World ? Asia ? India

India: The Best Authentic Experiences

Visiting temples that pulsate with devotion will evoke a sense of the sacred, but in India, where religion is such an integral part of daily life, spiritual experiences occur when you least expect them.

  • See Things As They Really Are (Vipassana Centers throughout India): Maintaining a strict code of silence with no sensory stimulation for 10 days may sound like a self-induced hell, but after attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, most people claim transformation and find the mental training invaluable. And it costs nothing.

  • Hop on a Motorbike and Head for the Drumbeat (Goa): Once capital of the global beach party, Goa may be past its prime, but when rumors start that an event is in the making at a to-be-announced venue, keep your ear to the ground. Why? Because only in some deserted clearing near a golden Goan beach can you trance out with the nationals of the world, and find solace in the serenity of a rural villager's smile as she hands over cups of soothing chai for the duration of the party.

  • Worship the Sunrise as It Touches the Southernmost Tip (Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu): You can't help but be moved by a sense of the miraculous when a simple daily occurrence is venerated by thousands of pilgrims who plunge themselves into the turbulent swell, believing that the tri-oceanic waters at India's southernmost tip are holy, while others delight in the glorious spectacle as if it's a Bollywood (the nickname for India's booming film industry) premiere.

  • Lose All Sense of Reality in the City of Light (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh): Drifting at dawn on a boat on the Ganges along Varanasi's bathing ghats (steps leading down to the river), against a backdrop of 18th- and 19th-century temples and palaces, you will witness surreal sights -- hundreds of pilgrims waist-deep in the Ganges cleansing their souls in its holy waters, while others pound laundry, meditate by staring into the sun, or limber up to wrestle. All the while, bodies burn on the sacred banks, thereby achieving moksha -- liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth.

  • Purchase a Pushkar Passport (Pushkar, Rajasthan): As you wander around the ghats of Pushkar, the beautifully serene temple town on the edge of the Thar Desert, you will almost certainly be approached by a Brahmin priest to offer puja (prayers) at the sacred lake. In exchange for a "donation," he will tie a red thread around your wrist -- the "passport" you can brandish at the next priest who approaches. This is the commercial side of India's spirituality, and one you need to be aware of.

  • Make a Wish at the Tomb of a Sufi Saint (Ajmer, Rajasthan): The great Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chisti was known as "the protector of the poor," and his tomb is said to possess the power to grant the wishes of all those who visit. His Dargah Sharif is the most sacred Islamic shrine in India, second in importance only to Mecca but frequented by Hindus and Muslims alike. The atmosphere of pure devotion is both ancient and surreal; some pray fervently, and others tie threads onto the latticework while supplicating the saint to fulfill their wish, while throughout these activities, the qawwali singers seated in front of the tomb repeat the same beautiful, haunting melodies that have been sung for centuries.

  • Carry the Holy Granth Sahib to its Evening Resting Place (Amritsar, Punjab): In Sikh temples, the Granth Sahib -- Holy Book of the Sikhs -- is an object of devotion in its own right, and nowhere is this more evocative than at the Golden Temple, the most tangibly spiritual destination in the country. In the evenings men line up to carry the precious Granth Sahib from its golden sanctuary at the center of the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), crossing Guru's Bridge, which symbolizes the journey of the soul after death, to Akal Takht, where the Holy Book rests for the night. You can take part in this ceremony by joining the line that forms behind and ahead of the heavy palanquin. Being part of this ancient tradition is a deeply moving experience and indicative of the embracing atmosphere you'll find in Sikh temples throughout India.

  • Look into the Eyes of the Dalai Lama (Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh): There's a good chance you'll meet the Dalai Lama in person if you visit Dharamsala, home to the exiled Tibetan government, which fled its homeland in 1959. Arranging a private audience isn't easy (unless you're Richard Gere), but if you attend one of his public appearances, you will -- like everyone else in the audience -- receive a personal blessing. And whatever your convictions, when you look into the eyes of His Holiness, you know you are in the presence of pure energy.

  • Witness a Thousand Prayers Take Flight on the Wind (Leh, Ladakh): Take the overland journey from Manali to Leh and enter the stark world of the Trans-Himalayas -- a breathtakingly beautiful yet desolate lunarlike landscape, with arid peaks and ancient Buddhist monasteries perched on rocky crags. Here prayer flags flutter against an impossibly blue sky, sending their silent prayers to the heavens.

  • Clapping Along during Evening Aarti as the Faithful Give Thanks to the Ganges (Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, formerly known as Uttaranchal): By day, Rishikesh is a spiritual Disneyland, where the commercial excesses of packaged meditation and two-for-one tantric yoga hang heavily about the concrete ashrams, bedecked with gaudy statues of Vishnu and Shiva. But at night, to the accompaniment of hypnotic prayers and harmonious singing, the town undergoes a magical transformation. Head for the Parmarth Niketan Ashram Ghat and feel yourself seduced by the divine rhythms during Ganga Aarti, when devotees gather to sing their praises at the edge of the Ganges River.

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