I grew up surrounded by the myths, the stories and the history of India. My father, a military doctor, was posted all over the country, and as a boy I walked ancient and sacred grounds and experienced magical moments.
Today India has become so modernized that Western visitors can travel in comfort to the historical and spiritual treasures I first saw in my childhood. You can go by train to these three cities, and you will surely return transformed. So breathe in, relax and come with me to some of my favorite places.
Rishikesh: The holy Ganges cascades from its glacier-fed source in the Himalayas to emerge through a gorge and enter the foothills town of Rishikesh. A mix of pilgrims, yogis, hippies and curious tourists gather here to enjoy the tranquil energy and the many temples and ashrams. Three life-changing experiences: Meditate in the cave where the Hindu sage Vasishta practiced centuries ago; chant with the orphans during the evening aarti (a Hindu ritual, with song) at the Parmath Niketan ashram; and take a dip in the ice-cold Ganges.
Haridwar: Some 30 miles downriver is Haridwar, the gateway to four sacred pilgrimage towns in the Himalayas. The main attraction here is Har Ki Pauri, a riverbank bazaar. During the aarti ceremony, the air is filled with melodious chanting and the warm scent of incense as devotees set lamps and flowers afloat on the river. The Ganges glows with hundreds of flames, carrying hopes and dreams that become one with the Absolute.
Varanasi: Some pilgrims come to India’s holiest city (also known as Benares) to be cleansed of their sins by bathing in the Ganges; others come to mourn and cremate their loved ones. The day begins at sunrise, with wading pilgrims offering prayers to the sun and the holy mother. In the evening, the river is alive with the sounds of bells and chanting and lamps lit for the aarti. Burning ghats, or funeral pyres, line the banks. All at once, in Varanasi, you experience birth, death and life.
Deepak Chopra’s Alliance for a New Humanity seeks to connect caring individuals, communities and groups to effect change in the world. You can join its members at the Human Forum 2008 in San José, Costa Rica, on March 11–13; and the European Human Forum in Barcelona on November 9–11. Go to anhglobal.org for more information.