India: A Sojourn to the Evolving East
I'm torn. Part of what makes India so enticing is all that's ageless: women swathed in colorful saris balancing water pots on their heads making way for a passing cow in an overcrowded city street; men pulling wooden carts filled with their wares to the city market. Each visual nugget is priceless for those traveling to the other side of the world ”and seemingly back in time” to experience a vibrant culture steeped in tradition. Much of this timelessness, fostered by suppression and poverty, is now giving way to promises of progress. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore serve as global hubs for technology outsourcing and hopeful Indian entrepreneurs discover Internet-based opportunities in the international market. Girls wearing jeans and heels, and businessmen clad in suits carrying cell phones, fast forward the nation into at least the 1980s. While I wholeheartedly want to see an end to this destitution, I selfishly mourn the gradual loss of a kaleidoscopic time protected in the proverbial cork-top bottle.
One place I welcome westernization is within the treatment rooms of India's spas. Historically, Ayurveda could be likened to going to the doctor's office. You jump up on the examining table and try to fix whatever is ailing you, forsaking comfort for cure. Now, more spas are blending Indian healing traditions with a level of pampering expected by the American spa-goer. Collectively, I've spent months seeking out sacred Hindu sites, historical monuments, and Ayurvedic healing rituals and feel like I've merely scratched the surface of this vast country. However, there are a few favorite places that immediately come to mind when asked where one should go if they had three weeks to do a whirlwind tour of India.
Between cheap domestic flights, an extensive train system, and the ability to hire a private driver for less than it costs to go from Downtown Manhattan to the Upper East Side, I was able to cover a lot of ground without incurring insurmountable amounts of debt. Many of my favorite memories consist of listening to my iPod while watching this magical world roll by en route from one destination to another. I would often ask the driver of my "tourist taxi" (a chauffeured SUV) to stop at small villages so that I could experience a people and culture not pervaded by any form of tourism and was always welcomed with incredible warmth and hospitality.
Gateways to Enlightenment
Most tourists use the airport in Delhi as the base from which to explore the spiritual underpinnings of India. However, the true â€˜Gateway to the Gods,' is actually located 125 miles northeast of Delhi in the cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh. From this region, where the sacred Ganges River breaks through the Himalayan foothills, believers set forth on trails to the four dhams (holy pilgrimage sites). Some say Shiva filtered raging waters through his matted hair to save India's people, others believe these sacred waters originate from Vishnu's foot. Whatever the belief, when heading to the main ghat (steps leading to the water's edge) for the nightly aarti (prayer ritual), there's no doubt that 'Ganga' serves as the lifeblood to all that is sacred.
With a degree in Divinity, my guide, Sanjeev from Mohan's Adventure Tours, explained the meanings behind various forehead markings, dress, and mantras as we weaved our way through throngs of people singing songs and chanting while priests twirled blazoned oil lamps. At dusk, I released a leaf filled with flower petals, a candle, and a prayer onto the river. My diya bobbled on the surface with the thousands of others, creating a galaxy of twinkling devotions.
Ananda Spa in the Himalayas is the piece de resistance of accommodations in this area and is often touted as India's finest destination spa resort. From its privileged hilltop location, this popular resort overlooks Haridwar's sister city, Rishikesh, where the Beatles got in touch with their inner Om in a local ashram in 1968. On my way to visit Ananda, the car rounded each switchback through the foothill's dense forest with trepidation. Monkeys lined the road, making me feel as if I were partaking in some sort of royal procession. The regality continued upon entering the property gate, since Ananda's reception is housed within the historic Viceregal Palace, once home to Maharaja Tehri Garhwal. The interior's resplendent gold filigree and Victorian furnishings set a somewhat formal tone which gives way to a relaxed mood created by serene gardens and manicured lawns. The 21,000 square-foot spa and 75 rooms reveal a much more modern decor, and cater to the international traveler with wireless internet, luxury linens, and gourmet dining (paired with wine if you wish). But there's no doubt that the spa is the destination, rather than a mere resort amenity. Consultations with an Ayurvedic doctor and meals planned according to your diagnosed dosha (body constitution), daily yoga, and exercise regimens satisfy those seeking a more therapeutic retreat.
Many coming to India for the first time hit the Golden Triangle, a visit to the Northern grand trine of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Located 126 miles southeast of Delhi, the city of Agra boasts one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. When telling your friends about your trip to India, my guess is that seven out of ten will ask you if you saw this famous landmark. While it is indeed an astonishing architectural masterpiece of snow-white marble inlaid with such gemstones as jade, lapis, and sapphire, a visit here is mostly to avoid that I-wonder-what-I-missed feeling every time someone asks you. Commissioned by a Mughal Emperor who wanted to build a mausoleum for his favorite wife, the grounds exude serenity, especially at dawn, before the arrival of the busloads of tourists.
Personally, I found it most relaxing to view the Taj Mahal while sipping my morning chai from the privacy of my balcony at The Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel. Mr. P.R.S. Oberoi is the Donald Trump of India, building â€˜seven-star' masterpieces across Asia, many of which feature luxurious spas managed by Banyan Tree. Amarvilas is no exception, with an expansive spa suite that allows couples to overlook the architectural icon of eternal love while soaking in essential oils used by India's royalty over 500 years ago. Unlike the elaborately gilded interiors of the public spaces, the couples' treatment room is clean and simple, with the main focus being on the arched window silhouetting the Taj Mahal just 650 yards away, best viewed from the comfort of the claw-footed tub. Across the property, private nooks within terraced gardens, filigree screens carved from block marble, and reflection pools dramatically lit at night create the magical ambiance that Mark Twain once so eloquently described, "So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked."
Nearby, another impressive site is Fatephur Sikri, just twenty-five miles west of Agra. I decided to forego visiting this deserted, yet perfectly preserved Mughal city, because I needed a break from my break-neck pace. According to those that have gone, it was equivalent to going to India and not seeing the Taj Mahal. I wonder what I missed.
The Riverbed of Ritual
Veering off the triangle to Varanasi, 358 miles east of Agra and further off the beaten sightseeing trail takes a bit of extra effort, but proves well worth it. As one of the world's oldest inhabited cities, dating back thousands of years, I could feel a discernable sacredness in the density of humanity. Considered one of the holiest cities in India, like Jerusalem to Israel, Varanasi serves as home to 700 temples and over 4 miles of ghats leading to the Ganges River. Here believers seek the deliverance of deceased loved ones into Moksha (Nirvana' in Buddhism), by swaddling the bodies in beautiful fabrics, dipping them into the water, and setting the bodies afire with the eternal flame at the riverside crematoriums. Then, the ashes are returned to 'Mother Ganga,' for eternal salvation.
I was there during a solar eclipse and time of pilgrimage. Men lined the sides of the streets shaving their heads at makeshift outdoor barbershops. Thousands of people traveled by foot to participate in the bathing rituals taking place in the river daily at dusk and dawn. To get a first-hand glimpse of these sacraments, I crawled out of bed before sunrise, hitched a ride with a bicycle rickshaw, and made my way through a maze of winding passageways to take a boat ride between Dasashwamedha and Manikarnika Ghat. Seeing this devotion on such a grand scale served as the catalyst for my appreciation for the Hindu philosophy and made me understand why India is considered such a spiritual beacon.
Only six miles away in Sarnath lie the roots of Buddhism, where Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples. With a knowledgeable guide, the archeological ruins and museum give amazing insight into the evolution of this religion and its zen principles.
It's surprising that while Varanasi is brimming with holy men, ritual, and shrines, it is not a place of significance when it comes to India's spa industry. The best hotel in town is owned by the Taj Group. Taj Ganges underwent at major renovation at the end of 2005 and while you can arrange astrological readings or an Herbal Massage, there is not a signature Taj Spa onsite.
Gem of an Experience
Northwest of Varanasi, at the bottom of the Golden Triangle is the Rajasthani city of Jaipur. This is quintessential India. The men show off handlebar mustaches and bold red turbans while the women don brightly colored silk saris, gemstone embedded nose rings, and bangles. It’s lively, yet seemingly less crowded than places like Delhi and Varanasi, and is in close vicinity of numerous historical sites. Amber Fort tends to top travelers’ lists, some riding an elephant to these popular ramparts. This place isn’t void of the touristy snake charmers and strolling trinket salesmen, but it’s a fantastic exhibition of elegant alabaster relief work, mirrored mosaics, and latticed windows. One of my favorite sites is the lesser-known Galwar Bach, or Monkey Temple, on the far east side of town. Locals come to bathe in waters believed to spring from the Ganges as well as to visit the local temple. Hundreds of monkeys hang out with ganja-smoking sadhus (holy men) and can be fed by hand—the monkeys, not the holy men. Everywhere you look in this pink-walled city are architectural gems, from the Palace of Winds façade and City Palace to the impressive gates leading to old Jaipur.
Bazaars selling garlands of marigolds, fabrics, and colorful bangles line narrow pedestrian lanes, creating a labyrinth of shoppers’ utopia. This city is also famous for gemstones, with some of the world’s best gem cutters. Needless to say, these sites prompted the construction of many hotels to host the flocks of travelers. The Taj Group converted opulent Rambagh Palace into a luxury hotel and in April of 2007 added a full-service Taj Spa to the privileged list of amenities. The fifteen signature ‘Taj Spa’ properties rebranded the former ‘Jiva Spa’ title, and hired a staff to infuse treatments with authentic Indian wisdom as well as incorporate elements of Vastushastra, the traditional Indian canon of space planning, into the design.
On my journey, I visited The Oberoi Rajvilas—which turned out to be my personal favorite—an opulent hotel just outside Jaipur encompassing a 250 year-old Shiva temple. In fact, I found it so enchanting that I decided to marry there a year after my original visit. Fashioned after a traditional Rajasthani fort, the protective turrets guard over 32-acres of exclusive grounds and clusters of 72 ultra-private rooms within its pinkish-toned walls. Decorative details like Mughal-style frescoes made from ground semi-precious stones, 500-pound handmade brass doors, and antique crystal chandeliers brought fairytale imagery I conjured up as a little girl into existence. While my husband-to-be did ride a white horse to the ceremony, Rajvilas surpassed my storybook standards preceding my wedded bliss with several days of pampering at the spa. Within a restored courtyard mansion or haveli, the spa offers both western and Ayurvedic therapies. The Mendhi ritual of decorating my hands and feet in traditional henna followed a relaxing Ayurvedic Abhyangam (four-handed massage), Anna Lepanam body wrap, and milk-infused rose bath. Indian foot-bathing rituals marked the beginning of each treatment, not to mention warded off any notion of cold feet.
During a previous visit to Jaipur, I took a few extra days to visit one of Aman Resorts’ newest additions to their luxury chain, Amanbagh, in the village of Alwar, 93 miles northeast of Jaipur. Driving across the desert landscape dotted with the intermittent royal palm and the Aravalli Hills framing the horizon, I felt overwhelmed by the solitude and joy of being completely removed from the stress and chaos of the city. Stepping into the cool marbled opulence of Amanbagh comprised of 21-havelli suites and 16 pool pavilions felt like an oasis. Yoga sessions, massages, and Ayurvedic remedies rejuvenate before embarking on the rest of your whirlwind tour. And, like The Oberoi Rajvilas, who provides transfers to their tented resort and spa, Vanyavilas, Amanbagh will also transport guests to their deluxe-tented accommodations, Aman-i-khas, complete with a spa tent, in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve 112 miles southeast of Jaipur. While this protected national park boasts the country’s finest safari-style accommodations, it is one of the smallest of the 27 comprising ‘Project Tiger’—an initiative founded in 1973 to protect the endangered species. Ranthambore serves as a sanctuary to numerous wild animals including hyenas, jackals, and an approximate 50 tigers lurking in the underbrush. To better your odds at a spotting, plan to stay at least a few days and go on multiple safari outings.
The Venice of India
Udaipur’s appeal depends solely on one thing, a lot of rain. Without the heavy rains in monsoon season, Udaipur’s centerpiece, Lake Pichola, is but a dusty pit. With the exception of a recent drought, this is usually not the case and this popular tourist destination in the southern part of Rajasthan is one of the most picturesque in India. Intricately carved temples and palaces line up along the waterfront like a neat row of uniformed soldiers. The City Palace hovering above, like a well-decorated lieutenant. One of my favorite pastimes in Udaipur was to perch myself on a rooftop overlooking the boats traversing back and forth to the two floating palaces, one of which is the historic Taj Lake Palace Resort, which has an impressive signature spa where you can partake in a pre-wedding bathing ritual specific to the Mewar Region’s royalty, sans having to exchange any vows.
Tucked behind this pristine lakefront façade is a walled maze of narrow passageways with shops famous for selling handmade papers, silver jewelry, folk toys, and wall hangings. One thing I learned the hard way, Udaipur is not famous for manicures and pedicures. Unless you are at a high-end resort, steer clear of the local shops offering these services. Masters at shaving a man’s face with a straight edge, the local mani-pedi I treated myself to included a plastic bowl of dirty water, wooden tools, and a cheese grate, topped off with old clumpy polish. For aesthetic expertise, I recommend the spa at The Oberoi Udaivilas just outside the old city. Every year this resort receives accolades as one of the world’s best, and the spa treatment rooms situated around a two-story rotunda extend services that parallel these rave reviews. Guests can opt for intensive Ayurvedic programs or Thai, Balinese, and Hawaiian therapies, as well as participate in private sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques).
While it’s not impossible to visit both Northern and Southern India during one visit, it’s wise to choose one or the other in the name of time. If you feel like this is your once-in-a-lifetime trip and the Ayurvedic healing rituals of India fascinate you, then you’d be remiss not to go to the source. While many claim that the southern state of Kerala discovered the ancient science of healing, it simply thrives here due the lush tropical climate, which facilitates the growth of key herbal ingredients.
The airport in Kochi (Cochin) serves as the departure point from which to explore this green state. You will most likely route through Mumbai (Bombay), where you can stop over to explore the bustling Colaba district and visit the spa at famous Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel facing the commonly photographed monument, Gateway to India. Taj Club & Spa at the Wellington Mews Luxury Residences Mumbai, inarguably the most contemporary spa in Mumbai, extends both beauty treatments and authentic Ayurveda within the six treatment rooms. While stays in the luxury residences are a minimum of one month, you can book treatments at the separate three-tiered spa. A semi-circle of floor-to-ceiling glass encases the relaxation area and the pool on a private rooftop transports the exclusive number of guests from the hubbub of South Mumbai. I spent hours in a private session with a yoga instructor practicing asanas and pranayama as well as discussing mudras and Hirdayakasha Dharana, which is a concentration on the heart space. He provided gentle guidance, unwavering presence, and sincerity, giving even more credence to the Taj Spa motto, Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning, `The Guest is God.’
To truly get a sense of the Keralan terrain, covered by rice patty fields and verdant jungle, take a backwaters tour aboard a traditional rice boat converted into a houseboat called a ‘kettuvallam.’ Many travelers head to Alleppey’s port since most of the houseboats dock here. But I decided to check out Kumarakom Lake Resort, given its affiliation with Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and discovered that in addition to the 50 individual cottages on the 25-acre property, they also have a fleet of kettuvallams. I opted for three nights aboard a houseboat, instead of the typical overnight journey, in order to traverse deeper into the lily pad covered canals lined by small villages filled with hardworking ‘dhobi wallahs’—people twirling laundry overhead and beating them against rocks. After meeting with the onsite Ayurvedic doctor and experiencing the somewhat rustic treatments performed by therapists wearing picnic-table gingham aprons, I determined that while the Ayurveda was authentic and awarded Kerala’s highest designation—Green Leaf Certification—more guests seemed to revel in the huge buffet, cruise-ship style music entertainment and activities like pottery and basket weaving.
Taj Green Cove Resort, in Kovalam, Kerala, proves to be one of the finest Ayurvedic escapes out of the eleven signature Taj Spa properties throughout India. And yet another popular hotel chain with international travelers in Kerala is Casino Group Hotels Earth (CGH Earth). Unlike the name suggests, there are no casinos to be found, rather, wonderfully unique accommodations, onsite Ayurvedic spas, and a fleet of traditional kettuvallams. (See ‘Focus on Ayurveda’ sidebar.) CGH Earth’s seven popular resorts include water-only accessible Coconut Lagoon, colonial-style Brunton Boatyard in Cochin, and the jungle-bungalow accommodations of Spice Village in the Periyar wilderness, in the western ghats of Kerala, just to name a few.
My last day aboard my houseboat, I awoke at dawn to temple music wafting over the still waters from a nearby village. I peered out the fake stained glass window in my cabin to see subtle movement: a boat captain bathing in the river before his morning prayer ritual, a little girl rowing a wooden canoe to deliver food to a nearby kettuvallam, a man in a sarong riding his bicycle on the adjacent levy. It reminded me that despite the many advances being made across India, there is a distinct tranquility—detectable even among the organized chaos—that will rise above any kind of industrial revolution. Peace emanates from the people, regardless of wealth or lack thereof, and this is what forever maintains India’s status as the world’s spiritual superpower.
Trip Planner: 3 Week Whirlwind Tour
This itinerary touches on some of India's most popular destinations. While the itinerary is padded with travel time, it doesn't allow time to experience India at a leisurely pace. Despite seemingly close proximities, road conditions vary. Have guides and transportation lined up in advance to ensure that you can experience as much as possible.
Delhi to Haridwar/Rishikesh (3 days + .5 day travel) 125 miles
Route through Delhi to Agra (1.5 days + .5 day travel) 126 miles
Agra to Varanasi (2 days + .5 day travel) 358 miles
Varanasi to Jaipur (3 days + 1 day travel) 486 miles
Jaipur to Udaipur (2 days + 1 day travel) 252 miles
Udaipur to Bombay (1.5 days + .5 day travel) direct flight 495 miles
Bombay to backwaters (3 days + 1 day travel) direct flight Cochin 860 miles
Return to Bombay or Delhi for your flight home
Focus on Ayurveda
As all Ayurvedic doctors will tell you, in order to truly achieve the health benefits of this natural medicine, one must go through a process to bring balance to the three main biological forces or doshas. Kerala in particular is famous for hosting numerous Ayurvedic centers and healing retreats, but there are a few that stand out as offering regimens that stay true to the science as opposed to simply offering resort-style rejuvenation. In my experience, CGH Earth's Kalari Kovilakom (www.kalarikovilakom.com), offered the most genuine program, refusing to compromise the regimen, yet pampering the guest with loving attention within a well-appointed setting. The 14-, 21- and 28-day stays focus on weight loss, anti-aging, stress relief, or rejuvenation. Another popular spot for travelers seeking a less expensive alternative, Kairali Ayurvedic Health Resort, in Palakkad, Kerala, offers supervised Ayurvedic programs. In addition, Kairali is expanding by franchising the brand and maintaining a business selling Ayurvedic formulations to local pharmacies and online (www.kairali.com).
Spiritual Comfort Aboard Spa on Wheels
Amid the din and heat of Mumbai's Victorian train station, the elegantÂ Deccan Odyssey is a fantasy trip into India's regal past: White-gloved porters in scarlet tunics, gourmet meals by chefs from Taj hotels, and a spa car come with this train fit for a maharajah.
Steps from my stateroom, Spa Plumeria offers massage, Clarins facials, and Ayurvedic treatments. Staffed by a therapist and beautician from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, the spa on wheels features a salon for hair and nail care, a massage cabin with steam and shower, even exercise equipment. There is also a lounge where tea is served, a bar car, and two different restaurants with international and vegetarian options. Forget signing checks ”the fare covers sightseeing excursions and meals” but spa services are extra.
The world's spa train takes the stress out of travel to southern India. Our seven-day journey included visiting Goa's remarkable 18th century Catholic churches built by Portugese traders, and a mountain trek to Buddhist and Muslim temples carved from stone as far back as 500 AD. Returning to our air-conditioned train, a shower, massage, and multi-course dinner cap each day.
The Deccan Odyssey accommodates 49 passengers in comfortable cabins with private showers and toilets. Relieved of checking into hotels, we toured by bus and boat, dined at beach resorts, and swam in the warm Indian Ocean. Scheduled from Mumbai (better known as Bombay) every Wednesday through April, the Deccan Odyssey daily tariff begins at $295US per person on a double basis (minimum three nights); roundtrip is $3,395 single occupancy, $2,450 double. New this fall, a northern tour from Mumbai includes Delhi and Agra, visiting the Taj Mahal. For more information visit www.deccanodyssey.com
Aman Resorts, www.amanresorts.com
Ananda in the Himalayas, www.anandaspa.com
CGH Earth Experience Hotels, www.cghearth.com
Kumarakom Lake Resort, www.klresort.com
Mohan's Adventure Tours, www.mohansadventure.in
Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, www.oberoihotels.com
Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, www.tajhotels.com