7 Must-Visit Sacred Sites in South India

If you’re looking for a vacation where you can visit spiritual sites, holy temples, power places as well as experience incredible local food and culture, South India is hard to beat! Here’s our round-up of 7 of our favourite sacred sites in South India – some well-known while others lie off the usual tourist trails!

shore temple in India
The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, India

The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram)

Mahabalipuram is famous for its Shore Temple, and was also the second capital and a bustling seaport during the time of the Pallava Kings of Kanchipuram. Ravaged by wind and sea, the temple complex, built in 700-728AD by the Pallava Dynasty, retains its alluring beauty, and is a must-see site. Also see the intricate rock carvings and monuments such as the Descent of the Ganges and the Arjuna’s Penance relief, depicting animals, deities, and other semi-divine creatures.

Auroville India
The striking Matrimandir globe at Auroville

The Matrimandir at Auroville

Auroville, “The City of Dawn”, is an intriguing experimental town. Founded by Mother Mirra Richard in 1968, Auroville manifests Sri Aurobindo’s vision by creating a “universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity”. The Matrimandir is a striking 30-metre high golden metal globe in the centre of the town, conceived as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”.

Sri Aurobindo was born in Kolkata in the North East of India in 1872; he was a poet, philosopher, yogi, and guru who was an advocate for Indian independence from the British rule.

Natraja Temple in India
The famous Natraja Temple at Chidambaram, India

Natraja Temple at Chidambaram

Chidambaram, the Capital of the Cholas from AD 907 to 1310, is home to the famous Natraja Temple, dedicated to the dancing Lord Shiva, a favourite deity of the Chola Kings. One legend surrounding its construction suggests that it was built by “the golden-coloured Emperor”, Hiranya Varna Chakravati, who suffered from leprosy. He came to Chidambaram on a pilgrimage from Kashmir in about AD 500. After bathing in the temple tank he was reputed to have recovered from the disease, and as a thanks-offering rebuilt and enlarged the temple. Today the temple is highly active with impressive ceremonies.

Brihadeshwara temple in India
The Brihadeshwara Temple at Tanjore

The Brihadeshwara Temple at Tanjore (Thanjavur)

In Tanjore (Thanjavur), you will find most of the “Great Living Chola Temples”, now UNESCO World Heritage monuments, the foremost among them being the Brihadeshwara Temple, a brilliant example of the major heights achieved by Chola temple architecture and one of the best sacred sites in South India. Known as the “Big Temple”, Brihadeshwara was built by Chola King Raja Raja 1 (ruled AD 985-1012). The magnificent main temple has a 62-metre vimana (the tallest in India), topped by a dome carved from an 80-ton block of granite, which needed a 6.5km ramp to raise it to the top. The attractive gardens, museum, and pristine surroundings make the temple visit a truly rewarding experience.

Ashrams in India
Shantivanam Ashram, a centre of dialogue and renewal in India

Shantivanam (Saccidananda) Ashram

If you ever get the opportunity to visit or stay at the Shantivanam Ashram we highly recommend it. Under the charismatic leadership of Father Bede from 1968, Shantivanam became an internationally known centre of dialogue and renewal. The aim of Shantivanam has always been to bring the riches of Indian spirituality into Christian life, to share in that profound experience of God that originated in the Vedas, was developed in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, and has come down to us today through a continual succession of sages and holy men and women. It is the perfect sacred space for reflection and spiritual connection.

arunachaleswarar temple in India
The Arunachaleswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu, India

Arunachaleswarar Temple at Tiruvannamalai

The Arunachaleswarar Temple is thought to be the largest temple in the world dedicated to Shiva, and one of the most captivating temple sites in India, dating from the 11th century. This major pilgrimage centre lies in a striking setting at the foot of the rocky Arunachala Hill and is one of the holiest towns in Tamil Nadu; it is considered the home of Shiva and his consort Parvati.

mount arunachala in India
Mount Arunachala, a popular pilgrimage destination in South India

Mount Arunachala

The circumambulation of Arunachala, known as Pradakshana (“pra” signifies the removal of all sins, “da” the fulfillment of all desires, “shana” the freedom from the cycle of rebirth) is a popular pilgrimage destination in India. As you walk up the holy hill you can see offerings at shrines as well as sacred rocks, caves, trees, and more. The mountain is closely connected with Ramana Maharshi, who is widely acknowledged as the outstanding Hindu guru of the modern age. He was born in Tamil Nadu in 1879 and made his way to Arunachala at the age of 16, not leaving the sacred mountain until his spirit united with the holy mountain in 1950; many people witnessed his light enter in Arunachala as the life in his body expired.

 

Have you visited any of these sacred sites in South India? Which power places would make your must-visit list?

Visit all these sites and more with Sacred Earth Journeys in February 2018 on a journey led by acclaimed spiritual author and teacher Andrew Harvey. “Shiva Dancing, Sacred South India with Andrew Harvey: In Search of Original Wisdom” will follow in the footsteps of the great mystics to the holy temples, vibrant cities, tranquil beaches and sacred monasteries of South India.

~ Sacred Earth Journeys, with content from Andrew Harvey

The Poulnabrone Dolmen and the Mystery of Portal Tombs

Poulnabrone dolmen is an example of a portal dolmen or portal tomb, not to be confused with passage tombs such as Newgrange! Dolmens are found in Ireland and throughout the world and are generally characterized as a single-chamber megalithic tomb, often consisting of three or more upright stones (megaliths) supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (table). (1)

poulnabrone dolmen
Poulnabrone dolmen on the Burren plateau in Ireland is a classic example of a portal tomb. Photo: Sacred Earth Journeys participant David Chasis

What is a dolmen?

Dolmens are thought to have been ancient tombs or burial markers and also served as places for ritual and worship although their exact purpose and significance is still debated by scholars and researchers. There are dolmen sites throughout Europe and Asia, including the dolmen Er Roc’h Feutet (Roch-Feutet) in Carnac, France, the Monte Bubbonia in Sicily, several in Gochang, South Korea and in Kerala, India.

Dolmens in Ireland

There are around 180 dolmens in Ireland known by many different names including stone tables, Cromleachs, or Giants’ Graves. They feature in Irish mythological stories and folklore and are often associated with graves of famous giants or warriors. (2)

Poulnabrone dolmen in Ireland
Our group visiting the Poulnabrone dolmen with Tour Leader Phil Cousineau on a journey to Ireland.

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Located in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland the Poulnabrone dolmen dates to 4200 BCE and stands almost 6 feet high and 12 feet long. In his article on Poulnabrone for Ancient History, Joshua J. Mark explains that all the stones used in the construction of the dolmen were brought to the site from elsewhere as none match the geological make-up of the Burren and were then assembled with perfect balance and precision without concrete or any kind of compound. (3)

Poulnabrone is one of the few Irish portal tombs to have been archaeologically investigated. (4) In the 1980s archaeologist Ann Lynch found the remains of 22 people from the Neolithic Age buried in the dolmen after excavations. She proposed that the bodies were brought to the tomb after decomposition had occurred thereby suggesting an elaborate and complex burial ritual. (3)

The Burren in Ireland
The Burren in County Clare, a karstic plateau, and home to the Poulnabrone Dolmen

Along with the bodies, Lynch also unearthed a variety of artefacts including a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, several shards of pottery and two stone beads. These discoveries have led to the theory that those buried in the megalithic tomb were of a high or special standing in the community although why exactly these individuals were chosen remains a mystery.

The Spiritual Significance of Poulnabrone Dolmen

As Marks points out, the capstone of the tomb is set at an angle and the remains of the 22 bodies where found at the front, towards the highest point of the roof. This placement, it is thought, enabled the soul of the deceased to depart quickly and easily down to the afterlife or the Otherworld. (3) The descension is not thought to be connected with the later notion of Hell; rather, the “underworld” here is simply one realm of the Otherworld. Another theory as to the positioning of the stones suggests that instead of helping souls descend to the next life, the dolmen prevented evil spirits from entering this world.

As no scripts of any kind have been found to explain the significance of the Poulnabrone dolmen or other portal tombs, their exact purpose still remains a captivating mystery. What is known for sure, however, about these portal tombs is their enduring popularity – the megalithic tomb at Poulnabrone is one of Ireland’s most photographed archaeological site and a must-see for visitors to this beautiful isle.

Join our journey to Ireland in September 2017 with Tour Leader Phil Cousineau to see the Poulnabrone dolmen for yourself and delve deeper into the mystery of the portal tombs. A few spots remain on this exquisitely crafted tour – book yours today!

~ Sacred Earth Journeys

References:

(1) http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dolmen

(2) http://www.carrowkeel.com/files/dolmens.html

(3) http://www.ancient.eu/Poulnabrone/

(4) http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/06/poulnabrone-tomb-life-and-death-in-the-burren/

Maya Temples of Transformation: Watch our favourite moments from our recent journey

Earlier this year, our founder, Helen Tomei, accompanied our group on the journey: “Maya Temples of Transformation with Freddy Silva & Miguel Angel Vergara: A Sacred Journey from Palenque to Tikal”. She took several videos during the journey on her iPhone that nicely reflect the spirit of this tour.

Maya temples Mexico Guatemala
Helen Tomei (front, 2nd from left) with tour leaders Freddy Silva & Miguel Angel Vergara and our group on our journey to Mexico and Guatemala

It was a journey where participants experienced the timeless Maya knowledge of sacred geometry, number, cosmic correspondence, and ritual encoded in the temples and pyramids of Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Tikal. A sacred sites tour that elevated the seeker to discover their inner temple: the place of the soul.

We are excited to share some of our favourite moments of this transformative journey with you. If you have travelled with us, we hope these videos will bring back wonderful memories of your time in Mexico and Guatemala. If you’re coming here because you’re curious about what a spiritual pilgrimage is really like, or want to know more about Mayan spirituality, these videos will give you an insight into the experience of group travel with such knowledgeable and connected tour leaders as Freddy Silva and Miguel Angel Vergara – and hopefully inspire you to join us on future spiritual journeys.

1. Maya Temples & Temple Building, Palenque, Mexico

“We will go on building temples until people realize they are the temple.” In this video taken at Palenque, Mexico, our tour leader and best-selling author Freddy Silva discusses temple building, the geometry of perfection, and the location of temples as markers of the original energy hot spots.

2. Meditation at Tikal, Guatemala

This video was taken at the Mundo Perdido, “Lost World” ceremonial centre in Tikal – notice the blue light orb, or guardian, visiting us during our meditation here. If you were with us and noticed the orb, or if you’re watching for the first time, we’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

Tikal is a university that reflects the architecture of the cosmos, a ceremonial centre where the ancient Maya teachers captured the sounds from other realities. The shapes of the pyramids and temples reflect the thorough understanding of mathematics, geometry, and cosmic calendars. They are also designed to act as needles, capturing the telluric energy of the Earth and of the sky, acupuncturing the ground and the human body.

3. Yaxchilan Sounds

We were also interested in capturing sounds while in this sacred land – can you guess (or do you know!) what the sound is in this video taken at the sacred site of Yaxchilan, Mexico? What are your thoughts on it – is it a sound you would be happy waking up to every day or one you’d rather keep a distance from? We’d love to hear from you!

4. Freddy Silva: Power of Stone

In this video you’ll see Freddy Silva discussing the conductive power of the sacred stones near Yaxchilan, and then dowsing for the energy fields that surround them. Learn about energy hot spots, the wisdom of the ancients, and the conscious process of working with intent. Whether you “believe” in dowsing or not, you’ll see that this is a very powerful experience.

5. Miguel Angel Vergara leads a tranquil meditation

Maya Master Teacher Miguel Angel Vergara leads our group in tranquil meditation overlooking the sacred site of Tikal in Guatemala. Imagine a blue stone, the colour of turquoise, listen to the sounds of a jungle meditation and let yourself be transported to this sacred land of Mayan temples…

We hope you enjoyed these 5 videos from our sacred journey to the Maya temples of Mexico and Guatemala. We have published more on our Sacred Earth Journeys YouTube channel, and will continue to upload more over the next little while! If you travelled with us on this journey we’d love to know your own favourite moments!

~ Sacred Earth Journeys

From Animism to Buddhism – 10 Things You Need To Know About Religion in Cambodia

What is animism?

What is Animism? How does it relate to Buddhism? Read 10 facts about religions in Cambodia today and see why this country is so spiritually rich.

what is animism
A Buddhist nun in Cambodia

1. Theravada Buddhism was re-instated as Cambodia’s official religion in 1993 and is practiced by apx. 95% of the population.

2. The remaining 5% includes mainly Muslim and Christian communities with Daoism and Confuism also practiced.

3. Animism is considered a belief system rather than a religion by many contemporary religious scholars.

4. In his 1871 book, Primitive Culture, the anthropologist Edward Tylor, who, many argue, coined the term Animism, divides the theory into two dogmas – the first “concerning the souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body” and the second “concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities”.

5. Put simply, Animism is the belief that all things have a soul or spirit. As Gregory McCann explains in his essay “Animism in Cambodia: Bioregionalism in Practice”, “Animists in Ratanakari and Mondulkiri are in tune with spirit presences in their area and extreme care must be taken not to offend or disturb them for fear of incurring their revenge.”

buddhism in cambodia
A smiling Buddhist monk in the temples of Cambodia

6. Animism is considered by many Cambodians as something that is “absorbed” or simply done rather than “practiced” like Buddhism.

7. In Animism, some spirits are seen as helpful while many others can bring suffering and therefore need to be appeased with offerings.

8. In Cambodia Buddhist monks are well respected having their own social class and even a separate vocabulary for talking to and about them. The following are appropriate forms of address to a monk according to Lynn Thigpen:

I (non-monk to a monk): k’nyome go-row-nah
Yes (non-monk to a monk): go-nah
you (to monk – carries the connotation of venerable): pray-ah-die-cha-kgoon
you (to an older monk): loke tah
you (to a young monk): loke p’own

9. A wat is a Buddhist temple in Cambodia, and Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap, was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu.

10. Angkor Wat was voted the world’s top landmark in 2017 by TripAdvisor!

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia

Want to learn more about Animism in Cambodia?

Are you interested in learning more about Animism and other spiritual practices and beliefs in Cambodia? In October 2017 photographer Jamie Kowal and Buddhist monk Chon Chhea Yut will lead a very special tour through Cambodia for Sacred Earth Journeys. Highlights include visiting the temples at Angkor Wat, staying on a rural island homestay, exploring spiritual belief systems and learning how to capture this incredible travel experience through photography!

Capturing Cambodia’s Spiritual Past & Present with Jaime Kowal and Chhon Chhea Yut: A Photography & Spiritual Journey to the Heart of Cambodia, Oct 9-20, 2017

Ayurvedic Medicine – Top 5 Herbs & Supplements for Self-Healing

Today more and more people are looking for alternatives to prescription or OTC drugs when it comes to taking care of their health. Herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years in the treatment and prevention of disease and ailments, and have specific meaning in Ayurvedic medicine. In this blog post, we’ll look at what Ayurvedic medicine is and the meaning of a number of common herbal medicines used in Ayurveda.

Ayurvedic diet
Beautiful & delicious Ayurvedic meals

 

What is ayurvedic medicine?

Ayurveda was developed in India more than 5000 years ago and is concerned with balancing the three interdependent mechanisms known as doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Ayurvedic medicine uses highly individualized treatments to address and heal ailments and imbalance including lifestyle changes, diet, a cleanse and detoxification process known as Panchakarma as well as herbal compounds and medicines.

Read our interview with Ayurvedic practitioner Todd Caldecott.

Turmeric: the best Ayurveda medicine? 

Turmeric, the product of the Curcuma longa plant, is known as a powerful anti-inflammatory with multiple medicinal uses. In Ayurvedic medicine it is believed to balance the three doshas and is taken either internally as a tea or powder or externally as a cream or topical ointment. It is commonly used to treat respiratory conditions as well as liver disorders, rheumatism, allergies and coughs, and is also considered an excellent aid to the digestive system. Applied topically it is known to treat sprains and swelling.(1)

health benefits of turmeric
Turmeric or curcuma longa – a powerful anti-inflammatory

The many health benefits of Ginger

In Ayurveda medicine ginger, another anti-inflammatory, is known to destroy toxins, ease digestion and prevent nausea, reduce feelings of cold, and alleviate coughing and breathing difficulties. Its versatility was noted in ancient Ayurvedic texts and today it is commonly used in home remedies in India and throughout the Western world. (2) In scientific literature, its anticancer potential is also well documented. (3) Given its effectiveness and versatility ginger is often described by Ayurvedic practitioners as vishwabheshaja, “the universal medicine”, and the root can be eaten raw, lightly stir-fried with other vegetables, boiled as a tea, or ground into a powder depending on the required treatment.

Coriander, the self-healing herb

In India coriander is referred to as dhanya or dhanyaka, meaning “the rich one”, and has many therapeutic and culinary uses. (4) In Ayurvedic medicine, coriander is considered to pacify the three doshas and is commonly used for fevers and indigestion. The seeds and oil are the most frequently used components of coriander, but the leaves – cilantro – can also be used, especially in cooking. For a quick home remedy, you can try a teaspoon of roasted coriander and cumin seeds to help with abdominal cramps or gas after a meal!

Ayurvedic self healing
Ayurvedic consultant Jaisri M. Lambert with our group at the Vaidyagrama Ayurveda Healing Village in India

Guduchi – essential part of the Ayurvedic diet

Less well known in the West, Guduchi is a widely used and very important medicine in Ayurveda. A climbing shrub, it often seen in India growing up mango or neem trees. Like turmeric, it can be taken internally or topically, and the dried stem is often administered in powder form although the roots and leaves are also important. In Ayurveda, it is known as the “one which protects the body” and is used to balance the doshas and treat a variety of conditions including arthritis, skin disorders and fever.

Ashwagandha – plant-based anxiety relief

Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifer) is an extremely well respected herb in Ayurveda with many applications and methods of preparation. An adaptogenic herb, it is gaining attention in the West for its ability to treat anxiety and depression as effectively – if not more so – than prescription drugs. (5) This herbal medicine is also known to help with adrenal fatigue and thyroid problems, and is commonly taken as a powder, often mixed with warm milk and honey as a bedtime drink, although it is also available as a tablet or liquid extract.

Ayurvedic medicine
Herbs and plants used for Ayurvedic medicine

As Dr. Ramkumar, one of the founders of the Vaidyagrama Ayurveda Healing Village in Coimbatore, India, reminds us, Ayurvedic treatments are most successful when they are carried out in a suitably conducive environment and administered by highly skilled Ayurvedic physicians. If you are interested in how Ayurveda medicine can help improve your life or heal disease, visit our website to read about our December 2017 Ayurveda Health & Healing Retreat in India.

Have you been treated with Ayurvedic medicine? We’d love to hear your stories about your experience with Ayurveda in our comments section or through the Sacred Earth Journeys Facebook page!

For further reading on Ayurveda, you can also check out Apothecary 7’s article, 20 Myths About Ayurveda We Should Forget!

 

~ Sacred Earth Journeys

 

Sources:

(1) See: Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd edition.

(2) See: http://www.ayurvedacollege.com/articles/students/Ginger

(3) See: “Anti-Oxidative and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ginger in Health and Physical Activity: Review of Current Evidence”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665023/

(4) See: http://www.ayurvedacollege.com/articles/students/CorianderTheWealthy

(5) See: “An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4270108/