“So priketh hem nature in hir corages/Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” Chaucer, of course, wasn’t speaking about India when he wrote his famous tales. But every year, millions heed the call and go forth across India in search of Gods and hopes. For many, bathing in the Ganges or receiving a blessing at a certain temple is a lifelong ambition. However, even the most ascetic of pilgrims has basic needs and even the most devote need a place of peace to truly focus. As the world gets busier and the price goes up, the ashrams and dharamshalas of India come into their own.
Ashrams and dharamshalas offer accommodation, food, and spiritual guidance in exchange for donations and work. They are a place for prayer, mediation and reflection. And with miracles few and far between in the modern world, the silence and peace that pervades them even in the heart of Delhi is miraculous even to the non-believer. With enforced silence and mandatory mediation, staying in an ashram is the perfect way to find peace, of both the spiritual and secular varieties. Ashrams are usually connected with a certain saint or guru and are an excellent place to explore India’s rich religious history. Whether sheltering from the hectic city, or embracing the natural surrounds, ashrams come in all shapes and sizes, hidden in temples or covering city blocks. The wide range of medicinal and edible plants on display will fascinate gardeners. From austere concrete walls to glittering mirror tiles, the spaces are designed to guide your mind. Helpful reminders, relics and pictures of saints, daily quotes and an abundance of holy saffron robes all echo the rich cultural significance of the place.
Many go on pilgrimages to cure their ailments. To help these sufferers, many ashrams offer a variety of healing services, from prayer to yoga to traditional medicine. Skeptics may struggle with the more esoteric of treatments- from drinking cow urine to staring at the sun for long periods. However, many of the homeopathic treatments have been proven to treat as effectively and with fewer side effects than their chemical cousins. Connected to the Shantikunj Ashram in Haridwar, DVSS University is a fascinating place to explore alternative medicine. Many ashrams will also provide filling and healthy vegetarian meals and special teas. Even if you forgo the treatments, a week of yoga and fresh vegetables is bound to fill you with vim and vigor.
Neither ashrams nor dharamshalas are intended as a way to travel India cheaply. Most website state this quite empathetically. When making reservations, most will ask for a reason behind your visit. If they feel your reasons or your lifestyle is not compatible with the ashram’s principles, you may well be refused accommodation, even after you have booked. Many require guests to participate in prayer or study sessions, visit holy sites, attend lectures or complete work around the ashram. If you are planning a full day of sightseeing, it may be have to be abandoned to accommodate a mid-day lecture or 4 am prayer session. If you are truly seeking spiritual enlightenment, meditative peace, or are simply open to the experience, then it’s well worth forgoing the tour schedule and experiencing something new. If you are requested to attend a prayer or meditation session, remember to dress appropriately. Many foreign visitors will be assigned a ‘minder’ who will guide you through the ceremony and give you a tour of the ashram. While some are happy to simply act as a tour guide, others see it as their task to bring you into the fold. Remember that the ashram’s purpose is religious and be respectful to your hosts. As religious sites, most ashrams have strict rules regarding conduct; typically meat, alcohol and drugs are not allowed, western-style dress is discouraged or forbidden, and un-married couples will be expected to have separate rooms. Only stay in ashrams or dharamshalas if you are happy to abide by the rules, or you may find yourself suddenly without accommodation.
These days, most ashrams have websites and it’s advisable to book ahead if you intend to stay. The quality of the accommodation varies and it is worth checking if you will need your own sheets and cutlery.
While most run on a donation basis, some will have a fixed price for rooms. Many ashrams will sponsor aid work in the community, as well as provide the opportunity for poor travelers to complete their pilgrimage. The bookshops, craft shops and pharmacies all help to fund the work of the ashram and are a good place to find a unique and ethical gift. Many ashrams will allow for you to visit or join for a meal even if you do not chose to stay. While you may not end up finding spiritual enlightenment or the cure for the common cold, you will undoubtedly gain an increased appreciation for the culture, a host of new friends and a calmer frame of mind.
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