Spiritual India

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Regardless on the method of arrival, Westerners generally discover that Varanasi stuns. For Hindus, it is the city of Shiva, the god of yoga, creation and destruction. It’s also a short distance from Gaya and Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his last sermon. People from all over come here to study Sanskrit, Vedanta yoga, music and meditation.

A singular Varanasi experience is an early morning boat journey on the Ganges, where Hindu tradition says that anyone bathing in the muddy, contaminated water will be cleansed of all sin. The monotone chants of holy men fill the air, and funeral pyres blazing on the banks are common. It’s not to be missed.

“Almost all our clients booking a tour to North India and Nepal wish to visit Varanasi,” says Hima Singh, president of Asian Pacific Adventures. Some are hesitant when hearing about the very crowded city that is the ultimate cremation site for Hindus looking for salvation. But after I tell them that it is a place not to be missed, they agree to visit Varanasi and the positive response is almost unanimous.”

Varanasi is also the world capital for Benarasi silks, striking fabric embroidered with gold thread and home to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the golden-domed Hindu cremation site, where Hindus believe that reincarnation inevitably follows death.

More scholastic-oriented travelers can also visit Banaras Hindu University, the study center to Sankrist scholars.

Asian-Pacific Adventures arranges lectures and spiritual discussions at the university for interested clients.

Many Asian-Pacific Adventures custom tours run from $250 to $300 per day pp dbl. Some of the tours also include air travel within India, group transport and accommodations in the best available hotels.

For a city that prides itself in its rich history, Varanasi is teeming with modern hotels.

The Radisson Hotel Varanasi, about five minutes removed from the central rail station, sits in the heart of the old city. It offers many facilities difficult to find in the area, with 116 rooms and suites boasting all modern conveniences.

The spa is a delight, with a menu of exotic Indian treatments that soothe both body and mind.

Rates range from about $140 per night, dbl, for a business-class room, to about $250 for a 1-bedroom suite.

The HHI Varanasi is another pleasant luxurious property also in the center of the city. Its 98 modern and airy rooms are specifically designed to make travelers forget the fatigue induced by long journeys. It is trimmed with stone and sculptures, while the lobby is dominated by a 7-story glass atrium that captivates with its sheer size and magnificence.

The restaurant is among the best in Varanasi, specializing in continental, Indian and Chinese dishes served in a marble, airy space surrounded by palm trees.

The rooms are comfortable and spacious, with amenities that cater to most needs. Rates here run from about $175 per night dbl for an executive room, to about $430 for the posh Club Suite. Certain reservations include transportation from the airport or train station and complimentary breakfast. Some weekend and extended stays may qualify for a 25 percent discount.

meditative retreats While yoga ashrams and retreats abound in India, there are a number that stand out because of their peaceful surroundings, excellent amenities and the pampering clients receive.

Independent travelers with an interest in yoga will enjoy the Jiva Spa Yoga Retreats offered by Taj Hotels, a collection of 91 properties in 52 locations in India and 16 in foreign locales like the Maldives, Malaysia, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Jiva Spa Yoga Retreats offer a singular program to acquaint its guests with the benefits of yoga while introducing participants to the ancient principles of the yogi lifestyle and discipline.

The retreats are a feature in Taj Hotels like the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, the Nadesar Palace in Varanasi, and Taj Exotica in Goa.

The all-inclusive yoga retreats, accommodating up to 15 participants and varying in prices, are designed to celebrate Indian traditions of wellness through asanas, breathing techniques and various cleansing practices. Beginners as well as experienced yoga practitioners find them appealing.

About one hour’s drive from Pune, one of India’s largest cities and an ancient center of the meditative arts, the Kerala Ayurveda and Yoga Retreat (KARE) is a marvelous world-class boutique health resort in the middle of a forest in Maharastra state.