Several places in the Himalaya are of religious significance in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, the Himalayas have also been personified as the god Himavat, the father of Shiva’s consort, Parvati.
Haridwar, the place where the river Ganga enters the plains.
Badrinath, a temple dedicated to Vishnu.
Kedarnath, where one of the 12 Jyotirlingas is located.
Gaumukh, the source of the Bhagirathi (and hence, by extension, the Ganga), located a few miles above the town of Gangotri.
Deoprayag, where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi merge to form the Ganga.
Rishikesh, has a temple of Lakshmana.
Mount Kailash, a 6,638 m high peak which is considered to be the abode of the Hindu god Shiva and is also venerated by Buddhists. Lake Manasarowar lies at the base of Mount Kailash, and is the source of the Brahmaputra.
Amarnath, has a natural Shiva linga of ice which forms for a few weeks each year. Thousands of people visit this cave during these few weeks.
A number of Tibetan Buddhist sites are situated in the Himalaya, including the residence of the Dalai Lama.
The Yeti is one of the most famous creatures in cryptozoology. It is a large primate-like creature that is supposed to live in the Himalaya. Most mainstream scientists and experts consider current evidence of the Yeti’s existence unpersuasive, and the result of hoaxes, legend or misidentification of mundane creatures.
Shambhala is a mystical city in Buddhism with various legends associated with it. While some legends consider it to be a real city where secret Buddhist doctrines are being preserved, other legends believe that the city does not physically exist and can only be reached in the mental realm.
Sri Hemkund Sahib – Sikh Gurudwara where Guru Gobind Singh supposedly meditated and achieved enlightenment in a previous incarnation.
Land of Lord Shiva
Since time immemorial, the Himalayas have been recognized as the sanctuary for ascetics and philosophers. The Himalayas also occupy a central place in Hinduism. The whole region is considered the realm of Shiva- the supreme ascetic, and ‘Pashupati’ – the protecting deity of pastoral herds. Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of a lingam – a phallus symbolizing the male principle in the universe. In his manifestation as the cosmic darer, the ‘Natraja’, he rhythmically creates and destroys the cosmos.
Famous shrines like the ice cave at Amarnath in Kashmir, the glacial formation at Kedarnath in Garhwal, and Jageshwar amidst a thick stand of deodar in Kumaon are dedicated to him. Kalidas, a resident of Ujjain, a city of Shiva, aptly described the Himalaya as the dazzling laughter of Shiva. Nor is Vishnu the protector forgotten here. Interstingly, Sankara, a Saiva 9akso spelt as Shaiv) South Indian saint from Kerala, at the southernmost tip of India, is credited with the restoration and consecration of the Badrinath shrine – one of the four major pilgrimages prescribed for a believing Hindu. It is a ‘Dhama’ (an important sacred destination).
Gompas (monasteries) like Hemis and Lamayuru in Ladakh or Rumtek in Sikkim hold an important place for Buddhist worshippers. Many of these have preserved with loving care the heritage of Tibetan art and culture. There is a venerated Sikh shrine at Hemkund, a high-altitude lake on the fringer of the Valley of Flowers. Legend informs us that it was here that a Sikh guru did penance and was rewarded with a divine vision.
Influence of Islam
Islam and Christianity also have a distinct presence in the Himalayas. While the Muslims of the valley of Kashmir are mostly descendants of people who converted to Islam after the conquest by Muslim invaders, the Ladakhis adopted Islam after encountering it via the Central Asian trade route. On India’s northeastern frontier, Christian missionaries won many converts among the tribes. Proselytizing has gone hand in hand with the spread of education and health care. One can also discern traces of animist of Bon worship in tribal areas bordering Tibet. In Kumaon, Gharwal and Himachal local, pre-Aryan deities vie with the Gods of the Hindu pantheon for propitiation by the faithful.
Gods and Goddesses
Nanda Devi is the patron Goddess of both Kumaon and Garhwal. Known since ancient times as Uttarakhand, the combined terrain between Nepal’s western border and the Tons River has featured prominently in the Puranas (Hindu scriptures) as the playground of the gods. Her idols are worshipped in villages and taken out in large processions during certain parts of the year. Also, there are many other gods and goddesses worshipped in different villages. Almost all hill provinces claim to be “dev bhumi” — the land sacred to the deities of Hinduism. But Garhwal is the only region that can truly claim to be so. One reason is that Garhwal possesses the “char dham”, the quartet of sacred Himalayan shrines. Moreover, the sacred Ganga River flows exclusively through Garhwal before descending to the plains.
The Nepalese community, which repesents over two-thirds of the population, follow Hinduism. The Lepchas continue to have theirtraditional beliefs. They have faith in spirits and in the shamans who cure illnesses and preside over ceremonies during birth, marriage and death. The Bhutias practise Buddhism andwere responsible for converting the Lepchas to Mahayana Buddhism.
Buddhism was introduced in Sikkim primarily due to a strife among the Buddhists of Tibet in the 15th and 16th centuries.The root of this strife was the reformation brought about in Tibetan Buddhism by Dipankar Srijana or “Atisha”. He was an Indian monk who visited Tibet in the 10th century. He led amissionary journey in 1042 and preached celibacy and moralabstinence and opposed the tantric arts.
The Gelugpa or the reformed order, headed by the Dalai Lama, originated during this period of time. The unreformed or the old order was the Nyingmapa, whose source of inspiration was the great mysticyogis of the time. The Nyingmapa trace their origins to thegreat yogi Milarepa. They resisted the reform of the Gelugpaand maintained their beliefs in the tantric practises.
The gap between the followers of the two sects deepened. Intime, the Gelugpa sect, headed by the Dalai Lama, became theprominent influence in Tibet, while the Nyingmapa sought refugein Sikkim. The major festival in Sikkim is the Phanglhapsol festival. Onthis occasion, masked dances are performed by the people inhonour of Kanchenjunga, the presiding deity and the mountain.This festival lasts for two days.
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in the region has afantastic collection of Tibetan books – the largest in this part of the world. Most of the Buddhist monasteries are big repositories of artifacts, wall paintings, tankas (religious paintings) and bronze images.