Along with Islam (that I’ll discuss when I post about Delhi), Jainism (which I also had the opportunity to explore on my trip to the Madhya Pradesh region, in the heart of the country) and Christianity; Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are perhaps the six most known and followed Northern India religions.
After a first trip to the country a few years ago, when I traveled all the way from the southernmost tip in Kerala to New Delhi; I really wanted to keep exploring all that India has to offer. So when I got an invite to attend a tourism fair in the central region, I did not think twice and planned a trip to visit the northern part as well. Specifically, the states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand at the foot of the Himalayas.
Below is everything that three important cities of these states showed me in relation to their prevailing religion, along with some advice and tips to make the most of your time there.
Cradle of Sikhism
Drawing a quick parallel, Amritsar is for this branch of Hinduism as important a city as Rome or Santiago de Compostela for Catholicism, or Mecca for the Muslim world. Among many other rules such as never cutting your hair, volunteering, or not smoking; Adepts of this religion are expected to visit the Golden Temple, a gigantic gurdwara that draws more daily visitors than the famed Taj Mahal in Agra.
But the heartland of Punjab offers much more to those who come to know her. Here are some experiences you should not miss in Amritsar:
- Visiting the Golden Temple before sunrise. It was 5:30 in the morning when I entered the complex barefoot, a perfect time to admire the beauty of the still illuminated temple and witness the sunrise – and the prayers and chants that come with it – in such a special place.
- Exploring the Golden Temple complex – Sri Harmandir Sahib – at your own pace. I walked three entire laps around its Sarovar – sacred pool – clockwise. And in each of them, everything new was to be noticed. I had the opportunity to talk with diverse and very interesting people, and of course take lots of images of the temple from different perspectives as the light turned blue, pastel, orange, and finally white at dawn.
- Taking part in the Golden Temple’s Langar. One of the most jaw-dropping parts of the complex is its kitchen or langar, which provides donation-based vegetarian food to anyone whatever its background or faith who comes there. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Once you enter the main hall, you have about 10 minutes to enjoy your food sitting on the floor before the next batch of people enters. It is said that this kitchen feeds up to a hundred thousand people daily.
- Strolling through the Jallianwala Bagh Park. Known for being where the massacre of the same name took place on April 13, 1919; today it acts as a memorial for the victims.
- Attending the flag-lowering ceremony on the Wagah border with Pakistan. As bizarre as it gets for Westerners, it is quite interesting to witness – from the Indian side if you are visiting Amritsar – how both countries celebrate their differences and similarities for a bit over an hour before sunset. A must.
- Tasting the acclaimed Punjabi cuisine. Mustard oil and cream are two of its best-known ingredients, but there are many more. And there’s nothing like a guided food tour or a cooking workshop to make the most out of it. I recommend the ones by Windsong, which will take you to between four and seven local restaurants and street stalls to try multiple Punjab delicacies.
- Enjoying an oasis in the midst of chaos. Again Windsong is an excellent option. Close to Amritsar city center but far enough from the crowds, spending a few tranquil nights in this family-run boutique bed and breakfast is well worth it.
McLeodGanj, Himachal Pradesh
Home to the Buddhist community of Tibet and the Dalai Lama in exile
Whether you know the recent history of the Tibet – China conflict or not, a visit to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, in the cool green state of Himachal Pradesh, is a must.
After suffering an unprecedented invasion in the middle of the last century, Tibet and its inhabitants began to suffer the consequences of the Chinese occupation. Many fled to neighboring countries, including the current Dalai Lama. Very young back then, and with the help of India, a few months after its arrival to the country, the Dalai Lama established his base in Dharamsala – a small town in the Kangra Valley – in the stunningly beautiful Indian state Himachal Pradesh.
Among his many trips, he still drops by his Indian residence sometimes. Everyone can register ahead of time on his website to attend one of his acclaimed teachings.
Certainly, he chose a good place. With the ubiquitous Dhauladar mountain range – at the foot of the Himalayas – in the background and endless landscapes to be amazed at, many are attracted by the special atmosphere of the area. Among others, the young ex-pat community otherwise based in Goa, which alternates between the two locations depending on the season.
Some of the essential things to do in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala are:
- A one or two day trip to Triund. It is possible to spend the night at the summit, camping. Check Pink House for more info and routes.
- The half-day route to Bhagsu waterfalls, with the subsequent climb to Shiva cafe. Essential at sunset.
- Attending, if your visit takes place when he is there, a lesson by the Dalai Lama.
- Visiting the Dalai Lama temple. Sunsets from here are as charming as it gets.
- Seeing the Tibet museum, the best place to soak up the country’s recent history, and the hardships that Tibetans endured, and continue to go through, under the oppression of China.
- Dropping by the McLeod Ganj Library, where Buddhist readings are frequently held.
- Having a chai in one of its cafes with a view.
- Enjoying a few Tibetan food dishes in the Tibet Kitchen restaurant and a plate of fried or steamed momos in one of the many street stalls.
- Spending a few rupees in the downtown Tibetan market, where you can find crafts and clothing made from yak wool among other curiosities.
- Adventuring to the surrounding villages. Starting with nearby Dharamkot, the Kangra Valley, and its outskirts at the foot of the highest mountains in this world, leave no one indifferent.
Hinduism holy city
Bathed by the Ganges, after descending from the Himalayas, the city of Rishikesh is inherently marked by its presence and is a point of great importance to Hinduism.
Thus, vegetarian and sober, it welcomes anyone who, attracted by its popularity as the cradle of yoga and meditation, Hinduism, and unique landscapes, among many other things, get there.
One of the best ways to explore it is by living in one of its multiple ashrams for a few days or weeks. Although the initial shock is practically guaranteed, its many followers show that self-knowledge and spirituality are on the rise. And yoga, always yoga.
To recap, here are some travel tips and ideas to make the most of Rishikesh:
- Join an ashram and live simply for a while, absorbing its teachings from 5 in the morning until 9 at night, including yoga, meditation, chanting, and breathing. I spent four days in Yoga Niketan Ashram, and I felt it was enough to be the first time. Still, they say you have to be at least fifteen or thirty days to make the experience worthwhile.
- Alternatively, if eating the same vegetarian thali for lunch and dinner in a loop throughout your stay is not what you are looking for, sign up for a yoga retreat in one of the places – read resorts – that offer them.
- Ram Jhula. If the idea of sharing a suspension bridge over the Ganges with lots of people, motorcycles transporting entire families, cars full of merchandise and cows do not make you shiver, but rather makes you curious and you have a crazy desire to be there yourself; This place could become your favorite place in the city of Rishikesh.
- Visit the Trayambakeshwar temple. With views just shy of 360 degrees, the photos from its top terrace at sunset are unrivaled. It has 13 floors that must be climbed on foot.
- Laxman Jhula. Less than 3km walk from the other bridge, it carries its smallest size with dignity. Also ‘dressed in the country colors (green, white, and orange), is another essential spot to understand this city on the Ganges.
- Enjoy its atmosphere, unique mix of locals and foreigners (who usually stay in Rishikesh for weeks or months, as opposed to typical tourist destinations in the states of Rajasthan or Kerala where the average is one or two nights) and its many markets.
- Go down the Ganges – or Ganga, as they call it there – on a rafting boat.
- Explore the Beatles’ abandoned ashram, where they composed some of their most mythical themes half a century ago.
- Take a stroll at sunset along the banks of the Ganges and join one of the Ganga Aarti ceremonies that take place daily. Parmarth is one of the most famous for its colorful statues and an influx of foreigners. But there are many other temples and ashrams that offer a similar experience.
- Promise yourself that you will return. Like McLeod Ganj, Rishikesh’s singular energy engages those who visit with an open heart and mind. And there are many who return to continue exploring everything it offers and keep learning from their gurus after spending some life-changing time in an ashram. You have been warned!
It’s time to start planning a trip to India. This country and its many religions await you!
Thank you so much to Trabug for making it simple to stay connected while traveling in India, and especially to India Someday for helping me design this awesome itinerary that brought me closer to these cities and religions. You rock!