This weekend I took a 7 hour bus to Rishikesh, the “yoga capital of the world”, where everyone comes to get their yoga teaching certification. Rishikesh has been a yoga hotspot ever since The Beatles stayed here for a couple of months in the late sixties to learn transcendental meditation in an Ashram, where they famously wrote most of their songs of the White album. That specific ashram was closed in the 90s, but since Rishikesh has exploded into a bit of a commercialized ‘haven’ for people seeking meditation, rejuvenation and spirituality. Many people come here specifically to get their Yoga Teaching Training certification which is a 200-300 hour course, and an internationally recognized certificate that allows you to teach yoga. The certificate is called the Yoga Alliance, and is a American Non-Profit membership professional and trade association, aka another clever commercial plot made by some company so that people have to pay to say they are an expert (hello, PADI?)
To be honest, like most of the backpackers I met, I was a bit disappointed with Rishikesh. Although it is described by lonely planet and other travel guides as a spiritual center, “conductive to meditation and mind expansion,” it has somewhat turned into a factory pumping out Yoga Teaching certifications; a commercial town where at every corner people are selling you a change in spirituality, which by nature cannot be taught. Yoga in India is a lifestyle, it is not only a source of exercise but also a practice of spirituality with teachings that extend to all practices of life including diet, attitude, and morals to conduct life. People practice Yoga their whole lives so it is a bit of a contradiction that here in Rishikesh you can show up for a month of training and leave a “certified expert” in Yoga. You get the feeling that the locals are selling their life practice a bit short (just to make money off of westerners). That said it’s still pretty awesome that here everyone is seeking some sort of spiritual centering or peace and that the main advertisements are for you to find “the inner energy of yoga”… Unlike the western world where we see everyday advertisements for… I don’t know, cars? Makeup? Beauty? Through all the commercialism, there are still many people who remain true to the practices, and a huge presence of spirituality here.
Rishikesh is stunning. It’s in the Himalaya Mountains and built up along the side of the holy Ganga river (referred to as Mother Ganga, also known as the Ganges River), which flows south east throughout India from the Himalayas in Uttarakhand all the way to Bangladesh, to the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga river is the 3rd largest river in the world and is famous for flowing through the holy city of Varanasi where Hindis disperse the ashes of the dead or send off the corpses of family members so that they reach heaven. It is thought that dying along the Ganga river, specifically in Varanasi, will release one from the cycle of reincarnation, so one might see dead bodies floating in the river (not, however, in Rishikesh). The Ganga river is worshipped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism, and Hindus practice many rituals of offering to the Ganga, often taking a water bottle of it back with them to perform rituals or blessings. It is said that one who bathes in the Ganga River is relieved of all their sins, so often Hindus will travel across India before death in order to cleanse their souls.
Although, I did not bathe in the Ganga river while in Rishikesh (trying to continue my streak of health/not carrying a parasite in India (sorry) (I’ll come back)), I did step in the water and wash my face with it during the Ganga Aarti ceremony which I’ll explain in a bit. The ganga river was recently reported as the 7th most polluted city in the world.
Rishikesh is built up along the banks of the Ganga, with a long pedestrian bridge connecting the two sides of the city. This provides a really gorgeous view from many points of the city, like cafes that sit along the banks, Ashrams with views of the river, and temples built along the water’s edge. That said, it is still quite noisy here. Recently water sports on the ganga river has become quite popular for Indian tourists, so from time to time there will be a raft of screaming tourists (it flows pretty fast through Rishikesh, and is really refreshingly cold) jumping into the water. The pedestrian bridge is always packed, and is a bit of an experience moving slowly in a crowd of Indians, from time to time interrupted by a motorcyclist who has decided it is a good idea to push through the bridge that has a width of approximately two people. Similarly, there will be cows wandering across…
The things to do in Rishikesh is to wander around the winding streets, which are full of yoga or Indian clothes, yoga centers, health and wellness shops, little market book stalls that are packed to the ceiling with books about meditation, yoga, Hinduism, spirituality, and cool cafes; do yoga or another ancient health course—there are tons of courses, and Ashrams will offer cheap or free yoga sessions; and explore the mountains by motorbike. The Ashrams are packed into these streets, which is why many of the people I met were disappointed with Rishikesh, it seems hard to meditate when you can still hear the noise of the town and the horns of motorbikes. Still, they are pretty cool, filled often with westerners getting their yoga teacher training or Hindu Monks—Sannyasis.
Sannyasi, which is Sanskrit for “abandoning” or “throwing down”, is a religious ascetic (monk) who has renounced the world by performing his own funeral and abandoning all claims to social or family standing. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Sannyasis, like other sadhus (holy men) are not cremated but are generally buried in a seat posture of meditation. Sannyasis are said to have achieved Sannyasa, the fourth ashrama or stage of life of renunciation within the Hindu philosophy of four age-based life stages. Achieving Sannyasa, or becoming a sannyasi (“the homeless renouncer”) involves renouncing oneself of all their posessions, and moving from place to place begging for food, concerning oneself only with union with brahman (the Absolute… sort of like the Hindu’s version of god but more encompassing). The sannyasis are usually dressed in light orange/pale nude robes. Sometimes they have big wild white hair (usually they are older), other times they have awesome long dreads. One morning in Rishikesh I did 2 hour 7am yoga at an Ashram, when we came out there was this one Sannyasi sitting cross-legged, perched on the wall that ran around the steps, his hair long brown dreads wrapped up into a cake of dreads held together by a piece of string. None of the Sannyasi wear their dreads down, it must be too hot.
I headed to Rishikesh to meet up with these two Australian girls I met a couple of weekends ago when I went to Jaipur, Jacquie and Elise, and to chill out. Although many might describe Rishikesh as crowded or noisy, coming from Delhi which is the second most crowded city in the world (aka “the least chill place in the world”), it was really a relief to be somewhere like Rishikesh. Most importantly, it was about 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler in Rishikesh – only 90 degrees instead of 100! I spent most of my time hanging in this awesome café called Ganga Beach Café, overlooking the ganga river, a restaurant where you sit cross legged on mats to eat your meals, and you can get Israeli food (apparently, in the north of India, there are tons of Israeli food restaurants which have been inspired by all the Israelis who come backpack here after their army service). I stayed in a hostel called Zostel, which was about a 10-15 minute walk down to the bridge, the main center of town, with super strong a/c and a really nice staff that coordinated a lot of hostel activities including “high tea”- which was free chai on the roof every evening at 6:30 p.m. It was definitely the place to stay in Rishikesh, with a cool group of backpackers who’d all been hanging out for about a week.
My first day I went with three English boys to a waterfall in the mountains… leaving Rishikesh provides a spectacular view of the city laid down within the mountains, and if one finds themselves here I would recommend showing up with knowledge of how to drive a motorbike. It reminded me a lot of traveling in the mountains of Indonesia with the bumpy, pot hole ridden roads. We went to a natural waterfall called Neer Garh Waterfall, which is about 2 km away from Rishikesh edge and up about another kilometer. The water which is fast flowing, and brown like the Ganga river, is so refreshingly cold, coming from the Himalayas. We had a ton of fun jumping into the water with the local Indians. This is the first time I’ve gone swimming in a natural body of water in India, and the second time that I’ve gone swimming at all this summer (sad because if you know me well you know swimming is my favorite activity) and I think the happiest I’ve been in a very, very long time.
On my last night in Rishikesh the hostel (I stayed in Zostel… 100% recommend) took a group of us to the more downtown area of Rishikesh to participate in Ganga Aarti at Triveni Ghat (a place along the bank of Rishikesh). Ganga aarti is a ceremony that takes place every night at sunset along the ganga river in the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi in India. An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering, usually given in the form of a lamp or a small plate with a candle and flowers that is sent off down the river. We bought these aarti plates, a cup made of leaves holdinh flowers, a stick of incense, and a wick to light a fires. The offering is made to the Goddess of Ganga, known as Maa Ganga. The ceremony took place facing the river. A couple hundred people from the town (mostly locals, very few tourists) gather at the banks of this river; music is performed live by a band seated in the middle of the crowd, they were equipped with microphones and there was an amazing live male singer who sang devotional songs in praise of Mother Ganga (called bhajans). In front of the crowd, who were seated, there were maybe 10 or 11 Hindu Priests (Pandits) who stood on stools in front of small wooden tables holding lamps. As the ceremony was performed the lamps were lit and circled around by the pandits in a clockwise manner. During the ceremony everyone rushed forward to take smaller lamps and mirror the priests raising the lamps above their heads and singing along to the main singer. At the end of the ceremony, everyone rushes forwards to cup the water of the ganga river, pour it on their faces and set the plates down the river.
I actually got back from Rishikesh this morning, at 1:30a.m. It is apparently holidays for Indian school children, and therefore the traffic was out of control leaving Rishikesh and getting to Delhi. These two Australian girls and I set out at about 11am to get to Delhi, which is supposed to be about a 7 hour journey. Unable to reserve a bus in advance we decided to catch one from the station. A lot of bargaining later we end up squished inside a bus-rickshaw with six other Indians. At the Rishikesh bus station we learn there are no A/C buses. Since one of the girls was sick, we made a/c our deal breaker for the potentially 8 hour journey. Not to worry, Rishikesh was a smaller bus station, all buses after all must stop at the main Hardiwar bus station on their way to Delhi, just 25 km away (Haridwar, not Delhi). We get another tuk-tuk. For some reason, everyone seems to be going to Hardiwar, and there are several traffic bottle necks with a couple one-lane bridges over the ganga river. It ends up taking 2 hours to cross these 25 km. But then finally, we arrive in Hardiwar, its midday, around 1 pm. In Hardiwar we are confident we can get a bus to Delhi, with a/c.
We end up hanging around the Hardiwar bus station for a couple of hours. It turns out there are no a/c buses to Delhi. When we ask the station manager, he laughs in our face, “you didn’t book in advance?” Miserable in 100 degree weather we are sitting on the ground of the bus station like some homeless backpackers (oh wait…). We start approaching incoming buses and asking for Delhi; no one is going to Delhi. After calling my New Delhi hostel (aka my travel agents) who inform us the next available booking is from Rishikesh and leaves at 11 pm (I have work the next day), and that there are no trains, we decide to sell our souls and hire a taxi to Delhi. Unfortunately us, no one is willing to drive us, despite our willingness to spend an Indian fortune (5,000 Rupees, which is an insane amount considering a bus would’ve been 500-600 rupees each for the journey). There is a glimmer of hope when an Indian couple invites us to join their taxi ride to Delhi, but then the taxi company stamps on our dreams, since we would be overloading on official highways. We resign in a Dabha (street food stall). Due to the traffic, all of the private travel agencies have refused our services. We drink our overpriced Limca (soda lemonade) in defeat, over 200km from Delhi. Hardiwar doesn’t even have any hostels, so if we stay the night we’d stay in a strange expensive hotel. I have work the next day. The two Australians have food poisoning. Moping, we tell the Dabha owner our troubles. This enterprising man calls up his friend to get him to drive us; it looks like we will escape Hardiwar! …but only at 9pm. Again, we are defeated, however, its already 4 pm, so maybe 9pm isn’t so far away? Despite the glimmer of luck, the dabha owner says his friend is unsure. We might have a ride. Might not. In a last effort I go for a stroll by all the ‘travel agencies’. Returning to the taxi stand that originally denied us, I ask, “Taxi to Delhi?” and get a yes! We end up getting a private taxi, with a/c to Delhi. The 8 hour trip costs us about $30 USD each. That’s less than I’d pay for an Uber from Georgetown to my house back in D.C. We get a lovely driver who doesn’t speak a word of English, we have a nice relaxing drive, stopping a few times for our driver to get chai, and for us to get dinner in a highway dabha. We left at 11am and arrived in Delhi 1:30 am. I guess you have to experience something like that at least once in India.