The Amarnath Caves are located in Mount Amarnath in Jammu and Kashmir. The shrine, which is located at a height of 3888 metres, is believed to be 5000 years old and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is considered to be the place where Lord Shiva distributed nectar (‘amrit’) to other gods of the Hindu pantheon. In the main cave an ice stalagmite in the shape of Shiva Lingam (‘ice-lingam’) is found, which is revered by the devotees. There are two other ice formations dedicated to Parvati and Ganesha. Amarnath Yatra is generally held in the months of July-August and coincides with the ‘Shravani Mela’. The Yatra had faced intermittent threats from Kashmiri militants and had to be abandoned for several years.
Kumbh Mela is the greatest religious festival of the Hindus that takes place once every three years. However, the ‘Maha Kumbh Mela’ occurs once in twelve years. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu saved the elixir (‘Amrit’) from the demons and gave it to the ‘Devas’ in a pot, who had carried it to the four cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. It is believed that during this process a few drops of nectar spilled over the water at all these places and sages, saints and pilgrims started flocking to each of these ‘Tirthas’ to celebrate the divine event. Soon, it became customary to celebrate the festival in these four places on a rotation basis. The Sangam at Allahabad is considered to be holier owing to the ‘Triveni Sangam’. It is believed that the Kumbh Mela is being celebrated since the second century B.C. The renowned Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang recorded that the Hindus as well as the Buddhist and Jain monks participated in the festival.
About two million Muslims from 75 countries journey to the holy city of Makkah each year to make the spiritual pilgrimage known as the Hajj, which is one of the five Pillars of Islam and is compulsory at least once in lifetime for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to perform it. The Hajj as a ritual started in the pre-Islamic times. Islamic Hajj was first performed in the 9th Hijri. Muslims trace the origin of the Hajj to Prophet Ibrahim, who rebuilt the first House of Allah, the ‘Kaaba’, as the focal point for the worship of Allah. In the 7th century, Prophet Muhammad refined some of the rituals of the Hajj. The Prophet has performed Hajj only once during his lifetime.
The Hajj begins on the eighth day of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic year, and lasts for five days, from 8th-12th of Dhul-Hijjah. For the first three days of the Hajj, the pilgrims are required to wear special garments called ‘Ihram’, which in the case of men comprises of two pieces of unstitched clothes. A pilgrim pronounces his intention before proceeding for Hajj and then recites the special prayers. Upon arrival in Makkah, the pilgrims go to the ‘Haram Sharief’ (Holy mosque) and perform the ‘Tawaaf’ or the anti-clockwise circumambulation around the ‘Kaaba’. Over the course of the Hajj, pilgrims travel around 10 km from Makkah to the plains of Arafat and back, stopping at the sacred sites of Mina and Muzdalifa to perform rituals. The rituals also involve stoning (‘Ramy’) of the Jamarat (Satan) on the 10th of Dhul-Hijjah, followed by the performance of ‘Tawaf-e-Ziyarah’ (circumambulation) and ‘Sayee’ (symbolic running between the hills of ‘Safa’ and ‘Marwah’) at Makkah, which marks the culmination of the main rituals of the Hajj. The lesser pilgrimage known as ‘Umrah’ can be performed anytime during the year except during the Hajj season.
In India, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA) was made the nodal agency responsible for making arrangements for the Indians Hajj pilgrims in coordination with the Haj Committee of India, the State Haj Committees, Embassy of India in Riyadh and the Consulate General of India in Jeddah since 1st October, 2016. Until then, the Haj Cell of the Ministry of External Affairs was responsible for work related to management of Haj pilgrimage, including administration of the Haj Committee Act, 2002 and rules made thereunder. Around 200,000 Indian pilgrims went to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj during Haj 2019, which included 1,40,000 through the Haj Committee of India and 60,000 through Private Tour Operators.
Pilgrimage to the Ayyappa Temple :
The hill temple of Lord Ayyappa, popularly referred as ‘Sabarimala’, is situated in the Sahyadri mountain ranges of the Western Ghats of Kerala. It is one of the most ancient and popular pilgrim centres of India. The temple is open to all devotees irrespective of caste, creed, religion or social status. The presiding deity of the temple is ‘Ayyappa’, who is regarded as the incarnation of ‘Dharma Sastha’. He is also described as ‘Hariharaputra’, the son of Vishnu and Shiva.
The idol of ‘Sastha’ is believed to have been installed at ‘Sabrimala’ on the day of ‘Makar Sankranti’ (mid-January). Devotees believe that on this day, a peculiar light called ‘Makara Vilakku’ or ‘Makkara-Jyoti’ is seen facing the deity over the hills and they eagerly await this blissful sight. The ‘Makara Vilakku’ is preceded by the period of ‘Mandalam’, which is a 41-day long ritualistic worship during which pilgrims observe rigid austerities like wearing black clothes, observing strict celibacy and avoiding meat and alcohol.
The devotees wear a sacred chain made of ‘tulasi’ beads called ‘rudraksha’. Only those pilgrims who have observed the austerities for at least forty one days are allowed to use the ‘Patinenttampadi’ (or the eighteen steps) leading to the main sanctum sanctorum. Over five million people visit the temple every year between the Mandalam and Makara-Vilakku Festivals.