Visiting temples that pulsate with devotion will evoke a sense of the sacred, but in India, where religion is such an integral part of daily life, spiritual experiences occur when you least expect them.
- See Things as They Really Are (Vipassana Centers throughout India): Maintaining a strict code of silence with no sensory stimulation for 10 days may sound like a self-induced hell, but after attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, most people claim transformation and find the mental training invaluable. And it costs nothing.
- Witness the Miracle of Hope (Mumbai): Set to become the world's most populous city within the next few years, India's economic capital is a heady, seething megalopolis, loved and loathed in equal measure. It's also a beacon of hope and promises of a better life for millions of people. Some achieve godlike status as Bollywood superstars, but the vast majority struggle by, ever-hopeful of achieving the type of miraculous success that's seldom seen in real life. You'll see the poor and dispossessed everywhere in India, but in Mumbai, a tour through Dharavi, Asia's largest shantytown and setting for Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, will show you a culture of dogged hope and aspiration that will melt even the coldest heart.
- Become the Buddha That You Already Are (Osho International Meditation Resort, Pune, Maharashtra): Attracting controversy for most of his life, the radical, capricious 20th-century mystic Bhagwan Rajneesh -- aka Osho -- rejected religion, opposed existing social order, and spoke out strongly in favor of independent action that, with disciplined and rigorous meditation, would lead to enlightenment. His teachings form the basis of programs at numerous Osho centers around the world, but his original commune in Pune (not far from Mumbai) has been transformed not into an ashram, but into a campus of beautiful gardens, pyramidal meditation halls, and elegant spaces that include an ultra-Zen guesthouse, cafes, and a huge swimming pool. You'll understand immediately why Osho was known as the rich man's guru, and given enough time here -- cloaked in a maroon robe and attending meditational gatherings that many outsiders have labeled as secretive, cultlike, and mysterious, you'll soon discover your inner Buddha.
- 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 nationals of the world, and find solace in the serenity of a rural villager's smile as she hands over cups of soothing chai for the duration of the party.
- Leave Your World Behind as You Cleanse Body and Soul (Kalari Kovilakom, Kerala): Ayurvedic philosophy preaches that your body is a temple and at Kalari Kovilakom, a palace-turned-Ayurvedic hospital that miraculously combines five-star heritage accommodations with the ambience and discipline of an ashram, you'll be compelled to devote all your time and energy towards rejuvenating your physical being and recharging your spiritual energies. Established by India's leading eco-conscious hotel group, CGH Earth, this is the most upmarket health retreat in the country, with daily consultations and treatments by dedicated, highly qualified Ayurvedic doctors, regular yoga classes, meditation sessions, individualized healthful diets, and a regime of personal disciplines designed to help you align body and mind.
- Worship the Sunrise as It Touches the Southernmost Tip (Kanyakumari, 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 into the turbulent swell, believing that the tri-oceanic waters at India's southernmost tip are holy, while others delight in the glorious spectacle as if it's a Bollywood (the nickname for India's booming film industry) premiere.
- Lose All Sense of Reality in the City of Light (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh): Drifting at dawn on a boat on the Ganges 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 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.
- Reach a Spiritual High on Top of the Holiest Jain Mountain at Shatrunjaya (Palitana, Gujarat). As you puff your way up the seemingly infinite steps winding their way up into the misty, lush forest, you may feel as though you'll never make it down again -- or, if you do, it'll be as a different person. The holy Jain mount of Shatrunjaya has over 900 beautiful temples (most in mint condition), coupled with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, the Gulf of Cambay, and the Shatrunjaya mountains and river flowing through the verdant hills behind. Even if you're a firm non-believer, your heart will be won over.
- Make a Wish at the Tomb of a Sufi Saint (Ajmer, Rajasthan): The great Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-Din 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 but frequented by Hindus and Muslims alike. The atmosphere of pure devotion is both ancient and surreal; some pray fervently, and others tie threads onto the latticework while supplicating the saint to fulfill their wish, while throughout these activities, the qawwali singers seated in front of the tomb repeat the same beautiful, haunting melodies that have been sung for centuries.
- 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 golden sanctuary at the center of the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), crossing Guru's Bridge, which symbolizes the journey of the soul after death, to Akal Takht, where the Holy Book rests for the night. Men 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.
- 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 love.
- 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 lunarlike 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.
- Clapping Along during Evening Aarti as the Faithful Give Thanks to the Ganges (Rishikesh, Uttarakhand): By day, Rishikesh is a spiritual Disneyland, where the commercial excesses of packaged meditation and two-for-one tantric yoga hang heavily about the concrete ashrams, bedecked with gaudy statues of Vishnu and Shiva. But at night, to the accompaniment of hypnotic prayers and harmonious singing, the town undergoes a magical transformation. Head for the Parmarth Niketan Ashram Ghat and feel yourself seduced by the divine rhythms during Ganga Aarti, when devotees gather to sing their praises at the edge of the Ganges River.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.