I hate a/c. I love veggie street food. Malasana (garland) is one of my favorite yoga poses. So, I’m cool hanging low on a squat toilet.
But, you’re not me.
Visiting India, distant geographically and culturally, can be intimidating. You don’t know where to start.
You don’t want to be penned up at an ashram. You don’t want to eat only rice and dal. You don’t want to stay in “austere” surroundings.
Learn, Laugh, Love, Live
Visiting India shouldn’t be stressful or problematic. Go with those who know the ins and outs. Someone I know recommended Nirvana Tours. Its leaders, combined, have spent more than 40 years in India.
U.S.-born Ram Das Batchelder is the author of six books about spirituality. A lifelong meditator, he and his wife taught Hinduism at the Universidad de los Andes in Venezuela. He invites people at all levels to try their trips. Stay in four-star hotels, and eat from gourmet buffets.
Originally from Venezuela, Tarini Ma Dagnino-Batchelder devotes much of her life to Mata Amritanandamayi’s (aka Amma) non-profit, Embracing the World. With a large smile on her face, this certified “Laughter Yoga” teacher says that visiting India is “So colorful, so friendly…always loving.” A very loving and friendly fellow yoga teacher I met, Kristen Kloostra, leads daily yoga classes on Nirvana tours.
Given the dedication of the Batchelder’s to seva (selfless service) and Amma’s worldwide charitable endeavors, tours include seva/karma yoga. In the south, journeyers feed sadhus (wandering monks).
In The Golden Triangle
In Jaipur, they dole out toiletries to impoverished school children. At Amma’s ashram, they assist in the kitchen that serves as many as 2,000 visitors daily.
“All of our tours are memorable and life-transforming in their own unique way,” says Ram Das. “How could it not be transformative to enter a secret cave in Varanasi where a physically immortal Master lived for centuries? Or to meditate in the caves on the holy mountain Arunachala where Ramana Maharshi lived for years? Or to receive a hug from Amma, the world-famous ‘Hugging Saint,’ and sit in her presence while she sings to God in ecstasy? Or to set foot on the rock in the ocean off of Kanyakumari where Swami Vivekananda had a vision of the Divine Mother, telling him to go to America and spread spiritual wisdom in the West?”
“Our classes are specially designed to provide a gentle and profound introduction into the essence of Indian spirituality. Once you’ve received a deep understanding of the symbolism of the various aspects of Hinduism, your experience of India will be much richer, and your tour becomes a journey into inner awakening.”
Visiting India: Enlightenment in the North
1. Awesome North India
If you want a thrilling spiritual and historical adventure visiting India, this journey immerses you in the many religions of India. Start in New Delhi. Visit one of the largest and most beautiful Hindu temples in the world, a Sikh Gurudwara (temple), and a Bahai landmark. Then, pray or meditate in the largest mosque in India. Next, pay respects at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. And, relish the sounds and sights at Qutub Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world.
Retrace the Buddha’s life before he left India. See where Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment, and where he gave his first sermon.
Two of the holiest cities for Hindus/Vaishnavas, Varanasi and Vrindavan are on the route. Varanasi is home to 1,500 temples and is the Hindu version of Mecca. Vrindavan is where Krishna spent his idyllic childhood years. Also included is a visit to Khajuraho, home of a world-famous tantric temple, Jaipur, and the Taj Mahal.
2. Treasures of North India
If two weeks visiting India isn’t doable, join the “Awesome North India” tour on day six. “Treasures” focuses on the “Golden Triangle” of Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi. Highlights include Khajuraho, the Taj Mahal, and Vrindavan.
Visiting India: Enlightenment in the South
1. Light of South India
India is expansive. This tour is the maha (great one) trek, from which two other abridged excursions arise. This expedition focuses on some of the most beautiful temples in the south, set amid the majestic natural beauty of the mountains and sea.
First on the trail is Thiruvannamalai, a sacred town built around the base of a holy mountain that is considered by many Hindus to be an embodiment of Lord Shiva.
Ram Das describes, “Our time there will be blessed with visits to the ashrams of Ramana Maharshi and the living saint, Shivashakti Ma, and meditation in the caves on the holy mountain where Ramana Maharshi lived for many years. We’ll also do a pradakshina (a reverential walk around the holy mountain), and we’ll visit the ancient Arunachaleshwara Shiva temple which is the town’s centerpiece, a huge draw for Hindu pilgrims from all over the country.”
Pondicherry is another important spiritual center in the southeastern region of India.
“We’ll meditate in the ashram of Sri Aurobindo and the Holy Mother http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org, and also take a tour of Auroville http://www.auroville.org, the “City of Tomorrow,” a thriving spiritual community based on the teachings of these great Masters. We’ll then head out for a day amidst famous ancient Shiva temples in Chidambaram, Darasuram, and Tanjore; some of these temples are more than 1,000 years old and are protected as UNESCO sites. The next day we’ll see Trichy, including the important Sri Ranganatha Swami temple and the Rock Fort Temple, from where we’ll have an awesome view of the whole city.”
The journey continues to Madurai’s legendary Meenakshi Temple and Thirumalai Nayak Mahal palace, and the house where Ramana Maharshi attained Enlightenment.
The rest of this journey mirrors part of my virgin trek visiting India. I’ll never forget Kanyakumari. This is the southernmost tip of the continent where three major bodies of water converge. I was on a field trip with my Ayurveda cohorts. Waiting for the boat to reach the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, our teacher gave us an unforgettable crash course in identifying people’s doshas from a distance.
After I completed my Ayurvedic studies, I had amazing solo adventures that are part of Nirvana’s “Light of South India.” Guests spend two days at Amma’s ashram located in a lush tropical region of Kerala. After that, trip-goers relish a six-hour houseboat ride on the pristine backwaters. Think of Venice, 100-fold, 100 years ago. Next up, a day at the beach. South India is hot and humid. From the hot sandy terrain, you drive inland, up, up, and up, to the “Himalayas of the south.” Munnar is an incredibly verdant area where tea plantations thrive. Swinging back north and west, the tour ends in a city I had wanted to visit since I was a child. Cochin is the spice capital of India and was once a center of a large Jewish colony.
2. Sacred Tamil Nadu
Most noteworthy is the focus on Hindu spirituality. A great itinerary for dedicated seekers, but fine for beginners also, it is primarily in the south-central and eastern region of the Indian subcontinent.
“This is a highly affordable four-star pilgrimage through the most important holy sites of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where many great saints have lived, including Ramana Maharshi, Yogi Ramsuratkumar, Shivashakti Ma, Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa),” says Ram Das.
3. Kerala: God’s Own Country
This option begins where “Sacred Tamil Nadu” leaves off. Starting in Trivandrum in the far south, and ending in Cochin.
“This tour is a sacred pilgrimage to the ashram of Amma, the world-famous hugging Saint, combined with lots of time exploring the natural beauty of Kerala. A perfect tour for spiritual beginners,” suggests Ram Das.
Hence, my recommendation: Go. Any time. Any region. For as long as you can. You can always quit your day job (as I did).