In the foothills of the Himalayas, along the sacred Ganges river, Rishikesh in northern India is a holy city for Hindus, known today as the yoga capital of the world. From its waterfalls and ashrams to its colorful street markets and vibrant rituals, here’s how to get the most out of 24 hours in this constantly inspiring town.
Traveling to Rishikesh by plane (Jolly Grand / Dehradun airport), train or bus from Delhi, near every Indian you greet along the way will break into a smile and declare you on the way to paradise. One of the names of the god Vishnu, Rishikesh translates to ‘lord of the senses’. It is both an ancient holy site mentioned in Sanskrit texts and the starting point for Chota Char Dham pilgrimage through the Himalayas. It is framed on three sides by the Shivaik range of the Himalayas and close to the source of the holy Ganges (the river is clearer here than at almost any other point along its length). With its fresh mountain air and abundance of natural beauty, it’s no wonder that Hindus cherish the region, commonly referring to Rishikesh as the ‘city of the sages’.
If you don’t possess even the slightest passing interest in yoga, mind, you may feel a little out of place in Rishikesh. Practically every second building is a yoga school, and foreigners flock from all over the world to practice yoga and meditation in their purest form. Since 1989, the city has hosted the annual Yog Festival (International Yoga Festival) in the first week of March, though it’s hard to imagine how this event could be any more yogic than another normal day in Rishikesh. Between forest hikes, dips in the sacred river, devotional music wafting on the breeze, and the benevolence of locals, you’re bound to experience some sort of spiritual awakening, whether you’re adept at sun salutations or not. Here’s how to discover the best of soul-stirring Rishikesh.
THINGS TO DO
The most iconic image of Rishikesh is the Lakshman Jhula, the iron suspension bridge over the Ganges, connecting the Pauri and Tehri districts. Cross the narrow bridge early in the morning to avoid crowds and to take in the resplendent panorama of the river and surrounding temples. Be sure to keep any street food hidden from inquisitive monkeys scampering along the cables, and watch out for cows crossing behind you (they’re holy too, remember, so best to give them right of way).
You’ll arrive at Rishikesh’s most venerated edifice: the 13-storey, apricot-colored Trayambakeshwar Temple (Tera Manzil Mandir) looms over the town and dominates the view along the river with its pyramid structure and turrets. Locals claim that the temple, named after its three-eyed patron god Shiva, was founded as early as the 8th century A.D. Across the thirteen floors are chambers paying tribute to dozens of Hindu deities, but even if you don’t know your Kali from your Durga, it’s still worth removing your shoes and heading for the top to take in the unforgettable view and gusts of fresh mountain air. Often you will see a group of musicians along the ghats (steeped banks of the river), singing and drumming bhajans (devotional songs).
Follow the riverbank along Lakshman Jhula Road for a half-hour stroll past the neighboring Ram Jhula bridge (there are plenty of jewelry, crafts, fruit markets and food stalls along the path) to visit your second Shiva of the day – an immense, sky-blue statue of the destroyer of the universe floating on the water facing the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. (He looks so remarkably poised and serene in seated lotus position that it’s hard to imagine the statue being washed away in a flood in 2013.) Visit the gardens of the ashram to see their colossal Hanuman statue: the monkey god reveals a cavity in his chest where he carries two other deities, Rama and Sita, in his heart.
It’s worth returning to Parmarth Niketan Ashram at dusk, around 5pm, to attend one of the daily Ganga aarti ceremonies – a powerfully uplifting ritual in which ashram residents and young students perform hypnotic music on harmoniums and tablas, with call-and-response mantra singing, all facing Lord Shiva on the water. For a small donation to the establishment, you can float an offering of flowers and a lit candle down the river in the name of Maa Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges.
The evening Ganga aarti at Triveni Ghat, also known as the Maha aarti, features lit oil lamps waved along the riverbank and passed among the public. It is an intensely spiritual experience soon followed by raucous dancing to Bollywood hits on a loudspeaker. By day, the area shines with colorful, larger-than-life statues of Hindu gods, cows warming themselves in the sun, and locals bathing in the Ganges itself. A little back from the river, it’s impossible not to find a bargain or two at Rishikesh Main Market, with innumerable stalls selling fruits, spices, flowers, clothing, traditional objects, daily necessities, and other goods. Tip for low-cost souvenirs to give to friends: buy them a copper tongue-cleaner and see how they react.
If there’s one destination in Rishikesh that music-lovers shouldn’t miss, it’s the Beatles Ashram, perched on a cliff overlooking the eastern bank of the Ganges. The Fab Four arrived in Rishikesh in February 1968 to study transcendental meditation with the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Whatever they were doing, it must have worked for them, because they composed almost 50 songs during their two months at the ashram, many of which feature on the White Album and Abbey Road. John Lennon also penned an ode to the city entitled ‘The Happy Rishikesh Song’.
The Beatles Ashram fell into disrepair in the 1970s, with many fans of the band leaving graffiti inspired by their music until the site was converted into a museum. Wander through the peaceful grounds to visit the bungalows and stone meditation huts (igloo-shaped pods) in the overrun grass, then stop in at the ‘Beatles Cathedral’, a large hall with walls covered in artistic tributes to the band.
The Beatles did a great deal to popularize Rishikesh in the West as a hotspot for meditation and yoga from the 1960s, bringing on a surge of tourists and hippies that created demand for a commercialized form of asanas, Ayurvedic medicine and yogic philosophy. These days, there’s so much choice of where to practice or study yoga that it can be overwhelming. Take your time exploring around Tapovan and Lakshman Jhula to find the one that most appeals to you: many of the more esoteric styles of yoga (acro, aerial, kundalini, Hasya laughing yoga) are easy to find. The Himalayan Yoga Association (Neelkanth Temple Road, Tapovan) offers high-quality teaching in drop-in classes from as early as 6am, or for a longer stay and more in-depth training, Rishikesh Yoga Study Center (Yogshri Healing, Hotel NV, Near State Bank Of India, Lakshman Jhula) offers comprehensive programs in yogic sciences.
Those interested in traditional Indian medicine may wish to book a consultation with an Ayurvedic specialist. Veda5 Wellness (Neelkanth Road) offers this service, providing dietary and naturapathic advice according to your Ayurvedic dosha (body and personality profile). Their spa is immaculate and beautifully designed, and it doesn’t hurt that they have a stunning rooftop terrace.
Travelers with an adventurous streak will enjoy hiking to explore the nearby waterfalls. There are several mountain trails leading out of Rishikesh, varying in difficulty and duration. One of the most accessible is Patna, an impressive limestone waterfall deep in the Rajaji Forest, only 5km (3 miles) from the Lakshman Jhula bridge, following Neelkanth Temple Road on the south bank of the Ganges. Notice that the water seems even clearer and more pristine as you venture farther into the woods. The trail is steep and can get a little muddy, but once you see donkeys climb it nonchalantly with a load of bricks, you’ll be goaded on towards the sound of the cascades.
For the most majestic sunrise view of the snow-capped Himalayas, head to Kunjapuri Devi Temple (Hindolakhal Rd), dedicated to the goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva. It’s a four or five-hour trek rising to an altitude of 1 mile (1600m). It’s perfectly possible to go it alone, but if you prefer safety in numbers, reserve a guided trek from one of many local companies (such as Raahi Expeditions). For a faster-moving experience of nature in Rishikesh, and to take full advantage of the clarity of the Ganges in the region, you might like to take part in a kayaking or rafting adventure tour with an experienced guide (Ganga River Rafting): they should provide all the appropriate equipment including helmets and life jackets, so that you can safely enjoy the pure thrill of sailing down this sacred stream.
WHERE TO EAT
After all that hiking and rafting, you’re bound to be hungry. The first thing you should know is that meat, eggs and alcohol are forbidden in this holy city, making Rishikesh an absolute paradise for vegetarians and vegans (though there is no restriction on dairy), while giving omnivores the opportunity to finally try tofu scramble! Indian and international cafes jostling one another along the banks of the Ganges proposing both regional and western dishes, the latter to varying degrees of success. The most important factor to consider is the elevated view of the river and temples, and finding a haven to escape the bustle of main roads.
The best terrace views are to be found in Tattv Cafe (just above the organic store on Lakshman Jhula Road), where only a skirmish of monkeys could dispel the peace and quiet (don’t feed them!). Shambala (near Anand dham, Paidal marg Lakshman Jhula) is a more rustic option, where you’ll be seated on cushions along a narrow balcony with a jaw-dropping panorama of the river, particularly while sipping fragrant masala chaï at sunset. Royal Cafe (Post office Road) and Little Buddha Cafe (Laxman Jhula Rd) are modest but welcoming thatched huts with bamboo interiors, where you can complement the view with a juice, smoothie, lassi or a copious breakfast plate.
Street food is bountiful along the river and at the market: a mix of nutritious savory specialties from the Uttarakhand region and Nepalese cuisine. Look out for chilli momo dumplings, bun tikki (crispy Indian burgers), pani puri pockets filled with chickpeas or potatoes… If you’re wary of street vendors but still want to learn more about all those mysterious, colorful dishes, you can prepare your own authentic local and Ayurvedic cuisine in a class with Cooking Masala (Flat no.8, 10 Geetanjali Kunj, Tapovan). Bring some of their spices back to impress your friends with newfound skills.
WHERE TO STAY
Rishikesh offers accommodation for all kinds of travelers, from backpackers to honeymooners, with a vast selection of hostels, yoga ashrams, boutique hotels and resorts to choose from. Ganga Kinare (reserve via booking.com) is the only hotel built right onto the banks of the Ganges with its own private ghat, where you can attend morning and evening aarti ceremonies without the crowds. The property boasts river and mountain views, whether from the rooms, spa, restaurant, deck area or indoor gym (to transform even running on the treadmill into a meditative experience). Rooms and suites are clean and spacious and the grounds are peaceful.
For a more communal experience through which you can meet new friends from all over the world, head to Shiv Shakti Hostel, (near Sant Sewa Ashram ; reserve via booking.com) for a dormitory or deluxe room, just five minutes from the pebble beach. The common areas are brightly decorated and the friendly staff organize plenty of activities for guests, making it a great way to step out in Rishikesh.
Whether you’re seeking spiritual solace, a digital detox or just a place to show off your funkiest yoga leggings, even a short stay in Rishikesh is as refreshing as a dip in the Ganges. Namaste.