An exploration of India often feels like a spiritual journey. What else would you expect from a country that’s the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions and renowned for its diversity? For travellers looking to delve a little deeper, the team have designed a pilgrimage north into the foothills of the Himalayas, taking the slow road (and train) to Amritsar, and encountering many facets of India’s spiritual side along the way.
Begin in Delhi, visiting temples, mosques and a Sikh gurudwara, and indulging in a little culinary worship at the city’s tastiest street food stalls. Let India’s extensive railway network wisk you north to Haridwar, one of India’s holiest Hindu cities, set beside its holiest river - the Ganges - and witness the spectacular and almost other-worldly Ganga Aarti ceremony. Then, travelling via one very concretey city, board a 1903 narrow-gauge railway and chug at a sedate pace into the Himalayan foothills. Drink in the peaceful forests and serene mountain views of Shimla and Palampur before continuing to the new Buddhist heartland of Dharamshala, home to the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader. Round off your trip with a stop in Amritsar, capital of the Punjab and site of the Sikh Golden Temple, which is arguably as impressive as the Taj Mahal.
On arrival in Delhi, your first impression might not be one of intense spirituality. This is, after all, a bustling, noisy, metropolitan city, whose inhabitants often appear to be wholly consumed with simply going about their daily lives. There’s little time to pause whilst navigating the narrow streets and alleys of Old Delhi, the ancient base of the Mughal dynasty, or the wider boulevards of New Delhi, India’s modern capital.
Still, this city does offer ample opportunities to stop and reflect, if you know where to look. Take a few moments at the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest and most magnificent mosques, or the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a prominent Sikh temple of gleaming white marble. Lend a hand with the food preparation at the langar - the free community kitchen, common to every gurudwara, that feeds anyone who wishes to be fed - before sitting down to eat with the other diners. Take the chance to meet one of the young guides from the Salaam Balaak Trust for a tour of the backstreets around New Delhi’s Train Station. Salaam Balaak is a non-government-run organisation that provides support and protection to Delhi’s street children, and all of their guides have lived on the streets of the city at one time or another.
A centre of Hinduism and mysticism going back centuries, with a name that translates literally as ‘Gateway to God’, Haridwar is the holiest Hindu city in Uttarakhand state. Set in the place where India’s holiest river, the Ganges, emerges from the Himalayan foothills onto the North Indian plains, Hindu pilgrims flock to the city. They make their way down to the holy river from the ghats (stepped platforms by the riverside) and bathe in the fast flowing waters.
The city is one of only three places where you can witness the spectacular Ganga Aarti ceremony, as every evening the river comes alive with the flickering flames of floating offerings released from Har-ki-Pauri Ghat to honour the Goddess Ganga. Accompanied by the lap of the water against the walls, the chanting and singing of the faithful, the clang of bells, wafting of incense and billowing flames, it’s a moving sight, comparable to the better-known ceremony in Varanasi. Wander through Haridwar to explore some intriguing temples, the lively Jhawla Market and the Bara Bazaar, known for its Ayurvedic medicine.
Although we generally try to avoid one night stops, sometimes they are necessary to make a journey flow. In the best cases, they enable you to see something really different and unique in snapshot form. At Chandigarh for example, the renowned Swiss architect Le Corbusier was involved in creating one of the first planned cities in post-independence India. 70 years later, the grand concrete buildings, monuments, civic squares and parks are all still there, if a little worn around the edges. One particularly quirky highlight is the surreal ‘Rock Garden’ sculpture park: a 40 acre site filled with over 2,000 sculptures created from discarded pottery and junk by Nek Chand, a government official with a secret passion for art.
Take a slow but picturesque journey, chugging into the Himalayan foothills via a narrow-gauge railway that’s a piece of history in itself, having been in operation since 1903. Arrive in Shimla, known as the ‘summer capital’ during the British Colonial period due to its cooler climate and superb mountain views, then wend your way onwards to Palampur, surrounded by scenic tea plantations, pine-covered slopes, and views of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range.
Around three nights, split between these two hill stations, offers ample time to soak up the mountain vistas, walk the forest trails and explore architecture which reveals so much about the area’s former residents. Two prime examples to put on the must-see list are the Viceregal Lodge, the official summer residence of the British Viceroy of India which, in the lead up to independence, hosted historic talks between Indian and British political leaders, and the oh-so-English Christ Church, one of the oldest churches in northern India.
Surrounded by the sweeping scenery of the Kangra Valley, you’ll find yourself in a Buddhism-centred enclave. Dharamshala is probably best known as the current home of the Dalai Lama, though technically the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader resides a short distance away in the suburb of McLeod Ganj, otherwise known as ‘Little Lhasa’. This distinctive area is full of temples and stupas, monasteries and convents, meditation centres and schools, all garlanded with colourful prayer flags and traversed by red-robed monks. This attracts large numbers of local Buddhist pilgrims, as well as a fair number of intrigued travellers from further afield. Away from the Dalai Lama’s temple complex, there is plenty more heritage architecture to explore, and some superb hiking to be had.
The Golden Temple - the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith - is home of the Adi Granth, Sikhisms sacred scripture, which is one of the most extraordinary sights in a land overflowing with them. Linger in the morning, as the city wakes and pilgrims from all over the world begin to enter the temple to bathe in the tank of sacred water, then return to soak up the ambience of the evening illuminations, as devotees flock to see the Adi Granth ceremonially ‘put to bed’.
Although the Golden Temple offers more than enough reason to devote a few nights to Amritsar, the city has much more to reveal. This is somewhere with a chequered history. The Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden containing a flame of remembrance, marks the site where British troops opened fire on a large Indian crowd assembled for peaceful protest in 1919. Its proximity to the border also offers the opportunity to explore the vast issues surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan. Visitors can watch the famous nightly border-closing ‘lowering of the flags’ ceremony at the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan, which is a feast of impressive marching, competitive cheering and exuberant pageantry.
The guide price of £2,090US$2,490 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Delhi, 2 nights in Haridwar, a 1 night stop at Chandigarh, 2 nights in Shimla, 1 night at Palampur, 2 nights in sacred Dharamshala and finally 2 nights at Amritsar in the state of Punjab; all in our favourite mid-range hotels.
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