Got Religion?  Find a New One in India’s Holy Cities

Got Religion? Find a New One in India’s Holy Cities

India and Israel are the birthplaces of the world’s major religions. For some reason though, we often forget the place India has in world religions, as the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism and several other faiths practiced by over a billion people globally. Like Israel, India’s religions have shaped the country and culture as much as the country has shaped the religions. The religions of India, full of colors, festivals and seemingly daily holidays, are what make India so fascinating.

Everything including the landscape of India itself is sacred, from the towering Himalayas to the rivers, but some places are more sacred than others. For those seeking to learn about Indian religions, experience the festivals, or witness pilgrimages, here are the must-see cities of religious India.

AMRITSAR (Sikhism)

Like Buddhism, Sikhism is a religion based on Hinduism without the controversial caste system.  Taking an oath to similar appearance such as never cutting one’s hair, non-harming including pure vegetarianism, and, at one time maintaining a single surname, Singh, the believers practice the egalitarianism they preach.  The Sikh’s most sacred place, the Golden Temple, is a must-see sight of India. From a massive white marble shore of a man-made lake, the gold plated temple in the lake’s center singularly represents India’s entire religious splendor.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Sikhism is about inclusion for all, pilgrims and non-believers alike are welcome to enjoy free meals and lodging at the Golden Temple.  Having a meal at the Golden Temple is a must-do while visiting India.


To many people the Dali Lama is Buddhism.  The reality though is that he is to Buddhism what the Pope is to Christianity: the leader of a single sect within a larger religion.  That said, just like the Vatican, visiting the hometown of the Dali Lama in Dharamsala is a religious experience for everyone that makes the trip.

It takes good timing to catch an English lecture by the Dali Lama, but there are many other offerings for people interested in learning about Tibetan Buddhism, most famously the Tushita 10-day Intro to Buddhism course that we took (learn more about the course and our 10 days of silent meditation by clicking here [LINK]).  If Tibetan Buddhism isn’t for you, there are many derivatives including Vipassana mediation centers or the opportunity to interact with monks in the cafes of Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Silent meditation is a cornerstone of most Buddhist practices.  There are few places in the world that offer such a variety of meditation options as the Dharamsala area, so close your mouth, take a seat and breathe.

PUSHKAR (Hinduism)

When Brahma, the creator, dropped a lotus flower on earth, Pushkar appeared.  Later, after deciding to conduct a religious ceremony without his wife in attendance, he decided to marry someone else.  Upon learning of this, Brahma’s wife declared that he would not be worshipped anywhere else, making Pushkar one of the few places where Brahma, the world’s creator, is worshipped.  While the temple attracts thousands daily, the city’s biggest event is the Pushkar Camel Fair.  The city of 15,000 swells to over 200,000 people and 50,000 camels each Oct/Nov for the Fair.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Get blessed by a priest and bathe in the holy waters of the lake in the center of town.  Swallow water at your own risk.


Though the town is located near one of the holiest places of the holy Ganges River, its spirituality is decidedly New Age.  Made famous as the place the Beatles expanded their minds to write the White Album, contemporary tourists made Rishikesh into the self-declared “Yoga Capital of the World”.  You can’t toss a rupee without hitting an ashram offering yoga classes, teacher training and questionable medical teaching such as vomiting kriyas…you know, cleansing through self-induced vomiting…  While you’re at it you might as well dine on the world’s most nutritious algae, drink homemade kombucha and soak in the healing powers of pyramids.  Combining all these opportunities made us declare Rishikesh as the World’s Strangest Place.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Bend yourself into a pretzel before choking down a raw foods breakfast.  Then spend your afternoon hanging with sadhus, wandering holy men, along the Ganges.

VARANASI (Hinduism)

Like a video game cheat code, Varanasi is the lazy Hindu’s way into heaven.  While you could spend several lifetimes working towards nirvana, being good to all sentiment beings and making the world a better place, why bother?  To escape samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and make it to nirvana all you have to do is die in Varanasi. What if it’s not convenient to die during your visit?  You can cleanse yourself of sins by bathing in the Ganges River.  Not clean enough?  Clean out your insides by taking a sip of the water, but be warned, this is reputedly the world’s most polluted river.  Of the 116 cities on the Ganges, every single one of them dumps all their raw sewage into the river.  The safe level of fecal coliform is 500 bacteria per liter, but the Ganges is offering you a full 1,500,000 bacterium per liter!

As if raw sewage isn’t enough, the burning of bodies on it further contaminates the river’s banks, as does the sinking of dead babies, bathing of animals and washing of household objects.  Why is all this done?  Because Hindus believe that the river is pure, no matter what they do to it.  There is no place to better witness the culture, religion, color and contradiction that is India.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: Watch a cremation on the banks of the Ganges while children swim in the ash just downstream.  Bathe in the river at your own risk.

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» Dad A :
Oct 19, 2012

You are very insightful…peace…..Bruce

» Harvinder Singh :
Dec 15, 2012

please fix title in amritsar its sikhism :) and Sikhism is not based on Hinduism. because it debunks many practices by hindus- caste system, idol worship, women inequality and other superstitious practices such charms and miracles! please fix that line.

thanks in advance :)

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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