By Steve Wiegand
location: Puri, India
most frequented by: Hindus
Festivals are an important part of Hinduism, and Ratha Yatra is certainly one with a lot of pull "¦ and pulling.
The celebration takes place in June or July of each year in Puri, a city on the southeastern coast of India. Why Puri? It's home to the 12th-century Jagannatha temple and three roughhewn (and highly sacred) wooden statues. They represent Jagannatha, an incarnation of the Hindu Lord Krishna; his brother, Balarama; and his sister, Subhadra. Hindus believe that around 5,000 years ago, devotees of Krishna pulled the chariots of these three siblings to the family's nearby childhood home.
Each year, as many as 1 million faithful visit the temple to re-enact the event, dragging the statues in giant chariots. And we do mean giant: The largest is 45 feet high and sports 16 wheels.
Devout Hindus believe if they help transport the chariot bearing Jagannatha, they will be granted the opportunity to serve him in the spiritual world.
During Ratha Yatra, some of the more enthusiastic pullers have been known to deliberately throw themselves under the chariots' wheels. Fortunately, the frequency of this practice has waned in recent years, but the popularity of the festival certainly hasn't. In fact, those who can't make it to Puri for Ratha Yatra can participate in smaller versions in cities all over the world, from Kuala Lumpur to New Orleans.
And if you think Jagannatha bears significance for Hindus only, you're wrong. Turns out, the statue is credited with giving the English language the word "juggernaut." In the 17th century, British travelers returning from India brought back lurid (and highly exaggerated) tales of the festival in Puri, describing hordes of people being squashed by the chariots. "Juggernaut" is an Anglicization of Jagannatha, and the word has since come to mean "a massive, inexorable force that crushes everything in its path." That certainly describes a four-story-high chariot.
2) Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion
location: Aksum, Ethiopia
most frequented by: Ethiopian Orthodox
Anyone who's seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" knows that the Ark of the Covenant is the chest containing the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed. Aside from that, you can forget all the other Indiana Jones nonsense. The most prominent story of the Ark comes from Ethiopian tradition. According to that legend, the biblical Queen of Sheba was actually Queen Makeda of Ethiopia. After adopting Mosaic laws for the Ethiopian people, she sent her son Menelik and members of his staff to steal the Ark and bring it to Aksum. There, ostensibly, it remains—housed in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, a relatively modest 17th-century stone building. Who gets the honor of guarding the holy relic and, consequently, being the only human on Earth allowed to actually see the Ark? That job goes to an especially holy monk, who's tasked with the duty until death. In accordance with tradition, he names his successor with his dying words. So, if you want to know whether or not the Ark is really there, you'll have to take the guardian's word for it.
There are more than enough people, however, who don't need any visible proof. Every year, thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit Aksum, a small mountain town about 300 miles north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to see the shrine protecting the Ark. Aksum is considered one of the holiest sites for followers of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, which counts itself among the oldest forms of Christianity.
3) Sri Harmandir Sahib
location: Amritsar, India
most frequented by: Sikhs
Most Westerners know Sri Harmandir Sahib simply as "The Golden Temple," so named for its structures adorned with gold and gold paint. But to the world's roughly 20 million Sikhs, it's their religion's most sacred site. In fact, followers pray daily for a chance to visit the temple at least once during their lives.
Sri Harmandir Sahib is in Amritsar, a city about 240 miles north of New Delhi. Built in the late 16th century, the temple's impressive architecture was designed to represent the magnificence and strength of the Sikh people. Sikhism itself is an offshoot of Hinduism founded about 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, a government accountant who rejected both Hinduism and Islam.
The temple at Sri Harmandir Sahib occupies a small island in the middle of a pool and is connected to land by a marble causeway. Every year, it attracts millions of pilgrims. In 2004 alone, more than 2.5 million Sikhs visited The Golden Temple to take part in a five-day celebration marking its 400th anniversary. Sadly, however, the temple has also attracted its fair share of violence, including attacks and conquests by Mongol, Arab, Afghan, and British armies. Perhaps the most notable incident occurred in 1984. Sikh separatists, feeling oppressed by the Hindu-dominated Indian government and seeking an independent state, occupied the temple and refused to leave. When Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered soldiers and tanks to attack, more than 1,000 people were killed, and some of the buildings around the temple were badly damaged. Gandhi received scores of death threats and was assassinated a few months later by Sikh terrorists.
4) Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
location: Mexico City, Mexico
most frequented by: Roman Catholics
The story of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins on a frosty December day in 1531, only a decade after the Spanish conquistador HernÃ¡n CortÃ©z toppled the Aztec empire. A 50-year-old Indian peasant named Juan Diego was trudging along between his village and modern-day Mexico City when he encountered the Virgin Mary, who told him to build a church on the site where they were standing. Not one to ignore an order from the mother of Christ, the peasant relayed the request to the local bishop. A bit suspicious of Diego's claim, the bishop demanded proof of Mary's request. In response, the Virgin (who conveniently appeared to Diego again) supplied the peasant with a bunch of roses in the dead of winter. Needless to say, the bishop was pretty impressed with the bouquet, but even more so by the likeness of Mary that was mysteriously imprinted on Diego's cloak, and a church was promptly built.
Today, the site houses the old Basilica as well as a newer one, and millions of Catholics travel the world for a chance to walk inside. Pilgrims praying to the Virgin Mary there have reported miraculous cures, particularly for alcoholism. (Why alcoholism? We have no idea.) Diego's cloak is also on display at the site, though it's an object of controversy. Scientists argue about the authenticity of his cloak, and historians quibble over the authenticity of Juan Diego himself—some doubting such a man ever existed. The arguments, however, had a hard time competing with former Pope John Paul II's stamp of approval. He visited the Basilica several times, and on a 2002 journey there, he made Juan Diego a saint.
5) Shatrunjaya Hill
location: Palitana, India
most frequented by: Jains
Shatrunjaya Hill just might have been what Led Zeppelin had in mind when the band wrote "Stairway to Heaven." The site has no fewer than 3,950 steps—enough to make you think you can reach heaven (either by looking up or keeling over) by the time you actually get done climbing it.
Located in the western Indian city of Palitana, Shatrunjaya (or Satrunjaya) Hill is the primary pilgrimage destination for followers of Jainism and home to 863 temples dedicated to the Jain religion. Founded in India about the same time as Buddhism, Jainism teaches the path to spiritual purity through a life of discipline, austerity, and non-violence. In fact, this aversion to violence has led many among India's Jain community (which consists of about four million people) to shun most occupations outside of commerce and finance. Jains not only frown upon killing people, but animals as well. For that reason, none of the temples at Palitana contain ivory (since that would mean dead elephants) or even clay (since it contains dead insects and micro-organisms). Instead, they're constructed of marble, bronze, or stone. So if you're going, don't wear anything made of fur, leather, or any other part of a dead animal.
Oh, and about those steps up the Hill to the temples: It can take as long as three hours to climb up them, depending on your level of fitness. The elderly and ailing go up in a dholi, a small seat attached under a bamboo pole, carried by two men who take a few jouncing steps at a time. If ever an employee deserved a great tip, it would be one of these guys.