Located in the foothills of the Himalayas and on the banks of the river Ganga where she enters the plains after taking form in the mountains, Rishikesh presents an unforgettable blend of pervasive spirituality, ritualistic Hinduism, ubiquitous yoga studios, timeless natural beauty, and modern tourist ambience all enveloped in a small-town atmosphere typical of the region. A visit to Rishikesh is usually paired with a trip to neighboring Haridwar, and the airport closest to it is the Jolly Grant in Dehradun, which is in fact named after the town where it is located in and not after an Englishman.
While the Beatles put Rishikesh on the international map in 1968 by visiting it in pursuit of peace and transcendental meditation, I found myself there fifty years later with a group of friends to learn and explore Vedantic philosophy and imbibe the ambience of the region. Simplicity rules daily life and commerce here, where the highest denomination of rupee notes dispensed by ATMs is ₹100, and saffron-clad renunciates, male and female, are an abundantly common sight. As part of its universal charm, Rishikesh attracts serious seekers of ancient truths, followers of popular more-modern philosophies, international practitioners of yoga, and more recently, adventure thrill seekers who explore the river and mountains according to their appetites. The residents of the area form a stable bedrock that supports this flow of humanity and appear to take all in stride and absorb it without a ripple.
Our days started with an early morning visit to the river Ganga. The river unfurled itself before us as the sun melted the fog away and the morning brightened, in tune with the energy of morning chants and conch notes emanating from the temple. A cement walkway extends along the gurgling water for about 3 miles, and a brisk walk is more comfortable in the chill of a February morning compared to sitting on the benches and steps which line the river. A good cup of tea and a hot breakfast later, we were geared for philosophical discussions with seekers hailing from all corners of India and other countries, and then we also ventured out to explore the town. Time here may be spent introspectively or gregariously, depending on personal preference. Walking along the narrow winding roads is arguably the best mode of transportation, and if this is a viable option, a comfortable pair of shoes is highly recommended. Various ashrams and yoga spas and studios offer talks, pujas, and other programs, and some require prior communication for participation while others are accessible to all. Rishikesh is rich in historical locations of varied interest. To name just a couple: Sivananda Ashram where Swami Chinmayananda’s vision for a modern renaissance in Indian philosophy had its inception, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram where the Beatles had a productive period – they reportedly wrote a record-setting 48 songs in two months – creativity presumably fueled by a vegetarian diet, meditation, and yoga. One major draw of the area is the access to the life-giving holy waters of the Ganga which inspires fervent religious sentiments for Hindus, and the town’s proximity to Haridwar.
Our first attempt to visit Haridwar was thwarted by an accident which caused complete standstill in traffic and made us truly appreciate our local taxi driver’s prowess and his familiarity with the other roads in the town. We set out again the next day and had a pleasant drive along the newly built dam, while avoiding the highway for the most part. We visited the cave temples in the Sivalik range, a southern chain of the Himalayas. This complex of temples is honed out of the rock caves within the mountains, and the main temples are dedicated to Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi, although I was pleasantly surprised to see a smaller temple dedicated to Anjani and baby Hanuman. These temples are perched high on the mountains and can be reached only by cable cars operated from the base, providing a bonus of spectacular views of the valley, and the towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh. We had planned a second day trip to visit Devaprayag which is the site of the confluence of the rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi, which once they joined flow together as the Ganga towards the plains, but unfortunately, time constraints relegated this proposed visit to my next trip.
As expected, the Ganga is central to the life of Rishikesh, and the two pedestrian suspension walkways that traverse it are the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula. Predictably, one finds oneself jostling with two-wheeled vehicles being wheeled across these narrow walkways along with the occasional animal, while the river flows and swirls twenty feet below. Flanking the walkways on both banks are scores of shops which offer a plethora of items for purchase ranging from stainless steel cups and plates, spatikam (a purely transparent and colorless quartz crystal) and Rudraksha beads, handloom cottons and wools from India and Tibet, fine woolen and silk scarves and shawls, incense, astrological beads and gems of all hues and qualities, large ceremonial conch shells, and other artifacts, religious and otherwise. The market area near Lakshman Jhula is more vibrant in size and variety, and includes shops which proffer hand-made paper, and remarkably fine wool and silk fabrics from Nepal which support handicapped and women’s self-help groups. A large section of this market is arrayed along the natural slope, and each step down a curving stone stairway opens up to shops on either side, some small and others large with interconnected rooms, displaying wares of incredible variety and color. In addition, the prominent and highly respected Gita Press and ashrams such as the Swarg Ashram and Sivananda Ashram are within easy reach of the walkways.
The confluence of several nationalities, world-views and aspirations leads to interesting conversations, and humming cafés are grouped around Lakshman Jhula where vigorous cross-pollination of ideas are fueled by locally grown food fashioned into Eastern and Western recipes. Advice on local events, meetings, places to stay, and hangouts are also exchanged here, while backpackers plan their next destination.
My visit to Rishikesh lasted only ten days, but it is not uncommon for visitors to stay for months or even years depending on their particular and individual goals, and the time they can invest in it. Interesting, and sometimes unexpected, friendships and acquaintances may be struck up, some of which remain rewarding for months or even years, after.
A scientist by training, the author has lived and worked in America and India. She enjoys imbibing diverse cultures and venues, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored.