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Sacred India - Ancient religious art & architecture

A journey through the heartland of India to see many of India’s most remarkable religious sites.

Varanasi, India’s most sacred city and Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The Hindu temples of Khajuraho and the caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

92% of participants rated this tour as excellent the last time it ran. 

05 - 18 Mar 2018 Fully booked

  • Ellora, steel engraving c. 1850.
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Overview

‘The sacredness of India haunts me like a passion.’ So declared that great proconsul Lord Curzon just over a century ago. To this day the notion of India as a specially sanctified space continues to shape but perhaps also to distort our image of the subcontinent, thanks in part to the Beatles, the Guru Maharishi and the Swinging Sixties. But what really sets India apart from other exotic corners of the globe is not so much its religiosity as the sheer abundance and variety of religious expression to be found there, together with the remarkable art and architecture it has generated.

It is through the visual arts that the religious impulse finds its finest expression, and in India that expression extends over a period of some 3,500 years, moving from the snake- , tree- and fertility-goddess-worship of the original forest dwellers right through to the present. This span of time encompasses the advent of the Aryan pastoralists with their Vedic gods; the challenges to Brahmanical authority by the founders of Buddhism and Jainism; Emperor Ashoka’s unifying imperial dharma; the counter-reformation of devotional Hinduism and the cults of Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna; and the advance of Islam in both Sufic and militant form – to say nothing of Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Christianity and even Judaism.

This ambitious and varied tour of India takes you on a journey through its very heartland which includes almost a dozen of India’s most remarkable religious sites, many of them on the World Heritage list. But it must be stressed that this is not a religious tour per se. Its object, quite simply, is to explore and, above all, enjoy India’s varied forms of religious experience in their proper context: not in museums and galleries but in those theatres where they have found their highest expression, both in terms of religious practice and artistic activity, whether beside the bathing ghats at Kashi, the City of Light (otherwise known as Benares and Varanasi), the finely carved temples at Khajuraho with their Tantric erotic carvings (yet to be fully understood), the ancient and austere rock-cut caves and temples at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta, or the sublime artistry of the great Buddhist stupa complex at Sanchi.

Day 1

Delhi. The tour begins in Delhi with a lecture and lunch in the hotel restaurant at c.12 noon. (flights from London are not included. Your room is available from 2pm the previous day–see practicalities.) In the afternoon, visit the towering minaret and mosque at Qutb Minar, site of the first Islamic city of Delhi, established in 1193 on the grounds of a defeated Rajput fort. Overnight Delhi.

Day 2

Delhi to Varanasi. Fly to Varanasi (Benares) in the morning. Afternoon walk through the old city and a boat ride on the holy Ganges at sunset to witness the Aarti ritual. This fire offering, which dates back to the time of the Buddha himself and revived in the 19th century, is a daily blessing ceremony and a central element of the religious life of this sacred city. First of three nights in Varanasi.

Day 3

Sarnath, Varanasi. Sarnath is where the Buddha preached his first sermon and remains an active Buddhist centre. The Dhamek stupa in the Deer Park marks the spot where the Buddha sat to preach. The Sarnath museum houses the Ashokan lion capital, the symbol of modern India since independence. Afternoon visit to the Bharat Kala Bhavan, the university museum. Overnight Varanasi.

Day 4

Varanasi. An early morning boat ride to witness the morning prayers and ablutions of the devout is followed by a walk among the sacred temples and holy ponds of the south part of the city, near Assi Ghat. Breakfast on the ghats (stepped embankments). Some free time in the afternoon. Overnight Varanasi.

Day 5

Varanasi to Khajuraho. Fly to Khajuraho (Jet Airways) in the morning. After lunch, visit the Jain temples in the eastern group. The Parasnath Temple is conspicuous for its absence of erotic depictions. First of two nights in Khajuraho.

Day 6

Khajuraho. In the morning, visit the spectacular western group of temples built during the Chandela Rajput dynasty, famous for the beautifully carved erotic scenes. The awe-inspiring 11th-cent. Kandariya Mahadev Temple is one of the finest examples of North Indian temple architecture, richly embellished with sensuous sculptures depicting the god’s heavenly abodes. Nearby, the Jagadambi Temple contains excellent carvings of Vishnu. In the afternoon, visit the eastern and southern groups of temples. Overnight Khajuraho.

Day 7

Khajuraho to Orchha. Drive to Orchha. Located close to the Betwa River on dramatic rocky terrain, Orchha’s former glory as capital of the Bundela kings is evident in the multi-chambered Jehangir Mahal with lapis lazuli tiles and ornate gateways. The Raj Mahal palace contains some beautiful murals with religious and secular themes. Elegant Royal Chhatris (cenotaphs) line the ghats of the Betwa. Overnight Orchha.

Day 8

Orchha to Bhopal. Drive to Jhansi and take an express train (3½ hours) to Bhopal in the morning. Arrival at the hotel c. 3.00pm. Some free time in the afternoon. First of two nights in Bhopal.

Day 9

Sanchi, Vidisha. Remotely located in open, hilly and sparsely populated countryside, Sanchi is one of the treasures of India and a unesco heritage site. On top of a hill with lovely views all around, the site was supposedly founded by the Great Ashoka. The 2nd-cent. ad stupa with stone railings and four magnificently elaborately carved gateways survives almost intact. Nearby Vidisha was an important Hindu centre under the Gupta dynasty as seen in the majestic carving of Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu. Overnight Bhopal.

Day 10

Bhopal to Mumbai. In the morning, fly to Mumbai. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum (built 1885) was formerly known as the Victoria & Albert and is the oldest museum in Mumbai. A private visit led by the curator explores the city’s distinctive communities and their respective religious practices. Overnight Mumbai.

Day 11

Mumbai, Aurangabad. In the morning, take a privately chartered boat to Elephanta Island. The largest of the two groups is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The relief panels depict the god in various forms. The central Trimurti image, or three-headed Shiva, is said to represent the three aspects of the deity and considered a masterpiece of Gupta art. After lunch, fly to Aurangabad. First of three nights in Aurangabad.

Day 12

Ajanta. Cut into the volcanic lava of the Deccan plateau, the Buddhist caves at Ajanta were first excavated around the 2nd cent. bc. A later group of caves was built during the Gupta era in the 5th–6th cent. ad before the site was abandoned in the 7th century in favour of Ellora. Celebrated for their fine statuary and the refined wall paintings, they are often considered one of the greatest achievements in Indian art. Overnight Aurangabad.

Day 13

Ellora. With their uninterrupted sequence spanning four centuries, the caves and rock-cut temples at Ellora are both artistic masterpieces and technological achievements. The various monasteries dedicated to Buddhism, Jainism and Brahmanism also attest to the religious tolerance which prevailed under the Rashtrakuta dynasty. The impressive rock-cut, monolithic Kailashanatha Temple marks the transition between rock-cut and structural architecture, which took place around the 8th century across the Deccan. Overnight in Aurangabad.

Day 14

Mumbai. Fly early in the morning to Mumbai where the tour ends. 

Image of Asoka Pugal

Asoka Pugal

Historian and lecturer. Born in Tamil Nadu, he graduated in History from the University of Madras followed by postgraduate studies at Madras Law College. He has been working in the tourist industry for the past 30 years and has worked with Sir Edmund Hillary, and produced a Television Documentary on the Himalayas for German Television. From 1987 to 1992, he was a reporter for ZDF in India and produced the documentary Temples, Palaces & Houses of India. In 2001, he joined the Board of studies in Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Madras.

Price – per person

Two sharing: £5,930. Single occupancy: £6,880.

Included: air travel (economy class) on flights with Jet Airways: Delhi to Varanasi (Boeing 737–800), Varanasi to Khajuraho (Boeing 737–800), Bhopal to Mumbai (Boeing 737–800) and return Mumbai to Aurangabad (ATR72); travel by private air-conditioned coach and one journey by train (in the best class available); accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 11 lunches (including 2 packed lunches) and 10 dinners with wine or beer, water and coffee; admissions to museums and sites; tips for drivers, restaurant staff, and local guides; airport taxes; the service of the lecturer.

Flights

Flights from London to Delhi and Mumbai to London are not included in the price of the tour. We will send the recommended flight options with your confirmation of booking and ask that you make your own flight reservation. The cost of a World Traveller (economy) seat with British Airways at the time of going to press is c. £500 and will be available to book towards the middle of March 2017.

Visas

Required for most foreign nationals, and not included in the tour price.

Accommodation

The Taj Mahal, Delhi: a modern and comfortable hotel catering for both the business and leisure traveller, ideally situated in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi; attractive garden and swimming pool. The Clarks, Varanasi: a comfortable 5-star hotel, complete with modern amenities and set in over three acres of grounds. The Lalit Temple, Khajuraho: a modern hotel within walking distance of the main site, surrounded by a well-tended garden; rooms are spacious with large windows overlooking the pool or garden. The Jehan Numa Palace, Bhopal: a former royal residence on the edge of the city with gardens, verandas and a swimming pool. Bedrooms vary but all are comfortable and well equipped. The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai: an iconic landmark and a masterpiece of Indo-Saracenic architecture, comfortable, centrally located and with excellent service. The Taj Residency, Aurangabad: a pleasant hotel set amid well-tended gardens. The rooms are comfortable, with private balconies.

How strenuous?

A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. A rough indication of the minimum level of fitness required is that you ought to be able to walk briskly at about 3 miles per hour for at least half an hour, and undertake a walk at a more leisurely pace for an hour or two unaided. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. Sure-footedness is essential to board the river boats. Unruly traffic and the busy streets of larger cities require vigilance. There are some fairly steep ascents to hilltop forts and temples and numerous steps in Ajanta and Ellora. There are 2 coach journeys over 2 hours during which facilities are limited and may be of poor quality. Most sites have some shade but the Indian sun is strong, even in the cooler seasons. Average distance by coach per day: 38 miles.

Group size

Between 10 and 22 participants.

Travel advice

Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.

'As usual, everything is handled for one. It would not be possible to have such a carefree holiday in India at less expense and such comfort.'

'We covered a lot of ground and saw some fascinating things.'