10 Most Sacred Spots on Earth
These places have been inspiring more than just vacation ideas for centuries. Long revered for their gorgeous scenery and spiritual power, here are ten natural wonders—from a ceremonial Mayan lake to the home of Shiva—that are the stuff of legend.
Mahabodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya, India
According to Buddhist traditions, around 500 B.C., when the ascetic Prince Siddhartha was wandering through what's now the state of Bihar in India, he took rest under a native bodhi tree. After meditating there for three nights, the prince awoke with enlightenment, insight and the answers he had been seeking, which developed into the teachings he went on to spread to his disciples. Naturally, the place where the Buddha reached enlightenment is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists, and has been a major pilgrimage destination for centuries. Today, a temple complex surrounds what is believed to be a direct descendant of the original majestic tree itself, which sits in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by protective carved panels. A beautiful Buddha statue under the tree marks the significant spot.
Getting There: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is in the Bodh Gaya area of Bihar, India. The site is about three miles from the Gaya Airport and about seven miles from Gaya City. Car service, public buses, and bus tours are also available from the holy city of Varanasi; public buses run about $8 (mahabodhi.com).
Mount Kailas, Tibet
This black rock mountain in western Tibet is something of a holy hat trick, since it is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains and is thought to be the mythical Axis Mundi, the center of the universe. Hindus believe it is the residence of Lord Shiva and the land of eternal bliss, and have celebrated the mythical Kailas in temple carvings throughout India. Tantric Buddhists say the mountain is the home of Buddha Demchog, who represents supreme bliss, and that three key Bodhisattvas live in the surrounding hills, while Jains believe it is the site (which they call Mount Ashtapada) where the first Jain attained nirvana. The peak is part of the Gangdise Mountain range and is set near the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia, including the Sutlej, the Indus, and the Ghaghara (a tributary of the holy Ganges River). Nearby Lake Manasarovar, considered the source of purity, is another major pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Getting There: Despite being such a mythical sacred site, Mount Kailas is also one of the least visited, due to its remote location in the Tibetan Himalayas. From Lhasa, it's about a four-night journey over the plateau to the small pilgrim outpost, where there are a few basic guesthouses. From this base, most pilgrims set out on foot, pony, or yak to circumnavigate the base of the mountain, a journey of about 32 miles. There is no record of anyone having attempted to climb Mount Kailas.
Mount Sinai, Egypt
Some of the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs can be traced back to this mountain on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, for it was at the top of this peak that Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. Though there is not much archeological evidence confirming this as the exact place, and biblical scholars have theorized for years about the mythical mountain's location, early Christian monks believed this was the sacred site and established several monasteries in the area. Today, visitors can start at St. Catherine's Monastery at the base of the mountain, then climb to the summit, where there is the small Holy Trinity chapel and stunning views, especially at sunrise.
Getting There: The mountain can only be reached by road; Dahab and Nuweiba are both about two hours away by car, while it's about three hours from resort hub Sharm al-Sheikh. Most hotels on the peninsula can set you up on a bus tour, and many of these arrive at the base around 1 a.m., so visitors can be at the summit for sunrise. There are two ways to climb: by foot (which takes between 45 minutes and three hours, depending on your pace, or by camel, which is about three hours; note that if you choose the latter, you will still have to walk the final 750 steps up to the top. Guests are required to hire a local guide at the entrance for about $15 (the rate is negotiable.) Because of its peaceful silence, the mountain is also popular with visitors who practice yoga and meditation.
Glastonbury Tor, England
Rising out of the middle of the Summerland Meadows in Somerset, England, is a hill that has long had magical connection. For centuries, Glastonbury Tor (Celtic for "hill") has been a source of myths: Some ancient Celtic civilizations considered it the entrance to the home of the Gwyn ap Nudd, alternately regarded as Lord of the Underworld and King of Fairies (a theory that resurfaced in the 19th century), while pagans may have used it for ceremonies celebrating the Goddess. Later, the site was considered a possibility for King Arthur's Avalon, since Arthur and Queen Guinevere's coffins were supposedly discovered at the top of the hill in the 12th century. And even more recently, theorists have linked the hill to the quest for the Holy Grail. To further add to all the speculation, archeologists have found remains of seven deep, symmetrical terraces on the hill's slopes, which could be anything from Middle Age crop land to a Neolithic labyrinth. Whatever the history, the hill is still thought to have spiritual energy, as visitors often report feeling more hopeful and positive after a walk on its slopes. Topped by the remains of the 15thcentury church of St. Michael, the hill has been designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and is managed by the National Trust of the United Kingdom (nationaltrust.org.uk/Glastonbury-tor).