Read an Excerpt
By Pippa de Bruyn Keith Bain
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-6727-6
Chapter OneThe Best of India
India will humble, awe, frustrate, amaze, and intimidate-all in the same day. Home to the world's most spectacular medieval architecture and largest slums; sacred rivers and filth-strewn streets; religious rituals and endless traffic jams; aristocratic tigers and casteless untouchables; jewel-encrusted tombs and pavement-bound beggars; ancient traditions and modern-day scams-there is so much to take in. Whether you're here to soak up India's spirituality, chill out on the beaches, rejuvenate at an Ayurvedic spa, or live like a king in the land of princes, this chapter will help you experience the very best India has to offer.
1 Experiencing Spiritual India
Visiting temples that pulsate with devotion will evoke a sense of the sacred, but even in India, where religion is such an intricate part of daily life, spiritual experiences come when you least expect them.
Hop on a Motorbike and Head for the Drumbeat (Goa): Once capital of the global beach party, Goa may be past its prime, but when rumors start that an event is in the making at a to-be-announced venue, keep your ear to the ground. Why? Because only in some deserted clearing near a golden Goan beach can you trance out with the nations of the world, then find solace in the serenity of a rural villager's smile as she hands over cups of comforting chai for the duration of the party. Seechapter 4.
Worship the Sunrise as It Touches the Southernmost Tip (Kanniyakumari, Tamil Nadu): You can't help but be moved by a sense of the miraculous when a simple daily occurrence is venerated by thousands of pilgrims who plunge themselves in the turbulent swell, believing that the tri-oceanic waters at India's southernmost tip are holy, while others delight in the glorious spectacle as though it were a major Bollywood (the nickname for India's booming film industry) premiere. See chapter 5.
Lose All Sense of Reality in the City of Light (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh): Drifting at dawn on a boat along Varanasi's bathing ghats (steps leading down to the river), against a backdrop of 18th- and 19th-century temples and palaces, you will witness some surreal sights-hundreds of pilgrims waist-deep in the Ganges cleansing their souls in its holy waters, while others pound laundry, meditate by staring into the sun, or limber up to wrestle. All the while, bodies burn on the sacred banks, thereby achieving moksha-liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth. See chapter 8.
Purchase a Pushkar Passport (Pushkar, Rajasthan): As you wander around the ghats of Pushkar, the beautifully serene temple town on the edge of the Thar Desert, you will almost certainly be approached by a Brahmin priest to offer puja (prayers) at the sacred lake; in exchange for a "donation" he will then tie a red thread around your wrist-the "passport" you can brandish at the next priest who approaches. This is the commercial side of India's spirituality, and one you need to be aware of. See chapter 9.
Count Time at the Tomb of a Sufi Saint (Ajmer, Rajasthan): The great Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-Dir Chisti was known as the "protector of the poor," and his tomb is said to possess the power to grant the wishes of all those who visit. His Dargah Sharif is the most sacred Islamic shrine in India, second in importance only to Mecca. The atmosphere of pure devotion is both ancient and surreal, as is the sight of a long line of men who sit silently counting huge mounds of beads heaped before them-apparently keeping track of time. See chapter 9.
Carry the Holy Granth Sahib to its Evening Resting Place (Amritsar, Punjab): In Sikh temples, the Granth Sahib-holy book of the Sikhs-is an object of devotion in its own right, and nowhere is this more evocative than at the Golden Temple, the most tangibly spiritual destination in the country. In the evenings men line up to carry the precious Granth Sahib from its gold sanctuary at the center of the Amrit Sarovar ("Pool of Nectar"), crossing the Guru's Bridge, which symbolizes the journey of the soul after death, to the Akal Takht, where the Holy Book rests for the night. You can take part in this ceremony by joining the line that forms behind and ahead of the heavy palanquin. Being part of this ancient tradition is a deeply moving experience and indicative of the embracing atmosphere you'll find in Sikh temples throughout India. See chapter 10.
Look into the Eyes of the Dalai Lama (Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh): There's a good chance you'll meet the Dalai Lama in person if you visit Dharamsala, home to the exiled Tibetan government, which fled its homeland in 1959. Arranging a private audience isn't easy (unless you're Richard Gere), but if you attend one of his public appearances, you will-like everyone else in the audience-receive a personal blessing. And whatever your convictions, when you look into the eyes of His Holiness, you know you are in the presence of pure energy. See chapter 10.
Witness a Thousand Prayers Take Flight on the Wind (Leh, Ladakh): Take the overland journey from Manali to Leh and enter the stark world of the trans-Himalayas-a breathtakingly beautiful yet desolate lunar-like landscape, with arid peaks and ancient Buddhist monasteries perched on rocky crags. Here prayer flags flutter against an impossibly blue sky, sending their silent prayers to the heavens. See chapter 10.
2 The Best Temples, Monuments & Lost Cities
Cave Temples at Ajanta & Ellora (Aurangabad, Maharashtra): Fashioned out of rock by little more than simple hand-held tools, the cave temples at Ajanta (created by Buddhist monks between the 2nd and 7th c.) and Ellora (a marriage of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples, created between the 4th and 9th c.) are the finest examples of rock-cut architecture in India, and deserving of their World Heritage status. The zenith is Kailashanath Temple, effectively a mountain whittled down to a free-standing temple. See "Aurangabad & the Ellora and Ajanta Caves" in chapter 3.
Lord Gomateswara Monolith (Sravanabelagola, Karnataka): One of the oldest (ca. A.D. 918) and most important Jain pilgrimage sites, this 18m (60-ft.) statue of the naked Lord Gomateswara-a representation of Bahubali, son of the first Jain tirthankara, said to have sought enlightenment by standing naked and motionless for an entire year-is the tallest monolithic statue on earth. (Don't miss the 2005 ceremony, when pilgrims will bathe the giant monolith with bucketfuls of milk and honey.) See "Exploring the Hoysala Heartland: Belur, Halebid & Sravanabelagola" in chapter 7.
Hampi (Karnataka): Scattered among the Henri Moore-like boulders in the heart of Karnataka's rural interior, Hampi was once the royal seat of the powerful Vijayanagar kingdom, its size and wealth drawing comparisons with imperial Rome. Today, the city has crumbled away to just a few starkly beautiful leftovers, but the remote setting couldn't be more romantic. See "Hampi & the Ruined City of Vijayanagar" in chapter 7.
The Temples of Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu): A visit to this once-thriving port city of the Pallavas dynasty, who ruled much of South India between the 4th and 9th centuries A.D., is an essential stop on Tamil's temple tour. The earliest examples of monumental architecture in southern India (the celebrated Arjuna's Penance is the largest relief-carving on earth), these rock-cut shrines are best explored in the morning, leaving you time to unwind on the pleasant beach and dine on succulent seafood at village cafes for a song. See "Mamallapuram (Mahabalipurum)" in chapter 6.
Shri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple (Madurai, Tamil Nadu): Alive with prayers, processions, garland-makers, and joyous devotees who celebrate the mythological romance between the beautiful three-breasted goddess and her mighty Lord Shiva, this colorful and lively complex of shrines, halls, and market stalls is almost Disneyesque, marked as it is by numerous entrance towers tangled with colorful stucco gods, demons, beasts, and mythological heroes. It truly embodies the spirit of Tamil Nadu's deeply embedded temple culture. See "Madurai" in chapter 6.
Taj Mahal (Agra, Uttar Pradesh): Nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the Taj. The perfect symmetry, the ethereal luminescence, the wonderful proportions, the sheer scale-virtually impossible to imagine from staring at its oft-reproduced image-and the exquisite detailing make this bejeweled monument to love a justifiable wonder of the world. See "Agra" in chapter 8.
Fatehpur Sikri (near Agra, Uttar Pradesh): From the intricacy of the glittering white marble screens that surround the dargah (tomb) of Salim Chisti to Pachisi Court, where the emperor played a ludo-like game using the ladies of his harem as live pieces, this magnificent ghost city-built almost entirely from red sandstone in 1571 and deserted only 14 years later-is a testament to the secular vision of Akbar, one of the great players in India's most dynamic dynasty. See "Agra" in chapter 8.
The Temples of Khajuraho (Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh): Built between the 10th and 12th centuries by the Chandela Rajputs, these World Heritage monuments are most famous for the erotic sculptures that writhe across the interiors and exteriors. But even the temple designs-their soaring shikharas (spires) serving as metaphoric "stairways to heaven"-are striking, and are considered the apotheosis of medieval Hindu architecture. See "Khajuraho" in chapter 8.
Meherangarh Fort (Jodhpur, Rajasthan): The impenetrable walls of this 15th-century edifice to Rajput valor rise seamlessly from the rocky outcrop on which they were built, literally dwarfing the labyrinthine city at its base; from its crenelated ramparts you enjoy postcard views of the "Blue City" below. In the distance is the grand silhouette of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, heritage hotel and residence of the current maharaja. Within the fort is one of the best palace museums in India. See "Jodhpur" in chapter 9.
Jain Temples of Rajasthan & Gujarat (Ranakpur & Mount Abu, near Udaipur, Rajasthan, and Palitana, Gujarat): The Jain put all their devotional passion (and not inconsiderable wealth) into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch, they are all simply jaw-droppingly beautiful. Make sure you visit at least one while you're in India, preferably either the Ranakpur or Dilwara temples in Rajasthan. Or head for Palitana, in Gujarat, where 850 Jain temples and 1,000 shrines top sacred Mount Satrunjaya, "the hill that conquers enemies." See chapter 9.
Golden Temple (Amritsar, Punjab): Arguably the greatest spiritual monument in India. The name derives from the central gold-plated Hari Mandir-the inner sanctuary featuring gold-plated copper cupolas and white marble walls inlaid with precious stones-which sits at the center of the "Pool of Nectar." Every day thousands of disciplined devotees pay their respects, touching their heads to the glistening marble floor while singing devotional songs continuously-a wonderful, welcoming, and humbling experience. See "The Golden Temple in Amritsar" in chapter 10.
The Sun Temple at Konark (near Bhubaneswar, Orissa): An enormous war chariot carved from a massive chunk of rock during the 13th century, this masterpiece of Indian temple art is covered with detailed sculpted scenes, from the erotic to the mythological. Guarded by stone elephants and lions, the immense structure is seen as the gigantic chariot of the sun god emerging from the ocean, not far from Orissa's 500km (300-mile) beach. See "Orissa's Golden Temple Triangle" in chapter 12.
Tabo (Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh): This 1,005-year-old Buddhist complex houses magnificent frescoes and brilliant stucco and relief figures that recount ancient myths and celebrate the deities and demons that make up the Buddhist pantheon. You'll need a torch to adequately explore the dark, smoldering halls and shrines lit only by thin shafts of natural light, and brought to life by the resonant chants and ringing of bells by the monks and nuns who populate this sacred center of Tibetan Buddhism. See "Exploring Kinnaur & Spiti" in chapter 10.
3 Unique Places to Stay
Not surprisingly, most of these are in Rajasthan, which has almost 80 heritage properties-castles, palaces, forts, and ornate havelis (traditional mansions), now hotels with varying degrees of comfort.
Taj Mahal Hotel (Mumbai): George Bernard Shaw famously claimed that after staying here, he no longer had any need to visit the real Taj Mahal in Agra.
Excerpted from Frommer's India by Pippa de Bruyn Keith Bain Excerpted by permission.
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