Spiritual Places to Visit in India
I recently saw an advertisement for an ”Eat Pray Love” tour of India. This 8-day “spiritual journey” through Delhi, Agra and Varanasi costs over US$1000 (including international flights from the US). Now, I’m not sure what exactly is so spiritual about spending 16 times an average Indian’s monthly wage on a week of sightseeing… but then again I haven’t seen the movie. I’m talking about real India Love.
Here are my three favorite spiritual travel destinations in India, and yes, Varanasi is one of them.
The Amritsar Golden Temple
Of all the “spiritual” places in India, not one has affected me like Sikhism’s holiest site: the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Harmandir Sahib had an atmosphere of tranquility quite unlike any of the temples I’d previously visited in India. Pilgrims take dips in the Amrit Sarovar, the sacred pool of water around the golden temple, as verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s holy book, are sung inside the temple throughout the day. Volunteers prepare free vegetarian meals for pilgrims and the temple is open to visitors of all faiths.
How to get there: take a train from Delhi, the daily Shatabdi Express is the fastest. Take also a look at this post about Odisha, the impressive tribal heritage and ancient art. When you visit India, this also is one of the places that you should pay a visit to. Impressive!
The Holy City Varanasi
Varanasi (Benares) is one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the seven sacred cities for Hindus. It is also an important site for Buddhists as nearby Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teachings after reaching enlightenment.
Varanasi is also a polluted, chaotic Indian city and a busy tourist attraction with all the stuff that comes with tourism: pickpockets, scams, crowds of beggars. But it is the intensity of Varanasi that makes it such an experience and you do need more than a day or two here to see even the most important places.
An early morning boat trip on the holy Ganges is one of those essential India experiences. Hindus bathe in the sacred river, but a friend of mine who took a dip ended up sick for weeks. Maybe you need a special kind of faith?
How to get there: Varanasi has good train and bus connections to Delhi and many other major cities in India. Don’t also forget to experience Diwali, the festival of Lights.
Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas
Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas is a different world. Often called Little Tibet, it is one of the major centers of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet and its monasteries have kept Tibetan Buddhism alive for centuries. As I climbed up the hill to Thiksey Monastery (at 3600 meters height from sea level) my head was spinning from the altitude, from the lack of oxygen in the air and from the heavy scent of Tibetan incense. Prayer flags hung from the roof and prayer wheels stood along the steps to the monastery so passers-by could spin them and release prayers. A 14-meter tall golden Buddha, representing the future Buddha Maitreya, stared at me, and amazingly, unlike in most temples in India, nobody came to ask for money.
How to get there: Thiksey is located a short drive from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. You can fly to Leh from Delhi but to really experience Ladakh, travel overland from Manali.
Ladakh, India: in the Land of High Passes
Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas is India’s most northern part, an old Buddhist kingdom that is now part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The name Ladakh means ‘the land of high passes’: Ladakh stands in the middle of some of the highest mountains in the world.
What Makes Ladakh Special
Most of Ladakh is higher than 10 000 ft from sea level and the road from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh, Ladakh’s capital, travels through over 17 000 ft high mountain passes. The Manali to Leh road and the alternative route to Leh from Srinagar in Kashmir are only open for traffic for six months a year. For the other six months, roads to Ladakh are covered in heavy snow and ice.
To say Ladakh is my most favorite place in India would be an understatement: it is difficult to find words to describe how unique and how beautiful it is. The peace and quiet one finds in Ladakh is impossible to find anywhere else in India. Now this the far north of India, but in case you’re visiting the country’s southern portions, check here about which famous ancient temples you should visit there.
Leh, Ladakh’s High Altitude Capital
Leh, Ladakh’s capital, stands on the ancient Silk Road trade route and was flourishing in the Middle Ages when traders passed through town on their way to and from Central Asia. In many ways, Ladakh resembles Central Asia more than it does the rest of India: people’s features here are different, and so is the landscape with its high altitude lakes, mountains, and desert. Also here, ancient Elephant Indian Art can be admired at various locations.
Ladakh is a center of Tibetan Buddhist culture, and around Leh several Buddhist monasteries keep the culture alive. Hemis is said to be the wealthiest and biggest of Ladakh’s monasteries and Thiksey is home to dozens of monks, as well as a stunning, gilded 15 metre high statue of Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the future. In the small village of Alchi, 40-odd miles outside Leh, rare Kashmiri Buddhist murals from the 11th century have survived military invasions but are now suffering from neglect and the harsh mountain weather.
How to Travel to Ladakh
Daily flights connect Delhi to Leh and there are also flights from Leh to Srinagar in Kashmir, although Kashmir’s rapidly changing security situation can affect travel plans. Roads from Srinagar to Leh and from Manali to Leh are only open from around May to October, depending on snowfall. Not for the faint of heart, the road from Manali to Leh can be traveled on a motorbike, a bus or a jeep taxi, and some seriously brave people do it on a bicycle.
Tourists must have an Inner Line Permit to visit certain areas in Ladakh but these are easily obtained from travel agents in Leh. It is worth keeping in mind that Acute Mountain Sickness is a major risk when traveling to Ladakh.