by Shubha Menon
India is an exotic, beautiful, and magical country. It is also shocking, disturbing and filthy. It all depends on what aspects of it you dwell upon. But whatever facet you choose to see, India is a total experience on every level; a testing ground that is not for everyone. It can separate the serious from the frivolous; the truth-seekers from the tourists. It is after all, the birthplace of spirituality. You just have to know where to look and how to find it.
Some places in India exist only because of the gods. In these places, everything you touch, see, buy and experience is holy.
Here is a list.
Ancient Haridwar (Gateway to God) is one of the world’s oldest living cities. Located at the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand, it’s where Hindu pilgrims come in droves to take a dip in the holy Ganges River. Hindus believe that a bath in the Ganges washes away all their sins. The city is extremely crowded and rather dirty but you will find several ashrams where you can learn yoga, imbibe the Vedas (sacred Hindu text), adopt a guru (teacher) and read the India epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Top pick for stay: http://www.havelihariganga.com
Another holy city on the banks of the holy Ganges, Varanasi is also known as Kashi and Benaras. The city is the home of Lord Shiva, the Indian god of death and destruction. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here, achieve instant nirvana (salvation).
Varanasi is the oldest city of the world, more than 3000 years old. There are temples at every few paces, thirty-three hundred million shrines that fill one with awe and wonder.
The ghats (steps leading to the river) are where all the spiritual action is. You will find pilgrims, sadhus (holy men), palmists, seekers, touts, everyone mingling indiscriminately to achieve their purpose. At the Manikarna ghat, corpses burn in a never ending cycle, in full view and among a bustling, living populace, signifying the eternal cycle of life and death. In the evenings, the aarti (prayer) mesmerises as a thousand voices, accompanied by bells and conches, rise in song. Alongside, myriad lamps reflect in the still waters. The effect is unforgettable.
Top pick for stay: www.thegatewayhotels.com
Situated on the banks of the Yamuna River in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Vrindavan used to be an ancient forest where the Hindu deity Krishna spent his childhood. The town has hundreds of temples dedicated to the worship of Krishna and his consort Radha. Krishna or the blue god, is among the most favourite gods of Indians. He is playful, mischievous and very flirtatious. There are innumerable tales and songs about him stealing the clothes of his consort, Radha and her friends as they have a bath in the river.
Vrindavan teaches you how to fall in love with the idea of god. The place functions as though Krishna is still alive and living there. A living god who is a myth. Beat that.
Top pick for stay: http://www.mvtindia.com/
Bodhgaya is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage place in the world. This is where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, as he sat meditating under a Bodhi tree. The exact spot has been marked and the Mahabodhi Temple complex has been built on it. The town is dotted with dozens of Buddhist monasteries. There are meditation camps, Buddhism courses and retreats happening regularly. If you looking to connect with yourself, go to Bodhgaya and embark on an inward journey. It could be a life changing trip.
Located in the Southern part of India, Tiruvannamalai is the seat of the Sri Ramana Ashram and attracts spiritual seekers and Hindu pilgrims. Visitors walk around holy Mount Arunachala and pray at Arunachaleswar Temple. Mount Arunachala is called the “most silent place on earth” as its powerful energy has the amazing ability to quieten the mind. Meditate in a cave on the mountainside and discover it for yourself.
Top pick for stay: sparsaresorts.com/