Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Archeological excavations of ancient Buddhist monasteries in Sarnath, India. Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma here. The three structures in the distance, from left to right, are the Main Temple, the Dhamekh Stupa, and the Jain Temple.

Click on title to view photo in large format. After his enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha traveled to Sarnath, a village near Varanasi, India. There he shared the Dharma (teaching) with his closest disciples for the first time. He explained the four noble truths that became the foundation for the philosophy we now know as Buddhism. By the seventh century AD, more than 3,000 monks were living in Buddhist monasteries in Sarnath. The community thrived until the 12th century, when Turkish Muslims invaded and razed most of the monasteries. Read More

Monks come to Mahabodhi Temple to meditate beneath the ancestor of the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, beneath which Buddha became enlightened

Click on title to view photo in large format. Monks wait to meditate beneath the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India. According to legend, Siddhartha Gutama (Buddha) meditated on this exact spot without moving until he attained enlightenment. Records are unclear about how long he meditated; some say six days, others say 49 days, while some even say it took six years. Once Buddha achieved nirvana, the Bodhi Tree became a sacred symbol of his enlightenment and followers began making a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya to meditate beneath its branches. Read More


During a dawn boat ride along the ghats in Varanasi, India, I witnessed devoted Hindus bathing in the Ganges River. Many save for years to make the trip and are joyful at finally being able to touch the river they know as Mother Ganga. Despite being severely polluted, they flock to the ghats every morning to bathe in the river, make offerings to it, and even drink from it.

In India, more than any other place on earth, the natural and spiritual worlds conjoin. Air and light, trees and mountains, animals and fire are all worshiped as gods. But the most important natural deity for Hindus is the Ganges River, an embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. A water goddess, Ganga originally tended the gardens of heaven. King Bhagirath begged Lord Brahma to force Ganga to descend to Earth and purify the soul of his 60,000 ancestors, whose ashes were trapped in purgatory. Impressed by the faithfulness of Bhagirath, who had meditated for 1,000 years prior to requesting this favor, Brahma ordered Ganga down to Earth.

Pilgrims gather at the ghats in Varanasi, India to immerse in the Ganges River

Pilgrims gather at the ghats in Varanasi, India to immerse in the Ganges River

The unhappy Ganga knew she could not disobey a command from the Gods, so she agreed. Secretly, however, she planned to descend with a speed so tremendous that her waters would wash away the Earth. Fortunately, Lord Shiva intervened. He caught the falling river on his head, channeling its flow through his matted locks and separating the waters into thousands of lesser streams. The lovely legend comes to life each spring, when soaring temperatures begin to melt snow and ice in the highest reaches of India’s Himalayas. Billions of droplets form rivulets that tumble down the precipitous mountains like tangled braids. They fatten with every mile, becoming white-capped torrents that surge through valleys and canyons, pulverizing the dense gray rock.

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Every evening after the sun sets, devotees perform the Aarti Fire Purifying Ceremony at Assi Ghat, on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India

Click on title to view photo in large format. Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world. The original temple that stood upon this site in Bodh Gaya was erected by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C. to mark the spot where Buddha attained enlightenment. The 164-foot high Mahabodhi Temple we see today was built during the 5th and 6th centuries and is one of the earliest examples of a Buddhist temple constructed of brick. Over time, the complex grew to include six sacred sites where Buddha meditated after attaining nirvana, spending one week in each spot. A seventh sacred place, the Lotus Pond, is located just outside the enclosure. In addition to Mahabodhi Temple, Buddhists make pilgrimages to Read More