The 'must do' thing in Rishikesh is the daily Aarti ceremony down by the banks of the Ganga river. This takes place for about an hour before sunset and for a while after. We didn't find out quite how long it kept going because our western bottoms were numb after about one and a half hours sitting on stone steps and we snuck off before it finished.
Our guidebook maps were rubbish so we asked the hotel receptionist where to go. We were staying at the Divine Resort on the quiet side of the river away from the 'action' and he told us to head down the hill, across the new Shivananda Jhula bridge (about 15 minutes walk away) and then turn right. As we headed through the bazaar on the other bank of the river my husband just kept asking the shop keepers where was the place for the ceremony and they told us to just keep going. From the bridge I had spotted an arc of concrete sticking out into the river with a statue on it and I suspected that was where we were going and indeed it was.
After some serious shopping along the way by my sister and her girlfriend who fell in with the long established tradition that first time visitors to India must buy a mound of hippy clothing', we found a small neat park which I suspect was in the grounds of one of the ashrams. We sat there for about half an hour taking things easy in the afternoon heat and waiting to see what was happening. People-watching in Rishikesh is great sport – the yoga-loving guru-seeking westerners are terribly serious, some of the visiting families are just having a great time, and lots of very elderly people seem to be quietly and serenely waiting to die. One sweet old lady with a broken arm shuffled up and started talking to us. I have no idea what she said but hubby gave her a few coins and she wandered off smiling and chattering away only to get stopped by a chap who told her off and sent her back to return our money. We felt very bad for getting her into trouble and a little chastised for giving her anything.
Once we spotted a mass of saffron robed young men heading down to the river, we decided that it must be time to go. We dropped our shoes off with the shoe keeper and headed down to the ghats. Ghats are steps by the side of a river or lake. You get different types – bathing ghats where people swim and wash, dhobi ghats where the dhobi wallahs do the laundry and in Varanasi the famous burning ghats where cremations take place. These were clearly the singing/praying/putting flowers in the water ghats.
People kindly showed us where to go. We didn't feel awkward because there were lots of other western tourists who were just as clueless as us about what was going on although a few very blond and very earnest white people were clearly well in with the local system and were gathered around a fire on the waterfront chanting and throwing seeds onto the fire. A couple of singers with prodigious lung capacity were singing beautifully, repeating the same lines (as far as I could tell) with almost hypnotic intensity. For the first half most of the singing was by a man and then a woman took over later. The saffron-clad young men were occupying the mid-section of the stepped ghat with a few women in white also singing along with them. The pilgrims were spread out on the steps to either side.
In front of the ghat there's a curve of concrete stretching out into the river. In the centre of this is a statue of the god Shiva. Lots of little birds nest under the platform and they got very excited as the sun was going down – I guess it's good time for catching insects but the twittering adds an extra dimension to the impact of the sunset.
An old white lady dressed entirely in white appeared at the waterfront and started dancing. Well that's perhaps a kind interpretation of striking odd poses like a demented swan. The locals were as confused by her as we were and were openly taking lots of photographs of her. My sister – who spent a lot of time at festivals a decade or two ago, claimed there were always a few "nutter women" (she may now work in local government but sometimes the whole political correctness gets forgotten) at such places. "Sometimes you can have just a bit too much enlightenment" she said. "Too much LSD more likely" said my husband. I think most people were just wondering if she'd throw herself in the river which was very fast flowing but we were soon distracted and didn't spot her again.
After about 30 or 40 minutes everyone leapt to their feet in excitement and a man in red with big bushy beard and a long afro hairdo appeared. I've seen his photograph in many places and I don't know if he's always in Rishikesh or if we just got lucky being there at the same time but people were clearly very excited. He moved through the crowd and sat by the fire with the other people and started blessing people. After a while he moved back to the steps and started singing. Like the singers before him, he had a great voice and we were actually starting to get into the mood of the event despite being utterly clueless about what was happening
During the singing and just after the sun went down, people were placing flowers in the river. You can buy a little leaf-basket filled with blossoms, a candle or small lamp and sometimes some incense sticks and these are placed carefully in the river and sent on their way. In Rishikesh people didn't get into the water during the ceremony which was probably a good thing given the speed of the current.
As it became darker large metal candelabra-like things were passed through the crowd and the worshippers placed their hands over the fire and wafted it around themselves. I think that this is part of the purification ceremony and we saw something similar done the next night in Haridwar. We kept out of the way for this – mostly out of fear of accidentally dropping something very holy or setting fire to ourselves which would undoubtedly have been horribly embarrassing.
We took a lot of photographs and nobody seemed to mind – indeed everyone was taking photos and it seemed to be no problem. You wouldn't go into a cathedral and shoot pictures during a service but it seems to be acceptable here. The music, the atmosphere, the pink sky as the sun went down, the little candle baskets floating off down the river were all very moving and not having the slightest idea what was going on didn't spoil it in the least.