Searching for the Goddess & the Elixir
A group tour to India led by Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma
10th to 23rd February 2019

Searching for the Goddess & the Elixir
Led by Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma
10th to 23rd February 2019

Shakti (Śakti) or power is understood to be the primordial cosmic energy in Hinduism and in some Buddhist traditions. This dynamic force is believed to move through the entire universe embodied by various goddesses. Different yet many ways similar, eastern religious traditions of goddess worship on the Indian subcontinent have deep historical roots. We as a collective whole and as individual seekers will go on a journey. The objective of this shared path is to find the goddess that speaks to us with the end goal of being able to find the goddess within us. The meta-question to consider is can we wholly or partially identify with the “Ultimate Reality,” which is the ground and origin of all phenomenon? We will seek the goddess through the broader lens of Hinduism and Buddhism in West Bengal and Sikkim, two states in India.

West Bengal historically was home to developments in science, institutional education, and social reforms in the region, including what popularly is known as the Bengali Renaissance and a center of the Indian independence movement through the early 20th century. West Bengal’s love for goddesses is well known. The goddess Kali is central to Kalighata, Kankalitala, and Tarapith. While we visit these three Shakti Peeth, or the seat of power, three significant pilgrimage destinations, we will also understand the dynamics of the domestication of the goddesses in historic and present India and its ramification to the status of women in India. We will also encounter the goddess in her back stage, as it were, to her home in the public temple or shrine. Her back stage is Kumartuli. Kumartuli is the traditional potters’ quarter in North Kolkata that specialize in professional image making. The Bengali Renaissance will be absorbed while we visit and meditate together in Santiniketan.

From the hustle and bustle of West Bengal we will travel to the foot hills of the Himalayas and go to Sikkim in search of the elixir. Sikkim is best described as the meditative mural built over Buddhism and Hinduism. We will be part of one of the most sacred festivals of Sikkim, the Bhumchu Festival. It is believed that by taking a drop of the Bhumchu water one receives the elixir. Enlightenment is achieved and all of the evil spirits and distress are removed. By doing so, one would attain a form of Buddhahood or be born at a higher ranking in the next life. In addition to receiving the elixir we also enjoy the famous highly aromatic Darjeeling tea. And finally, as our last stop, we will tie in the Hindu and the Buddhist soteriology by visiting the Mahakaal Temple. This temple is perched right on the Observatory Hill. It is a Hindu temple with Buddhist Priests, frequented by both Hindu and Buddhist worshippers. The temple is a beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist rituals and religious beliefs.

Details of all our stops can be found in the itinerary.

Sravana Borkataky-Varma, Ph.D., is a part-time faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. She holds a doctorate in religious studies from Rice University and she received a master’s degrees in Buddhism and Business Administration from India. She has also taught at Rice University, University of Houston, and Dalian Neusoft University in China. She specializes in Hindu Tantra: Religion, Gender, and Kundalini Yoga. Her interest in the esoteric traditions of Hinduism led her to present at the United Nations Witchcraft and Human Rights Experts Workshop, Geneva. Originally from India, Sravana has studied and lived in Germany, China and the United States. Her published articles can be found in Religions and journals published by Springer.

In addition to being a scholar of religion, Sravana was initiated into the Goddess practice at the age of 14. In this trip, she interlaces her knowledge as an “Insider” of the tradition with the scholarly lens. This combination brings forth an unique set of insights.

Scroll down for the full itinerary.

Searching for the Goddess & the Elixir
Led by Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma
10th to 23rd February 2019

Kolkata – Santiniketan – Tarapith – Siliguri – Kewzing (Sikkim) – Darjeeling – Kolkata

Itinerary:
DAY 1: SUNDAY 10TH FEBRUARY 2019. OVERNIGHT FLIGHT TO KOLKATA

Fly from your home country to Kolkata. Speak to Soul of India about the best flight options.

DAY 2: MONDAY 11TH FEBRUARY 2019. WELCOME TO KOLKATA

Meeting and assistance on arrival at Kolkata airport, and transfer to the Kenilworth Hotel to rest after the long journey.

Once everyone has arrived, we will meet up in the hotel to discuss the upcoming journey. Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma will meet you. She will discuss the pre-trip course content and go over the plan. This is also the time we will get to meet the larger group in person. So, plan to be relaxed and take your time to ask your questions and address your concerns.

Overnight in the Kenilworth Hotel, Kolkata

DAY 3: TUESDAY 12TH FEBRUARY 2019. KOLKATA

Today we will visit Kalighat Kali Temple, Kumartuli on the banks of the Hooghly river where many gods and goddesses are given a material form, and Rabindranath Tagore’s House.

Kalighat Kali Temple: This is the first Shakta temple on our journey. Kalighat is one of the oldest neighborhoods in South Kolkata. It is believed that the right toe of Sati fell here. The present temple was built in 1809 by Sabarna Roy Choudhury. The spellbinding form of Kali in Kalighat is the most fascinating. She is gigantic, with a beautiful face and a shining gold tongue.

Kumartuli: The back stage of gods and goddesses is Kumartuli. Kumartuli is the traditional potters’ quarter in North Kolkata that specialize in professional image making. Experience clay become the goddess and then get all dressed up. Sometimes in-tune to modern times, the goddess would even get hair highlights before getting transported behind lorries to temples and people’s homes.

Rabindranath Tagore: Jorasanko Thakur Bari in Jorasanko, north of Kolkata, is the ancestral home of the Tagore family. A place that that was the epicenter of many reformist thoughts and literature. In the context of our journey, this home was the epicenter of one of the Hindu Reformist Movement, the Brahmo Samaj.

Overnight in the Kenilworth Hotel, Kolkata

DAY 4: WEDNESDAY 13TH FEBRUARY 2019. TO SANTINIKETAN

In the morning we will take a boat ride up the Hooghly River to Dakshineshwar Kali Temple.

Kali’s life-and-death ambiguity is represented in her iconographic representations— the tamed and the wild. For example, the “domesticated, socialized and restrained” form of Kali can be seen in Dakshineswar Kali Mandir. Dakshineswar is a place near Kolkata where the temple is situated. The temple was built in 1855 by Rani Rashmoni, a devotee of Kali. In modern times the temple is associated largely with Ramakrishna (1836-1886), a mystic of nineteenth century Bengal.

After lunch we will leave the bustle of Kolkata, and move on to Howrah Junction, the largest and busiest railway station in India, to board our train to the peaceful haven of Santiniketan. We will board the “Saraighat Express”, train number 12345, departing Howrah Junction at 15:50 and arriving at Bolpur Santiniketan at 17:53, a 2-hour journey in 2- Tier Air-Conditioned class.

Arriving at Santiniketan we will transfer to the hotel Mark & Meadows.

Overnight in Mark & Meadows, Santiniketan

DAY 5: THURSDAY 14TH FEBRUARY. SANTINIKETAN

Today we will explore Santiniketan, meditate in the meditation hall and drive out to the Amar Kutir society to see handicrafts being made.

1862-1863, Santiniketan became a spiritual centre where people from all religions were invited to join for meditation and prayers. Since 1913 Santiniketan is well known for the school and the University that was established on the ideals set by Rabindranath Tagore. The central premise is that learning imparted outside of four walls, in the natural environment is more enjoyable and fruitful. Over the last 105 years, the university has witnessed the growth of several artists, academicians and scientists.

Overnight in Mark & Meadows, Santiniketan

DAY 6: FRIDAY 15TH FEBRUARY 2019. TO TARAPITH

This morning we will leave Santiniketan and drive out to the Kankalitala temple. We hope to hear music and singing from the bauls, mystic minstrels who travel this region.

Kankālītalā is the second Shakta temple on our tour. It is tucked away in a sleepy temple town in Bolpur subdivision of Birbhum district in West Bengal. It is believed that the bones of Sati fell here. This temple complex is not a large establishment and not visited by many. The temple lake, where beautiful water lilies bloom, is where it is believed the bones fell.

We will then continue 60km by road to the temple at Tarapith, sacred to the goddess Tara.

Overnight in Hotel Sonar Bangla, Tarapith

DAY 7: SATURDAY 16TH FEBRUARY 2019. TO SILIGURI

We will visit Tarapith in the morning.

The temple Tarapith is known for the fearsome Tantric power of the goddess Kali. The adjoining cremation grounds are known for Tantric “spiritual practices,” including śava sādhanā, or the “corpse practice.” The projected form of Kali in Tarapith is a fierce form that commonly generates a sense of dread. We will visit both the temple and the cremation grounds. The cremation grounds are optional.

Later we drive back to Santiniketan to board our train to the foothills of the Himalayas: the “Shatabdi Express”, train number 12041, departing Bolpur Santiniketan at 16:06 and arriving at New Jalpaiguri at 22:30, a 6h 24m journey in air- conditioned Executive Chair class.

From here we will transfer to the nearby town of Siliguri for overnight stay in hotel Sinclairs Siliguri.

Overnight in Sinclairs Siliguri

DAY 8: SUNDAY 17TH FEBRUARY 2019. TO KEWZING, SIKKIM

This morning we will drive up into the Himalayas – the 120km journey will take about 4 hours, and we will have to stop on the way to get our Restricted Area Permits required to visit this region. Our destination is Kewzing, a small village in Sikkim where we will be staying as guests with local families.

Later we will have meditation in the village temple which belongs to the Bon tradition, believed by most to be the religion of Tibet before the advent of Buddhism. Bon arose in the eleventh century and established its scriptures mainly from termas (hidden teachings) and visions by tertöns (person who discovers ancient texts).

Overnight in village homestay, Kewzing

DAY 9: MONDAY 18TH FEBRUARY 2019. BHUMCHU FESTIVAL, SIKKIM

Today we will drive 25km from our village to Tashiding monastery to experience a unique festival in Himalayan Buddhism – Bhumchu, the festival of the “Holy Water Vase.” Bhumchu is celebrated at Tashiding Monastery on the 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. Bhumchu or the opening of the vessel containing the holy water is one of the holiest festivals in Sikkim. The level of water in this vessel is believed to be a sign of the fortunes of the coming year. The Bhum or Sacred vase, according to Zigpo Lingpa, is made out of various kinds of sacred soil, water and five kinds of precious jewels.

Tashiding Monastery is thought to be the centre of four sacred caves. This festival is said to have started under the rule of Guru Padmasambhava. It is believed that by taking a drop of the Bhumchu water one receives the elixir. Enlightenment is achieved and all of the evil spirits and distress are removed. By doing so, one would attain a form of Buddhahood or be born at a higher ranking in the next life.

Overnight in village homestay, Kewzing

DAY 10: TUESDAY 19TH FEBRUARY 2019. REST DAY OR PEMAYANGSTE, RABDENTSE AND SANGACHOLING GOMPA

Today is a day to rest in the peace and quiet after all the traveling, and we will also have some meditation time in the gompa. Those who wish to use today to explore the area can take a trip out to Pemayangtse and Sangacholing monasteries, and the ruins of the old capital at Rabdentse.

Or you may do none of the above and simply relax!

Overnight in village homestay, Kewzing

DAY 11: WEDNESDAY 20TH FEBRUARY 2019. TO DARJEELING

Check out of the village and drive 65km to Darjeeling, where we check in to the historic Elgin hotel.

Overnight in the Elgin, Darjeeling

DAY 12: THURSDAY 21ST FEBRUARY 2019. TEA IN DARJEELING

Drive out to a tea estate and factory for tasting.

And finally, we tie-in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions by visiting the Mahakaal Temple. Mahakaal Temple is perched right on the Observatory Hill. It is a Hindu temple with Buddhist Priests, frequented by both Hindu and Buddhist worshippers. The temple is a beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist rituals and religious beliefs.

Overnight in the Elgin, Darjeeling

DAY 13: FRIDAY 22ND FEBRUARY 2019. TO KOLKATA

Final morning in Darjeeling at leisure. After lunch we will drive 70km to Bagdogra airport to board Air Asia flight I5-588, departing Bagdogra at 18:10 and arriving at Kolkata at 19:30. (1h 20m flight). At Kolkata we will transfer to the Viceroy Hotel, a hotel close to the airport and convenient for the next day’s international departures.

Overnight in Viceroy Hotel, Kolkata

DAY 14: SATURDAY 23RD FEBRUARY 2019. INTERNATIONAL DEPARTURE

Transfer from hotel to Kolkata international airport for your international departure. Speak to Soul of India about the best flight options.

Buddhist tour India

The cost per person sharing a twin or double room:
£1,945 / $2570
Single room supplement:
£425 / $560
The cost includes:
  • 12 night’s accommodation in hotels and homestays as per itinerary, sharing twin or double room with en-suite facilities (Check-in is 1400 hrs and checkout 12 noon. Early check-in late checkouts are subject to availability).
  • Train tickets and reservations as per itinerary in 2AC (Howrah to Bolpur Santiniketan) and AC Executive Chair Class (Bolpur to New Jalpaiguri).
  • One Internal flight as per itinerary from Bagdogra to Kolkata in Economy Class
  • Daily breakfast and dinner at all hotels. Lunches while at the homestays in Sikkim
  • All arrival/departure transfers, long drives and sightseeing by a chauffeur driven private air-conditioned coach.
  • Services of a local English-speaking representative for all arrival and departure transfers to assist you at the airports.
  • Services of English speaking guide during sightseeing as specified in the itinerary
  • Entrance fees to all monuments during sightseeing as specified in your itinerary
  • Teaching from Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma
  • Mineral water while travelling
The cost does not include:
  • International airfare.
  • India visa fee. You can now apply for visa on arrival in India- please click here for more information. https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html
  • Lunches, except in Kewzing.
  • Any expenses of a personal nature like laundry, telephone calls, beverages, gratuities etc.
  • Camera fees at monuments and other places of interest.
  • Travel Insurance: It is essential to have adequate travel insurance in place before your departure. This should be appropriate for your age, health and destination you are visiting.
Please ensure:
  • It includes comprehensive medical and repatriation cover
  • It provides cover for your whole trip
  • It covers you for all activities
  • It covers all your pre-existing medical conditions
  • Keep your Policy Number and Insurer’s 24-hour Emergency Number handy with you

If you wish to book this tour, please compete the booking form, sign and e-mail it to us. A non-refundable deposit of £400.00 per person is needed at the time of booking. Balance payments will be due 8 weeks before departure. You can make the deposit payment by debit or credit card or electronic transfers to our bank. Our Bank details are on the booking form. Bookings are confirmed on first come first served basis. When the tour is full we will take about 5 additional names on the waiting list to replace their booking with any cancellations etc.

CONTACT US

To enquire or make a booking on this tour, please call: 020 8901 7630 Monday – Friday 9.30am – 5.30pm, Saturday 11am – 4pm

TESTIMONIALS:
“I cannot recommend this company enough. Safe to say India has got under our skin and into our hearts, and when we visit again we will definitely be booking with this company - if you are thinking of going I urge you to do the same.”- Gillian and Ashley Iredale
``The whole experience was great, the most relaxing day of the holiday was the cruise up the backwaters when the whole group experienced it together``- Margaret Fortune
``A whole variety of experiences- worship, culture, scenery, friendliness of the people & their hospitality``- Daphne Brindle
``Being in India and witnessing the faith that the people of India have, Hindus, Muslim or Christians, seeing with my own eyes the devotion the people have`` - Steve Breward