‘I’m in North India to find myself’. It’s such a traveller cliché that I physically recoiled every time someone told me this was the motivation behind their trip. So nobody is more surprised than me that I wrote this month’s column from a picturesque Ashram in Rishikesh, where tourists flock to for retreats, yoga teacher training and holistic therapies. When I told my friends I had gone a bit ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, they questioned how long I’d last in this car-free, alcohol-free and meat-free hippy hub. They worried I’d been smoking too many chillums or that all that Himalayan fresh air had gone to my head. I had always insisted I wasn’t coming to India to ‘find myself’ but here I am. In this Rishikesh travel blog I’ll explain what you can expect from this crazy hippy bubble.
Known as the yoga capital of World, Rishikesh is a small town by the River Ganges, at the foothills of the Himalayas. Indians and foreigners alike flock here for the fresh mountain air and the laid-back vibe.
Rishikesh found itself a place on the global map when The Beatles went here in search of nirvana at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. Since then, it has attracted both leisure travelers and soul searchers by the droves. While the former will find an adrenalin boost with white-water rafting on the rapids, those who are seeking spiritual solace head straight to the ashrams lining the river.
And fans of The Beatles now have a special reason to follow in the footsteps of their icons, with the recent reopening of Chaurasi Kutia – also known as Beatles Ashram – inside the Rajaji National Park. Although much of the ashram itself is still in a dilapidated condition, the striking artwork on the walls of the main yoga halls is worth the trip.
Rishikesh really comes to life early in the year during the International Yoga Festival organized by the Parmarth Niketan Ashram (from March 1 to 7 this year). But even without the festival, every ashram in town offers a version of yoga, either as a course or individual session.
A peaceful vibe and fresh air
By the time you get to the other bridge, the big one, Ram Jhula, you are in the thick of the busiest part of Rishikesh. Sprawling ashrams, bustling restaurants, busy temples and statues depicting scenes from Hindu epics and the Bhagavad Gita abound.
It is at this end, near the huge Parmath Niketan ashram, where the nightly aarti (spiritual ritual) takes place at dusk on the ghats (steps), in front of a massive white statue of Shiva in meditation pose. It is an exciting event to take part in: pandits chant and wave oil lamps as the sun sets, and after dark everyone is invited to release small offerings — little “boats” made of flowers and leaves, containing a candle and incense stick — on the strong currents of the black river.
You can stay in an ashram and study yoga, or stay in a hotel or guesthouse and simply wander the town and the surrounding mountains, enjoying the peaceful vibe and fresh air. All of the food is vegetarian, as Rishikesh is a sacred city, and the shopping is surprisingly good. Best bets are flowing clothes, devotional music, semi-precious gemstone jewelry, and books. There are also lots of options for healing treatments, such as Ayurvedic massage, and courses in everything from astrology to sitar.
A comfortable bed
Located right by the river, far away from the madness of the main town, Glasshouse on the Ganges is a classy boutique property from the Neemrana chain of “non-hotels”. With tents and cottages, the hotel is right in the midst of a fruit orchard and comes with a private sandy beach. Cottages cost from 11,500 rupees (Dh665), including breakfast and taxes.
Aloha on the Ganges and Ganga Kinare are closer to the action, offering daily yoga sessions, spa packages and plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy during the day. All the rooms in Ganga Kinare (and some at Aloha) come with lovely river views, with Aloha also setting up luxury tents along the banks in the warmer months. Double rooms cost from 5,000 rupees (Dh289).
Find your feet
The throbbing heart of Rishikesh lies on and between the two suspension bridges over the Ganges, known as Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula. Named after the two main characters of Hindu epic Ramayana, these bridges form the connection between areas where locals live and tourists visit.
Start your exploration from the Pumpernickel German Bakery end of Lakshman Jhula, wriggling through the sacred cows and selfie sticks on the bridge, also adeptly avoiding the motorbikes zooming from both sides. At the other end, take time to browse through the dozens of coffee shops, boutiques and yoga studios lining the crowded lanes, before heading towards Ram Jhula, two kilometers away on the right. Although this route takes you through quiet, inner lanes in the middle, it is a good way to get a feel for the way the town has woven its daily life around the hum of curious visitors.
Closer to Ram Jhula, the buzz resumes, with the appearance of the popular Chotiwala restaurants, legendary for their local food. On these back lanes, vendors sell fresh and hot nan khatai cookies straight out of makeshift ovens, while children pester tourists to buy tiny wheat balls to feed the mahseer fish waiting eagerly down below in the river.
Meet the locals
The Ganga Aarti at the ghats – a daily ritual of respect to the river – is not just a way of worship but also an occasion for everyone to congregate. The ceremony with massive lamps usually begins at sunset, which is about 6 pm and goes on for an hour.
Book a table
As a holy town, the core of Rishikesh is strictly meat- and alcohol-free, but the variety of vegetarian food, both local and global, more than makes up for this. The town is known for its small cafes, where visitors go in search of a quick bite, but find themselves lingering over their lassi to talk with other travelers from all over the world. An old favorite – for its ambiance and not particularly the service – is the Pumpernickel German Bakery at one end of Lakshman Jhula.
The more upmarket options in Rishikesh are located within hotels: Holy water at Ganga Kinare and The Sitting Elephant at EllBee Ganga View, for the food and the view. Prices are moderate, and the Indian dishes, including the substantial thali, are particularly recommended.
Polish your bargaining skills on the lanes of Rishikesh along Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, where the colorful ethnic clothes, shoes, and bags are irresistible. There are also several shops selling CDs, books and assorted paraphernalia on yoga.
What to avoid
As with other temple towns in India, touts are plentiful on the streets of Rishikesh, offering tourists easy and cheap access to everything from special prayers at local temples to herbal delights straight from the Himalayas. Steer clear of any such unsolicited offers.
If you would prefer to avoid the traditional holy dip in the river, go for a thrilling zip 60-meters above it instead with a zip line adventure with Flying Fox. The hour-long activity happens at Shivpuri, close to Rishikesh, with the swirling waters of the Ganges below and the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas ahead for the company.