Rishikesh: High On Spirituality, Yoga, Sights & Food

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Rishikesh, the place where the holy Ganga river descends from the Himalayas and finally enters the plains, is popular with a whole lot of people looking for a whole lot of different things. They all may find a bit of what they are looking for and something extra too.

View of Ganga from Lakshman Jhula

There are pilgrims here coming for the temples, ritual bathing, religious atmosphere and carrying back home some of the holy Ganga water. The town is full of temples and bathing ghats. But Haridwar, around 40 kilometres downstream from Rishikesh, is considered religiously and ritually more important.

Then you have the foreign backpacker visitors, looking for spirituality, yoga, culture and the Beatles. Yes, the place was popularized by the staying of Beatles for a few weeks at the top of their popularity. Even though it is still debatable whether the Beatles found what they were looking for in Rishikesh or what they were promised, but still many come here from the western world and Japan too, seeking the Beatles’ spirit. The place is brimming with ashramas and centres offering yoga and meditation classes.

The third major lot is the young and not so young corporate crowd or middle class urban populous, who come here seeking weekend highs through river rafting and camping on the river beach. On weekends, especially during the summer months, they totally take over the scene here. They can be brash, noisy and loud, with little regard for the natural, scenic, ritual, cultural, spiritual or religious spirit of the place. All they want is their weekend fun, which in short means beer drinking and rafting.

Setting

Rishikesh is basically a one street town. There is one main road which comes from Delhi, goes past the middle of the town and then starts climbing a winding mountain path on way to Srinagar, all the Prayags and ends up little beyond Badrinath in Mana Village. The road, all the while, runs along the Ganga and after Devprayag, the Alaknanda, till Badrinath (a distance of 297 km). If you are coming from Delhi on this road, then all the Ghats (such as Triveni ghat) on the Ganga and the famous suspension bridges, Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, would be on your right. The other side of the Ganga, where much of the action is located, can be accessed easily on foot, crossing the Ram Jhula or Lakshman Jhula. Though you can drive to the other side too, but for that, you have to drive beyond Lakshman Jhula for a couple of kilometres where you will find a bridge to your right.

Lakshman Jhula area

Lakshman Jhula is on a higher bank on the main road, about two kilometres from Ram Jhula. This is the older part of Rishikesh. It has a different feel as compared to the Ram Jhula area. Lakshman Jhula area is favoured more by the foreign tourists of the backpacker variety. As a result, you will come across a number of cool cafes and restaurants with the 70’s music playing, graffiti on the walls and many yoga centres. I feel this area is more atmospheric and has an easy-going feel to it.

To reach the Lakshman Jhula bridge and the river from the main road, one has to walk down, either on a downward road or a stepped path. Both the walks are lined with restaurants and shops selling knick-knacks. Some of the restaurants have great river views. On a high perch above the Lakshman Jhula is the German bakery (Devraj Coffee Corner), the place with one of the best views. This area has many little joints selling continental food (pasta, muesli with fruits, pancakes, cakes) along with dhabas selling Indian food as well. While crossing the river using Lakshman Jhula, keep a lookout for monkeys. They are quite dextrous when it comes robbing you of anything you are carrying in your hands, especially food packets of any kind. 

Ram Jhula area

Ram Jhula bridge is bigger than Lakshman Jhula and the area here is also much more crowded and noisy. Across the Jhula, take a right turn going through the narrow bazaar. This area is called Swarg Ashram, and after five minutes walk, you will reach the place called, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, that has the biggest Ganga arti (every evening river worship) scene. The whole spectacle is grand and definitely spruced up to make it attractive to tourists. Still, it is a good idea to attend one of these evening arti sessions.

Cakes and pies on display in a place near Lakshman Jhula

Ram Jhula bridge is bigger than Lakshman Jhula and the area here is also much more crowded and noisy. Across the Jhula, take a right turn going through the narrow bazaar. This area is called Swarg Ashram, and after five minutes walk, you will reach the place called, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, that has the biggest Ganga arti (every evening river worship) scene. The whole spectacle is grand and definitely spruced up to make it attractive to tourists. Still, it is a good idea to attend one of these evening artisessions.

But do take out time to visit some other quieter ghats(stepped approach to the river) along the same stretch of river. Here you can sit and absorb and observe the evening goings on. You can also offer your own prayer to the river goddess by floating a bowl made of leaves with light and flowers in it. Many people offer prayers this way to the river goddess and watching all these small lighted boats flowing along the river current is a magical sight. This area has many popular and big Indian food restaurants, such as Chotiwala. There are three Chotiwala outlets here frequented by Indian tourists, though I did not like their preparations much.

The food offered at Chottiwala may not leave a good taste but this man dressed as Chottiwala at the front of the restaurant does offer excellent photo op.

Beatles’ Ashram

At the very end of the Swarg Ashram Marg, a kilometre beyond Parmarth Ashram, is the Maharishi Ashram (of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Yoga and meditation guru, who professed Transcendental Meditation), where the Beatles stayed. The place, with peculiar meditation huts, was abandoned in 1997 and is part of the protected forest land. As a result, it is overgrown with vegetation. You need to buy tickets to enter from the forest office at the entrance. The well spread out place with numerous quirky buildings, guest houses where the Beatles stayed, apartment blocks and huts, is full of graffiti and art done later on by the Beatles’ fans. Lying abandoned for many decades now, the place has an eerie feel too.

Quirky meditation huts in the Beatles’ ashram, abandoned and overgrown with vegetation

Do check the place called the Beatles’ Cathedral Gallery for the graffiti art. Most of the artwork is about the Beatles and their songs and the yoga, meditation and drugs’ culture. It is a strange and cool place. The Beatles are said to have written most of their White Album here.

River Rafting on the Ganga

With more than a 100 operators, rafting is an extremely popular activity for the weekend river rafting visits of the urban populous from the North Indian cities, especially New Delhi. The young and not so young, corporate employees, families and groups of friends, with no previous experience of river rafting, flock to the numerous rafting operators dotting the river bank. Some time ago these operators had occupied almost all the vantage points on the sandy beaches along the river course, offering tents’ stay and rafting. But the National Green Tribunal, wisely and necessarily, has pushed the tents out of the beaches. These camps have now shifted to the banks of a tributary of the Ganga near Garur Chatti. These camps by themselves offer a great option to stay in natural environs along a clear small stream. Your food and other requirements are well-taken care off and they organise rafting trips too.

The river rafting is carried out here by the local youths, who are professionally not trained, but know the river’s course well, as they have been doing it for a long time. But it is still advisable to be careful with your equipment and in making sure your raft is not overcrowded beyond capacity. Some of the rapids are dangerous and there have been cases of people drowning on these rafting trips in the past.

One of the many river side camps

The trips start about 20 km upstream from Rishikesh (Shivpuri). The rates depend on the length of the course you choose and are negotiable. It is better to compare between two to three operators before you choose one.  There are some professionally run outfits too, who offer trekking trips to the interiors of the Himalayas from here, such as the Har Ki Dun trek and Kauri Pass trek.

Walks

There are three basic walks you can indulge in. Actually, the best way to spend your time in Rishikesh is by walking all over the place.

-Once you cross the Lakshman Jhula, take a right turn along the river bank. This is a nice walk which will end at Ram Jhula. You can go further on in the same direction until you reach the abandoned Maharishi Ashram, where the  Beatles’ stayed. Or you can cross the river again through the Ram Jhula and take a ride back to Lakshman Jhula.

-If riding down from Lakshman Jhula towards Ram Jhula, you can continue further, till you cross a dry river channel and reach a left turn going towards the Triveni Ghat. This is a huge ghat popular with the locals and Indian tourists. The road leading to the ghat goes through a colourful bazaar. Once you are at the ghat you can walk further downstream along the river. This is a well paved walking track that ends up at a dam on the river around 3 km downstream. It is a pleasant walk. You can cross the bridge over the dam and walk along one of the canals that start from here. The canal goes along the forested area, (part of Chilla Wildlife Sanctuary). Nice place to do your health walk but don’t venture here after dark as this is a lonely stretch. The road though is a great place for a drive if you have your own vehicle.

-Across the Lakshman Jhula take a left turn to walk towards a waterfall. This is another popular walk and you can ask for directions along the way.

Where to Stay

Though Rishikesh is full of budget, mid range and top range places to stay, spread all across along the main road or the riverfront, the area I liked the best is the High Bank area. This area has many budget and mid-range staying places (hotels and homestays) away from the noisy and crowded part of the town. This High Bank area is like a small self-contained village, near Lakshman Jhula.

If you are coming from the Ram Jhula area towards the Lakshman Jhula on the main road, before reaching the Lakshman Jhula area you will see a left turn. This turn is also called the Bypass Road. Just 200 metres along this road you will see a street leading up to the High Bank area. Bhandari Swiss Cottage and New Bhandari Swiss Cottage are two clean, comfortable and cool places to stay. There are some more similar places too. This area has a few good eating options as well. This is the place where you will get the best continental food in town. It is the preferred staying area for the well-travelled travellers.

Early morning scene at Treveni Ghat

Reposted from Travel Bug Asheesh

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