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You don’t necessarily have to be religious to feel drawn to the spiritual aura of the world’s great sacred places. In Asia you’ll find countless such locations, cities imbued with religious meaning that are visited by believers of Buddhism and Hinduism seeking a spiritual awakening. The following places give visitors a cultural view into the spirituality of Asia and allow us to escape the secular western world, at least for a little while.
Varanasi – a city of life and death
The exact age of the city of Varanasi, also known as Benares, is a mystery. Known for sure is only that this city of the god Shiva is more than 2,500 years old, and thus one of the oldest cities in the world. Located along the Ganges River, Varanasi has tremendous meaning in Indian Hinduism, both as a pilgrimage site and a place for cremation. A wash in the Ganges is said to cleanse Hindus of their sins. It’s also believed that anyone who is cremated at one of the cremation sites, known as Ganga Ghats, and has their ashes spread across the Ganges, will be able to break free from the eternal cycle of reincarnation.
In Varanasi, spirituality can be felt in the air as you lose yourself in the tiny alleyways between countless temples. Early risers can enjoy a guided boat tour and observe the ritual funerals at the Ghana Ghats from the water, as the sun slowly rises over the Ganges.
Lhasa – the city on the roof of the world
Between the snow-covered peaks of Tibet, you’ll find majestic monasteries such as the Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims traditionally walk clockwise around the temple in an act of prayer. The most famous sight in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa is the red and white Potala Palace atop the “Red Mountain,” the former seat of government of the Dalai Lama, which looms as a gigantic landmark over Lhasa. At a height of 3,700 meters, the air is somewhat thinner, making for a sunny view of the old town and the surrounding Tibetan countryside.
Bali – Island of Gods and Demons
We don’t have to tell you about Bali’s popularity as a vacation destination: with average temperatures of a comfortable 30 degrees Celsius and countless postcard-perfect beaches, this island in the Indian Ocean is an ideal location for relaxation, and is particularly loved by backpackers. In primarily Hindu Bali, the religion is woven tightly into the fabric of everyday life and forms the backbone of the country’s identity. There are said to be more than 20,000 sacred buildings in Bali, meaning that the closest temple, where prayers are held and offerings are made several times each day, is never far away. Even though Bali is a well-travelled tourist destination, there are still lonely corners and empty beaches to be found, such as those in the south and southwest of the island of Lombok.
On the Mekong between Thailand and Laos
While the southern part of Thailand is known for its islands and vacation destinations, the northern end is the home of the so-called Golden Triangle, the area’s Buddhist religious center. Here, Thailand and Laos share the River Mekong, which according to Thai folklore is watched over by the seven-headed snake goddess Naga. A tour down the Mekong River makes clear the overwhelming importance of Buddhism in these countries, as the river’s edge is columned with gigantic Buddha statues, stone monasteries and temple complexes.
Holy footprint – Adam’s Peak (Sri Lanka)
Who says that different religions can’t coexist alongside one another? According to Buddhist-Sinhala belief, the pilgrimage site of Adam’s Peak, a 2,243 meter high mountain in Sri Lanka, must be visited at least once in a lifetime. At the peak of the mountain lies a monastery with a relic of significant meaning and importance: a rock formation, which according to Buddhist tradition is the footprint of the Buddha. For Hindus, the footprint is that of Shiva, while Muslims and Christians believe the footprint was left by Adam or the apostle Thomas. This place of pilgrimage is therefore visited by religious groups of all kinds.
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