Faith is truly a many splendid thing, inspiring and matter-of-fact to believers, while bizarre and spectacular to others. While the world has a rich collection of spectacular religious sites, some are notable for their eccentric traditions that may be manifested in rituals, norms, or in their very architecture. Here is a list of 8 unusual holy places from around the world.
Also referred to as ‘Holy Mountain’, Mt. Athos is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox Christian monasteries. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What sets it apart from other Christian places of worship is that women, whether human or animal, aren’t allowed in its premises! It is home to over 2,000 monks who live austere lives, and none of them are women, to ensure absolute celibacy. Feminists beware!
Dedicated to Karni Mata, the official deity of the royal families of Jodhpur and Bikaner, this temple is not your run-of-the-mill Hindu temple. It is the home to 20,000 black rats that draw worshippers from near and far. Local folklore about the holiness of the rats differs; some say, they are reincarnations of the mata’s sons, while others are of the opinion that they are an army that protects and serves the temple. Eating food that has been touched by the rats is considered auspicious and if you’re blessed with the rare sighting of a white rat, you’re straightaway included in superstar category.
By the River Somme in France is the Amiens Cathedral. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world. It is dedicated to John the Baptist who was a beheaded Christian martyr. There used to be a reliquary said to contain his actual head, but this was later replaced with a replica. The cathedral is notable for a feature that may seem macabre to many. Throughout the architecture of the cathedral one can see the theme of decapitation, whether in its sculpture or stained glass art. There’s something very surprising and ironic about death offering comfort and triggering an atmosphere of prayer.
Tiger Temple in western Thailand is a forest temple and is sanctuary to a huge population of Indochinese tigers and Buddhist monks. It is open for some hours in the day, when tourist can come visit the tigers and even pet them. Either these monks have reached an awe-inspiring level of fearlessness on their path to Nirvana or nature just took its normal course, yet again, to prove that humans and animals, even the most fierce, can coexist if given the chance.
Deep in the Wieliczka Salt Mine next to Krakow, are statues and chapels carved out of rock salt by miners. This site, included in the list of Poland’s official national historical monuments, draws millions of visitors and worshippers to its depths every year. It is also one of the longest-running salt mines in the world, with operations beginning in the early 13th century, lasting until as late as the year 2007. These miners took the phrase, ‘work is worship’ to a whole new level.
High up in the mountains of Bhutan lies the pristine white building of the Chimi Lhakhang, sitting pretty amidst the silent swaying of prayer flags. It looks like your usual Buddhist monastery; an oasis of calm and quiet. Or is it really? It is devoted to the teachings of Lama Kunley, oft called the ‘maid saint’ for his offbeat discourses on Buddhism that were outlined by outlandish behavior and overtones of humor, singing and fertility or procreation. In what is perhaps one of the most bizarre rituals, pilgrims are struck on the head with a wooden phallus.
Various kaya – a sacred forest of the Mijikenda people have been grouped to form the sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These forests are intrinsic to the culture of the Mijikenda people who believe that immense spiritual power rests in its fortified thickets. Many kayas are home to projects undertaking indigenous wildlife and ecological conservation. If you decide to cut down a single tree here, be prepared to have your own leg cut by the resident spirits who will cause a Frisbee effect on your axe, magically. If you use wood from this forest and use it for cooking or building a house, rest assured that you’d be a victim of food-poisoning and a broken home. The most important aspect of preserving these forests is to shield its dark spirits who are considered sacred.
By the banks of the Osun river in Nigeria rests a sacred forest, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered sacred because of shrines and spirits, the forest hosts the annual Osun-Osogbo Festival in the month of August. The two-week festivity celebrates the cultural union of the native people with their ancestors. Its highlight is the lighting of the traditional sixteen-point lamp called “Ina Olojumerindinlogun”, followed by a ceremony conducted by priestesses.
Our world is so vast that any faith or any act of worship no matter how unusual, unpredictable or uncommon, can find takers and loyal ones at that. If you are looking for sacred places that are completely out of the ordinary, you need to look no further than these destinations.