Welcome to the Yoga Capital of the World
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, Rishikesh is known as the 'Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas' and 'Yoga Capital of the World'.It is known as the pilgrimage town and regarded as one of the holiest places to Hindus. Hindu sages and saints have visited Rishikesh since ancient times to meditate in search of higher knowledge.
In February 1968, Rishikesh hit world headlines when the Beatles stayed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Swarg Ashram, following an earlier visit by George Harrison. Ringo Starr and his wife didn’t like the vegetarian food, missed their children and left after a couple of weeks, but the others stayed for a month or two. They relaxed and wrote tons of songs, many of which ended up on their White Album. The original ashram is now abandoned, but 50 years on, foreigners still swarm into Rishikesh seeking spiritual enlightenment from teachers and healers in their tranquil ashrams scattered along the Ganges River.
Today Rishikesh is the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’, with many ashrams and yoga and meditation classes. Most of these are found north of the main town, where the exquisite setting on the fast-flowing Ganges, surrounded by forested hills, is conducive to meditation and mind expansion. In the evening, an almost supernatural breeze blows down the valley, setting temple bells ringing as sadhus ('holy' men), pilgrims and tourists prepare for the nightly ganga aarti – the river worship ceremony. You can learn to play the sitar or tabla; try Hasya yoga (laughter therapy), practise meditation or take a punt on crystal healing.
Rishikesh is divided into two main areas: the crowded, not so attractive downtown area (Rishikesh town), where you’ll find the bus and train stations as well as the Triveni Ghat (a popular and auspicious bathing ghat and place of prayer on the Ganges); and the riverside communities a few kilometres upstream around Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, where most of the accommodation, ashrams, restaurants and travellers are ensconced. The two jhula (suspension bridges) that cross the river are pedestrian-only – though scooters and motorcycles freely use them. Swarg Ashram, located on the eastern bank, is the traffic-free ‘spiritual centre’ of Rishikesh, while High Bank, west of Lakshman Jhula, is a small enclave popular with backpackers.
Lakshman Jhula & Around
The defining image of Rishikesh is the view across the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge to the huge, 13-storey temple of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar. Built by the organisation of the guru Kailashanand, it resembles a fairy-land castle and has dozens of shrines to Hindu deities on each level, interspersed with jewellery and textile shops. Sunset is an especially good time to photograph the temple from the bridge itself, and you’ll hear the bell-clanging and chanting of devotees in the morning and evening. Markets, restaurants, ashrams and guesthouses sprawl on both sides of the river; in recent years the area has grown into the busiest and liveliest part of upper Rishikesh.
A pleasant 2km walk south of Lakshman Jhula, along the path skirting the east bank of the Ganges, leads to the spiritual community of Swarg Ashram, made up of temples, ashrams, a crowded bazaar, sadhus and the bathing ghats (steps or landing on a river) where religious ceremonies are performed at sunrise and sunset. The colourful, though rather touristy, ganga aarti is held at the riverside temple of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram every evening around sunset, with singing, chanting, musicians and the lighting of candles.
The sights in and around Rishikesh
The main historic sights are the Sivananda Ashram, Parmath Niketan Temple, Gita Bhavan, Swarg Ashram, Ma Anandamayee Ashram, Sapt Rishi Ashram, and The Beatles Ashram. In the evening during sunset thousands visit the ghats of the Ganga at Har ki Pauri at Haridwar to witness the aarti that started several decades ago. Har ki Pauri is one the holiest Ghats in the country and the first place where Ganga touches plains, leaving behind the pristine ranges of the Himalayas. The ghat is also known as the Brahma Kund where you can view the stone which has an imprint of Lord Vishnu’s foot, as pointed out by the name. The aarti tradition continues unabated and is a sight to behold. It takes place on the other side of the banks where you will see the priests light up the lamps in a clockwise manner, accompanied by songs in praise of Mother Ganga. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess's purification and blessing.
Shopping is rich in Rishikesh
Many stalls in town at at the Lakshman Jhula market sell rudraksh mala, the strings of beads used in puja (literally 'respect'; offering or prayers). They are made from the nuts of the rudraksh tree, which is said to have originally grown where Shiva shed a single tear following a particularly long and satisfying period of meditation. Beads with mukhi (different faces) confer various blessings on the wearer.
Some Etiquette in India
Dress modestly, avoid offence by avoiding tight, sheer, and skimpy clothes.
It's polite to remove shoes before entering homes and places of worship.
Best to ask before snapping people, sacred sites or ceremonies.
Avoid pointing soles of feet towards people or deities, or touching anyone with your feet.
Saying 'namaste' with hands together in a prayer gesture is a respectful Hindu greeting; for muslims say 'salaam alaikum' .
Head wobble can mean 'yes', 'no', or 'I have no idea'.
The right hand is for eating and shaking hands, the left is the 'toilet' hand.
Reading and web Resources
Here are some good sites to prepare for your trip to India:
• Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/india)
• Incredible India (www.incredibleindia.org) Official India tourism site
• Templenet (www.templenet.com) Temple talk
• Rediff News (www.rediff.com/news) Portal for India-wide news
• World Newspapers (www.world-newspapers.com) Links to India’s English-language publications.
Join us for our deep transformational Rishikesh retreat in October. It is where you want to be to experience holy sights, chanting and ceremonies. We’ll help you plan the trip and look forward to showing you our India.