Rishikesh and its people will steal your heart, I guarantee.
Take the time to stop and sit on the Ghats by Ram Jhula and take in the majestic mountains behind you and the calming beauty of the river as it quickly flows by. Worshipped by the name Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga) and Gangajal (Ganga = Ganges; jal = water) the waters are believed to wash away all sins and grant the devotee salvation.
Whilst seated, contemplating life and watching locals worship and give thanks to Mother Ganga, I was joined by a Sadhu Baba (holy person who has renounced worldly life), who had quite possibly the wisest looking face I’ve ever come across. He told me through miming and elaborate hand gestures how special Mother Ganga was to the people and what offering a blessing to her does for your soul … at least I think that’s what he was going on about! Anyway, he obviously thought I had listened well as he gave me a flower to offer Mother Ganga, blessed me with a red bindi dot on the forehead, clasped his hands together and bowed his head before wandering off. Now I’m definitely not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but taking the time to sit and ponder his story I found myself with tears in my eyes making my way down to Mother Ganga. Placing the flower gently on the cold, clear water, I looked skyward and finally say goodbye to someone very dear that I’d lost a couple of years ago. I allowed the tears to flow for a few minutes and then being typically stiff-upper-lip British, brushed myself down, wiped my eyes and walked away, but now with a sense of calm and thanks for the international language of miming.
Every evening, as dusk descends and the temperature drops, it’s time for the Ganga Aarti (devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering) to be performed on the river banks at three holy cities throughout India; Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi. Whilst the Aarti attracts hundreds of people from all over India and indeed all over the world, it is said that the ritual held on the steps of the Ghats at Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh is the most authentic, intimate and relaxed. The performance takes place on the steps around a fire, with a Vedic priest chanting mantras, the singing of devotional bhajans and the reciting of prayers, all supported by the beating of drums, clanging of bells and the beautiful voices of brahmin boys that are studying to become priests at the Parmath Nikethan Ashram. This is followed by offerings made to Agni, the fire god. The evening I attended was a special occasion as a guest priest from Israel was in attendance, so all taking part were elaborately dressed in their finest. The brahmin boys shrouded in red and saffron robes were seated on the steps forming a pathway from the priest down to Ganga. Perched on low tables at the front were boys with ornate brass diyas that were lit and passed around to light individual diyas held by worshippers. The fire is worshipped by performing the purification blessing of cupping downturned hands and then placing hands to the eyes and forehead. The diyas are then raised high facing the deity of God (or divine element; Ganga) and slowly offered in clockwise circular motion to Ganga. Devotees then place Puja (devotional worship offerings) in the form of small leaf baskets, filled with rice, flowers and a lit candle on Ganga and watch it float away with their prayers.
After the ceremony you have just got to cross Ram Jhula bridge and visit the open air traditional cooking oven, where they make the best chapati and vegetable pakora. But be prepared to sit and wait as it’s so good it is surrounded by locals getting their ‘take out’.
Rishikesh is also famous for its bridge called Laxman Jhula which is suspended over Ganga and stretches approx 400ft connecting the Tehri and Pauri districts. The other suspension bridge, Ram Jhula is slightly further down river and both being no more than 5 feet in width are a hive of activity with tourists, cows, monkeys, mopeds and fruit carts continuously back and forth. Whilst this is an experience in itself, dodging the horns of the cows, holding tightly to your bag so the monkeys don’t make a run for it with your belongs, the hardest part as a blonde white female is running the gauntlet of Indian men wanting you in their photograph, like you are something freaky from a circus. You soon get the hang of strategically placing your hand over part of your face to thwart the secret selfies with you in it and smile knowingly at their eager faces.
Located at one end of Laxman Jhula is the 13 storied holy shrine, Trayambakeshwar Temple, which holds ornate carvings of many Hindu deities as you make your way up the 13 floors. Not only do visitors flock to view the statues and reach the top to receive a blessing, but the view of Rishikesh either side of the Ganga is stunning and well worth the many steps.
What better way to start your day than to climb to the top of a mountain to watch the sunrise. Ok, I say climb, it was actually about 40 mins in a taxi and then 10 mins hike up 150 steps (yes, I counted) to the Kunjapuri Temple at a height of 1645 metres (yes, I asked). Panoramic views of Himalaya mountains, river Ganga below and the terraced fields of local farmers is simply breathtaking…. But just wait until the sun starts to rise and break through the peaks of the mountains to see it’s true beauty. Well worth the 4am start 🙂
There is so much to Rishikesh, it is so much more than the yoga capitol it is famous for. The sights, sounds and smells will capture you.
Rishikesh you have my heart forever and I will return one day 💕