‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.’ — Rumi
How do you choose the best spiritual destinations in India for you? India is steeped in religion and spirituality and offers a diverse range of spiritual paths. Choosing your best spiritual destinations in India can be bewildering.
Spirituality means different things to different people. Before deciding which spiritual destinations to visit in India, contemplate what spirituality really means to you and ask yourself what you are hoping to experience in India. Understanding some spiritual terms can help you to choose your best spiritual destinations.
‘Do not be satisfied with the stories that came before you, Unfold your own myth’ — Rumi
Rishikesh lies at the foot of the Himalayas on the banks of a clean, wide stretch of the Ganges. Rishikesh is a haven of tranquillity with a backdrop of mountains, forests and waterfalls.
Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world but has so much more to offer the spiritual seeker. Rishikesh has a host of ashrams where you can experience a taste of yogic life. Numerous low cost drop in classes enable you to try everything from pranyama to laughter yoga.
From February to April revered gurus Mooji and ShantiMayi usually reside in Rishikesh. Both offer free daily satsangs and everyone is welcome to attend. Mooji delivers satsangs at the Swami Swatantranandan Ashram. ShantiMayi holds her satsangs and a range of other spiritual activities at the Sacha Dham Ashram .
As the sun sets over Rishikesh the daily Ganga Aarti Ceremony takes place. Ganga Aarti is held on the banks of the Ganges in front of the Parnarth Niketan Ashram. The ceremony gives thanks and offers gratitude to Ma Ganga.
Visitors of all races and religions are warmly welcomed at Rishikesh Ganga Aarti and are encouraged to participate in the ceremony which breaks down language and cultural barriers. Guests join yellow robed pundits at the fire ceremony and in the joyful singing of bhajans. Tiered oil lamps are lit and passed among the crowd.
The Rishikesh Ganga Aarti is moving and always stirs ‘something’ in me. The aarti is engulfed in tangible love and joy which I didn’t experience at other Ganga Aarti ceremonies in Haridwar and Varanasi. Rishikesh Ganga Aarti is free to attend. Donations are welcome and can be left in boxes by the exit
The Beatles came to Rishikesh in 1968 to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the Mahesh Yogi Ashram. The ashram known as The Beatles Ashram has been partially restored and is a shrine to the Beatles. The Beatles ashram is worth a visit simply to experience its eerie atmosphere, meditate or appreciate the colourful graffiti.
Rishikesh oozes with natural beauty, prana and positive energy and has a calm friendly vibe. Numerous cafes overlooking the Ganga cater for vegan and yogic diets. The clean, quiet and inviting stretch of the Ganges at Rishikesh is probably the safest place in India to wash away your sins and purify your mind.
Getting to Rishikesh
Rishikesh is in the state of Uttarakhand. From Delhi take a train to Haridwar (5 to 9 hours) then a rickshaw or taxi from Haridwar to Rishikesh (45 minutes).
A 100ft tall statue of Shiva greets visitors to Haridwar which is where the sacred river Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. Haridwar is one of the seven holiest Hindu pilgrimage destinations in India and hosts the kumbh Mela festival every 12 years. (The festival alternates between 4 sites). The Kumbh Mela begins with a huge procession of sadhus who have left their retreats to immerse themselves in ritualistic bathing in the Ganges. .
Hindus flock to Haridwar’s bathing ghats to wash away their sins in the hope of achieving moksha. (Release from the cycle of death and rebirth) The Ganges at Haridwar has a strong fast current. Chains are in place for bathers to hold on to.
Har-ki- Pauri Ghat comes alive at sunset for the evening Ganga Aarti which does not attract many non-Indian guests. The ceremony at Haridwar is more theatrical than at Rishikesh and the experience can be marred by ‘officials’ demanding inflated donations. Following the aarti ceremony it’s customary to place a diya (small tray with flowers and a candle) in the Ganges.
Haridwar has two important Hindu temples; the Chandi Devi Temple and Mansa Devi Temple. The temples are located high up in the mountains and can be reached by cable car.
The Santos Puri Ashram at Haridwar was founded by a German woman; Mataji who died in 2014.The ashram welcomes day visitors and seekers wanting a deeper immersion into yogic life. The ashram’s daily programme includes meditation, yoga, puja and ayurvedic meals.
Along the banks of the Ganges at Haridwar are colourfully decorated banyan trees. These are inhabited by sadhus who have transformed the trees into shrines. Haridwar is also a centre of ayurvedic medicine and has numerous ayurverdic medicine shops.
Getting to Haridwar
Haridwar is in Uttarakhand and can be reached by train from Delhi (around 9 hours).
Varanasi is one of the oldest and most sacred cities in India. Hindus come to Varanasi to pray and wash away their sins in the Ganges. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi will free them from samsara (break the cycle of birth and death) so many Indians come to Varanasi to die.
Death is out in the open in Varanasi where there is a very different attitude to death than in the west. Cremations at Varanasi are take place very publicly at the Manikarnika Ghat; the burning ghat where funeral pyres burn 24 hours a day.
Funeral rituals including the washing of bodies occur at the water’s edge. Corpses covered in coloured cloths lay awaiting their turn on the funeral pyres. The smell of burning flesh hangs heavily in the air and lingers longer than the charred limbs in the pyres.
The ashes of the deceased are sprinkled into the Ganges to ensure the departing souls receive direct passage to heaven and are released from cycle of life and death.
Varanasi’s Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is a very grand, colourful and theatrical ceremony. The aarti can be enjoyed from the ghats but for a truly memorable experience watch the aarti from a boat on the Ganges. After the aarti make your offering to Ma Ganga from the boat.
Varanasi has numerous ghats (stone steps) leading down to the Ganges which attract an eclectic mix of sadhus, pilgrims, cows, monkeys and tourists.
Getting to Varanasi
Varanasi is in the state of Utter Pradesh. Flights from Delhi take around 1.5 hours. Trains from Delhi to Varanasi take around 11 hours.
An 80 ft standing Buddha; the largest in India dominates the skyline at Sarnath which is a tranquil Buddhist pilgrimage site 13 km from Varanasi. Sarnath Deer Park is where Buddha gave his first dharma (teaching) after his enlightenment. The spot where Buddha delivered his first dharma to just five attendees is marked by the Dhamekh Stupa.
A huge Bodha Tree at Sarnarth is believed to have been grown from a cutting of the original Bodha Gaya Tree that Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment,
Getting to Sarnarth
From Varanasi take a half hour taxi or rickshaw ride to Sarnath.
Dharamsala is the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles. Dharamsala is located at a height of 1750 metres in the Dhauladhar Mountains and looks like a Tibetan village that has been dropped onto Swiss mountains.
The Dalai Lama resides at the Tsuglagkhang Monastery. Visitors are welcome to meditate and chant at the monastery and can visit the Tibetan museum. The Dalai Lamas quarters are off-limits to visitors.
The Dalai Lama’s website gives details of His Holiness’ schedule. Visitors are welcome to attend teachings given by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. His Holiness’ next teachings in Dharamsala are scheduled for August 29 to September 1st 2016.
Dharamsala’s other attractions include the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery Namgyal Monastery. The Gyuto Monastery is a centre of tantric meditation and the Tushita meditation centre offers introduction to Buddhism courses and Buddhist retreats
McLeod Ganj is the heart of Dharamsala and brings together Buddhist monks, Tibetans and western spiritual tourists. Dharamsala offers courses in Buddhism, yoga and meditation.
Getting to Dharamsala
Dharamsala is in Himachal Pradesh. Fly from Delhi to Gaggal (13 km away from Dharamsala). Trains from Delhi run to Pathankot (85 km from Dharamsala). Buses run from Delhi to Dharamsala (10 hours). A taxi from Delhi costs around £75.
Kerala ‘Gods own country’ is best known for its backwaters and ayurvedic retreats but Kerala does have its spiritual attractions too.
Amritapuri is the home of Amma The Hugging Saint. Visitors are welcome to visit Amma‘s ashram at Amritapuri to attend a teaching or to simply be hugged by Amma. Long stay visitors are welcome at the Ashram too. Amma is often away but you can view her schedule prior to your visit. Amma receives many visitors all hoping for a hug, so be prepared for a long wait. There is a lot to see and do at Amritapuri.
Getting to Amritapuri
Amma’s ashram is easily reached by pre paid taxi from Cochin or Trivandrum airport.
Varkala is an important Hindu pilgrimage site which also has stunning beaches, and swaying palm trees. Varkala’s Papanasam Beach is known as the Varanasi of South India. The waters at Papanasam Beach are believed to wash away sins and the ashes of loved one are deposited in the Arabian Sea to aid the passage of departing souls to heaven.
A steep climb up Varkala’s cliffs brings you to the 2000 year old Hindu Janadhan swami temple which overlooks Varkala beach and the Arabian Sea. The temple is a hive of activity with pilgrims bathing in the temple’s pool whilst rituals and prayers are ongoing throughout the temple complex.
A 500 year old banyan tree standing in the temple’s grounds is adorned with hundreds of dolls. Women who are struggling to conceive come to the temple to pray for a baby. When their wish is granted they return to place a doll as a token of gratitude.
Getting to Kerala
Kerala has 2 airports Cochin and Trivandrum.
Rajasthan: Sufi sites and festivals
Rajasthan hosts two annual World Sufi Festivals. The Sufi festivals take place at the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur and The Ahhichatragarh Fort in Nagaur. The 2017 dates for Rajasthan’s Sufi festivals are 13-15 February (Nagaur) and 17-19 February (Jodhpur)
Sufis from all over India and around the world come together to appreciate mystical poetry, music, dance and Sufi twirling in Rajasthan’s breathtaking forts.
The Sufi festival at Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur is open to all. The Nagaur Sufi festival is limited to a small elite audience.
Ajmer is the site of Sufi Saint Chishty Dargah’s shrine. Visitors to this Sufi shrine are welcome to give offerings, participate in the Sufi ceremonies or simply enjoy the hauntingly beautiful Qawwalis (devotional songs)
Getting to Rajasthan
Trains from Delhi to Jodhpur take around 10 hours. Ajmer is around 8 hours from Delhi by train. A taxi from Jodhpur to Ajmer takes around 3.5 hours. Train from Jodhpur to Ajmer take 5 to 7 hours.
‘As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.’ — Rumi