A weekend at Rishikesh

The banner image of this write-up features Arjuna being charioted by Krishna as illustrated in the epic of Mahabharata. Even though, the Mahabharata had no direct link with this pilgrimage town; the epic story would possibly forever continue to be the underlying sentiment of all Hindu pilgrimages. I clicked this image at the ghat managed by the iconic Parmarth Niketan Ashram where apart from routine yoga lessons, the Ganga aarti is performed every evening by the ashram mates.

Gems and jewelry shops dot the streets and marketplace of Rishikesh. More images at Flickr

The prasad and street shops selling wooden souvenirs come next. More images at Flickr

Whether you are a pilgrim seeking a holy refuge, a yoga enthusiast seeking spiritual environs, an adventure lover or an adrenaline junkie or simply a traveller who loves to explore the streets, Rishikesh has just everything in store for you. The region had always been a preferred destination for spiritual and solace seekers; but ever since the likes of Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in the late 1960s, it firmly placed this small pilgrimage town on the global map. Today people from all walks of life and nationalities throng this place in search of yoga instruction, spiritual awakening, soft adventures as well as giving themselves a chance to be closer to nature.

When we visited this town – also known as the Gateway to the Himalayas as well as the Yoga Capital of the World – a few weekends before; people of all sorts, many of whom were carrying plastic yoga mats and dressed ethnically, dotted the streets and cafes. Those who couldn’t afford a walk rented scooterettes or Enfield bikes to ferry their belongings from spot to another. Having parked ourselves in one of the popular TRHs located in Muni Ki Reti, now a northern suburb of the town, we set out to explore the multi-layered town on foot. Even though, the Char Dham Yatra season was still a couple of months away, the ghats on both sides of the holy Ganga were teeming with devout followers ready to take the holy dip as their pandas assisted them in offering flowers to the Gangamaiya, as they fondly called it; ringing temple bells and singing sacred hymns. The energetic streets were activated with spiritual randomness. Hawkers dotted both sides of the passage selling temple souvenirs and prasad or street foods.

The ghat near the confluence of Chandrabhaga with Ganga River on its right bank. More images at Flickr

Apart from the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, motor boat jetties are the only means to crossover to the other side of the Ganga around here. More images from the region at Flickr

The Sivananda Ashram Ghat. Please visit Flickr photoset for more images from the region.

The Ram Jhula, visible a long way off, connecting the two banks of the Ganga. More images at Flickr

The tri-coloured Ram Jhula at Rishikesh

The Parmarth Niketan Ashram on the opposite bank. Source: Parmarth. More images at Flickr

My co-conspirator on this trip, Sarabjit Lehal who also has a thing about street photography lost no time in digging out his Ricoh for the assignment. The pandas or street hawkers are so used to posing for cameras that they start asking for a bribe in return. There is no dearth of ashrams, hermitages and yoga centres in Rishikesh, possibly hundreds of them, with a few more than thousand years old. Crossing Ram Jhula, an iron suspension bridge engineered in 1980s, to the Swargashram side, we headed towards the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. We had a few queries related to yoga and health which the resident Ayurveda doctor duly addressed. With more than 1000 cells or rooms, the ashram was much larger than what we had anticipated. Next we headed towards the erstwhile Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s estate.

Now a part of the Lansdowne range of the Rajaji National Park, the ashram is currently in shambles with some intriguing past trapped in the nooks and corners of the estate. More than a month long spiritual retreat by the Beatles in 1968 gave this town and ashram some international fame. And for die-hard fans a short excursion through the Beatles ashram where they had stayed is a must-to-do. As we rambled through the shrubbery overlooking the energetic Ganga, checking the once modern meditation pods or claustrophobic cells and the graffiti-covered yoga or lecture halls, images of the yesteryears flashed before us. The reason why people from across the globe come at Rishikesh to find solace and meditate was before us.

The entrance gate to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram where the Beatles stayed and apparently wrote much of the White Album. The ashram had turned into a ruin after it was abandoned in 1997. A couple of years before, the state Forest Department converted the ashram into an eco-friendly tourism destination. The Department now charges an entry fee of Rs 150 from Indian nationals and Rs 600 from foreigners for allowing “Nature Walks” and “Bird Watching”.

Apparently the pods where the Beatles stayed to experience transcendental meditation. More images at Flickr

A majority of the 84 Meditation Pods have now been consumed by the jungle shrubbery. More at Flickr

In 2012, a few artists including Pan Trinity Das painted the walls with pop art and black-and-white portraits of the Beatles along with some spiritual leaders; the artwork on the walls of the yoga hall has remained untouched and continue to be an attraction for visitors. More at Flickr

The ashram once had a multi-storied residential complex for the spiritual seekers. More at Flickr

Inside the meditation cells of the ashram

The two Chotiwala Restaurants in the Swargashram area are favorite with Indian tourists. Frankly, we did not like the flavors one bit. More images from the region at Flickr

We strolled through the Swargashram on the left bank of the Ganga and headed towards the Lakshman Jhula. Yoga and music instructors, Ayurveda practitioners, Meditation as well as rafting guides of all sorts are available on this side of the Ganga. Locals believe that the energetic Ganga against the backdrop of the wilderness makes the realisation as well as working of mind faster and more conducive which is why many seekers including foreigners are now increasingly looking for permanency in this region. Most popular food joints or cafes are either located near the Ram Jhula or the Lakshman Jhula; both separated by a couple of kilometres.

Cafe De Goa in Tapovan. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Connecting the two small settlements of Tapovan with Jonk, the Lakshman Jhula is one of the major landmarks of the town. This iron suspension bridge was built in 1930 to replace the earlier bridge which was washed away by the great floods of 1924. More images from the region at Flickr

The stretch below the Lakshaman Jhula is also the preferred point to conculde rafting adventures. More at Flickr

Setting sun; as viewed from the Lakshman Jhula. More images from the region at Flickr

We opted for the Lakshman Jhula side and patiently waited at a café for the evening Ganga aarti to start at the Kailashanand Ashram just below the Jhula. The other, and more popular, spots to see the evening aarti spectacle are at the Parmarth Niketan ashram and the Triveni Ghat which we visited on our next trip to the town. According to the Hindu mythology, the Lakshman Jhula is built on the same site where Lakshamana once crossed the river Ganga on a jute rope; and hence another important pilgrim attraction. A short excursion (30 min) from the tri-junction on the left bank of the Jhula takes you to the Neer Garh Falls which are best visited in monsoons.

A group of pilgrims after the bathing ritual at the ghat. The Triveni Ghat is considered to be the most revered sacred bathing spot in Rishikesh. It is believed that a dip in water at this ghat washes away all the sins and purifies the soul. More images at Flickr

A woman selling prayer diyas meant to be offered to the Gangamaiyya. More at Flickr

A group of pilgrims assembled at the aarti site to have their special pooja performed. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

After which some dakshina, a small payment for the services of a priest, is also offered. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

We had opted to take refuge in Café De Goa for snacking and some evening tea. The café offers a nice vantage point. Overlooking the beautiful Ganga in its calmer role, the views from the deck of this cafe are exquisite. Run by locals, this is a typical café where you get the best of various cuisines including Mediterranean, Lebanese, Indian, etc. It is not uncommon to find visitors lazing here and soaking in the view. We ordered some popular food that seemed hygienic but to our amazement it also lacked flavours. Right across the café was a preferred point to end the rafting exercise where rafts were being collected by the organisers. As it exits the Himalayas, Rishikesh is the first major town, the holy Ganga reaches. On the opposite bank, preparations for the evening aarti were afoot and soon we were at the Kailashanand ashram to watch the proceedings up-close.

The evening aarti performed in full rhythm and chorus makes for an appropriate finale to a day’s activities and excursions at Rishikesh. The crowd enters in a devotional trance and a few devotees even vow to keep the Ganga clean. After all it is a collective purpose for which all stakeholders and communities need to come together to respect and value their natural surroundings to an extent that equates it to a form of devotion.

Babaji, who also doubled up as an usher, at the aarti platform at Triveni Ghat. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The evening Ganga aarti at the Triveni Ghat. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The Ganga is worshipped every evening at various ghats in Rishikesh among which the Maha Aarti at Triveni is distinctively famous

The aarti starts with chanting of bhajan, drum beats and bells as diyas are offered to the Ganga. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

Evening Ganga aarti at Kailashanand Ashram. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

The aftereffect of the aarti; here in the frame: a devotee from Rajasthan in trance. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

The crowd patiently listening to and participating in the bhajans after the aarti. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Starting from our TRH and back, at the end of the day, we had clocked over six kilometres on foot. It is advisable to start from Ram Jhula side to Swargashram and then to Kailashanand Ashram to take Lakshman Jhula and be back at Muni Ki Reti. This route covers most iconic landmarks or attractions of Rishikesh except for the Triveni Ghat or explorations in the wilderness around. More from the Rishikesh diaries soon on this blog.

14 Comments on “A weekend at Rishikesh

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog Samanvay! Glad to know that you liked the post. Keep visiting bNomadic for more such travel stories 🙂

  1. great post.. and fabulous pictures !!!! ) i visited Rishikesh in January…i really love to watch the Ganga Arati …

    • Must have been a memorable experience for you as January is one of the best times to be in Rishikesh. Thanks for stopping by the blog. Keep visiting bNomadic for more such travel stories 🙂

  2. What an incredible travel experience! Happy I came across your post! Love the photos – especially of the Beatles pods.

    • Thanks for dropping by the blog. Glad you liked it. Keep visiting bNomadic for more such travel stories 🙂

  3. Great post as always! 🙂 I had visited Rishikesh a long time ago. As a school kid, I was so much in love with this place that I wanted to stay there permanently. I again happened to pass by this town only last week…it felt different this time. Maybe too much commercialization of “Adventure Sports” or “Chakra Meditation and Yoga Classes” our good old Indian Culture? 😀 I dont know…but it felt different… 🙂

    • Thanks Neha! With multi-storied high rise buildings, apartments and mushrooming of institutes and industrial clusters, the landscape of Rishikesh has changed a lot. Being a gateway to Garhwal, the place was always popular as a travellers’ hub but of late it has become favourite with weekend adventure seekers and holiday makers. Even yoga is increasingly becoming commercialized. Keep visiting bNomadic for more such travel stories 🙂

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