Of all the places where travelers can find that elusive “inner peace” sought by so many, India may tower head and shoulders over other lesser destinations.
Many come seeking the personal enrichment promised by Eastern religions, while a good portion come to perfect yoga, a discipline that has enthralled Westerners for decades and whose practitioners swear by the benefits acquired through exercises, or asanas (body contortions believed to restore and maintain well-being while improving human flexibility and vitality). Some are so devoted to yoga that they invariably consider their learning incomplete without spending time in an Indian retreat.
However, according to Sunil Trehan, general manager of the U.S. offices of Easy Tours of India, a thriving tour operator with branches in Austin, TX, and throughout India, it takes an extremely devoted practitioner to withstand the rigors of such a place.
“Many Westerners making a spiritual journey to India want to stay in an ashram to practice yoga and meditate under a guru’s tutelage. These are places where one finds solitude, while learning self-discovery and meditation, but because a true ashram is an extremely basic operation where students sleep on floormats or crude cots while adhering to a strict vegetarian diet, we don’t offer ashram accommodations in our packages.
“For sure,” he adds, “there are some ashrams that offer private rooms and more comfortable amenities, but these require a minimum stay of months, or at least a few weeks, because that’s the period required to complete even a most basic program.”
As a result, Easy Tours of India instead features custom-made journeys ranging anywhere from a 15-day trip that includes all of India’s prominent spiritual highlights, to a intensive 33-day visit designed to please even the most discriminating traveler embarking on a spiritual journey.
According to Trehan, Easy Tours of India’s specialty is “designing spiritual tours based on a guest’s particular depth of interest.”
He says that prices for these custom journeys vary depending on the wishes of the client, but generally range from “first-class level” ($150-$250 pp per day), to “opulent level” ($300-$450 or higher). Airfare is not included.
Excursions are conducted from September to April and led by recognized experts and interpreters well versed on the mystic nuances abounding in India. The company uses the finest established accommodations in India, including Oberoi Amarvilas—a well-regarded collection of hotels and resorts sprinkled in places like Delhi, Agra and Udaipur—and such well-known Indian first-class hotels like the Jai Mahal Palace and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur; the Nadesar Palace in Varanasi; Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace and the Taj Gateway in Agra.
Trehan adds that a popular misconception is that India is the exclusive repository of Hindu spirituality.
“Part of what makes India so unique is that it is a melting pot for most of the world’s major religions,” he continues. “But while there’s no doubt that Hinduism is the primary and dominant religion, other religions are widely practiced, and their devotees are an integral part of India. India is the birthplace of Buddhism and of religions such as Sikhism and Jainism. Yet, everywhere you go you’ll see mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches and Buddhist shrines co-existing next to one another.”
While spiritual travel in India is as varied as its culture, most experts agree that any spiritual exploration begins at Varanasi (also called Benaras), the city Trehan calls “the epicenter of Hinduism and the religion’s holiest city.”
It has a recorded history reaching back more than 5,000 years. On the surface, it is a frenzied, ancient, dog-eared sprawl on the banks of the Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but its intensity makes it a worthwhile stop for anyone, spiritual seekers or not, interested in experiencing firsthand the magic that is India.
Although presently there are no airlines offering service to Varanasi, Air India, Jet Airways and SpiceJet connect it to major Indian cities. Adventurous travelers also have the more exotic choice of reaching the city by rail. The Rajdhani Express from Delhi or Kolkata has multiple daily arrivals and departures while offering the singular thrill of experiencing one of Asia’s legendary rail journeys.
The caveat is that Indian trains are usually very crowded and booked weeks in advance. To facilitate travel, visitors should purchase an IndRail pass (most Western travelers prefer a 15-day pass valid for travel on air-conditioned railcars and costing about $150) available in three classes and applicable for up to three months.