With another busy semester now in the books, I am pleased to present here the itinerary of the class/trip to study religions in India which I’ll be co-leading less than one week from now. For family members, this will give you a chance to follow along where we are each day. For others, it may just be an opportunity to say, “Well, I’m glad I’m not going to be in Calcutta sweating it out all day in 113-degree humid heat!” I would blog the trip as we go along, but a) we won’t have much computer access b) we’re going to simply be too busy trying to take in all that we can in our 17-day travel window.
Below I’ve listed the dates and locations along with a few highlights of what we’ll be seeing each day. Here is a Google Maps image to illustrate the whole trip and another one zoomed in on our India destinations.
Fly from USA to India via Newark and Frankfurt (two plane changes) Losing 11.5 hours due to the time change, we are set to arrive in New Delhi on 5/20 bright and early at 12:30 a.m.
Hopefully sleep in a bit but likely wake up after only a few hours. Today we have time to relax and see a few key sites that will not be on our bus tour the next day. Jama Musjid is Old Delhiâ€™s principal mosque. Nizamuddin Dargah is one of the most revered sites in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that has deep affinities with Vedanta, a philosophical strand of Hinduism.
Full-day city bus tour of Delhi. We’ll visit such sites as Qutub Minar, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the Middle Ages. Here we’ll see this stunning red sandstone and marble construction and get to know Islam first hand. The site boasts India’s tallest mosque minaret. We’ll also visit Raj Ghat, memorial of Mahatma Gandhi and hallowed site of his cremation. Related to this we’ll see Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple inaugurated by Gandhi. Skipping many other interesting sites we’ll see, another peculiar site we will experience in Delhi is the Lotus Temple, belonging to the Baha’i faith, a very new religion in comparison with Islam and especially Hinduism.
Hop on the bus at 6 a.m. sharp to head from Delhi to Jaipur. Not looking forward to this part! But to make up for it, today we’ll get to walk with elephants and monkeys in the streets of Jaipur and enjoy a real Indian cultural experience. Jaipur has religious sites, to be sure, but this is a day primarily to get a taste of Indian culture and see some beautiful things!
Another 6 a.m. start as we head onward to Agra and the Taj Mahal, perhaps India’s best known landmark in the Western world. One of the seven wonders of the world, it is actually a Muslim-mausoleum. In this same day, we’ll also make a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a nearby city founded by the Mughal king Akhar, to visit its glorious palace complex and its Jama Masjid mosque. Finally, today we’ll also make our way to Mathura, city which Hindu tradition reveres as the god Krishna’s birthplace. After a full day of touring, at 10 p.m. we board an overnight train to the holy city of Varanasi. I think for this particular train we were unable to get an air-conditioned cabin. I foresee this is going to be a real pilgrimage experience!
Arrive in Varanasi around Noon. after a nearly 15-hr overnight train ride. For me this is one of the most anticipated days of the trip as Varanasi is India’s holy city. The sacred Ganges river where Hindus ritually immerse themselves in a ceremony whose action and aim has striking affinities with baptism. For Hindus the Ganges does it all: it is a septic tank, a watering hole, a washer, a trash can, and a tomb all wrapped into one. Sound crazy? All I can say is that I’m only going to let my feet and maybe a hand touch it! It is considered auspicious to die in the holy city of Varanasi, as it is believed that being cremated there enables one to break the cycle of reincarnation (which, unlike Westerners, Hindus see as a very bad thing). We’ll be able to see cremation ceremonies firsthand at the ghats along the river. If we have time, there are also some important temples of the Jain religion in Varanasi to see.
Hop on the train at 10 a.m. heading for Bodh Gaya where we arrive around 2:30 p.m after a (relatively) short train ride. This is the main Buddhist site we’ll be exploring. Here one can visit the Enlightenment Tree, the spot where Siddharta Gautama is said to have attained perfect Enlightenment and became the Buddha. One of the things I’m also really interested in about this place is its multinational character. We’ll be able to see Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Thai temples. It all depends on how much time we have and want to spend at each place, and there’s a lot of room to play things by ear and go with the flow–which will certainly include giving in” or “offering it up” when things don’t go precisely how we had planned! Overnight in Bodh Gaya.
Morning train from Bodh Gaya to Kolkata (Calcutta).where we arrive early evening. Here we are spending the most continuous nights in one city–three in total. During our time here we’ll be volunteering at the Home for the Dying founded by Blessed Mother Teresa and run by the Missionaries of Charity. We’ll able to celebrate mass and pray a holy hour at her tomb, bringing all of our intercessions before this powerful and beloved saint. In Kolkata we will also be visiting a temple to the Hindu goddess Kali and perhaps a Jain temple. We likewise will be making one of our most important stops at Belur Math, a mission started by Hindu Swami Vivekananda in honor of the great mystic Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna’s Vedanta philosophy teaches the unity of all religions, and the temple here fuses motifs from multiple religions as a sign of this belief. While Christians do not subscribe to this philosophy, it engenders an extraordinary beautiful and peaceful way of life.
6:15 a.m. flight from Kolkata in the north to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum for those of us who need a few fewer syllables in our words!) in the far south state of Kerala. We’ll be arriving in the morning on the 28th and have most of three days to tour by taxi/bus around this land where the St. Thomas the Apostle evangelized in the first century. We will make stops at many of the 7 churches which tradition attributes to Thomas for their foundation, getting taste of the ancient Catholic liturgies of south India in the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. There were also Jewish communities already established in the region before the time of Christ, and we hope to make a visit to Chendamangalam or Paradesi Synagogue in Cochi to check out the Jewish scene and add yet another important religion to our Indian experience. While we’re here in this coastal region, we will of course also have to make at least one pit stop for an afternoon on the beach!
At 10:15 p.m. we hop on an overnight train to Nagapattanam and make our way to Our Lady of Velankanni or Our Lady of Good Health, a famous Marian shrine which has been dubbed “Lourdes of the East.” This will be a fascinating experience because not only Christians but also Hindus come to worship here, shaving their heads as a token of their intercessory prayer. After our second day at Velankanni, we board a 9:35 p.m. train to Mahabalipuram on our way to Chennai.
We arrive in Mahabalipuram well before dawn at 4 a.m. and here visit the Tamil Nadu region’s impressive ancient Hindu temples constructed in the ancient Dravidian architectural style. After this pit stop we grab a bus and head for Chennai (formerly Madras). The highlight here is clearly Santhome Basilica, which houses the mortal remains of St. Thomas who was martyred nearby.
We get to spend another day in the environs of Chennai, making our way to Mt. St. Thomas where the apostle was martyred. Depending on how tired we are, the ancient Hindu Kapaleeshwar Temple is also nearby and worth a visit if we want to break up our streak of exploring south Indian Christian sites. We will probably also “have to” make another beach trip, this time on India’s southeast coast. We have a very, very early morning the next day. In fact, we should probably think of it as a late night because we won’t be going to sleep on land.
We cap our 17-day Indian expedition with a grueling 1:45 a.m. (yes that’s A.M.) flight out of Chennai. By the time we get to the airport a few hours early for international departure, that means no sleep on land tonight. We can only hope to get some on the plane. There will not be a lack of opportunity for this. It is over 10 hours in the air from Chennai to Frankfurt, and then another 9 from Frankfurt to Chicago, where a number of us will be stepping onto American soil. Others will head back to Kansas City; others to Colorado.