Trying to come up with the perfect itinerary to fit your time frame—and not sure where to start, given India’s vastness? Here, Chandresh Bhardwaj, author of Break the Norms, and a seventh-generation spiritual teacher in New York and Los Angeles who leads multiple retreats in his homeland of India each year, shares his top picks for the holy cities, historical sites, and spiritual pilgrimages every student of yoga should consider.
This lesser-known holy city, formerly called Allahabad and renamed in late 2018 by a new government trying to build a more spiritual India, is located at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati Saraswati rivers. When the Kumbh Mela festival happens here (most recently in January 2019), it’s the largest: Up to 150 million pilgrims will travel from across the country and the world, and wait for days to bathe in the holy river.
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The Ganges—or Ganga, considered a living goddess—descends from its source in the Himalayas, called Gomukh, to the north Indian plains in Haridwar before making its way across the country and pouring into the Bay of Bengal. That’s why this city’s name means “gateway to god” and has been a center of Hindu religion and mysticism since ancient times. In Hindu mythology, Haridwar is also one of the four sites where drops of amrit, the elixir of immortality, accidentally spilled over from the celestial bird Garuda’s pitcher. This manifested in the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that’s celebrated four times over the course of 12 years at four different pilgrimage sites, including Haridwar. Even when this famous festival isn’t happening, you can experience nightly Ganga Aarti ceremonies here.
One of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, Varanasi is also one of India’s holiest. Walk on the river’s banks, and you’ll hear the near-constant clanging of puja ceremonial bells and see the flicker of lamps illuminating the holy river at night. You’ll also see pilgrims bathing—and a maze of funeral pyres, where bodies burn along Varanasi’s cremation ghat, or river bank. “This is a city where death is honored, welcomed, and celebrated in a sacred way,” Bhardwaj says. “Many Indians believe that if the right rituals are done at the time of their death, they’ll achieve the ultimate goal—liberation of the constant cycle of being born, suffering, and going through the drama of living—if their body is burned or their ashes are scattered in Varanasi.”
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Want to practice in the footsteps of the ancient yogis? Rishikesh, considered by many to be the yoga capital of India—of the world, really—is where yoga, tantra, and mantras were created, Bhardwaj says. “There’s such powerful energy here that even if you don’t practice asana or meditation and just keep yourself receptive and open, big things can happen,” he says. On the banks of the holy river Ganges you’ll find ashrams, temples, and shops, as well as a diverse, international group of spiritual seekers. When you’re there, don’t miss Ganga Aarti, a fire ceremony at the sacred bank called Triveni Ghat.
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The Ganges, also known as Ma Ganga, is the most revered, sacred river in Hindu lore. When Ma Ganga was asked to descend to Earth from the heavens, she was insulted, so she decided to sweep away everything in her path with her waters once she reached the terrestrial plain. In order to protect the Earth from Ma Ganga’s force, Lord Shiva sat in the Himalayan mountain town of Gangotri and caught the powerful river in his hair, saving the Earth from cracking open. Thanks to Shiva, Ma Ganga’s celestial, purifying waters then flowed through India, and the devout travel to her banks to wash away sins and find salvation. A multi-day trek to Gomukh—the Gangotri Glacier that is the site of Ma Ganga’s headwaters—is the ultimate pilgrimage, Bhardwaj says.
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This north Indian town nestled in the Himalayas is where Lord Shiva is believed to have meditated. Pilgrims make the 11-mile uphill trek to the Kedarnath Temple—which, due to extreme weather conditions, is open only from the end of April to early November—to worship him. “Passionate yogis who meditate there for a while often experience intense energies,” Bhardwaj says.
This northern Indian state in the foothills of the Himalayas is home to countless goddess temples and monasteries, Bhardwaj says, as well as the 14th Dalai Lama’s monastery, where he currently lives and gives public discourses. “It’s an especially interesting place because of the combination of Hindu and Buddhist traditions,” Bhardwaj says.
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Badrinath Temple, dedicated to Vishnu, one of the Hindu triad of gods along with Shiva and Brahma, is also one of the four Char Dham pilgrimage sites. Visiting the char dhams, which means “four abodes”—Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri, and Rameswaram—is something every Hindu must do during his or her lifetime, Bhardwaj says. “I think of Badrinath as the little brother of Kedarnath,” he says. “While Kedarnath is the homeland of Shiva, and has this intense energy as a result, Badrinath radiates a more holy, more Hindu energy.”
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One of the most recognized monuments in existence, this mausoleum is also one of the seven wonders of the world—and a must-see when making the trek to India. Located in Agra (part of India’s popular Golden Triangle circuit, which also includes Delhi and Jaipur), the marble monument was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete—and cost the equivalent of approximately $800 million today. While this UNESCO World Heritage Site will undoubtedly be crowded when you go (a whopping 7 to 8 million tourists visit each year), it’s well worth seeing.
This town, located in the northeastern state of Rajasthan, is set on Pushkar Lake, a sacred Hindu site where pilgrims bathe along its ghats. It’s also home to the only temple of Brahma, the Hindu god known as the creator of the world, Bhardwaj says. “This is one of my all-time favorite places in India,” he says.
The remains of more than 1,600 monuments are scattered over the 16-square-mile area of this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is the former capital of the Vijayanagar empire (in power from the 14th to 16th centuries). Amid the elegant ruins of medieval Indian culture, you’ll also find humbler shrines expressing the local villagers’ heartfelt devotion to Rama, Sita, and Hanuman. This area is the legendary Kishkinda, realm of the monkey gods, where Rama, one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities, is said to have met the monkey god Hanuman on his quest to rescue his kidnapped wife, the goddess Sita.
Important Places for Yoga
Located in the southwestern state of Karnataka, this former capital of the Kingdom of Mysore is home to the opulent Mysore Palace and centuries-old Devaraja Market. Mysore was also home to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, an Indian yoga teacher, Ayurvedic healer, and scholar who’s often referred to as the father of modern yoga. Yoga students may know it as the birthplace of Ashtanga Yoga, where the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute was established in 1948 and where Ashtanga practitioners from all over the world travel to practice and train.
B.K.S. Iyengar was born in 1918 in Bellur, a city that was in the grip of the influenza pandemic at the time. An attack left Iyengar sick throughout his childhood, and when he was 16 years old, his brother-in-law—Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya—asked him to come to Mysore to help with the family. There, Iyengar started to learn asana, which steadily helped his health improve. In 1936, Krishnamacharya sent Iyengar to Pune to spread the teaching of yoga. Now, Pune is home to the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute—which Iyengar opened in 1975, and is considered the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga. Iyengar students from all over the world come here to practice and train with the institute’s esteemed teachers.