Nepal, a country nestled along the foothills of the mighty Himalaya, is a land steeped in legends and mythology. The country is home to many pilgrimage sites related to the two predominant religions of Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Himalaya is considered the abode of the gods. As the Hindu Scripture Skanda Purana cites, “In a hundred ages of the gods, I could not tell thee of the glories of the Himalaya. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sights of the Himalaya.”
The country abounds in many temples, monasteries and shrines visited by the devout followers of their respective faiths, which include the places of worship of other religions such as Islam, Christianity, Bon, Kirat, Jain and Sikh. Some of these sites are located in the Kathmandu valley, the capital city, while others are situated in different parts of the country.
Despite having a predominantly Hindu population, Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed in Nepal as nowhere else in the world. There are many temples, shrines and monasteries which are equally sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. While there is the Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest of the holy temples for Hindus, in Kathmandu, Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and one of the most sacred places for Buddhists, is located in the Terai district of Rupandehi. There are monasteries and caves where Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is believed to have meditated. The temple of Muktinath, situated in the trans-Himalayan district of Mustang and dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Avalokiteshwar, is a site equally venerated by the Hindus and Buddhists alike. Gosainkunda, a holy lake tucked in the serene arid lap of the Himalaya at an altitude of 4,380 m, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are also Bonpo shrines in Lupra, north of Jomsom in Mustang, and Shey Monastery in Dolpo. These pilgrimage sites are visited by a large number of pilgrims during specific festivals and occasions. The temple of Pashupatinath draws large numbers of pilgrims from Nepal and India during the Shivaratri festival.
Besides their overwhelming religious significance, the Pashupatinath Temple, the two great stupas of Swayambhunath and Bauddhanath, and Lumbini are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Four prime pilgrimage areas or Kshetras of Nepal
Hindu mythological texts cite four prime pilgrimage centres for Hindus called char dham, which are located at the four geographical points in India. These include Badrinath in Uttarakhand to the north, Dwarka in Gujarat state to the west, Puri in Orissa state in the east and Rameshwaram in the southern state of Tamilnadu. Every devout Hindu harbours the ultimate wish of making it once to these holy sites in his/her lifetime. Similarly, holy places termed as kshetras are to be found at four locations in Nepal. These are the Pashupat Kshetra, Mukti Kshetra, Ruru Kshetra and Baraha Kshetra.
Pashupat Kshetra is the place of the famous temple of Lord Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. Mukti Kshetra in Mustang has the famous Vishnu temple, also revered by Tibetan speaking Buddhists as Avalokiteshwar. This place, from where the river Kali Gandaki originates, is also well known for the shaligram, a kind of fossil revered by the Hindus as the manifestation of Lord Vishnu in stone form. Ruru Kshetra is located at Ridi near Tansen in the western hills where the Kali Gandaki River flowing north-south changes its course of flow in the easterly direction. Baraha Kshetra is situated in Sunsari district in the east where the mighty Sapta Kosi River emerges from its mountainous journey to make its descent into the plains.
Besides Lumbini, Nepal is the birthplace of Sita, the consort of Ram of the epic Ramayana, in Janakpur, and Bed Vyas, the great sage and author of the epic Mahabharata, in Tanahu district on the banks of the Madi River.
Vaishnav, Shaiva and Shakti Shrines
Followers of Hindu religion are loosely identified as Vaishnav, Shaiva and Shakti Upasak or devotees dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, or Bhagawati, respectively. Eminent Vaishnav temples in the Kathmandu valley include Changu Narayan – a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Budhanilkantha, or the reclining Vishnu, in a location by the same name; and the Krishna Temple in Patan. The Muktinath Temple and Rishikesh Temple in Ridi, western Nepal, are other famous temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
Among the Shaiva temples, the most eminent in Nepal is undoubtedly the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. This temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Large numbers of devotees and pilgrims from all over Nepal and India throng this temple on Shivaratri, or the ‘Night of Lord Shiva’ festival. Other festivals when devotees visit this temple in large numbers are Teej, Harishayani Ekadashi and Haribodhini Ekadashi. The Halesi Mahadev Temple in Khotang in the eastern hills, Jaleshwar Mahadev in Jaleshwar in the mid-Terai district of Mahottari, Galeshwar Mahadev Temple in Myagdi in the western hills and Gosainkunda Lake in Rasuwa are prominent Shaiva temples and places dedicated to or identified with Lord Shiva.
Shakti Peeths are dedicated to Goddess Durga or ‘Divine cosmic power in female form’. Normally, animal sacrifices are performed at the Shakti Peeths. The famous Shakti Peeths in the Kathmandu valley include Guhyeshwari, Shova Bhagawati, Dakshinkali and Bajrajogini. Goddess Bajrajogini is also worshipped by the Buddhists.
In the eastern hills, the temple of Pathivara in Taplejung, Singhabahini in Tehrathum and Dantakali in Dharan are visited by a large number of devotees. In the western hills, the temples of Bindhyabasini and Taal Barahi in Pokhara, and Manakamana in Gorkha draw large numbers of pilgrims. Shakti Peeth temples in the mid and far western regions include Bageshwari in Nepalgunj, Shaileshwari in Doti and Badi Malika in Bajura. The temple of Gadhi Mai in Bara district is famous for the large number of animal sacrifices that are carried out during the mela (fair) that occurs once every three years. One interesting aspect of the Shakti Peeths in Nepal is that a number of them have Dalits as pujaris (priest).