Academic Trips & language Classes
Ekno Experience (www.eknoexperience.com) is based in the Himalayan region of northern India and has a number of learning packages for travelers interested in spirituality, Buddhism, Tibetan culture, and more esoteric activities such as reiki, tarot card reading, meditation, and yoga
Adventure & Wellness Trips
With huge swaths of Himalayan mountains; a massive coastline; an age-old traditional health system that has massage as one of its keys components; a wealth of spiritual and mystical knowledge systems; wildlife reserves sheltering tigers, elephant and unbelievable birdlife; and an ever-expanding market for daring and adventurous fun, India is a formidable destination for anyone looking to combine their vacation with a more rigorous and intense experience. Whether you're looking to sweat from exertion or rejuvenate mind, body, and soul, you'll find your fix somewhere in this diverse destination.
Innovative U.K.-based travel agency Black Tomato (www.blacktomato.co.uk) will put together just about any sort of trip you care to imagine, and they're always up for a challenge. They do off-the-beaten-track tours quite well, and are good at combining luxury with adventure activities and more daring travel experiences. Their website is a good place to start if you're looking for ways of injecting your trip with some added adrenaline: Their 10-day "India + Extreme Thrills" itinerary, for example, includes hot-air ballooning, zip-lining over an ancient fortress city, tiger tracking on elephant back, and an Enfield motorbike safari.
Hiking & Adventure -- Start off by looking at what Shakti (www.shaktihimalaya.com) is offering, especially for its admirable approach to responsible tourism. If none of its programs suit you, try Mountain Kingdoms (www.mountainkingdoms.com) or TransIndus (www.transindus.co.uk), although the latter's itineraries are not limited to outdoor excursions. Steppes East Ltd. (www.steppeseast.co.uk) is another reputable option; it lets you conveniently create your personal itinerary online. Other Himalayan trekking outfits are Aquaterra Adventures (www.treknraft.com), Mountain Travel/Sobek (www.mtsobek.com), and Adventure Center (www.adventurecenter.com); the latter two also have general adventure expeditions. Another interesting homegrown Indian adventure specialist company is 18 Days (www.18days.in), which organizes a variety of treks (some of which are for women only) and river adventures, most of which happen in the Himalayas; all their trips typically last 18 days, but they offer shorter versions for those with less time.
On Horse, Elephant, or Camel Back -- Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com) specializes in Rajasthan camel safaris and elephant expeditions. Equine Adventures organizes riding vacations in Rajasthan (www.equineadventures.co.uk). In the Himalayas, Nitin Gupta of Dusty Trail Adventures (http://dustytrail.in) designs superb high-altitude horseback trails.
Wildlife, Birding & Butterfly Vacations -- Wildlife enthusiasts can check on the numerous options for group bird- and wildlife-watching trips from Naturetrek (www.naturetrek.co.uk). For small, high-end, exotic bird-watching tours of India, look no further than Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (www.ventbird.com), based in Austin, Texas; the tours are usually sold out as soon as they come online. Victor often includes the "Palace on Wheels," a weeklong journey through Rajasthan (including Agra) in a luxury train, and there are wildlife trips to more exotic corners of India, such as Assam.
Diving -- For diving adventures in Lakshadweep, take a look at the packages offered at www.diveworldwide.com.
Heritage & Wedding Tours -- Travel writer Dagmar von Harryegg is based in Australia but is passionate about India, particularly the desert states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, where she has developed an extensive network of contacts and friends, from elephant mahouts to reclusive princes. She offers personally tailored special-interest trips (anything from yoga or bird-watching to Bollywood and/or classical dance lessons) for a maximum of eight travelers -- preferably friends, thereby ensuring a flexible timetable "cruising in wonderfully old-fashioned Ambassador limousines with overnight stays in off-the-beaten-track destinations." She also arranges large Hindi-style traditional weddings for couples looking for a really memorable nuptial celebration. Most trips take off in Delhi and can include a visit to the Taj Mahal. For information, contact Dagmar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Motorbike Safaris -- Motorbike safaris are increasingly popular; if you can handle the fabulous Enfield motorbike, get in touch with Shepherds Realms Camps & Adventures (C-8/8115, Shepherd's House, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi; tel. 011/2649-2849 or 98-1871-2970; www.asiasafari.com), operated by ex-army captain, Raj Kumar; he's not the suave sort, but provides an excellent service for his bike tours into the Himalayas. Also specializing in motorcycle tours is Blazing Trails (www.blazingtrailstours.com), which, in addition to the Himalayas, also heads south and into Rajasthan.
Spa Vacations & Wellness Retreats -- Ayurvedic getaways -- particularly in the south Indian state of Kerala -- have long been a major draw among European vacationers looking for the type of rejuvenation and healing that falls outside the scope of Western medicine. Ayurveda inevitably involves plenty of massage, which translates as a deeply pampering form of medicine. Ayurvedic spas and hospitals are now available practically anywhere in India. The best intensive Ayurvedic retreat in the country is Kalari Kovilakom, which offers a variety of extremely upmarket and authentic rejuvenation, healing, weight-loss, and antiage packages. Kovilakom was conceived by CGH Earth (www.cghearth.com), an eco-conscious Kerala-based hotel group which also runs SwaSwara another swish Ayurveda and yoga resort, this time on the coast of Karnataka. Both places are highly recommended, as are the Ayurvedic centers at all CGH Earth properties.
Among the specialist tours offered by On the Go (www.onthegotours.com) there are spa breaks in the Himalayas and Ayurvedic breaks in Kerala.
Food & Wine Trips
Cooking -- Those looking for a cooking vacation can get their aprons and bathing suits out and head to Goa, where On the Go organizes a variety of special-interest trips (www.onthegotours.com).
For authentic, down-to-earth tours that endeavor to get under the skin of local culture, take a look at what's offered from Insider Tours (www.insider-tours.com). They don't specialize only in India, but do offer several trips in the north and south of the country, and have specialist birding and food tours; the latter include exposure to a variety of cuisine types and an introduction to various aspects of food and culinary culture, predominantly in the south Indian state of Kerala.
Most kitchens in South India welcome inquisitive visitors, with chefs proud to share the culinary secrets that make this cuisine so addictive -- Paradisa Plantation Retreat (www.paradisaretreat.com) in particular worth highlighting here, as are the CGH Earth properties (www.cghearth.com), many of which run regular cooking demonstrations -- but for a more formal approach to tuition it's worth signing up for one of the cooking classes offered at many of the homestays in Kerala where you're trained up in a number of specific dishes: Vanilla County (http://vanillacounty.in) and The Pimenta (www.harithafarms.com) are two such places where lessons take place in the family kitchen of a home on a spice plantation in the foothills of Kerala's Western Ghats (an easy drive from Fort Kochi). After preparing a number of traditional vegetarian dishes, you sit down and dine with the family, and spend time touring local cultural sights.
Volunteer & Working Trips
Contributing your time, energy, skills and knowledge while traveling in a foreign country can be a life-changing experience. In India, it often means working for the upliftment of the poor and inevitably puts you in direct contact with people living a reality you might never even have imagined possible. Please don't expect to change the world, but rather go into any volunteer situation with an open mind and an open heart; don't condescend and assume you have all the answers -- you don't, and you've signed up to contribute your services, not dictate to the very people you've come to help. We've noted a few agencies you can contact to find out about volunteer positions, but before embarking on this somewhat courageous mission, you might want to check out Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org), which has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.
Projects Abroad (www.projects-abroad.co.uk) is a U.K.-based organization with volunteer placements and internships in developing nations around the globe. Their projects are aimed primarily at gap year travelers, students looking for summer placement, or anyone looking for a career break. Volunteers will be based in Sivakasi near the city of Madurai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Volunteers can choose from a wide range of services, including journalism, medicine and healthcare, teaching, and sports work; a 2-week volunteering position costs around $1,995 (a full month costs $2,445), which covers transfers, insurance, food, and lodging. Accommodations are basic (either with local families or in hostels), but with an emphasis on allowing you to experience an authentic, local way of life.
ATMA Mumbai (Atma Education Trust, 794/1, 1st floor, Satguru Shopping Centre, 3rd Rd., nr Khar Station, Khar West, Mumbai; tel. 022/26059810; www.atmamumbai.org) is an educational development NGO with a focus on providing assistance to other NGOs and on improving the lot of children. They work with several schools in Mumbai, and provide non-paid opportunities for volunteers willing to teach or giving administrative support. You'll be required to commit yourself to a project for a minimum of 3 months and there is no financial support of any sort, although they will assist you in finding local accommodation and will pick you up from the airport and provide a basic orientation tour of the city.
Reality Tours and Travel (1/26, Akber House, Nowroji Fardonji Rd., opp. Laxmi Vilas Hotel, Colaba, Mumbai; tel. 98-2082-2253 or 022/2283-3872; www.realitytoursandtravel.com) is an innovative local tour company that runs walking tours through Mumbai's Dharavi slum. They have also started their own kindergarten and community center in Dharavi, and are in the process of launching an NGO called Reality Cares. They can help you find a suitable volunteer position within Mumbai, working either with ATMA or other NGO and volunteer organizations. If you are unsure about how you'd like to contribute your time and energy, Krishna, one of the young, dynamic founders of Reality Tours, will help you understand the city dynamic and its needs.
Ekno Experience (www.eknoexperience.com) has a number of placements for volunteers willing to work, predominantly as teaching or child care givers, but there are also positions for health care givers and special needs care givers. The organization can put together packages that combine volunteering programs with unique travel experiences.
Rogpa Charitable Trust(Kapoor House, near Tibetan Ashoka Guest House, Jogiwara Rd., McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala; tel. 98-1665-9549; www.rogpa.com) focuses on Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, and runs a Baby Care Centre, which has places for up to 10 international volunteers who are invited to work with the children for a minimum of 15 days. Volunteers work alongside a full-time staff of seven caregivers of Tibetan origin and are expected to provide love and care for around 35 children all under 3 years of age; duties include storytelling, sleep supervision, hosting play time, feeding, cleaning, and diaper changing. Past volunteers have reported that the job is exhausting but extremely fulfilling. You'll find images of the experience on Facebook.
One more organization to consider if you're interested in working with Tibetan refugees, is LHA Charitable Trust (tel. 01892/22-0992; www.lhasocialwork.org), which provides opportunities for foreigners in various fields, from health care and education to building maintenance and computer technology. The trust also offers services to foreigners, including Tibetan language and cooking classes, yoga and meditation workshops, and various therapeutic treatments such as massage and reiki.
Escorted General-Interest Tours
Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation.
Despite the fact that escorted tours require big deposits and predetermine hotels, restaurants, and itineraries, many people derive security and peace of mind from the structure they offer. Escorted tours -- whether they're navigated by bus, motorcoach, train, or boat -- let travelers sit back and enjoy the trip without having to drive or worry about details. They take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle. They're particularly convenient for people with limited mobility and they can be a great way to make new friends.
On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jam-packed with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on many a lesser-known gem.
For midrange and budget tours, U.K.-based Imaginative Traveller is popular for its midrange-priced escorted tours (www.imaginative-traveller.com), and includes a tour of the remote northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, and Nagaland, which aren't covered in this book.
San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions (1008 General Kennedy Ave., San Francisco, CA 94129-0902; tel. 800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448; www.geoex.com) is rated among the world's best tour organizers, with innovative, well-structured trips that combine off-the-well-trodden-path experiences with must-see sights. Their portfolio currently includes village tours of Ladakh and Rajasthan, journeys through the south, and trips that focus on festivals in certain regions. Most of their tours last between 12 and 18 days; while they have a schedule of planned departure dates, they are also able to tailor any departure to suit you and your party, irrespective of size. Geographic Expeditions also offers the possibility of completely personalized 100% customized trips, offering all the services you'd expect on a group tour.
One of India's foremost tourism operators, Sita World Travel (called SOTC in some places) is represented throughout the length and breadth of India. Sita offers a wide range of tours to cover a range of budgets and interests. These include sightseeing trips and excursions to India's top attractions, as well as soft-adventure and special-interest tours that can really get you off the beaten track (www.e-holidaysindia.com).
Note that many of the recommended individual and adventure operators listed above offer escorted group tours.
Discovering Spiritual India
However you choose to spend your time in India, you are unlikely to return home unaffected by your sojourn here. Indeed, you are likely to find a moment of enlightenment in the most unexpected places, whether you're engaged in conversation with a shopkeeper over a cup of chai or people-watching on a suffocatingly crowded city street. But for generations visitors have come to India specifically seeking some sort of spiritual transformation, and the increasing plethora of first-rate accommodations and Western-style food options are making it easier than ever -- and in some ways more difficult, by cocooning travelers from unvarnished India.
Basic yoga classes are conducted in many places all over the country, as are the various techniques and methods of meditation. But the best way to experience and improve your skills in either or both of these disciplines -- and possibly find true bliss or meaning in life through a spiritual leader -- is to spend time at an ashram, where philosophical (or religious, depending on where you go) discourse accompanies a meditation and/or yoga program. There are innumerable ashrams all over the country, some the domain of a dynamic guru (the teacher whose role it is to assist the spiritual awakening of devotees); while others (like the Vipassana centers) are not driven by a single personality. In the following paragraphs we discuss where you can go to study and practice classic spiritual disciplines during your trip to India.
Meditation -- The most upmarket meditation center in India is the Osho International Meditation Resort in the city of Pune (near Mumbai; www.osho.com). It's aimed at those who aren't concerned with giving up the real world while they search for enlightenment. Here, you're surrounded by 20 hectares (50 acres) of lush greenery (styled on the Japanese water garden), and the campus consists of marvelous pyramidal meditation halls, with a stylish Zen-styled guesthouse, cafes, the esoteric "Multiversity," magnificent swimming pool, and recreation facilities. For Rs 550 per day (excluding accommodation), you can fill your day with a variety of inward-looking activities, ranging from the intensive early morning "Dynamic Meditation" to the slightly surreal "Evening Meeting of the Brotherhood of the White Robe," during which you get to focus on Osho's voice, recorded during his time on earth. There's another Osho retreat near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, but it's less welcoming of people who aren't already familiar with Osho's teachings.
One of India's most ancient meditation techniques is Vipassana, which translates as "seeing things as they really are." Taught at 10-day residential courses at many centers around the country, this program is not for the fickle -- during the course of the program you must adhere to a strict code of conduct, such as consuming nothing after midday. For many, however, the hardest part of the course is the rule of absolute silence, in which you're not allowed to speak (or read) a word for the first 9 days. The lack of any form of entertainment or sensory stimulation as well is meant to assist true inner awakening. This is certainly one of the most authentic meditation programs you will find anywhere, and one not based on devotion to a single guru or charismatic personality. The course is also absolutely free with no charges for food and board. Check out www.dhamma.org for more details.
For meditation in the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition, Tushita Meditation Centre (www.tushita.info), a few miles north of Mcleodganj, offers short- and long-term programs for beginners as well as the experienced. Unlike Vipassana courses, which are more or less secular and nonsectarian, Tushita courses include teaching of Buddhist philosophy and religion as well as different meditation techniques.
If all this sounds too committed, Sudarshan Kriya, the revered Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's highly acclaimed breathing and meditation technique, can be learned through courses conducted by The Art of Living Foundation throughout India. For details, visit www.artofliving.org.
Yoga -- For seriously dedicated yoga students willing to make a commitment of at least a month, the country has several well-known centers. Be aware, however, that at most of these places, room facilities are rather basic. The Bihar School of Yoga has an ashram on the banks of the Ganga in Munger, Bihar, where students come from around the world, usually for at least 4 months (www.yogavision.net). Requiring at least 1 month of dedicated practice is the hugely popular (and highly regarded) Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, where the fee of Rs 27,530 for the first month (Rs 17,416 for each subsequent month) is heftier than most, and does not include room and board (visit www.kpjayi.org); note, however, that the venerated yoga master who founded the institute (or shala), Krishna Pattabhi Jois (aka Guruji), passed away in May 2009. For yoga in the tradition of that most famous of Indian yoga gurus, BKS Iyengar, you can contact the regional center in Mumbai. The courses at the Pune headquarters are only for long-term yoga experts and are booked up to 2 years in advance (www.bksiyengar.com). Less intensive, and more flexible for the traveler, is the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre (www.hiyogacentre.com). This visitor-friendly organization has retreats in two locations: in Goa right on the sand dunes at Arambol Beach, and in Dharamkot (an hour's drive from Dharamsala, in Himachal Pradesh).
Ashrams -- For those travelers intent on working on their dharma and karma, destinations such as Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Bodhgaya (Bihar), Rishikesh, and Haridwar (both in Uttarakhand) have numerous centers, each providing some direction to an individuals' spiritual quest. In Rishikesh, The Divine Life Society welcomes daily visitors to its ashram on the banks of the Ganga; it professes to embrace the essential truth found in all the religions of the world. Chanting continues 24 hours a day (check the website www.sivanandaonline.org for details). In Bodhgaya, the Root Institute (www.rootinstitute.com) runs 6- to 12-day courses and retreats in Buddhist philosophy and spiritual awakening meant to bring peace and happiness to daily life. You can also attend 1-day workshops and take short courses on topics such as how to meditate, peaceful living and dying, and transforming problems into happiness. Accommodations are available at the institute.
You can also find programs offered by more well-known groups, such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna; www.iskcon.com), Ramakrishna Mission (www.sriramakrishna.org), and Aurobindo Ashram (www.sriaurobindoashram.org) in Puducherry (Pondicherry), as well as gurus with large, worldwide followings such as Sri Mata Amritanansamayi Devi -- better know to the world as Amma (or "The Mother" or "The Hugging Guru") -- who has her ashram in Amritapuri in Kerala (www.amritapuri.org).
For a deeper, more authentic experience -- spiritually and culturally -- Arunachala, the ashram dedicated to the teachings of the late Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, is 3 hours west of Chennai, in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu (www.arunachala-ramana.org). Rooms are small, basic, and cheap, but you will have to book 1 month in advance.
Finally, another fairly upmarket ashram, one with a strong following among Westerners, is run by the Siddha Yoga foundation at Ganeshpuri, also near Mumbai (www.siddhayoga.org). Note that this ashram does not encourage casual tourists dropping in; you have to be in touch with their programs to be allowed onto the beautiful walled estate.
A note of caution: Although all the yoga and meditation centers listed here are legitimate, care should be taken before embarking on any spiritual journey in India. (If you don't believe us, read Gita Mehta's Karma Cola [Vintage Books], an acerbic and witty investigation into the way in which unscrupulous gurus market Indian spirituality to credulous Westerners in search of something more "enlightened.") There are some who feel that spiritual teaching should come free, while others argue that spiritualism is being packaged for Westerners in a way they can relate to, and performs basically the same function as a psychotherapist might in the West. Most important: Be aware that literally thousands of gurus and ashrams, "pseudo" or "real," are spread all over the country, some of whose principal aim is to part you from your money or, in worst-case scenarios, to sexually exploit you. Principally, be suspicious of two things: gurus who claim to have supernatural or magical "powers" or are "miracle workers," and those who ask for hefty donations. Check credentials and make your choice wisely.
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.