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India: Spirited away

From cleansing rituals on the banks of the Ganges to Himalayan yoga retreats, nowhere on Earth does spiritual escapes quite like India. We pick three experiences to help you reach the heart and soul of this complex country

India: Spirited away
Lakshman Jhula bridge, crossing the Ganges, Rishikesh. Image: AWL

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Rishikesh

Soul-seekers practise yoga and meditation at the Himalayan retreat made famous by The Beatles
Try hatha yoga, learn to play sitar, take ayurvedic treatments, resonate to gong meditation, or study holy Vedic texts. The city of Rishikesh, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, has been a magnet for those seeking to fast-track good karma ever since The Beatles came here in the hippy Sixties as guests of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Nowadays, dozens of ashrams (spiritual retreats) offer short- and long-stay courses here in the upper reaches of the Ganges surrounded by forested Himalayan foothills.

To be fair to Rishikesh, it’s hardly some Johnny-come-lately pandering to New Age fads. Its holy pedigree stretches back a lot further than John, Paul, Ringo and George. This alcohol- and meat-free town is said to be the place Hindu deity Lord Rama journeyed to to make penance for killing Ravana, the Demon King of Lanka. Indian pilgrims come to perform puja (worship) at Triveni Ghat, or commence once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages to the four sacred temples of the Char Dham circuit in the Himalayas.

Rishikesh’s east bank has numerous ashrams offering week-, two-week, and month-long yoga instruction and meditation. The best places are around the Swarg Ashram or the 1,000-plus-room Parmarth Niketan. The latter also hosts a nightly lamp-lit arti on the banks of the Ganges.

Elsewhere, there’s a fine countryside hike to the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, said to be the place Lord Shiva swallowed poison that turned his throat blue.

How to do it: Citrus Holidays offer a six-day yoga and meditation package from £1,199 on a B&B basis, including transfers. Days start with morning yoga classes and meditation with sightseeing around Rishikesh to follow.
citrusholidays.com

Men collecting alms, Haridwar Kumbh Mela. Image: Mark Stratton

Men collecting alms, Haridwar Kumbh Mela. Image: Mark Stratton

Kumbh Mela Cities

The world’s largest spiritual gathering is a cacophony of noise, colour and devotion on an epic scale
The ultimate outpouring of Hindu fervour is held in one of four cities — Haridwar, Prayag, Ujjain, and Nashik — on a rotating basis. During my first Kumbh Mela, in 2010, 12 million Hindus rammed the streets of Haridwar on a single day, with the shared aim of performing a sacred snan (bath) in the Ganges. The otherworldly atmosphere of the Kumbh Melas is off the Richter scale, even for India. The akhara camps of Indian sadhu ascetics feature naked ash-smeared naga babas while full-bearded swamis hold devotees in their palm of their hand in tented ashrams with psychedelic facades. The noise, rivers of orange-robed pilgrims, decorated elephants, and unbridled zeal makes Glastonbury seem like a stockbrokers’ convention.

The four hosting Kumbh Mela cities each have a strong attachment to Shiva and earned their significance in Hindu mythology, which claims a kumbh (pitcher) of the sacred elixir of immortality was spilt during a celestial struggle between demons and gods and dripped onto Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik, and Ujjain. Pilgrims believe that bathing during the astrologically determined Kumbh Melas (each lasting around a month and a half) will cleanse them of sin and hasten their escape from Samsara (the cycle of reincarnation), allowing them to achieve a blissful state called moksha: the final unification with Brahman (the ultimate divine reality).

All the Kumbh Mela cities are distinctly different. My favourite is Haridwar, in the Lower Himalayas. It’s intensely pious and interesting all year round — with activity centred on its pre-sixth-century Har Ki Pauri ghat (in which even sensitive Western bods may dip, as the Upper Ganges is clean and fast flowing). Fine local temples include Mansa Devi, renowned for its audacious food-snatching monkeys.

During Kumbh Mela, in 2013 at Prayag, 30 million pilgrims gathered on one auspicious bathing day on a vast exposed sandy riverbed at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. There’s a nice 16th-century Mughal Fort but otherwise it’s not exactly eye candy. This summer’s pilgrimage was in Nashik in Maharashtra, Western India. The city is best known to visitors as a base to explore Trimbakeshwar, an ancient Hindu temple in the town of Trimbak, 18 miles away. Ujjain will host the next Kumbh Mela, in 2016. The city is near Indore and its three-storied Shree Mahakaleshwar Temple is famed for its lingam (Shiva symbol).

How to do it: Ujjain Kumbh Mela offers accommdation and tailor made tour packages for the 2016 celebration in Ujjain, held from 22 April to 21 May.
ujjainkumbhmela.com

Hindus pray and bathe at the sacred river, Varanasi. Image: Getty

Hindus pray and bathe at the sacred river, Varanasi. Image: Getty

Varanasi

Pilgrims flock to India’s holiest city — where Buddha gave his first public sermon — to bathe in the Ganges
No other place in India comes close to capturing the intense, daily fervour of Hindu worship. This sacred city on the Ganges enacts the cycle of death and reincarnation and ultimate salvation right in front of your eyes.

Also known as Benares, the city has numerous temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, from whose matted locks the Ganges is said to flow. The city awakes before sunrise when pilgrims from all over India — often in their tens of thousands on auspicious days — gather on stone ghats (steps) along the Ganges for ritual bathing. They hope to improve their karma and so achieve salvation sooner.

Head first to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the liveliest and most colourful of around 80 in the city. Perhaps hire a boat to watch the pilgrims flood into the Ganges. Avoid taking a dip yourself, because the sluggish river contains all manner of pollutants — not least the ashes from adjacent cremation ghats such as Manikarnika. Varanasi is the most sacred Hindus cremation destination, and these rituals are very public. Spend any time in the city’s narrow lanes and at some stage you’ll be swept aside as a shrouded body decorated with marigolds is hurried to a burning ghat on stretcher, accompanied by chanting relatives. Be warned: photographing the cremations is considered taboo.

My perfect day in Varanasi would take in the ghats on the Ganges’ western bank; getting lost in the old city’s mazy lanes, while avoiding stepping in the dung of free-roaming ‘holy’ cows; watching bare-chested Brahmins perform riverside ceremonies; talking cod philosophy with stoned sadhus (holy men); and retreating for sweetened chai at riverside cafes.

The ghats are backed by ancient riverfront buildings that prompted 19th-century visitor Mark Twain to reflect: ‘Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and twice as old as all of them put together’. Elsewhere, the Mughal palaces and Shiva temples — the most famous of which is Kashi Vishwanath, with its three gold-plated sikharas (domes) — are utterly mesmerising.

If the intensity gets too much, head to Sarnath — an auto rickshaw ride away — to a peaceful deer park where Buddha first preached to disciples around the fifth century. It’s one of Buddhism’s most sacred places and hosts the colossal Dhamek Stupa.

Finally, head back to Dashashwamedh at around 6pm for the arti, the evening devotional prayers — conducted with fire lamps, to symbolically cleanse the soul. This Bollywood-esque ceremony, performed by priests standing on pedestals, is accompanied by ear-splitting chanting
and music.

How to do it: On The Go Tours has a four-day package taking in Varanasi and the Khajuraho Temples in Madhya Pradesh, from £1,049 per person, including B&B hotels, guides, and internal flights.
onthegotours.com


Read more in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)