What about Rishikesh?

The famous Ram jhula

The religious stature of Haridwar as the Gateway-to-the-Gods is probably a blessing in disguise for Rishikesh. For the thousands of pilgrims who make it to Haridwar everyday to set up camp, Rishikesh is mostly a day excursion. This has provided Rishikesh to develop as an alternate centre and the freedom to package other offerings. After all, two towns proffering the same religious moksha, within shouting distance of each other can create confusion in the hearts of its patrons, the always nagging doubt, which of the two is the real one.

The entrepreneurial citizens of Rishikesh have successfully managed to carve a niche for themselves in more than one area. It’s location, right at the base of the Himalayan foothills, and the Ganga meandering through it, have been their biggest blessings. Location is all that counts, like they say. The young, either spiritually inclined or seeking health, descend in Rishikesh leaving their elderly to attend the arti at Har-ki-paudi in Haridwar. Rishikesh is dotted with spiritual centers and yoga ashrams along the banks of Ganga. Their popularity so far-fetching, that several centers boast of more non-Indian clients than local. And you can see the proof as you walk around its narrow streets or broad ghats.

Besides all this, it has also emerged as the adventure capital of north India, the place to go to for white-water rafting.

On a fine but fairly warm early morning, I started driving from Delhi and though its just a little over 250 kms by road, the under-construction NH 58 makes it feel much longer. Drive through Haridwar and keep moving as you enter Rishikesh, until you are on a narrow road with the Ganga to your right. Find an ashram, hotel or resort here to put yourself up, its the best place to be when in Rishikesh. I took shelter at the Shanti Niketan Yoga ashram. Take a nap if you must, else you can start exploring the bazaars of this town. I chose the pillow for a few hours. In the evening head out to Parmarth ashram or Swarg ashram as it is popularly known. The evening arti here is un-missable.

The alarm failed me the next morning, the mobile phone battery had run out of charge. However I managed to still be up by 6.  Here the sun usually has a longer distance to travel before it makes itself seen from behind the hills. I quickly changed into three-quarters and a T and stepped out of my room to take in the early morning calm. Leaving my floaters behind, I walked bare foot on the thick and well maintained lawn of the ashram. The tingle of the grass sending bouts of relaxation up my feet.

A faint orange spread in the eastern sky behind the hills assured me that the sun is slowly making its way up.

The Ganga meandering across Rishikesh

The air in Rishikesh is always heavy with religions chantings. Gentle ringing of the bells drifting across the river is soothing to the harried ears. I am a staunch atheist, but I still fall for these melodious mantras.

Here, its only the river thats in a hurry to make its way into and out of the town. Almost everyone else is moving around with a benevolent mood and gentle pace. Have you ever been to a place where you want time to stand still, you become so selfish that you want to remain in that state of bliss forever, mornings in Rishikesh are like that. Sitting on a bench on the ghat, I notice a white lady at a distance doing pranayama.

Pranayama on the banks of the Ganga

To my left, a few brave and religiously inspired septuagenarians are taking a dip in the cold waters of the gushing river.

Triveni ghat is one of the more popular and revered ghats in Rishikesh, and naturally crowded. But the authorities have done a decent job of providing clean amenities to the devotees to pay homage to their revered Ganges. A loud speaker blares with movie-inspired songs about the Ganga, interspersed with well-meaning messages pleading you not to pollute the river by washing your clothes or relieving yourself in it. Its the elderly of the middle & lower-middle class of small town India that dominate the presence at this place, the goal of their life being to bathe in the sacred Ganga. Young boys enjoy themselves swimming against the swift pace of the river, taking a dip into the water and emerging several meters downstream.

Stop at Pappu lassiwala on your way from Triveni to Bharatji mandir. His sweet lassi is worth a try. The owner, Dinesh Kumar was nick-named Pappu when he was a young boy and the name has stuck for over twenty five years now. The Bharatji temple complex comprises various small buildings and an area to walk around without elbowing others. A miniature museum provides a glimpse of various rock deities dating back to the second century. This is an off-beat location and hence receives fewer visitors. There is an information board clarifying that the presiding deity Bharatji is different from Lord Bharat, the younger brother of Ram and Laxman.

Later, I take a six-seater rickshaw to Laxman jhula and find my way to the famous German bakery. Sitting in the corner seat adjoining the window, I get a direct view of loads of people crossing the famous jhula. While this is the more popular of the two, its probably smaller than Ram jhula if you go by the number of girders supporting it. How does the bridge continue to support so many people without giving way is still a wonder. The pace at the bakery this morning is languid. I am their only non-white customer, fortunately I do not receive any sub-treatment from the attendant. Mostly catering to a foreign clientele, the waiters speak fairly good english and know not to wait on the tables for an order or tip. I order finger chips and masala tea. But the finger chips are served only by lunch, so I opt for a grilled cheese tomato sandwich instead. Unfortunately both are a major let down. The masala tea is too overwhelming on the masala side. And the sandwich with crusts made of stone, totally uneatable. I complain feebly, but the attendant assures me with a smile this is how it is always prepared, unsure whether I am complaining its hardness or complimenting its crustiness.

On my way back to Ram jhula, I take the walk-way from up the hill on the eastern bank of the river. Various shops, road-side vendors selling trinkets & jewelry and small houses dot the path. Its a fairly long but leisurely walk.

In the evening, I make it to the arti at Swargashram. Its a smaller sibling to the Har-ki-paudi gathering, but that’s what makes it more personal and endearing.

Arti at Swarg ashram

Depending on how early you arrive, you can find a place next to the maharaj conducting the proceedings. On the various occasions I have been here, I have sat at the north end or near the Shiva statue, both being vantage points. The chanting of the hymns and slokas is bound to transcend you to a different world. A lot of foreigners make it to this arti. Most of them are dressed in traditional Indian attire, the skirt/ ghaghra being a favorite with the womenfolk and the ganji with the guys. And yes, lots of beads around their neck and wrists. At the arti, they are eagerly waiting to absorb the experience of this exotic culture.Their shutters go up & down capturing every movement and emotion of faith around them. The atmosphere is as poignant and heartwarming as it can get. Once over, the maharaj proceeds back to the sanctum of his temple and the vast gathering disperses to their next agenda. Its dark by now, the traffic less noisy and the Ganges makes itself heard if you concentrate on its now black waters. The constant movement of the light reflections from across the bank tells you the river is very much alive.

The real charm of shopping in Rishikesh lies in the cozy lanes leading up to the river banks. Small light bulbs hanging from the shops, and the narrow canopy covered walkways make is a candle-lit-dinner type of experience. The vendors here are not intrusive or pushy, the please-buy-it-from-me types.They are relaxed and content with you taking the initiative to visit their store rather than chasing you down the alley. Most stores concentrate on selling wooden artifacts, yoga material and religious posters. The only change I noticed since my visit a year ago was in the religious posters, which are now all available in 3-D format. As you approach it, Lord Shiva who is looking at you changes to Parvati, and then to Lord Ganesha, their elephant son.

You can’t also miss out on the food at Chotiwala’s, the famous restaurant in Rishikesh. The two brothers have now split and sit next to each other, but not seeing eye to eye. After Princess Diane, they are probably the most photographed persons in the world. They specialize in providing thalis, Gujarati thali, South Indian thali, Bengali thali and the sorts. I tried the Gujarati thali and required help to get up post my meal, such amazing variety and incredible taste.

The most prominent thought I come back with from Rishikesh is to settle down here once I outgrow the charm of city life.


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