A June 2000 trip
to Rishikesh by actonsteve
Quote: Rishikesh is situated where the holy Ganges crashes out of the Himalayan foothills onto the plains. It is a beautiful holy town full of temples, ashrams and meditation centres which attracts travellers from all over the world. Many come to Rishikesh to find India, but more come to find themselves.....
The town's setting is spectacular. It is situated on the banks of the holy Ganga (Ganges) where the Himlayan foothills emerge onto the plain. From the heights of the Sri Nabootha temple you can actually see where the Himalaya's peter out onto the flatness of Uttar Pradesh.
The town itself straddles both banks of the Ganges and is connected by two impressive rope bridges which are always busy with pilgrims, devotees, sadhus and cows. Ashrams dot the forest covered hillside and sadhus (holy men) live in caves on the outskirts, but the majority of visitors are Indian pilgrims on the yatra trail up to the source of the Ganges - the Gangotri glacier. They stop in Rishikesh to take puja at the Triveni ghat or to pray at one of the many temples before continuing their journey.
This means Rishikesh is rather a tourist town now, but you can still find areas of tranquility. And the sense of solace which brought John, Paul, Ringo and George here in 1968 and the start of their psychedelic phase under the Yogi Maharishi.
The town of Rishikesh is the most western and commercialised. Here yatra buses stop on their way from Haridwar to the high Himalaya. And pilgrims stock up on necessities for the trip into the mountains. Over the dry river bed is the area known as Rhamjhula whose impressive rope bridge connects to the Swarg Ashram on the eastern bank of the Ganges. Swarg Ashram is the prettier place to stay in Rishikesh with its orchards, ashrams and yoga centres. But further upstream is Laksmanjhula. Here the mountains hug the Ganges and another wobbly rope bridge connects pedestrians with some truly colossal temples.
Remember no vehicles can cross the rope bridges so any autorickshaw which drop you at their western end so you can proceed on foot. This is a strict vegetarian town so no meat or alchol is allowed. But most westerners do not come for that - they come for the sense of peacefulness and Hindu enlightment. Their evenings are not spent in bars but in meditation or yoga lessons.
If you are not into "finding yourself" (I found myself years ago..) then Rishikesh is still a fabulous place to relax after the tourist frenzy of Delhi or Agra. And a good place to start or end a holiday. The temples themselves can keep you busy for weeks, as can walks along the Ganges. And very popular are mountaineering and white-water rafting.
The forests of the Rajiji NP touch on Rishikesh and sometimes wild elephants can be seen from the Sri Nabootha temple. But Rishikesh is mainly for Indian tourists and the sight of them floating lit offerings off Triveni ghat in the twilight is an experience you never forget.
Single rooms cost about 800 rupees a night and are moderately comfortable with bed, wardrobe and fan whizzing around on the ceiling. The bathrooms are situated in an outhouse reached by a concrete path. Which when used at night means you have to brave the mosquitoes and noises coming from the forest.
But it is exceptionally friendly and the restaurant serves good vegetarian food. The ubiquitous Indian power-cuts brought diners together and one night we made friends with a family who were on their way to Badrinath and the Shiva temple. They gave us a crash course in Hindu mythology which served us well when visiting the temples the next day. And we all tucked into a delicious cheese and pickle paratha while chatting. It is moments like these which make travelling worthwhile.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 10, 2001
Tourist Bungalow Shivolok - Gardens and mongeese
Restaurant | "Chotiwala's - dining with the monkey god"
There are in fact two Chotiwala's restaurants side by side. Once they were one great restaurants owned by two Punjabi brothers. The two fell out and the restaurant was seperated between them. Both are excellent though the one to the right has a better reputation and the one to the left better airconditioning. The food is simple vegetarian catering to the thousands of pilgrims who pass through Rishikesh and mainly consists of dhals, lentils, khorya paneer, thalis and chapatis. The place is very busy and the waiter service is rather erratic but this does not seem to disturb the families who pack this place out and give it it's atmosphere. The food is very cheap, not more then 20 rupees a dish and foreigners don't merit a second glance. Even if you don't want to eat their ice-cold coke's are a tonic in the Indian heat.
When you leave look out for an unexpected attack. A man dressed as the monkey-god Hanuman lies in wait to ambush unsuspecting tourists. This tourist jumped ten foot in the air! It's quite a fright to have a 6ft man with black painted face and tail jump out of you and then leap down the lane. I must have been a very tempting target. Who can blame him?
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 11, 2001
The difference between here and say Agra or Jaipur is that it caters mainly for Indian tourists. So there is none of the 'in-your-face' hawker aggression that is so prevalent in those towns. That means you can walk around unmolested and enjoy the town. The best way to reach Swarg Ashram is across the Rhamjhula bridge whose western approaches can be reached by autorickshaw from the bus stand for 20 rupees or a vikram (open topped van) for just 5 rupees. Autorickshaws congregate at the start of the bridge also a few stalls selling corn-on-the-cob, thalis and marble statues. But before the start of the bridge is a platform where you can look up and downstream - and what a view.....
Himalayan foothills tower over the Ganges, cloaked up to their summits in green sal forests. The carpet of vegetation rolls down to the rivers edge and is dotted with temples, ashrams and grey stone ghats (bathing steps). At this point the Ganges is reasonably narrow, only about fifty foot across, and was a brown muddy torrent swollen by the monsoon rains. Upstream it rounds a bend and cliffs and forests fall down to the rivers edge. Great boulders were strewn along the shallows and pilgrims purified themselves by washing in the holy river.
But spanning the Ganges are the ropes and girders of the Rhamjhula suspension bridge (see photo)The tide of Indian humanity strolling across was incredible - families posing for photo's, women in purdah, sadhus and fakirs, hippies, cows and motorbikes. It sways beneath you as you cross and the Ganges can be seen through the slats between your feet - it is not for the nervous.On the other side was a terraced area overlooking the bridge. Hindi music blared from stalls and there were lifelike statues of the Hindu pantheon - Parvati, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and Ganesh. The whole scene enchanted me - you can see why people travel thousands of miles to visit Rishikesh.
If you follow the lanes uphill, past the armies of sadhus, beggars and huge monkeys, you enter the area composed of ashrams and temples. Before the real trek uphill to the Sri Nabootha temples is a bright blue statue of the god Shiva and his consort Devi (see photo) that is so well carved it almost looks baroque. Then push on through the mango orchards (watch the monkeys around here)to the Sri Nabootha temple. This is a very modern temple tucked away in the forest and is built on fourteen levels. Devotees ascend using staircases and walkways ringing bells as they ascend each level. The tinkling of these instruments can be heard all over Rishikesh.
To enter the temple you must remove your shoes and socks and risk your feet against the hot stone. The temple is on 14 levels with the view of Rishikesh and the Ganges getting better as you ascend. There are statues of Hanuman, Devi and Shiva positioned on each level. As everyone around you is overcome with genuine respect for these idols it is very hard to remain estranged. After a while I found myself bobbing, clasping my palms together and saying "nameste" to each idol. After ten minutes of climbing we reached the top of the temple where there was a final shrine to Shiva. In a small room a brahmin priest was seated crosslegged over a table with candles and incense. We joined him in supplication and added prayers to the god Shiva. It was a beautiful experience and one I'll never forget.
Laksmanjhula is about 2km north of Swarg Ashram along a bend in the Ganges. Auto-rickshaws, canters and yatra buses ply the route but it is an easy walk from Rhamjhula/Swarg along pretty forest trails. If you take this route you might glimpse some of the sadhu's (holy men) who dwell in the caves and troops of exceptionally aggressive monkeys clamber over parked cars. At the start of the Laxmanjhula Bridge (see photo)the road is lined by stallholders selling trinkets, lemonade, incense, offerings etc. What struck me was how middle-class the devotees were with turbans and brightly coloured saris on show. Rishikesh is not just a destination of the poor.
A few steps away is the Laxmanjhula Bridge. I think the view here is more spectacular then at Rhamjhula due to the proximity of the granite cliffs only a little way upstream and the towering Kalinsananda Ashram on the far bank. This monster temple had thirteen levels and devotees could be seen working their way up the stairs and corridors. Each pilgrim tinging a bell as they ascended higher. What with the babble of Hindi and the constant tinging of bells the scene was view exotic and surreal.
The bridge itself sways badly and is more congested then the one downstream. You must twist yourself around to avoid hordes of women, motorbikes and cows. On the eastern side the crowds build up around the a fountain containing a blue statue of Devi (see photo) but the best temple to visit in the area is the Badrinath ashram. This has only seven levels each dedicated to a Hindu god. You must leave your boots with a chowdikar (old man) across the road and enter the ashram with barefeet. Inside were faded sepia pictures of the yogi who founded the ashram and waxworks of Ganesh, Durga and Vishnu. Remember each statue is a living manifestation of the god and so is highly revered.I was bobbing and saying nameste with the rest of the pilgrims.
The view from the top of the ashram is beautiful with the Ganges sparkling in the sunshine and the forests so close (see photo). Then after waiting five minutes to step through the exit (we had to give way to hundreds of Indian women pilgrims stepping through)and back across the Bridge. On the western side of the river is a steep trail inbabited by monkeys that leads down to the grey beaches of the Ganges.Debris gatherers make a living along this stretch and sadhus sit on boulders meditating. We had a little wade in the Ganges and then sat back taking in the view. Yes, I can see why people come to Rishikesh - it is one of the few places in India where you can find calm and relax and never want to leave....
It is especially revered by Hindus as the place of the 'Hair-ki-Pairi' ghat which marks the exact spot where the river leaves the mountains. And as a sangam it holds a massive Kumbh Mela festival every twelve years (the next one is in 2010) where surging crowds around the ghats can create stampedes. We saw this for ourselves on a morning visit to Haridwar. Our driver, Suresh, is a devout Hindu and could not come to Haridwar without visiting the ghats so on the way back to Delhi we stopped here for the morning. After all, it was the least we could do, our previous visit to Haridwar had been at the end of the terrifying journey from Ramnager in the monsoon (see Nainital entry)and we at least deserved a look.
The first thing to do was to cope with the crowds. Words cannot describe the crowds in India. At least we were not the centre of attention as we were in some places and wearing a cotten singlet and sandles we blended in rather well. You still get stared at - many of the devotees with low-caste Indians (daljits) had never seen a westerner before. And we could not park anywhere near the ghats so we had to walk with mothers, old men, sadhus, brahmins, teenagers and buffaloes all heading for the Ganges. The crowds were so big that a soldier stood in the middle of the road bellowing orders and armed with a big stick.
They have siphoned off a stream of the Ganges to build man-made concrete ghats. it was here that the mass of pilgrims head for and the crowds were unbelievable and unbearable. Due to their size we could not get anywhere near the ghats but could see the clock-tower of the Shri Mayadevi temple and the brightly painted buildings beyond. It would take us hours to inch anywhere near the ghats so we climbed on a wall and got a better view. From here we could see the bathers and the amophorous mass of the crowd surging near the river. There were chains in the Ganges to stop the bathers being washed away as the river flows very fast when it comes out of the Himalaya's.
Exhausted and claustraphobic we realised it would take ours to extricate our car and clear Haridwar so we went and had something to eat. There, we quizzed Suresh on Hinduism and how the caste system fitted into things. Suresh himself was a Brahmin (priests and teachers), below him were the kshatryas (rulers and warriors), then vaishya's (merchants) and shudra's (menials) Taking the lowliest jobs in India are the untouchables (we had seen hundreds of these today).The primary concern of most Hindus is to reduce bad karma and aquire merit within the boundaries of caste in the hope of attaining a higher status of rebirth and so live a better next life.
Fascinating stuff - and it is not for me to comment on another countries ideals. But it explains the chaos and tumult on the ghats. As we inched away I noticed a fairground looming above slums and squalor. Haridwar is a microcosm of India. But that is what makes it India - probably the most fascinating country in the world.
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