The Wonders of Rishikesh

The Ubiquitous Monkey

Whether it’s spiritual enlightenment, the swinging sixties or serious stretching, Rishikesh has long-drawn tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. Rishikesh is an obvious stop on the tourist travel- India compressed into one town: markets, ashrams, Ghats, picturesque mountains and a frightening abundance of monkeys. Rishikesh’s reputation as a holy city brings thousands of people every year to wash away their sins in the sacred Ganges River, braving the icy rapids for eternally cleaned soul. Saffron-clad sadhus, their hair thick with ash, snake hazy swirls of smokes past new-age hippies and newly wed brides.  With regular buses between Rishikesh and Delhi, few miss out the opportunity to explore the region.Most people spend their time exploring the two stretches of market on either side of the Ganges that are bracketed between Rishikesh’s famous bridges. Prices for both souvenirs and food are considerably more than those in Delhi, but the stunning wilderness that surrounds you make it an enjoyable walk. Rishikesh is often known as the world’s yoga capital. Most guesthouses will happily arrange yoga classes for you. Many ashrams will offer free yoga classes to long-term guests.  If you are serious about training, either for personal or professional practice, be sure to research when classes will start and the reputation of the school. Indulge in an ayuvedic massage or enroll in one of Rishikesh’s many cooking schools. Rickshaw drivers prowl the stretches on both sides of the river, looking for tourist to fleece. Unless you are really pressed for time, or have mobility issues, the walk is half the fun. Join sadhus for tea at crumbling temples, find unique souvenirs in dusty shops, or enjoy a freshly roasted corn with the Himalayas in the distance.

Bathing in the Ganges

For most local visitors, the highlight of Rishikesh is the Ganges. Bathing in the freezing water is a personal choice. Most foreigner-focused hotels will discourage you with tales of floating corpses, riptides and pollution. Regardless of whether you decide to bathe, the carnival atmosphere of the Ghats at dawn shouldn’t be missed, regardless of whether you decide to bathe. If you do decide to bath, remember it is a holy river! Dress and behave appropriately and bring a towel and change of clothes! While ‘bathing’ traditional varies from pouring water on the head three times to full immersion, unpredictable tides and over- enthusiastic fellow behaviours can lead to a slightly wetter than intended visit. As always, keep a close eye on your belongings and on the rapids. If bathing is too sedate, numerous tour operators offer rafting trips down the river.  With plenty of level 4 rapids, you’ll be getting cleansed whether you wanted to or not!

While most Western tourists will head straight to the Rishikesh’s bridges, exploring the old market is not to be missed. Get lost and work up an appetite for all the tempting food stalls you’ll come across. Rishikesh is famous for its vegetarian fare and delicious range of lassis. Refreshingly, this is a purely local market; expect elaborately beaded saris and embroidered kurta pajami rather than your standard traveler get-up. Despite Rishikesh’s overt Hindu flavour, the old market reveals the town’s long-history of diversity. If you aren’t quite ready for six-metres of artfully draped fabric, there’s still plenty of locally produced pottery, colourful jewelry and saffron pilgrim garb to keep your wallet busy. Bargain hard and avoid the ‘fixed-price’ shops that are generally more expensive.

Rishikesh’s Market

Need to walk off all the food you’ve ‘needed’ to try? Neelkanth is a popular pilgrimage through beautiful countryside. It’s a well-signposted and paved trail of about 18km- but be aware of the Indian mantra of ‘Only 2kms more,’ whenever you ask for directions. The views over the valley are breathtaking. Most of the pilgrims are in high spirits- some added by somewhat less than sacred booze- and happily offer encouragements and blessing to the weary walker. The walk is uphill and mostly unsheltered, so its best to start as early as possible. Bring plenty of water and snacks, although small food stalls will happily ignore the ‘maximum rupee price’ printed on the crisp packets if you are desperate. Monkeys will attack for open food and visible water bottles so keep food sealed and refrain from eating while monkeys are present. While the views are definitely the main attraction for the secular wanderer, the temple itself is full of life, poojas, sadhus, families, monkeys, prayers, and the requisite sacred shopping mall. Enjoy some time here before continuing onto the sacred cave, another 6km along the track. Cutting though the mountains, this is the most beautiful part of the walk. Thick jungles, snowcapped mountains, twisting rivers, rice fields and meadows all grace the trail and its vistas. The cave temples with their ancient sadhu guardians are appropriately mysterious and the sweet chai offered to a tired hiker heartily welcomed. While walking, thankfully, remains the only means of reaching Vasishtha Guha, jeeps and taxis can take you to Neelkanth. The jeeps can be hired in their entirety, or you can wait until one is full. Full seems to mean three people to a seat so anyone with motion sickness is better off paying for the vehicle. The twisting journey down the mountain takes approximately one hour, not including waiting time.

The Sadhu’s Cave

Embrace the Rishikesh experience by staying in an ashram and taking the time to explore yourself. Rishikesh is so much more than two bridges, a Beatles album and cheap patchouli. Hire a guide and head to the hills. Who knows? You may even see the tigers and elephants that still roam its jungles!

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About Verity Danbold

Verity Danbold has written extensively for stage and page. After completing her BA Honours (English and Drama) and MA (Theatre and Development) at the University of East Anglia, Verity went on to write for a number of international NGOs, including the UN Maternal Health Project in Cambodia, dance4life Vietnam and Empowerment International in Nicaragua. Her creative writing credits include Scenes from an Everyday Affair and Soliloquies for My Lost Sisters, nominated for Best Emerging Writer and Green Room Awards in the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival. She is currently working on the film of Soliloquies and two new works.
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