The city of Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas, 240 km north of Delhi. It is on the Ganges River, surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges. Rishikesh is a pilgrim and spiritual centre that attracts both Hindu holy men and yoga and meditation enthusiasts from around the world. Most of this activity takes place outside Rishikesh itself, near the hanging bridge that crosses the Ganga about 5 km from the city. This section is small in size and very walkable.
The city is in the State of Uttarakhand, which is called “The Abode of Gods”. The two holiest rivers of Hindu mythology, the Ganga and Yamuna, originate in the mountains of the State. A sign on the banks of the river describes “Mother Ganga” as not only a river but as a “giver of life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation in her waters”. It also says that her waters “purify all who bathe in them, all who drink from them”.
I had been in the State before, to Haridwar, one of the seven sacred cities of India, and the hill station Mussoorie, the “Queen of the hills” at an elevation of 2000 metres. I had hired a car and driver from Delhi for three days and we only had time to stop at the bridge. But I knew that I’d return and have a closer look.
What I didn’t know when I arrived in February was that both alcohol and non-vegetarian food are forbidden (and I should have known that after being in Haridwar, which has a similar restriction) and that the International Yoga Festival was on. But I did find a “cold one” (contraband brought in from the town outside the restricted area) and a great vegetarian restaurant within an easy walk from where I was staying so there was no pain and I settled in for a few days.
It’s easy enough to travel to Rishikesh if you take a flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun and then a taxi from the airport for the 24 km ride to the town. The road is closed at night because of wild elephants (although I understand some convoys go through) so consider arriving and leaving during daylight hours.
A steady stream of rather weary-looking pilgrims pass through the town because Rishikesh is the starting point of the Hindu pilgrimage to the sacred Char Dhams—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. The pilgrims are in a sharp contrast to the fit-looking westerners who are there for the International Yoga Festival.
The rows of rooms with padlocks on their doors where pilgrims stay are stark in comparison to the rooms and beautiful grounds of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram that organizes the International Yoga Festival. The festival is held here every year from February 2-7 offering over 60 hours of yoga classes from world-class yoga teachers.
Each evening an Aati ceremony is held in front of the ashram at the sacred Triveni bathing ghat where the Ganga and the Yumuna rivers are believed to converge with the legendary Saraswati. I stayed just across the river from this ghat and admired the 13-stored Kailash Niketan Temple that is its background. There are other well-known structures such as Bharat Mandir, the oldest temple in Rishikesh and the one dedicated to Bharat, the brother of Lord Ram, and the Shivanand Ashram, the spiritual centre established by Swami Shivanand.
The whole area resonates with chanting that starts at 4:00am and goes on until dusk. Children roam the shoreline in front of my hotel, desperate to sell offerings to everyone passing by. I buy from one of them and am suddenly besieged by several children wanting me to make a group deal. I do, several candles are lit, and we all carry the small leaf boats to the river.
There is a good assortment of vegetarian café’s, stands of fruit and vegetables, lots of tuk-tuks to take you around. Small plastic vessels for collecting holy water are for sale everywhere. A small ferryboat is there to take me across the river for a very cheap price. There are bookstores offering everything from the practice of yoga to the secrets of life. You can take lessons about chanting, on understanding traditional Indian Mantra, on techniques to experience past lives. There’s vedic astrology and palmistry consultancy. There’s even white water rafting down this most holy of rivers, which while popular seems out of place.
The roving troops of monkeys have no fear and are rather annoying. If you walk along eating a banana it will quickly be snatched away. The balcony at my hotel is protected by metal so that the monkeys stay away; they don’t, they just hold on the other side of the barrier and star in at you. Metal barriers also restrict the free movement of cows and the streets are quite remarkably clean. If you travel around India you will probably think that Rishikesh is rather gentrified.
When I return I will stay in an ashram rather than a hotel for in the end I felt a little like one of those monkeys just looking in but not part of it.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses