In the not too distant past Rishikesh was a quiet spiritual centre renowned for its ashrams and sadhu's. Now it is a circus - an enjoyable circus - but still a circus. The charm is still there but it is shared with hundreds of others doing the yatra trail - only when you cross the Ganges and enter the Swarg Ashram do you find the Rishikesh you are looking for. A quiet place of cobbled lanes and orchards where holy men sit in contemplation and pilgrims make offerings to lifesize Hindu gods. Of course Swarg Ashram is only reached by the spectacular Rhamjhula Bridge with its views of the sparkling Ganges, Himalayan foothills and holy ghats along its banks.
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.