The Himalayas is a wonder of the natural world that has continually intrigued generations of natives and travelers alike. The mountain range extends into China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. Its immense beauty has inspired thoughts of the divine from the various religious traditions of these countries and, as a result, the Himalayas hold a complex spiritual and religious power. Tibetan Buddhists and Shia Muslims mainly dominate the Greater Himalayan region in the north – from Ladakh to northeastern India – while the Hindus predominantly inhabit the Middle Himalayan and sub-Himalayan valleys. Read on to learn more about the extraordinary religious and spiritual sites students will visit as part of Pitt in the Himalayas.
Har Ki Dun
Whenever you read about the Har Ki Dun valley, you come across mythical stories. Har Ki Dun literally means “Valley (Dun) of the Gods (Hari)” and it is here that the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, concludes. According to the story, the Pandavas (the five sons of Pandu) climbed the Swargrohini peak in order to reach heaven. Four of the brothers died along the way, leaving just the eldest son, Yudhishthira, to ascend to heaven accompanied by his dog. It is believed that this is the only way one can go to heaven with the human body itself. Additionally, the valley is home to a temple dedicated to Duryodhan, the antagonist of the Mahabharata who was defeated by the Pandavas.
Leh is located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and was formally the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. The Leh Palace, once home to the royal family of Ladakh, now lies in ruin amongst the stupas and mudbrick houses of the Old Town. Besides the palace, the Thiksay Gompa (monastery) is a popular destination for pilgrims and travelers alike. The monastery is affiliated with the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is the largest gompa (monastery) in central Ladakh. In the early 15th century, Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug School - often called "the Yellow Hats" - sent six of his disciples to remote regions of Tibet to spread the teachings of the new school. So in 1433, one of his disciples, Jangsem Sherab Zangpo, founded a small village monastery called Lhakhang Serpo (or "Yellow Temple") in Stagmo, north of the Indus.
However, it is said that Tsongkhapa had predicted that his doctrine would prosper on the right bank of the Indus River. This prediction came true a couple years later when Sherab Zangpo and one of his students, Palden Zangpo, were performing some sacred rituals near the Yellow Temple. As they were about to throw the torma – an offering cake – into the valley, two crows appeared suddenly and carried away the ceremonial plate with the offering of torma. The crows placed the torma on the other side of the hill. When Palden Zangpo and his disciples began looking for the torma, they reached Thiksey, located on the right bank of the Indus River, where they found that the crows had placed the torma. The torma appeared untouched and in perfect condition. Palden Zangpo took this as a divine directive to build the monastery there.
Rishikesh, known as the “City of the Divine” or “Home of the Rishis,” is renowned as one of the most holy places in India for Hindus. Its alternate spelling of Hrishikesh refers to Lord Vishnu, the Lord of the Senses. It is, therefore, a land in which to conquer one’s senses, to conquer the call of desire, and to become the master of oneself. Below is some information on the religious sites, temples, and ashrams that inhabit this spiritual center amidst the Shivalik Hills:
Neelkanth Mahadev Temple
The Neelkanth Mahadev Temple is one of the most revered holy shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, the place where the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple currently stands is the sacred location where Lord Shiva consumed the poison that originated from the sea when the Devas (gods) and the Asuras (demons) churned the ocean in order to obtain Amrita (immortality). This poison that emanated during the “Samudramanthan” (churning of ocean) turned Lord Shiva’s throat blue. From then on, Lord Shiva was also known as Neelkanth, literally meaning “The Blue Throated One.” The “Samudramanthan” also produced the goddess Lakshmi, the consort of the god Vishnu. Today, it is a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus, who bring offerings of coconut, flowers, milk, honey, fruits, and water to Lord Shiva.
Parmarth Niketan is a true spiritual haven lying on the holy banks of the Ganges River in an area called Swargashram, or “Heavenly Abode.” It is the largest ashram in Rishikesh, providing the thousands of pilgrims who come from all corners of the world with a clean, pure, and sacred atmosphere as well as abundant beautiful gardens. A revered saint named Pujya Swami Shukdevanandji who came to meditate on the banks of the Ganges founded the Ashram in the early 1940s. As more devotees arrived to listen to the wisdom of Shukdevanandji, more rooms were constructed, as well as a basic dining hall. He named this spiritual community “Parmarth Niketan,” an abode dedicated to the welfare of all.
Chaurasi Kutia (or The Beatles Ashram)
In 1968, the Fab Four themselves practiced Transcendtal Meditation (TM) under the spiritual instructor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at Chaurasi Kutia, an ashram located inside Rajaji National Park in Rishikesh. The visit followed the group’s denunciation of drugs in favor of TM. The Beatles first met Maharishi in London of August 1967 and planned on attending his ten-day seminar in Wales, but were unable to attend the entire session due to the tragic death of their manager, Brian Epstein. The Beatles kept in contact with Maharishi and made arrangements for their visit to his teaching center in Rishikesh. In February of 1968, John, Paul, George, and Ringo arrived at Chaurasi Kutia, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants, and numerous reporters. They wrote about 40 songs during their stay, eighteen of which were featured on their White Album, including: “Dear Prudence,” “I Will,” “Blackbird,” “Revolution,” “ Sexy Sadie” (formerly “Maharishi”), “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” and “Julia.” Two other songs written at the ashram were recorded for Abbey Road: “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.”
The ashram was closed for more than three decades and was taken over in 2003 by the Uttarakhand Forest Department. Even though the ashram was officially closed to the public for many years, the complex became a shrine for Beatles' fans and is now covered in artistic graffiti.
These and other amazing sites could be your classroom next Fall! Check out Pitt in the Himalayas for more information and to apply.
Allie Roos is a senior at Pitt with a double major in Classical Language and History, as well as a minor in Religious Studies and a Certificate in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She’s hoping to enroll in a Classics graduate program after she graduates, and is currently interning at the Study Abroad Office for the 2017-18 academic year. She studied abroad in Sicily during the summer of 2016, and then again in Rome during the spring of 2017.