Bikers on the jhula, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Soul Searching In Rishikesh  

Among the more famous pilgrim towns in India, it is also known as the yoga capital of the world. Every March, it comes alive with sessions and workshops by eminent yoga practitioners and other healers.

International Yog Festival 2018, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand
International Yog Festival 2018, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Words: Ambica Gulati

My tryst with Rishikesh started in 1999. It was my first visit to an ashram. I had started to work with a magazine called Life Positive and I was to interview the head of Parmarth Niketan. So, with a photographer, Suman Sarkar, off I went to find peace on the shores of the magical river Ganga.

I had been to Haridwar as a child but going as professional to a pilgrim town was a completely different ballgame. Suman was a pro, I was a starter. So, whatever he said, we did. Between the hours of meeting the head, we walked around on the streets of Muni Ki Reti. The passage of time stood still. The only people you encountered were seekers or shopkeepers. In between, taxis and guides. The shared auto is perhaps the most common mode of transport here. We walked to the shores of the Ganga at every different spots, capturing the light and the dark.

We took pictures of the temples, the ashrams, the evening aarti, the two jhulas—Ram and Lakshman. We avoided the monkeys and we slept on time in the ashram. We got up early to watch the meditators, the yoga practitioners. And that’s when I realised that yoga is an art and a science to keep the body in a meditative and calm state. It’s also the time when I realised that there is a huge confluence called the International Yog Festival. It’s been years and years, but I haven’t been able to see the huge confluence but my yoga practice does continue.

If you like yoga too, then the festival will be held from March 1-7, 2019 and it’s a good time to plan your visit then.

There will be different experts talking and giving sessions on:

  • The Yogic way of life
  • Yoga for women, beyond asana
  • Traditional vs. contemporary Yoga
  • Yoga before and beyond the asanas
  • The goal and the foundations of Yoga
  • An integrated (body-mind-soul) approach to Yoga
  • Significance of the Shatkarma in Yogic advancements
  • Frontiers of Yoga as per the ancient texts & their attainability
  • Yoga for me vs. I’m for Yoga (How to get out of our comfort zone and recognise the goal of Yoga)

Since then, it’s been among my favourite places in India. Not just the Beatles, many Indians too go to find their soul there. The breeze sprinkles with chants, prayers for the holy Ganga are done through the day, diyas and flowers float constantly, yoga camps are held everywhere, sadhus with their kamandals walk around—Rishikesh is where the quest for inner bliss is constant.

More about Rishikesh

Muni ki Reti literally translated as the sand of the sages. It’s said to be the place where the sages meditated. Rishikesh is the land of Vishnu, the god of senses. It’s where Shiva came to wash out the effects of the poison he had drunk during amrit manthan (when the gods and demons were churning the ocean for the pot of nectar). Rishikesh is the land where mythical tales live on.

The two banks of the holy Ganga host many renowned ashrams such as Gita Bhavan, Parmarth Niketan, Sivananda Ashram and more. You have a choice to stay on the side of the mountains or near the bank. Over many weekends I have stayed in a guest house as well as in an ashram. You could also stay in the main town.

Do, See & Eat

Bikers on the jhula, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand
Bikers on the jhula, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand; Photo: Pixabay

You have a choice of crossing the river on foot by walking over the swinging Lakshman and Ram jhulas or take the less than five minute ferry ride. I have done both, but the walk over the jhulas is the more exciting prospect. The locals are so adept that they take their scooters and motorcycles over it. And watch out for the monkeys.

The ferry has its own slow pace, you can run your hand in the holy river, watch the flowers and other offerings flow by. There is even an aate kee goli (wheat flour balls) seller near the ticket counter. This is for feeding the fish, though I have never seen the fish. It’s fun to see them go down in the water nevertheless.

 I have always found the evening times the most fascinating near the river. The bathers finally let the water flow freely. People gather around drinking tea or simply watching the sun set. The half an hour Ganga aarti is a spectacle of reverence. The moment it ended, we, along with a zillion others, floated diyas and flowers. The little diyas soon found their way into the river, giving an indication that prayers have been immersed and accepted.

Neelkanth temple is about 28km up in the mountains. You have the choice of trekking up through the forest which is what I plan to do next. I have to see Vashishtha guha, Cave of Sage Vashishtha too.

There is the 133-year-old Kailash Ashram Brahmavidyapitham, an institution which preserves and promotes traditional Vedantic studies.

The most famous eating place here which offers a delectable thali is the Chotiwala restaurant. But even along the ghats there are numerous eating joints and most of them have fresh and well-cooked food.

I like the fresh gulkand and rhododendron squash.

How to reach
Air: The Jolly Grant airport at Dehradun is approx 35km away. Daily flights with Air India, Spice Jet and Jet Airways from Delhi and Lucknow. From there, one can take a taxi or bus.

Road: It is well connected with Haridwar, Dehradun and Delhi. Buses operate from the Kashmere Gate ISBT in Delhi. A drive on NH58 from Delhi would be around 7 hours.

Train: The railway station is at Haridwar, approx 25km away. Popular trains are Shatabadi Express, Jan Shatabadi, AC Special Express and Mussoorie Express.

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