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The Golden Temple is the holiest gurdwara (place of worship) in the Sikh religion and a stunning oasis of calm and order in the middle of the bustling city of Amritsar. It also is an idyllic place for young travelers to experience India’s heart of spirituality, diversity and community on a truly remarkable scale. The temple itself is built around a large man-made pool with a bright gold sanctum in the center where the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, is read every day with harmonium and tabla accompaniment. Upon entering, all visitors must remove their shoes and don a saffron head scarf, but are then free to wander the cool marble pathways surrounding and stretching through the glistening square pool. Partake in langer , the temple’s community meal, which can be an invaluable learning experience for youngsters. The community kitchen is a sight to behold in its own right as three tons of dal (lentil soup) are cooked in enormous caldrons and stirred with spoons the size of canoe paddles. Volunteers prepare and serve lunch here to 70,000 to more than 100,000 people every day, and everyone eats the free lunch sitting side by side on the floor, regardless of race, religion, wealth or status. They then wash their dishes together. Also consider visiting the temple in the late afternoon or early evening. As the sky begins to darken, the temple is illuminated, brilliant gold shimmering on the pool waters.
WHEN TO GO: For the most serene experience, plan your trip from November to March, before the local festivals begin.
FOR KIDS: This activity is safe and enjoyable for children of all ages.
Varanasi is often seen as a spiritual capital of India, where Buddha is reported to have founded Buddhism around the 5th century BCE. Here, the city is a cultural center on the banks of the Ganges; a major Indian pilgrimage destination, the river beckons a stream of visitors that flock in droves to the bathing ghats of the holy city of Varanasi. Visitors can take a sunrise cruise by rowing boat on the Ganges to the sound of temple bells and devotional chanting reverberating between temples and waves: there are some 23,000 temples in Varanasi, presenting an eye opening, full-bodied experience that will be etched in your memory forever. All life (and death) is played out on the temple-lined ghats that lead to the waters of the sacred river. Ascetics, pilgrims, and travellers come from every corner of India and beyond to ritual bathe, perform puja, practice yoga, meditate, study, learn sitar, or cremate their loved ones (to die here is to achieve salvation in the Hindu religion). Venture beyond the ghats and stroll down the maze of narrow alleyways to emerge yourself in this quintessential Indian experience of chaos and colour, lively bazaars, street foods, exquisite silks, holy cows, lassi stalls, sweet shops, festivals, temples, mosques, and palaces. At night, the ghats burn bright with the flaming torches of the Ganga Aarti river worshiping ceremony. The air is thick with the smell of incense and the sound of mantras, while the dark waters of the river are decorated with hundreds of butter-lamp offerings floating on its surface.
WHEN TO GO: Varansi is a cultural hub, full of street markets on the river’s edge. Take tours of the city’s temples and enjoy strolling through the streets any time of year, as long as it’s not monsoon season.
The one-time British Hill Station of Dharamsala, nestled in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley, was a quiet provincial town until the late 1950s; at that point McLeod Ganj, a summer picnic spot above the town, was established as the new home in exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers. Since then it has grown into a mini Lhasa with a thriving Tibetan Buddhist community of maroon-robed monks and nuns, not to mention a cosmopolitan collection of tourists, dignitaries, backpackers, scholars, and Buddhists from all over the globe. These travelers come to visit the Tsug Lhakhang complex housing a monastery, a golden Buddha statue, the Dalai Lama’s modest residential quarters, and an excellent museum covering the Dalai Lama’s life and work. The main temple’s large multicolored prayer wheels are imbedded in the mani walls; a colorful bazaar of Tibetan cafes and shops offer the steady stream of pilgrims, monks, and tourists everything from momos and butter tea to prayer wheels and singing bowls. For a more spiritual experience, join the prostrating pilgrims absorbed in meditation and prayer on the circular path through the cedar forest below the temple complex.
WHEN TO GO: Travel here in the months of March-May, when the weather is comfortable for constant walking, outdoor meditation, and short bursts of travel.
For most of the year, Pushkar is a sleepy little town in a desert oasis ...
For most of the year, Pushkar is a sleepy little town in a desert oasis that attracts few travelers. However, it comes alive every autumn with the arrival of the full moon and the Kartik Poornima religious festival, when thousands of pilgrims gather at dawn to bathe in the holy lake. A thousand temples surround the oasis, believed to have sprung from the spot where the god Brahma dropped a sacred lotus. The same full moon is the climax of the Pushkar Camel Fair, when tens of thousands of nomad Rajput camel herders converge to parade, race and trade their dromedaries.
WHEN TO GO: To be fully immersed in the religious culture of Puskar, book your visit in the months of October to November to join the locals in the full moon ritual and Pushkar Camel Festival.
Located in the state of Bihar, the village of Bodhgaya has an infectious...
Located in the state of Bihar, the village of Bodhgaya has an infectious devotional atmosphere. Buddhist monks, nuns and pilgrims from all over the world flock here for prayer, study and meditation, and with good reason: Bodhgaya is where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree 2,600 years ago to become the Buddha or ‘Awakened One.’ A descendant of the original tree, rooted in the exact same location, can be reached by descending to the sacred garden beneath the multi-storied tower of the Mahabodhi Temple.
WHEN TO GO: Visit in the comfortable months of March-May, as much of the meditation takes place outside in the sacred gardens of Bodhgaya.
Join the resident Buddhist monks for morning prayers and hot butter tea ...
Join the resident Buddhist monks for morning prayers and hot butter tea at this spectacular hilltop monastery. The husky sounds emanating from conch shells and long curled pipes echo around the snowcapped mountains, heralding the call to prayer. Young monks singing sacred texts start the proceedings, and then, with a flourish of incense, the rhythmic chanting of prayers begins. The low murmuring is punctuated by a cacophony of crashing symbols, shrill trumpets, beating drums and the rumble of horns that signal it is time for tea. All are welcome to accompany the congregation in a cup of the salty brew.
WHEN TO GO: Enjoy calming mornings on the hilltops of Ladakh overlooking the snow capped mountains from October to December.
Enjoy the quintessential ghats experience without the crowds on the bank...
Enjoy the quintessential ghats experience without the crowds on the banks of the sacred Narmada River in this regal town. Pilgrims come here to bathe, perform puja and worship at the many ancient temples in the shadow of queen Rani’s 18th-century Ahliya fort. At sunset, take a boat ride on the river’s calm waters and witness dreadlocked, saffron-robed holy men chanting devotional prayers around a fire; many of them are on a pilgrimage from the source of the river to the sea.
WHEN TO GO: Visit this pristine Narmada River during the warmer months of April-June. Join the pilgrims as they bathe and take sunset boat rides on the calm river waters. Avoid travelling when the monsoon season is in full effect.
Home to a colossal white-marble statue of Lord Gomateshwara (or Bahubali...
Home to a colossal white-marble statue of Lord Gomateshwara (or Bahubali), a Jain idol, Shravanabelagola is a popular pilgrimage site. Temples surround the striking statue, set on the steep rocky summit of Vindhyagiri Hill and reached by climbing over 600 steps. Some pilgrims are carried up to the summit on palanquins, while others ascend barefoot despite the heat of the stones, quenching their thirst by drinking the juice of fresh coconuts. This is one of the holiest sites for Jains as Gomateshwara is the son of Adinath, the first Tirthankara of Jainism, and the sense of spiritual reverence is palpable.
WHEN TO GO: One of the holiest sites in India, the trek to the top of the temple is over 600 steps. Visit when the weather is not overly hot, ideally in the months of September-November, but before any snowfall.
Leave the stresses and strains of everyday life behind and immerse yours...
Leave the stresses and strains of everyday life behind and immerse yourself in a traditional yogic lifestyle at one of Sivananda’s many Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams, located in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, New Delhi, Himalayas and Chennai. Here, the emphasis is on a wider whole, and not solely the physical postures and asanas of yoga. The tranquil grounds support a daily program of yoga practice, silent meditation and Vedanta yoga philosophy designed to rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. Healthy vegetarian meals nurture guests, and karmic yoga community service along with evening chanting and inspirational lectures transform.
WHEN TO GO: Visit the calming yoga and meditation centers in the spring to summer months of March-June. Much of the body and mind exercises are performed on beaches, so avoid booking your trip during monsoon season.
Modern yogis flock to India’s quintessential beach destination, Goa, t...
Modern yogis flock to India’s quintessential beach destination, Goa, to sign up for yoga sessions at Purple Valley Yoga to practice with some of the world’s best Ashtanga teachers. This peaceful haven is one of Goa’s hidden gems, located in the Assangao Valley between Anjuna beach on the Arabian Sea and the market town of Mapusa. Although the atmosphere is relaxed and easygoing, the practice is serious and in-depth, yet suited for beginners and advanced yogis alike. Days begin with Mysore-style self-practice, followed by special classes in the afternoon focusing on asanas, pranayama and yogic philosophy. Swims in the pool, as well as ayurvedic spa treatments, offer relief for tired muscles.
WHEN TO GO: Enjoy Purple Valley’s beaches from April through early June. While the destination is relaxing, the yoga classes offered by the best teachers in the region are challenging to both the mind and body.
This eco-friendly healing retreat sits among palm groves and rice paddie...
This eco-friendly healing retreat sits among palm groves and rice paddies on a hillside above Gokarna’s Om Beach, on the Arabian Sea coast of northern Karnataka. Run by the CGH Earth group, SwaSwara offers residential ashtanga- and ayurvedic-based wellbeing programs that include morning chanting, massage, yoga, philosophy classes, art yoga, meditation and balanced vegetarian and seafood diets. There is a minimum five-night stay but most ayurvedic programs require at least seven nights. Guests stay in simple yet stylish villas on the shore of a small lake and have use of a large swimming pool and free private yoga sessions.
WHEN TO GO: Spend your five- to seven-night stay at this retreat from March to June. The villas sit right on the edge of a lake, and yoga and morning meditation are done right next to the large swimming pool.
Shreyas means “all around excellence”, which sums up the offerings h...
Shreyas means “all around excellence”, which sums up the offerings here. A holistic residential yoga retreat, it features an ayurvedic spa, delicious meals made from homegrown organic ingredients, and stylish poolside and garden tented cottages. In between ashtanga and hatha yoga sessions, ayurvedic treatments and panchakarma therapies, guests can work on the organic farm or take vegetarian cooking courses. There’s even a chanting room for the staff to help them get into the zone before they start work each day.
WHEN TO GO: Visit this retreat and refresh the mind and body in the cooler but comfortable months of March to May or September to October.
Founded in the 1960s, Auroville (The City of Dawn) has been around a lot...
Founded in the 1960s, Auroville (The City of Dawn) has been around a lot longer than most spiritual and wellness retreats in India and has a unique vision of self-improvement. Established as an experimental community, it has attracted people from all over the world who desire to create a community free of government, money, religion and strife. Guests follow a spiritual path known as Sadhana that combines psychological discipline with yogic practice. ‘Indiscriminate tourism’ is not encouraged, so residential guests are expected to stay a minimum of 10 days. However, many of the on-site shops and cafes are open to casual day visitors.
WHEN TO GO: The rolling hills and stunning buildings that make up this yoga and wellness retreat are best suited for the spring months. Let the weather and the psychological activities calm and cleanse your body.