India is expansive. Its travel opportunities are just as broad and deep. An adventure, for some, is measured by personal bests like marathons, surfing or mountain climbing. When it comes to India, you may want to shoot for personal bests along the line of enlightenment or soul searching.
James Aram is the North American representative for Network Tours, a company in India that organizes “spiritual adventures of a lifetime.” He explains how such trips provide for deeper longer-lasting experiences.
“Traditional tours showcase the best places of interest to tourists, locations of natural beauty and intriguing cultures. Spiritual tours are for people seeking to focus on deeper and more profound matters of the heart and soul. A traditional tour creates novel experiences… memories of lovely people, fascinating cultures, and beautiful places. A spiritual tour leaves soul impressions in the receptive heart of the traveler pilgrim—impressions that transcend people, cultures, and places… soul-stirring impressions that last lifetimes,” explains Aram.
“The essence of India is her spirituality,” he continues. “If one looks beyond the country’s many social and material challenges, the true pilgrim cannot help but be touched by the palpable threads of devotion and reverence for the Divine that are woven through the fabric of the Indian culture. India’s charming, hospitable people and her remarkable art and architecture will captivate the traveler, but it is her spiritual essence that calls the devotee-pilgrim back.”
Lauren Rathvon and her husband, BJ Graf, became expats in 2013. Their life is an exploration, and they share that love of the world via RetreaTours, an enterprise that creates itineraries that are authentic, accessible, and affecting.
“We now explore every single day of the year, living and working in hotels and guesthouses around the world,” says Rathvon. When they are not hosting a RetreaTour, they’re scoping out attractions, accommodations and meals so that they can act like home town hosts, from the Galapagos to the Ganges.
“We are passionate about demystifying and de-stressing international travel for our guests. We distill a well-rounded journey. We honor people’s time, energy, and money by consciously creating a meaningful experience for a good value.”
“There is no doubt that travel is transformative in and of itself, but traveling in India acts as a fantastic catalyst for rapid growth and change. In India, you experience new sights, sounds, colors, and smells, and it is this beautiful assault on the senses that can help transform mental and spiritual blockages and lead to breakthroughs,” says Rathvon. “Travel in new lands inspires a self-confidence that translates to every other facet of life.”
One of the most powerful spots for her travelers is Ladakh, in northern India. “Ladakh is said to be more Tibetan than Tibet. Steeped in rich and colorful Tibetan Buddhism and set in a high altitude desert moonscape, Ladakh can seem a world away.”
Graf has been returning to this part of the world since 1995. He has built close friendships with monks here, and RetreaTours’ spirit seekers are invited into the monasteries, ancient temples, and even homes and dining tables of the monks.
“Because we go slow and get beyond the superficial, guests have a chance to engage the culture and–more importantly–the people,” she says. “You can read books and blogs all day, but it’s only when you engage with a person of different beliefs and value systems that true understanding and compassion can be accomplished.”
“The gentle strength of this religion and people affect our guest profoundly. Many of our guests take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer at the temple, which feeds over 100,000 pilgrims for free on a daily basis. Putting their compassion in action makes for a lasting impression.”
“People bring their own cultural mindsets and containers on these tours, but inevitably those containers get filled with the bounty of love and wisdom from the local culture and religion. No matter the lens through which they are viewing the trip, our guests are able to receive insight that they can apply to their own lives. Of course, the goal is to drop the lens altogether,” says Rathvon.
Traveling in the Footsteps of Giants
Network Tours offers a dozen spiritual adventures in India. Travelers can follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, Yogananda — even the Beatles. Network’s Magical Mystery Tour takes visitors through the Himalayas from Rishikesh to Jaipur with a stop at The Beatles Ashram, the former Maharishi Mahesh ashram that inspired the White Album, and turned the lives around for the Fab Four and friends.
There’s also a five-day pre-tour that can be combined with the nine-day Magical Mystery Tour. The extension includes time at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, the guru of Ram Dass, the former Harvard professor and author of “Be Here Now.” Led by a musician, this tour offers nightly Beatles concerts to immerse ones senses even more fully.
Aram says that everyone will reap lasting value from an incredible India spiritual tour.
“The attentive and alert traveler will find value and meaning in any well-organized tour,” says Aram. “To make it truly memorable, however, one must enter into such a tour with open heart, honest mind, and no preconceived expectations—other than to expect the unexpected, especially in India.”
Saints, Sages and Service
A tour of South India’s temples begins in Chennai. As part of that 20-day exploration, Network Tours’ travelers will visit the ashrams of Ramana Maharishi, Sri and Mother Aurobindo and Amma, the “hugging saint.” To balance out the spiritual side, there will be visits to beaches, tea plantations, river rides on the incredible backwaters and Ayurvedic spa treatments, too.
“The soul impressions received while on pilgrimage only serve to deepen one’s devotion already brought to the tour. The vibrations of sites-visited and holy ground walked-on inspire the devotee’s greater spiritual growth and understanding,” adds Aram.
Network supports an NGO which assists in the education of underprivileged children in India. As such, travelers can volunteer at Amma’s ashram or other charitable entities.
Following is a brief recap of upcoming Network itineraries.
2016 South India Temple Tour — November 28-December 18, 2016 with stops in Chennai, Kanchipuram, Mamallapuram, Thiruvanamalai, Auroville, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Rameshwaram, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Kovalam Beach, Kollam, Alleppey, Thekkady, Munnar and Cochin. Tour includes a flight from Cochin to Chennai, boat cruises in Alleppey and Kanyakumari and a jungle safari.
In the Guru’s Footsteps Tour — January 27-February 19, 2017. Principle destinations include New Delhi, Noida, Agra, Mathura, Ranchi, Vrindavan, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Kolkata, Dakshinesware, Serampore, Puri, Bhubaneswar and Dwarahat. Includes two flights within India and four train rides. Boat rides in Kolkata and Varanasi.
Himalayan Hills Extension February 17-23, 2017 to Delhi, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Vashishta Cave and Ganga Camp. Includes one flight and one train ride, all meals and five nights accommodations in comfortable hotels.
Dwarahat Pre-tour for Beatles Tour February 13-17, 2017 at the Yogananda Ashram outside Kathgodam and visits to Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Kainchi. Package includes all meals, hotel and/or ashram accommodations for four nights, and two train rides.
Beatles Magical Mystery Tour February 17-25, 2017. The nine day journey covers Rishikesh, Haridwar, Delhi, Vrindavan, Jaipur and Agra. Includes river rafting and a jungle tour, plus live music.
Among RetreaTours upcoming spiritual journeys in India are:
India Cultural Tour, November 6-19, 2016, spans five classical Indian cities in the north. Experience the traditions of the Pushkar Camel Fair, an annual event that attracts 200,000 people, and 50,000 camels. View famous sites in Jaipur, the pink city, drive to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and fly to Varanasi, one of the holiest of lands for Hindus, and then compare the differences at Amritsar, home of the Sikh’s Golden Temple.
Live Beyond Your Borders, March 20-April 2, 2017, includes daily yoga, meditation and personal coaching and workshops. The tour begins in Delhi and focuses on the rich heritage and traditions of Rishikesh, Agra and Amritsar. The route includes time at the Beatles Ashram, the sacred Ganges and Vashistha cave.
The Ladakh Experience is a yoga and meditation retreat June 26-July 6, 2017.
Daily Iyengar yoga practice with Nikki Costello, named one of the top 100 most influential yoga teachers in America. Accommodations are within the Thiksey monastery where guests will learn traditional cooking techniques and break bread with the monks and their families. Tours outside of the monastery will focus on the natural beauties of the Tibetan plateau from the eyes of BJ Graf, who was the official photographer for the Dalai Lama’s 2010 visit to Nubra Valley, just north of Ladakh.
Highest Self in the Himalayas, July 9-22, 2017 is a Kundalini-focused retreat to Ladakh and Amritsar. Centering in these two sacred sites for the Buddhists, and Sikhs, guests will come away with a great appreciation for the history, philosophies and practices of two of the top five religions of the world.
Knowing that travel is always a personal experience, RetreaTours can customize pre- or post- extensions to all its trips.
For other ideas of travel to India, read my prior two Traveler posts.