Of all the destinations that Gauri proposed when she planned our month-long trip up north, I was most excited to visit Rishikesh. It is known as one of the most spiritual places in India, on a par with Varanasi, I had heard, with many ashrams and temples.
Here is some background on our month-long “yatra:”
My friend Gauri and I took a road trip during the month of April in 2010. Gauri has traveled India for many years. I was grateful to tag along to learn the ropes.
We went by train from Chennai to Delhi. Then we went to Haridwar and Rishikesh . From there we visited Chandigarh and then Amritsar. Finally, we went towards the Himalayas, visiting Dharamsala and McCleodganj, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located.
I have previously written about our experiences in Delhi here, Haridwar here, and Amritsar here. In the future I’ll complete the series with two more posts highlighting Chandigarh and Dharamsala/McCleodganj.
Here is a map of the area we covered:
From Delhi to Rishikesh via Haridwar
The guidebooks state that Rishikesh is an important stopover for Hindu pilgrims heading to the Himalayas. But in its own right, Rishikesh, located on the banks of the sacred Ganga, is an important destination for all “spiritual tourists” and Hindus.
Gauri’s plan was to stay at an ashram in Rishikesh and explore the city, and visit the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar from there. It is an easy trip between the two famous spiritual centers, only about 22 km., and we would find transportation via autorickshaws or vikrams, larger vehicles that carry more people than autos. That was the plan.
The five hour train ride from Delhi to Haridwar turned the day into night. We arrived after 9 pm, expecting to easily find transport to Rishikesh. Instead, we learned that the usual transportation options—taxis and autorickshaws—were prohibited from making the trip, due to the projection of overcrowded roads during the Maha* Kumbh Mela.
*(It was interesting to note that there seems to be some competition among the Kumbh Mela cities as to which hosts the “Maha” Kumbh. When we arrived in Haridwar, we saw signs welcoming people to the “Maha Kumbh Mela.” But most of the literature claims Allahabad to be the site of the Maha Kumbh. So much for public relations signs!)
Gauri finally found a rickshaw driver who said he would take us to Rishikesh. For a very inflated price. We loaded our luggage and ourselves into his vehicle and drove around Haridwar for a while. Then he came to a stop right outside the city limit. We were then asked to change to another vehicle, a larger version of a shared rickshaw called a vikram. We were the only passengers in the vehicle that could fit eight comfortably, and twelve to fifteen when necessary. The road was not at all crowded, and we breezed to Rishikesh. The first driver got half of what we paid for the trip, which annoyed us, since the second guy did most of the work.
After 10:30 pm, we were dropped off at the approach to the Ramjhula Bridge that spanned the Ganga. There were porters with luggage carts waiting there, and for a couple hundred rupees one of them lugged our stuff across the bridge and to our destination, the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, a 15 minute walk at quite a brisk pace. The night crew at the Ashram checked us in and we crashed for the night.
Parmarth Niketan Ashram
The next day, finally, I got my first look at Rishikesh, our home for the next week. I started out by exploring the ashram. Parmarth Niketan Ashram is one of the big ones in Rishikesh, offering housing, meals, and various yoga classes and musical activities. The grounds are huge, with well-kept gardens and sculptures all around.
Within the grounds of the Ashram I saw the sign pictured below. It shows the Dalai Lama on the top. I recognized L.K. Advani, leader of the BJP political party, on the bottom left, and I didn’t know the other two. I learned that the Swami at the top right, opposite the Dalai Lama, is the head of Parmarth Niketan, H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj. I still don’t know who is on the bottom right.
Now, coming from Tamil Nadu, and reading English language newspapers out of Chennai, I was predisposed to be suspicious of L.K. Advani. I knew he had at one time been the Prime Minister of India as the leader of the BJP, said to be a Hindu chauvanist group. Advani has been under suspicion for inciting the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Gujurat in 1989. So any sign with both the Dalai Lama and L.K. Advani on it is a puzzlement to me with my totally incomplete knowledge of Indian national politics.
Below is another sign, like the one above, but with an additional person pictured.
I walked out of the front entrance of the Ashram. The shot below was taken looking back at the entrance from the street.
After passing through the main entrance gate, we crossed the road and went under another decorative archway leading to the steps of the Ashram’s ghat.
The Holy Ganga
Finally, I got my first look at the sacred Ganga river. Shiva sits atop a bridge that extends out past the Ashram ghat.
Everywhere along the river people were bathing.
We are staying on the east side of the river in the neighborhood called Swarg Ashram. We can look across to the west side of the river. The buildings in the middle of the photo below are part of the Sivananda Ashram, a vast complex of many buildings offering many services such as yoga classes and seva (service) projects like health care.
Walking down the street. We pass by some touristy shops. We saw women, presumably from elsewhere in the North, like Rajasthan, carrying their “luggage.”
We walked past the Ramjuhla Bridge, the one we crossed last night to get to the Ashram. We came to a pair of famous Rishikesh restaurants, both named Chotiwala’s. Apparently there was a family feud that broke up the establishment, so now there are two that compete with each other. Both restaurants had guys stationed outside dressed as “choti walas,” (whose meaning I couldn’t find on the Internet). They looked like sad clowns to me.
The street past Chotiwala’s goes up a steep incline where numerous sadhus and beggars stationed themselves.
Some of them were performing rituals there on the street.
At the end of the sadhu’s ramp was a beautiful shrine of some kind.
Further up the street was a square with some more public art.
The Ganga Aarti
After this first look around part of town, we returned to the Ashram to participate in the Ganga Aarti, fire ceremony. I understand there are numerous aarti ceremonies up and down the river.
People began gathering at the ghat. The young men dressed in yellow attire were part of the Ashram, there to help the proceedings run smoothly. The bridge with Shiva is beginning to get filled up with people watching the evening’s event.
One of the young men invited Gauri and me to take part in the puja that was the “first act” of the Aarti ceremony. We sat across from the priest who would perform the puja. Below, he is preparing the tray of puja items.
He dips a flower into water taken from the Ganga.
In the photo below the priest is sprinkling me with the sacred water.
We are offered flowers and kum kum.
The priest prays.
After the puja, we moved away and the priest performed a ceremony in the fire pit with a different set of visitors.
The day is waning and the bridge is getting more crowded.
More onlookers gather on the steps of the ghat.
Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji arrives with some bodyguards.
He takes the microphone to address the crowd.
Night descends and the ceremony proceeds.
Aarti lamps are passed through the crowd, so everyone had a chance to honor the Ganga with light.
Below, Swamiji waves the aarti lamp.
Shiva changed color in the nighttime light.
Off to the Kumbh Mela
The next day we headed to Haridwar for our first look at the Maha Kumbh Mela. Gauri’s goal was to attend the next important bathing day at the Kumbh, so our first visit was just to look around. I have already posted a story about our day there. You can find that posting here. Because of the extreme difficulty in traveling between Rishikesh and Haridwar, we didn’t get back to Rishikesh until very late.
More Rishikesh Exploration
The following day we visited the other side of the river. On the right in the photo below you can see the Ramjuhla Bridge.
We made our way up the river a bit to the place where the ferry boats docked. A 15 rupee ticket bought us a round trip.
The boat was pretty crowded.
I took a couple of photos of some beautiful old people who rode the ferry with us.
Arriving at a ghat on the western side of the Ganga.
A man was filling some bottles with Ganga water to take back home with him.
On the west side our goal was to visit the Sivananda Ashram. In the photo below, you can see one of the Ashram buildings that sits by the river. To get to the actual Ashram you have to climb (and climb and climb!) up the hill.
We arrived at the Ashram and looked around, but didn’t go inside.
Back on “our” side of the river, the sun was setting.
Laksmanjulha Bridge Neighborhood
The next day we walked back towards the Laksmanjuhla Bridge area, a neighborhood known for its less expensive hotels and restaurants accustomed to hosting a more Western clientele.
By now the crowds are getting noticeably larger. A langur monkey looks like he is directing pedestrian traffic here.
Below are bathers in the background, with a tourist raft in the foreground. The area is becoming known as a hub for “adventure tourism,” offering both river rafting and mountain trekking.
Hotels and restaurants in Lakshmanjhula neighborhood seemed to cater more to Westerners than those in the nagar (neighborhood) of Parmarth Niketan Ashram. We came upon a restaurant that had a nice menu and a fabulous view of the west bank of the river.
Below, people waiting at Laksmanjhula for a boat ride across the river. Normally they would have had access to the Laksmanjhula Bridge. But because of the crowds, the authorities made the bridge one-way only. After we made the water crossing, we needed to return to where we left from. However, the boatman wouldn’t ferry anyone back in the opposite direction, even though the boat was empty and there would be money to be made. Gauri assessed the crowd on the bridge and thought crossing that way was potentially dangerous. So she got into the empty boat and wouldn’t budge until the boatman agreed to take us back. He was afraid of getting in trouble with his boss, even though he did get some extra rupees for breaking the rules.
The Crowds Keep Growing
Once again outside the Parmarth Niketan ashram, the crowd surges through the narrow street. I had been so excited to visit Rishikesh to experience the tranquility of this holy place, but during the Kumbh Mela it seemed impossible to find any quiet anywhere. Every time I walked down the street I felt like the metal ball in a pinball game, bounced around off one person and then another.
Back in the Swarg Ashram neighborhood. Gauri is pensive.
The crowd keeps building each day. Below, a look at some of the crowd on the Ramjhula Bridge.
Tranquil Oasis at Satsang
As in Tiruvannamalai, there are a number of sages who offer satsang. Gauri had been interested in attending a session held by the rishi pictured below. I don’t remember his name now. It was a peaceful, meditative session.
Rolling On the River
Our final day in Rishikesh was spent in a little “advenure tourism.” My curiosity was tickled when we saw the rafters a couple days back. I thought it would be fun to try rafting on the Ganga. There were plenty of tour companies that offered the service. The group of six of us were driven upstream for several kilometers, with the raft perched atop the vehicle.
Here are Gauri and her friend Alexander.
Here I am, decked out in my safety helmet. I put it on top of my trusty Tilley hat in order to keep the sun out of my eyes. I think I look a little like Little Bo Peep.
The raft needed some more air to make it river-worthy.
The raft ride was fun, with just enough white water to make it exciting in places. There was a point on the raft trip where the waters were very calm and we were encouraged to jump into the river. It was safe, since we had floating vests on. However, I was skeptical about the ease of being hauled back into the boat, and how I would look in my oh-so-thin salwar camise. So I took the opportunity to get my camera out and photograph our raft mates floating merrily down the stream.
The next day we were on our way to Chandigarh. The crowd from the Kumbh was finally abating, and people were streaming out of town.
We had one last look at the procession the Ramjulha Bridge.
I still have such mixed feelings about my stay in Rishikesh. With my expectations set to experience a place with spiritual energy similar to Tiruvannamalai, I ended up feeling grateful to be leaving the claustrophobic streets filled with Kumbh Mela visitors. One day I will return, hopefully with Richard, and will soak up the peaceful vibe that the place is noted for.
To see more similar posts that you may be interested in, please look at this link: Touring and Travel in India