It is every Hindu`s duty to periodically leave home and visit sacred sanctuaries in and around India.
Pilgrimage is not a vacation, or a chance to "get away from it all" and enjoy scenic vistas in far-off lands. The true blessings of a pilgrimage come with your intensity of purpose, rather than combining it (especially as a secondary purpose) with visits to relatives or the handling of business or professional concerns. Many destinations have a prescribed set of observances for pilgrims. Some, such as the temple of Lord Ayappan in Sabarimala, require complex and difficult self-discipline requiring months to complete.
In addition to participation in the normal temple or festival events, the pilgrim`s devotional practices include circumambulation, bathing, head shaving, sraddha, offering to ancestors and prostration. Prostration and circumambulation are sometimes combined in the rigorous discipline of "measuring one`s length"- prostrating, rising, stepping forward two paces and prostrating repeatedly around a sacred site. There are pilgrims who undertake this formidable penance the entire 33-mile path around Mount Kailash.
The Mahabharata, in the `Tirthayatra` section, lists hundreds of holy destinations. The earliest pilgrimage destinations are thought to be the saptanadis (seven holy rivers), hence the Sanskrit term for pilgrimage, tirthayatra, literally "journey to the river`s ford." These seven rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri remain pre-eminent among holy sites on their own accord and in association with the temples along their course.
Each Hindu sect holds certain sites in high regard, though few Hindus would pass up the opportunity to visit any of the great sanctuaries. Haridwar, where the river Ganges enters the Gangetic Plain, is the gateway to the sacred Himalayan shrines, tirthas and ashrams. It attracts thousands of pilgrims through out the year.
Prayag, meaning "place of sacrifice," attracts millions who travel great distances and endure hardships for a purifying bath to absolve their sins and seek moksha (freedom from rebirth) in the confluence of three rivers, Yamuna, Ganga and the invisible Saraswati.
Among the foremost religious retreats for Saivites is Chidambaram, the great Siva Nataraja temple in Tamil Nadu. High north in Uttar Pradesh is Kedarnath, one of the twelve Jyotir Linga temples of Lord Siva. One of the greatest and most austere pilgrimages, Mount Kailash, Himalayan abode of Lord Siva, is sacred to five religions. Pilgrims perform a three-day, 33-mile circumambulation of the peak.
One of the greatest Shakti temples is Vaishno Devi. Those who climb the mountain trail in the Trikuta mountains north of Jammu are rarely disappointed as they implore the Goddess for boons. At the very tip of India, where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meet, lies the ancient Shrine of Kanyakumari, of Goddess Parvati.
Vaishnavites revere Ayodhya, birthplace of Lord Rama. Here devotees worship and seek the blessings and boons of the seventh incarnation of God Vishnu. This orthodox Vaishnava town in Uttar Pradesh is among Hinduism`s seven most sacred cities. Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of God Vishnu. Mathura and nearby Vrindaban and Gokula are an outdoor paradise for devotees visiting places of the Lord`s youth.
Puri, in the state of Orissa, is the site of the famous Rathayatra or car festival, held around June each year at the sprawling, 900-year-old Jagannatha temple complex. Along with Yamunotri, Gangotri and Kedarnath, Badrinath lies in the area known as Uttarkhand, high in the Himalayas. During the half-year when not blocked by snow, hearty pilgrims climb 10,000 feet to the temple of Badrinarayana, where God Vishnu sits in meditation with a large diamond adorning His third eye and body bedecked with gems. Pilgrims take a purifying bath at the Tapt Kund, a sacred hot water pool.