Travel and faith are both as old as the world itself. Ever since we walked away from the trees, we wondered about who put them there, built places to think on that question, and invited more and more people to come and worship, pray, and think about these sorts of things alongside us.
All around the world there you can find everything from tiny temples to beautiful basilicas, built in the honour of the great faiths, and the wonder and awe they inspire. We’re going to look at the three largest of the world’s religions and find some of the most fascinating places to visit taken from their history.
Deep in India’s South Western state of Tamil Nadu, there lies the town of Kumbakonam. In this town you will find more Hindu temples, or Mandir, than perhaps anywhere else in the world. If you want to see the full range and extent of Hindu holy architecture and style, there are few places better than Kumbakonam.
Near the centre of the town lies the Mahamaham tank, a place believed to be connected to every river in India. Once approximately every twelve years, when a full moon coincides with Jupiter’s entrance into the constellation Leo, the Mahamagham ceremony takes place, and Hindus from around the world gather to bathe in India’s rivers.
The legend goes that at the commencement of every new era, a Yaga, Shiva – the god of destruction, wipes out the earth with water. As the waters recede, a divine pot would move to reach a holy place. At the last deluge, the holy pot approached Kumbakonam, whereupon Shiva shot it with a bow and arrow. The fragments left behind became the foundations of the many Mandir to be found in Kumbakonam, and Brahma, the creator God, pleaded with Shiva to allow man to worship here. Shiva agreed.
When you visit Kumbakonam and see the temples, and visit the Mahamaham tank, know you are visiting the site of perhaps the holiest handshake in all Hinduism.
Some called him Al-Mustafa. Others knew him as the Prophet. Those closest to him called him Abu al-Qasim. Most of the world today knows him as Mohammad, and as he went on his travels he created some of the most important sites of pilgrimages in the world today.
Unlike other religions, where pilgrimage is considered a desirable addition to one’s life, but not an absolute essential, in Islam the Hajj is one of the essential five pillars of Islam. The city at its centre is home to the Al Kabba, the large stone block that is focal point of all Islamic prayer.
Make sure to do your research and investigation as to the time of year, as due to the holiness of this object there are many restrictions for non-Muslims entering in. However visits are possible, and the grandeur of the architecture and design make it more than worth it.
For those who planned to visit Mecca, you may want to pay a visit to the Abraj Al Bait Mall, otherwise known as the Kingdom Clocktower. An enormous construction containing hotels, shopping centres, an Islamic heritage museum, and a gargantuan prayer room.
Other sites of deep interest found here are the Zamzam well, flocked to by many millions of Muslims every year as it is said to have been created by Allah himself as part of his many miracles recorded in the Quran. Or if you are looking to go further afield and are not daunted by the prospect of a short hike, Mount Arafat – the supposed site of Ibrahim’s near-sacrifice of Ishmael, is twenty kilometres east of Central Mecca.
So much of what has become holy Islamic history has happened in and around Mecca, it’s no wonder that one of the city’s other name as found in Islam’s holy book is “Mother of All Settlements”.
On the face of it, this may not seem the most obvious of choices. This out of the way market town in south eastern France, near the Pyrenees and the border with Spain, could easily be overlooked by say, the famously unfinished La Sagrada Cathedral in Barcelona, or the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem.
Yet Lourdes has a reputation far surpassing its seemingly humble setting. Despite having a population of only 15,000 people, during travelling season it has capacity to take in some five million tourists and pilgrims.
This is because in 1858 a young Catholic girl named Bernadette was fetching some firewood, and saw a vision. A woman of indescribable beauty who described herself as the “Immaculate Conception”. This was a newly defined dogma of the time, the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had herself also been conceived without sin.
When Bernadette’s pastor returned with the girl to the site of the vision, they found a spring bubbling to the surface. The water flowing from here now gushes in the galleons, as it has believed to have cured everything from nervous disorders, to paralysis, and even blindness.
Unsurprisingly this kind of miracle has spawned some amazing architecture. The Basilica of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Rosary Basilica, and the Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes to name but a few.
For the more adventurous types though, you might want to delve a little deeper and head into Massabielle Grotto, the site of Bernadette’s vision. Words thrown around by reviewers of the site include “sanctity”, “peaceful”, “magical”, and somewhat paradoxically “indescribable”.