtuous but humble shepherd with moksha, release from rebirth. When a barren woman asked for help, the Goddess promised she would be blessed with children. She further pledged to remain in her cave sanctuary to help other women who were having difficulties conceiving if they would come with offerings of betel nuts. It is now the practice for women who want children to place betel nuts in a particular hole in the niche of the cave. The main temple building is over 150 years old, and a beautiful white marble image was installed in the place of worship. On top of the hill are also the remains of a 17th C. fort, a draw for tourists, and a secondary temple for the god Krishna. For the people of the area, Jivdani is a family goddess. People come from many different communities, however, to pay their respects. The temple is especially busy in the fall during the 9-day Navratri festival. A fair is held at the end which attracts large crowds to Jivdani Hill.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, Mumbai
Located on a hill in the Bandra area of southwest Mumbai, the Basilica looks out over the Arabian Sea. This magnificent Semi-Gothic Roman Catholic Basilica has its roots in a humble chapel build on this location in the 16th C. Jesuit priests from Portugal built a simple shrine for their wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. Around 1700 pirates cut off the statue’s right hand to steal the gilt object it held. In 1760 the church was rebuilt and eventually the repaired statue was installed in the place of honor.
The building’s exterior includes stone arches and round columns. Twin towers with steeples and cornices are crowned with crosses. The two bells are different sizes and tones. When rung together they produce a sound some have called “heavenly.” The area inside is awash with light streaming in from large widows. Combining stone and wood the interior is decorated with murals depicting events in the life of Mary. Possibly Mumbai’s most popular church, the basilica is also visited by non-Catholics. Our Lady of the Mount has a reputation as a miraculous healer for all. On the road leading to the church are a variety of stalls. Amongst shops selling Goan sweets and religious articles are some displaying candles shaped like hands, fee, and other body parts. Worshippers buy a candle corresponding to their disease or ailment to light in the church as they pray for relief.
In September the Basilica commemorates Mary’s birthday as the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This leads into a week-long celebration known as the Bandra Fair. Thousands of people visit the grounds, which are festooned with lights and banners.
Vaishno Devi Mandir, Jammu and Kashmir
Located high in the Middle Himalayas, the Vaishno Devi temple is a popular pilgrimage site where the trip there is truly an important part of the experience. It is dedicated to the Hindu Goddess, the personification of divine feminine energy. Visitors must climb the mountain from the base camp to 5200 feet, a distance of over 8 miles. For pilgrims, it is part of the religious experience to go by foot (sometimes bare feet), either on a paved path or by stairs (a shorter but even steeper route). The walk can take anywhere from 5 to 13 hours. Along the way are shrines, tea stalls and food kiosks where people can take a break and admire the amazing view of mountains and valleys. Curious monkeys may play alongside the track. Groups climbing together may include children and elderly. They may chant or sing religious songs to keep spirits high. If walking is too difficult, there are alternative modes of transportation: riding on ponies, being carried on a litter borne by 4 men, or taking a helicopter most of the way.
At the top is found the Bhawan complex of hostels, vegetarian restaurants, medical facilities, blanket stores, cloakrooms and shops selling religious offerings and souvenirs. The shrine itself is a deep cave, discovered about 700 years ago. The story is that the goddess Vaishno came to earth as a girl child. Renouncing all worldly ties, she meditated in this cave. When she left her human body she turned into a rock statue. Deep in the cave, three natural rock formations are said to represent 3 aspects of the goddess: Lakshmi (prosperity, both material and spiritual), Kali (creative and destructive power), and Saraswathi (wisdom and the arts).
The Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai
Shimmering in the sun, the Haji Ali Dargah is a landmark of south Mumbai. Located on a rocky islet about a half mile off the coast, this mosque and tomb complex is only accessible at low tide via a narrow causeway. It dates back to the 15th C. and was built to honor a rich Muslim merchant who became a saint after renouncing his wealth and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. It has become a pilgrimage site among Muslims but is also popular with people of other faiths. In an average week about 8000 people visit to pray, meditate and admire their surroundings.
The complex is a beautiful example of Indo-Islamic architecture, with white domes and tall minarets. It is built of Makrana marble, the same white marble used for the Taj Mahal. In the main hall there are marble pillars and exquisite carvings. The ceiling is embedded with intricate colored glass patterns incorporating the 99 names of Allah in Arabic calligraphy.
In accordance with tradition, there are separate prayer rooms for women and men. Women were prohibited from entering the inner chamber, but in 2014 a group of Muslim women activists file a lawsuit protesting the ban. In 2016 the Bombay High Court ruled in their favor, allowing women equal right of access.
At times Sufi musicians perform Qawwali (devotional songs) in an open courtyard. Adding to the experience are stalls outside the complex offering local treats such as kebabs and chaat snacks.