Rishikesh - green and godly
By Ridhi Chhabra
Getting away not-so-far from Delhi by car can be a pleasant drive in the winters. Though planning the destination might not be so. I tend to rely more on personal advise for choosing the place for my vacation rather than trust the myriad 'holidaying' portals.
Rishikesh was recommended by a family friend for a few reasons - an approachable distance of 230km from Delhi with a welcoming 20 degrees temperature (during October), choice of reasonable hotels and the world famous Parmarth Niketan Ashram to experience real peace - eluding all metro creatures. Also known as the gateway to Garhwal in the Himalayan ranges, Rishikesh is one of the holiest cities in India situated in Dehradun district of Uttarakhand state.
The sacred river Ganges runs through Rishikesh and its weather is quite pleasing all through the year, so one can plan to be there any time of the year, though the best season to visit is from mid-September to May.
Rishikesh’ literal translation is ‘hair of Lord Shiva’ and it also stands for the Lord of Senses or Lord Vishnu, the words Hrishik and ish are joined to make Hrishikesh. Hrishik means ‘senses’ and ‘ish’ means ‘lord’.
(A file photo: Open source. Former US President Bill Clinton with Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj).
Rishikesh beckons tourists and pilgrims from all over the world and is also known as the yoga and meditation centre of the world. It is believed that meditation here brings one closer to attaining 'moksha' (salvation), as does a dip in the holy river Ganga. Being a pilgrimage center it is replete with temples and ashrams. With Haridwar about an hour’s drive, Rishikesh is considered by Hindus to be a holy city and thus, by law it is vegetarian.
As the car came down the sloped parking to the ashram enterance, I noticed a host of foreign tourists and ashramites sitting on the concrete benches under the lush trees reading books and praying. The audible prayer chants and sandalwood aroma were quite pleasing to the senses as we approached the reception desk. We felt relieved and lucky to get a room at the famous and grand Parmarth Niketan, the grandest and perhaps the oldest ashram in the heart of Rishikesh overlooking the Ganges.
A world destination, the ashram provides all the ingredients of a balanced and healthy life under one roof under the blessings of globally revered Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj, it has become a world renowned name. Parmarth Niketan Ashram is a spiritual haven, the largest ashram in Rishikesh, providing thousands of pilgrims with a clean, pure and sacred atmosphere.
Eveining aarti by the banks of river Ganges is hypnotising.
Simply over-powering in every sense is the centre of Swarg Ashram and drawing visitors to its evening ganga aarti in the evenings on the bank of river Ganga. Parmarth has a wonderfully ornate and serene garden courtyard. The price includes a room with a private bathroom, all meals and hatha yoga lessons. The famous Ganga Aarti takes place at 6 pm in summers and 5 pm in winters. The sunset aarti is an absolutely sublime experience. It is one of the few ashrams left in India where impoverished and orphan kids are taught vedas.
The Parmarth Gurukul provides nearly 200 young disadvantaged boys with a basic academic education as well as intensive sanskrit and ancient Vedic texts. Their days are filled with yoga, meditation, Vedic chanting, studying the scriptures, mathematics, seva and other special programs.
The fact that yoga is considered as holy wisdom, which provides spiritual and mental well-being capable of controlling such human vices as anger, ego and jealousy, Parmarth Niketan, has daily classes of this ancient tradition. The annual International Yoga Festival is organized jointly by the Uttarakhand Tourism and Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. It is held for one week on the banks of River Ganges.
Rishikesh also offers a wide range of adventure sports. White water rafting at Rishikesh is very popular on the Ganges and September-November and March-April-May are ideal for the adventure sport. Camping is a recreational activity for anyone who likes to explore new places and enjoy the beauty and serenity of nature and can embark on a camping voyage and wake up with sounds of birds. Other adventure sports include rappling, cliff jumping and trekking.
The famous Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula are iron suspension bridges made over river Ganges to cross the river are a landmark in Rishikesh. Fine boat ferry is also available to cross the river. North Indian and south Indian food is popular and there's no shortage of cafes, especially around the Lakshman Jhula.
Chotiwala restaurant: Good north Indian food, shakes.
What excites many visitors is the delicious ayurvedic and health food restaurants, perfect for an after-yoga meal. Many of the main lanes are lined with wooden push carts selling in-season fruit, veggies, popcorn, peanuts, warm cookies and lots more. The Chotiwala restaurant at Swarg Ashram claims serves decent Indian food including 5 different thalis. Meals are priced for as little as Rs.100 upwards. Some other good eateries in the vicinity are Honey Hut, Oasis, Madras Café and Little Italy.
For shopping, inexpensive clothing is aimed at foreigners, besides, you can find in the bazaar, a range of incense, bronze Shiva statues, bags, Buddhist t-shirts, chanting music CDs, ayurvedic medicines and oils, bracelets, keychains etc. Unlike many other similar towns in India prices here are usually reasonable and you won't have to haggle hard for a good price.
Rishikesh invites more than its share of sleaze and conmen. Walking around alone at night can be risky so be on guard with sadhus and other ‘holy men’ offering one-on-one enlightenment! Simply ignore the local guides offering you services. They are sure-thing swindlers.