Rishikesh, India

March 2019

For photos, click here.

Rishikesh, India is known as the yoga capital of the world and as a holy city. We came for both, only to be somewhat disappointed by the blatant commercialization of that reputation. Perched in the foothills of the Himalayas at the start of the Ganges and a quick flight or a long drive from Delhi, Rishikesh is actually an agglomeration of several small towns, most notably Haridwar and Tapovan.

Tapovan is now the home to several ashrams, some old, some new, and dozens of yoga centers, most of them new. It is also home to hundreds of guest houses and hotels, all surrounded by construction of hundreds more guest houses, hotels, and yoga centers, and connected by small, windy roads filled with the unmuffled engines and constant horn-sounding of thousands upon thousands of motorbikes and tuk-tuks all intent on running yoga-seeking tourists off the road, or at least out of their bliss.

Even in Swarg Ashram, across the Ram Jhula bridge from Tapovan, the motorbikes terrorize pedestrians, stopping only for cows, who have right of way to stop and poop where they want. At least here there are no main streets and relatively few cars honking their way down the road. You can almost sense how peaceful and spiritual this place might have been 50 years ago when the Beatles arrived. On the other hand, now at least there is electricity and running water — most of the day.

Heading south from Tapovan along the Ganges you come to an even more unpleasant area, made up of shops along a road of noisy, snarled traffic that extends to the hospital, where the road splits. There is nothing of interest to visitors here, so move along. Eventually, you will come to Haridwar, which is recognizable by sudden open space, the Shanti bridge, and a very tall statue of Shiva.

Haridwar is as yet fairly uncommercialized. I’m not sure why, but I am happy for it, because you can still get an authentically spiritual experience here at the hilltop temples and at the Hari-ki-Pauri ghat. We started in Chandi Devi, which was a humbling and genuine experience — bring small change, though, because the shrine keepers will ask for a donation in exchange the god’s blessing (and beating in the case of Hanuman). You can walk to the top or take the funicular, called a ropeway in India for mysterious reasons. We bought a combo ticket for this and the Mansa Devi ropeways, although we were fairly “templed out” after this and a visit to Daksh Prajapati temple, and could have skipped Mansa Devi — but then, Mansa fulfills wishes, so we couldn’t exactly skip it.

By the way, if you are coming to Haridwar, or even staying around Tapovan, hire a guide. It may not make all the difference, but it will certainly be a huge help. For under $20 a day, the guide will show you temples, restaurants, and other places you would never find on your own. If you’re lucky, he [yes, he — you won’t find a female guide] will speak enough English to help you understand a few of the things you’re seeing/smelling/stepping in. Sure, you can stumble your way through a hilltop temple (as we did), but having someone there to tell you which god is blessing or beating you, or helping you decide whether and how much to donate, can make the difference between a tourist experience and a pilgrimage. Assuming, of course, that’s what you want. And if it isn’t, then please don’t come here, it’s crowded and noisy enough.

We spent two nights in Tapovan and 5 in Veerbhadra, between Tapovan and Haridwar. We were disappointed with the blatant tourist-oriented restaurants and attractions in Tapovan, not to mention the constant noise and dirt. OK, there is constant noise and dirt over the whole country, but there are pockets of clean and quiet — usually far from wherever we wanted to be. To be fair, the food was decent (if you like Indian food) and the prices were reasonable compared to the West. Naturally, everything here is cash only, so if you find an open ATM, stock up. I ended up short of cash at dinner and all the ATMs in walking distance were closed for the night or out of money! I left an IOU and came back the next day.

On the subject of things you might miss, Rishikesh (being holy) is a dry city, so you will need to go elsewhere if you want to drink. The only permitted drug here is cigarettes. There are a few hotels and bars on the road to Haridwar that serve booze although I never saw a liquor store. You will also have trouble finding meat of any kind, despite the hundreds of abandoned cattle roaming the streets. You may find chicken or mutton [lamb] but it’s rare. Luckily, the regular food is tasty enough that you may not even miss it. On the subject of food, you can also order delivery from just about any place around here, which can be great: good food at good prices. We used the Swiggy app to order.

Rishikesh, as I mentioned, is saturated with yoga centers and ashrams. In addition, it is now becoming a spot for river rafting, bungee jumping, and other action sports. This is a little disappointing, since you’re here it’s to reach enlightenment, not to strap yourself to a rubber band 80 meters above the Ganges, and hearing the screams of jumpers is distracting when you’re trying to balance in Warrior 3 pose. The touts were quick to point out that the equipment was installed and maintained by Austrian and German engineers and not Indians. I mean, I understand the lack of safety requirements here: there are over 1 billion Indians in this country — if a few die cliff jumping, is anyone going to notice?

River rafting on the Ganges is a nice compromise. It’s quiet and it puts you directly in touch with the river. And if you fall in, it’s holy water, so either way you’re OK. There are very few safety issues, as long as you use a little common sense like checking the boat and life vests before you use them. And if worst comes to worst, you can swim to the shore. Not like if your bungee cord breaks.

Speaking of holy water, you really do need to at least put your feet in the Ganges. You won’t catch polio — that’s farther downriver, in Varanasi. Here the water springs fresh from the mountains (or Shiva’s forehead, depending on your beliefs). There are actual sandy beaches here in Rishikesh as well as numerous ghats (steps leading to the water), not to mention the rafting tours, in which there is ample time and encouragement to swim. If those activities really don’t do it for you, take the boat across the river and guaranteed someone will dip his hand in the river and splash the other passengers. If even that doesn’t appeal, there are dozens of vendors selling plastic jugs that you can fill up with river water to take home.

Practical Details: You can reach Rishikesh by plane (Dehradun airport), bus, or train. Prepaid taxis are available from transportation hubs, but some hotels will arrange transport with advance notice. Uber is not available, but Ola is. Once in the area, tuk tuks (aka autos or rickshaws) are the preferred method of travel unless you prefer a motorbike. Be warned, however, that riding a motorbike here is something akin to assisted suicide, so make sure you have a recently updated, legally binding, medical directive and a will in a safe place. That tuk tuk is sounding better and better, isn’t it? If budget is an issue, you can always ride in a public tuk tuk, They fit about 6 people comfortably, so expect 11 companions. On the bright side, they are cheap as long as you know where you’re going.

You will have no trouble finding accommodation: there are all sorts of hotels, guest houses, ashrams, serviced apartments, and rooms for rent on every street, as long as you’re not picky about running hot water or cleanliness. Expect to pay a premium for Western-style accommodation. Also be warned that the roads are very noisy until after midnight so you may want to bring ear plugs if your room is close to the road, as most of them are.

Rishikesh is in the mountains and in the north of India, so expect the weather to be cool, especially at night. It does snow here.

Recommended Reading: There are about a zillion books about India. Lili wanted some recent history with a dash of romance, so she chose The Red Sari. It’s not my kind of story, but she was really engrossed and walked away with a good understanding of modern Indian politics.
I read prizewinning Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s classic, which is his best-loved work even if it’s not the first book of his that you think of (even though it should be). It’s the story of India, masquerading as magical realism. It’s another heartbreaking story, but beautifully told.
The last book I will recommend here is Holy Cow, which was so accurate in its portrayal that we were laughing out loud at the events that we had seen or experienced ourselves. A little uneven, but keen observations.

For photos, click here.

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