a traveler’s notebook
India. A place to stir the soul, heighten the senses and stimulate the intellect. All of us who practice yoga have experienced it on some level. For many, the physical practice of Hatha Yoga, one of the eight limbs of the tradition, puts us in contact through the use of Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, and through other aspects of the 6,000-year old practice deeply rooted in this timeless place.
You may have considered a journey here, to go to the source. A vast country encompassing various cultures, tribes, castes and religions (over 12 at last count), India could never be fully explored in a lifetime, let alone one trip, so don’t try and overachieve. Just breathe deeply and follow your instinct. Some places will speak to you.
To get you started however, we’ve listed a few suggested destinations both well-traveled and off-the-beaten path. They represent different aspects of the subcontinent — evocative architecture, spiritual centers, untamed nature, and in some cases a combination of several of these attributes. The itinerary also focuses on one region, North Central India, a good strategy to use when traveling across a country of some three million square kilometers.
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The Hindu holy city of Varanasi sits at the very center of India’s sacred geography, like the hub of a wheel whose spokes extend north to the Himalayas, east to Puri, south to Kanyakumari and Dwarka to the west. Continuously inhabited since the 6th Century BC, this ancient city is defined by its wealth of temples and riparian lifeblood, the Ganges. Here, at the river’s edge, ghats or landings serve as ritual bathing spots for Hindus of all castes. At daybreak, these ghats are lyrical spots to watch life unfold as it has for centuries.
The city itself is a warren of serpentine lanes filled with bicycles, scooters, school kids, cows (and cow dung of course) and touts hustling every trinket and tour imaginable. Dive in and explore! The many notable temples and sacred spots also merit a visit, such as Adi Vishweshwara, Vishwanatha or Golden Temple and Manikrnika Kund. Special tours (see below) can be arranged to help you navigate both the mind-boggling alleys and strict etiquette necessary to visit these powerful places.
An hour plane flight from Varanasi (the best way, as there are no direct rail or bus lines here) lie the almost mythical temple complexes of Khajuraho.
Graceful spires that are staggered up to ten stories high, which some say are meant to echo the Himalayas, abode of the Gods, these are temples of incredible symmetry and unrepentant sensuality. Built by the Chandela dynasty a thousand years ago, the temples, especially on the north and south-facing walls, feature gracefully carved figures of gods and goddesses and everyday men and women twining in sometimes seemingly impossible erotic embraces.
The Western Group of Temples, including Lakshmana and Kandariya Mahadeva (once a Shiva temple) are the most impressive, standing like giant chess pieces on a flat, verdant plain. Scenes of daily life, battles, lovers, animals and ornately carved arches and garlands rendered in sandstone on these and other temples scattered throughout the area provide an eternally evocative view into India’s rich and complex spiritual and dynastic history.
Appearing almost as a mirage through the mists of time, the slowly decaying palaces and temples of Orccha still speak fluently of past glories. Located in Madhya Pradesh (and an accessible five-hour drive from Khajuraho) Orchha (which means “hidden place”) was once the home of wealthy Hindu princes loyal to powerful Moghul invaders. Here, courtly decadence was refined to a high art, with a favorite courtesan’s private villa still resplendent centuries after lavish performances and royal trysts with the raja have been forgotten.
Though almost 500 years old, the architecture remains striking — a textbook example of the fusion of Islamic and Hindu design resulting from the arrival of the Moghuls. One of the palaces has been converted to a hotel, while the village at the approach before the River Betwa has interesting stalls, good restaurants and several guesthouses and hotels.
Panna National Park
Don’t visit India without taking time out to breath in the fresh air and unspoiled vistas of a national park or preserve. One of India’s largest, Panna, can be visited as a day-trip from Khajaraho. Set along the scenic River Ken, the park is home to several species of antelope and deer, including elk-sized sambar as well as both species of Indian crocodiles. The most prized sighting here, however, are tigers, which still roam this former royal hunting preserve.
Haze. Fumes. Frenzy. Traffic. And then there is the Taj Mahal. Splendid beyond all vapid adjectives, it simply must be seen. Commissioned by the Moghul sultan Shah Jahan, 20,000 workers toiled for over 20 years four centuries ago to build this magnificent testament to love, faith and power. Beyond the sublime symmetry and impressive scale, intricate carvings and inlaid precious stones which detail the structure add yet another layer of astonishing accomplishment to a true wonder of the world.
Heading westward along the Yamuna river, Agra Fort is another excellent reason to visit. A symbol of the Moghul’s power over the region, its red sandstone battlements, interior courtyards and royal pavilions summon the ghosts of times past. Those looking to take a piece of India home with them won’t be disappointed either. Look for inlaid marble tables, vases, beautiful Taj-inspired rugs and leather goods.