Seeking some deeper meaning on your travels? Make your own pilgrimage to some of the world’s great spiritual sites.
The River Ganges is Hinduism’s holiest river, beginning in the Himalayan peaks of Uttar Pradesh and spilling out into the Bay of Bengal more than 2000km later. For Hindus, the source of the Ganges is a holy of holies, and many thousands make the pilgrimage to its source near Gangotri. To join them requires a trek of 24km from Gangotri, threading through Himalayan valleys to Gaumukh, where you’ll find the trickle of water that will flow on to become one of Asia’s major rivers. Pilgrims perform darshans (offerings) as near as possible to the point where water flows from the ice wall beneath the terminal moraine.
2. Mt Kailash (Tibet)
As the source of several of Asia’s mightiest rivers, including the Ganges, Karnali and Indus, it’s little surprise that peak of Mt Kailash in Tibet is revered in a number of religions. To circuit holy Kailash is a pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus, Bonpos, Jains and, more recently, trekkers. The most ardent pilgrims walk the 52km circuit in a day, while the truly pious prostrate themselves around the mountain, lying down with arms outstretched, then standing and lying down again at the point that their hands reached. The journey to Kailash is itself an epic worthy of being called a pilgrimage, so allow time for this remarkable trek.
One of the great Christian pilgrimages is to the tomb of the apostle St James in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It’s a journey of such spiritual note that it has been named Europe’s Premier Cultural Itinerary and is also listed on the Unesco World Heritage register. The Camino begins in Roncesvalles, on the French border, and covers 783km to the Atlantic coast. Cycling and horseback are considered appropriate forms of pilgrim transport, but most people walk the route, wandering between an extensive system of albergues, spending around one month as a modern pilgrim.
On 28 June 1981 six youths in the Bosnian mountain village of Međugorje claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Instantly, a place of pilgrimage was born, complete with bus tours and an unholy number of souvenir stands. The Virgin is said to still appear at Međugorje, bringing messages to the world, delivering them through the original six ‘visionaries’ - three of them see the apparition daily. For a Međugorje vision of your own, begin in the famed bridge town of Mostar; Međugorje is about 30 mountainous kilometres away.
Resting against the India–Pakistan border, the city of Amritsar has a golden heart, with the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism, dominating the city. Glowing in the hot Punjabi sun, the temple is as golden as its name suggests, and sits in the middle of the holy Amrit Sarovar pool, which lends its name to the city. Pilgrims bathe in the pool, and amble clockwise around its marble edges, while the temple kitchen by the eastern entrance spoons out free meals to pilgrims and tourists alike. Visitors are welcome to join the faithful in and around the temple.
6. Shashemene (Ethiopia)
With Rastafarianism founded on the belief that Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is an African Messiah, it’s unsurprising that a Rasta community has taken root in Ethiopia. Around 240km from Addis Ababa, Selassie himself granted land in the town of Shashemene to Jamaican Rastafarians in the 1960s. It was first settled by 12 Jamaicans but the community has now grown to number hundreds. In the late 1970s the most famous Rasta of all, Bob Marley, visited Shashemene, and in recent years his widow has talked of relocating his remains here, which would indeed turn this southern town into a site of rock and Rasta pilgrimage.
7. Mt Athos (Greece)
Known as the Holy Mountain, Mt Athos is a self-governing community of 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries sprinkled around the slopes of 2033m-high Mt Athos on Greece’s Chalkidiki Peninsula. A strict entry-permit system applies: 100 Orthodox pilgrims and 10 non-Orthodox visitors are allowed in at a time; only men over 18 years of age can visit; permit applications from non-Orthodox visitors must be made at least six months ahead; and diamonitiria (permits) usually allow stays of just four days. The Holy Mountain is reached by boat, and you then walk between monasteries, each of which contains a guesthouse.
With a name that translates as The Place of Martyrdom, Mashhad is sacred to Shiites as the place where the 8th imam and direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Reza, died in 817. Each year, more than 15 million Shiite pilgrims visit the city in eastern Iran, which literally radiates out from Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the site of the Holy Shrine. The busiest pilgrimage times are around the Iranian New Year (March 21) and a dedicated pilgrim season from mid-June to late July. Non-Muslims are not permitted into the Holy Shrine itself, though there are three attached museums that can be visited.
On the Japanese island of Shikoku there are 88 temples, a number equal to the evil human passions as defined by the Buddhist doctrine. If you want to free yourself from every one of these passions in a single hit, you can do so by completing the 88 Temple Circuit. Traditionally the 1500km route was walked, even though there’s a space of more than 100km between a couple of the temples. In modern times, however, it’s become just as acceptable to complete the 88 Temple Circuit by tour bus – who said the gods weren’t modernists? The circuit begins in Tokushima and most pilgrims go clockwise.
In the highlands of Sri Lanka there is a mountain that’s all things to all religions. Depending on your spiritual persuasion, the indent on the summit of Adam’s Peak is either the place at which Adam first set foot on earth, or a footprint left by Buddha, Shiva or St Thomas. Small wonder the track to the summit is like an ant trail in the pilgrimage season (December to May). Secular pilgrims will find the view alone worthy of the journey. On a clear day it stretches to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, 65km away.