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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.