By Amanda Little
Monasteries, temples, and shrines are known throughout the world as religious houses of peace and worship. For many they are a safe haven, but these amazing monasteries take enlightenment to new heights.
Bhutan's “Tiger’s Nest” is a stunning monastery embedded into the steep slope of rocks about 2300 feet off the ground. There are several ways to reach the tricky monastery, but the easiest is likely the trail that winds through dense pine forest. Each of the paths to the monastery contain obstacles, and many of them originate from a plateau named “Hundred Thousand Fairies.” The tale of the Tiger’s Nest founder, Padmasambhava, is as shrouded in story and myth as the rest of the monastery’s history. It is said his wife turned into a tiger and carried him to the site on her back. While some areas are closed off to tourists, this is still a magical place to visit.
After venturing through wilderness and trekking over miles of uneven, uphill terrain, travelers will find themselves standing over the beauty of Myanmar with a magnificent temple before them. Tuang Kalat was built in the crater of an extinct volcano and draws adventurers from around the world. There is only one way to get to the top, which is ascending 777 stairs set into sheer mountainside. There is a thin wood railing and a roof covering the stairs, however time and mischievous monkeys have ruined some parts of it, making the climb a dangerous one. This place is considered a sacred space, so visitors should be sure to cover shoulders and knees. And anyone bringing food should be aware of pilfering primates.
Jutting from the slopes of the Black Mountain about 4,000 feet above sea level, the Sumela Monastery’s claim to fame isn’t just its precarious position, but also its age. Built in the 4th century, Sumela Monastery is among the oldest temples in the world and was once a magnificent four-story complex composed of 72 cells. Unfortunately, a fire claimed much of the temple and forced the monks to abandon it, but it still remains a tourist attraction and museum today. A trek through dense forest, following a winding and complex trail that is both narrow and steep is one way to get to the monastery. Or you can drive.
Also known as the Hanging Monastery for its main feature, Xuan Kong Monastery hangs over a 250 foot drop to the gorge below. This amazing example of architecture was founded over 1,500 years ago and still clings to Heng Mountain today. The monastery consists of over 40 halls and rooms, and even features an open air balcony hall that offers spectacular views. Even though it looks precariously perched on the thin wooden stilts, the monastery has withstood 1,500 years as well as several earthquakes.
Walk up a series of stairs cut right into the rock and brave suspension bridges to reach the “middle of the sky” also known as the Meteora Monasteries. The complex includes six active Greek Orthodox monasteries and have been used for about a 1,000 years. Monks still live and worship there today, but the journey is far from easy. While the trip to ascend to the gods has become less deadly, climbing all of the the stairs to the top is no easy feat. It was rumored that the founder of Meteora was carried to the top by an eagle, which sounds much easier.
Catch your breath upon arriving at Monasterio de Montserrat, both from the view and the hike up. Over 2,000 feet above sea level, this magnificent monastery attracts Catholics from around the world. It boasts a wooden statue of the Madonna, a nature reserve under state protection, and the love of both devout worshipers and ecotourists alike. Those looking to make a truer pilgrimage can climb up to the monastery themselves, but those wishing to worship without the challenge can also catch the funicular to the top.
Known as the most inaccessible monastery in Italy, Eremo di San Colombano, not to be confused with the Abbey of San Colombano, was founded about 700 years ago and looks over the Piano delle Fugazze in the province of Trento. Seemingly stuck in the center of a cliff, the monastery offers breathtaking views for those who are brave enough to scale the incredibly dangerous and narrow staircase, which is the only way up to it. Even though the monastery is open to the public and fascinating, many opt to admire it from afar.
Carved from the rocks of the Ostroska Greda, Ostrog Monastery can be reached by foot or by bus, and is visited by Muslims and Catholics alike. Thousands visit each year, making it the most popular pilgrimage site in Montenegro, even with its long and steep staircase leading into the monastery. Ostrog is surrounded by beautiful natural scenery and houses several priceless relics, saved by monks as the monastery burned down several times throughout the years. It also is home to the body of Vasilije, who is rumored to cure ailments and lighten hardships of those praying near it.
Hidden away on top of a hill, the Buddhist Monastery of Ki looks out over the Spiti Valley from a lofty 13,670 feet above sea level. The monastery is home to 250 seasonal monks, as well as a beautiful collection of ancient murals, books, and Buddha images. The temple even withstood a barrage of attacks over the years from Mongols and armies. Today, it is still a stunning sight and a religious home to many.
The melancholy sight of a monastery carved from the cliffside looks out over Wadi Qelt as visitors make the trek to it over a single pedestrian bridge. Some have even suggested this area is the Valley of the Shadow mentioned in religious text, and the ominous relation may hold some weight. Just after its construction, Persian raiders passed through the valley and killed all 14 monks who lived there. Their remains can still be seen within the monastery, along with a cave that is said to have been the one where Elijah was fed by ravens.