Nirvana, Moksha, Tantras, tantriks, yogis, yoginis, Karma, Swamis, guru, yoga, baba, ashram and asanas; to every spiritual tourist who visits India hoping to get enlightened, these foreign terms are sacred mantras, just what they look for in a spiritual tour of the country. But an actual spiritual holiday in India will reveal the fact that there’s much more to the equation where the above mentioned are just variables, small ones at that.
Spiritualism in India is a part of life, taken for granted and prevalent in every corner of the country. No matter which city or village you visit, you’ll notice a small temple for every street, fervent devotee in every temple, elaborate rituals and immense dedication to customs. Yet, there are specific religious destinations that are popular among Indians as well as foreigners; these are historically important places with mythological significance. These are highly revered destinations among Indian pilgrims; don’t be surprised if you see people spending their life’s earning just to visit these places and maybe spend the rest of their lives there.
Here are some of India’s most enlightening destinations that welcome foreign tourists who hope to get a mind and soul detox.
To people visiting India for the first time, Varanasi is the typical Indian city; with its narrow lanes, temples, crowd and colorful personality, this town is an enigma that you can only love or hate at first sight. The antiquity of the town is the first feature you’ll notice. To say its antique is an understatement; for Varanasi is the earliest known city in the world that has been continuously inhabited.
The River Ganges is the ruling and flowing deity here; this river is very sacred to the Hindus and a dip in the Ganges is believed to be spiritually purifying. Yes, this is the river where numerous cremations take place every day and plenty of people get in to bathe and wash their clothes; most tourists vow never to step into the water before they visit Varanasi. But once they are there, the magnetic pull of the Ganga somehow lures them in and before they know it, they have taken that holy dip.
Whether you take a dip in the water or not; make sure you explore the ghats of Varanasi by boat either at sunrise or sunset or both. While sunrise gives a peaceful picture of the ghats painted by the warm colors of dawn, sunset in the Dasashwamedh Ghat is completely festive; the daily arti here that takes place for over 45 minutes is a mesmerizing ritual of devout music, huge candles, drummers and conch shells. Thousands of people gather here on boats and by foot to watch the arti everyday; visitors can’t help but join in on the frenzied chanting.
The Kashi Vishwanatha Temple also referred to as the Golden Temple because of its gold dome, is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations of worshipers of Lord Shiva. The Jyotirlingam here is considered very sacred among Hindus. Non-Hindus are allowed only up to a limit from where they can see the gold domes of the temple from outside. Despite the fact that they cannot get inside the temple, Varanasi is a haven for non-Hindus, especially foreigners because of the wealth of culture that’s present here.
New comers to this place find Tirumala to be an enigma. It’s hard to understand how tens of thousands of people cross seven hills through various means of transport (some even walk from the foothills) every day to stand in long queues so patiently to catch just a momentary glimpse of their Lord Venketeswara. This temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu is one of the richest in the world and is visited by 50000 to 100000 people each day; of course, this number goes up to as many as 500000 on special days and festivals.
Located in the cool hill station surroundings of Tirumala, the Sri Vari Temple is the main attraction of the place, but there are several other places like the Varagaswamy Temple that are equally important to visit. A unique custom practiced here and in several other temples in South India is hair-donation; plenty of devotees tonsure their head as a sacrifice to their favorite deity.
Tirumala is famous for its laddu, a sweet dish distributed among devotees as Prasad or offering from God; as many as 150,000 laddus are made every day and this recipe has been patented because of its popularity. In a recent development, non-Hindus are allowed into the temple, but they have to sign a declaration stating their belief in the Lord Venketeswara. It’s important to remember that the rush here can be overwhelming; devotees come prepared to stand in queues for hours together till they reach the inner temple where the crowd will require a lot of elbow power.
The Golden Temple of Amritsar
If you’d assumed the Taj Mahal to be India’s most beautiful monument, you haven’t seen the Harmandir Sahib Golden Temple in Amritsar. The beauty of this temple seen reflecting the different hues of the Sun or the moon can be mind-blowing. A very important shrine for Sikh followers from all over the world, the Golden Temple is nonetheless open to people of all faiths. The only requirement is for visitors to discard their footwear before entering the premises and keep their head covered with a scarf.
Though this is yet another crowded place, you’ll hardly notice the crowd because of the effective way in which it’s handled. The water tank surrounding the temple is called the Amrit Sarovar or pool of nectar. This adds to the beauty of the place when the temple’s reflection in the water makes it doubly attractive. With intricate carvings, gem studded tombs and marble interiors, the temple is very pleasant to the eyes; this is a place that’s kept very clean in spite of the crowds. After offering your prayers at the inner sanctum, when you come out, your nose will lead you to the Langar or the dining area. Every day, thousands of people of all faiths sit together on floor mats to eat the delicious meal served here throughout the day.
Rishikesh is the hippie version of India; all the ashrams, tantriks, babas, yogis and gurus that visitors come looking for can be found here. Called the birthplace of yoga and made popular by the Beatles who created their best beats here, Rishikesh is still a small town with the essence of a village; yet the tourist atmosphere here is unmistakable. Since this is the entry point to the Himalayas and other religious destinations like Badrinath and Kedarnath, this town also has its share of local pilgrims.
The location is picturesque and calm; most ashrams offer classes in yoga amidst scenic surroundings that draw plenty of westerners to this place. The Ganga is in full flow here since this is the first town downhill from the Himalayas. So, like in Varanasi, the evening Ganga Arti and cleansing river dips are common here too. This is a perfect destination for mind and body detoxification with its yoga and meditation centers that offer Ayurvedic cuisine.
Brihadeeswara Temple, Tanjavur
The “Big Temple” of Thanjavur, as Brihadeeswara Temple is called is more of a wonder than a religious destination. The unique architecture of the temple has held people spellbound for over centuries, especially because it has no equivalent in India or abroad. Built over 1000 years back, this grand mansion for Lord Shiva was built in just six years; a wonder because the closest source of granite for construction of the temple was at least a 100 kms away. The monument has been built such that the shadow of the cupola of the temple never touches the ground. No binding agent has been used in the entire construction; a system of grooves holds the entire monument in place and has helped the building withstand several natural calamities.
What’s a temple without a legend? In the Brihadeeswara temple, devotees swear that the giant Nandhi (bull) statue, that faces the inner sanctum, kept growing in size every year till it threatened to damage the roof. To prevent the damage, temple authorities placed a nail at the highest point of the statue and since then it hasn’t grown!
Wonders notwithstanding, the Brihadeeswara Temple is an exquisite place with its manicured lawns, excellent architecture, exquisite carvings and contrastingly simple sanctum that concentrates exclusively on the deity. This is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Akshardham Temple, Delhi
The SwamiNarayan Akshardham temple is more of a spiritual theme park than a temple. Established as recently as in 2005, this modern temple complex is an exhibition of Hindu religion and Indian history that’s fascinating to visit. With excellent architecture and informative exhibitions, this is a must-visit place for people who want to explore India’s religious history.
Spread over 32 acres of land, the Akshardham Temple is claimed to be the biggest temple in the world and is open to people of all faiths. Photography is strictly prohibited and in fact, even wallets and mobile phones are not allowed inside the temple premises. Musical fountains, entertainment videos and animation shows and scenic boat rides are a few attractions available here other than the main temple and exhibitions.
There are plenty of destinations for spiritual awakening like Varanasi, Rishikesh, Bodhgaya and Haridwar; yet the moment of illumination can catch you by surprise with its sheer simplicity like the sight of an old woman straining to decorate temple floors with rangoli.
Before you prepare your schedule of places to visit for your spiritual tour, it’s important to know a few factors about visiting temples in India.
- Footwear is prohibited in all temples without exception and sometimes even at places where holy rituals take place. While there are safe rooms where you can deposit your footwear, it’s always better to wear inexpensive shoes so that you won’t feel bad even if they get lost or stolen.
- Temples may not be always clean, and the truth is, it’s very difficult to maintain old temple buildings with the kind of crowds that they have to handle. However, devotees who visit the temple are expected to be clean, washed and wearing modest clothes. Shorts, sleeveless tops and short skirts are not allowed.
- Most temples prohibit cameras, but even at places where they are allowed, photos should not be taken in the inner sanctum.
- If possible, get a guide from a reliable source; there are plenty of touts who fleece visitors in temples. Special “darshans” are organized by temple authorities and all temples have their own office where you can buy tickets for these services. Don’t pay anyone outside these offices even if they claim to work there.
- Most important of all, make sure you’re loaded with lots of patience. Be prepared to stand in queues even when there’s not much crowd (which is a rare occurrence). It’s not uncommon in places like Tirupathi to see people who’ve waited in queues for over 10 hours just to get a glimpse of the main deity that hardly lasts for 5 seconds.
- Since a lot of donations take place in holy places, you will find plenty of beggars in most of these temple towns. Though there is no obligation to give them anything, keeping loose change at hand may be useful because sometimes that’s the only way to get rid of them.
- Above all, it’s important to always keep in mind that these are religious places; though tourism is encouraged, the place doesn’t lose its value as an abode of God.