Surrounded by forests and low hills, Rishikesh is an ancient pilgrimage centre, drawing both religious and secular visitors. Ashrams, temples and yoga and meditation centres dot its lanes. The bazaar bustles with fruit and garland sellers, astrological gem dealers and internet cafes stand next to garish souvenir and clothing stalls. Tourists and devotees throng its narrow streets from early morning to late night. But it’s not all spirituality here. Rishikesh is now a popular white-water rafting hub, backpacker hangout, and gateway to trips in the Himalayas.
The city is divided into two main areas: the crowded downtown area, where you’ll find the bus and train stations as well as Triveni Ghat; and the riverside settlements 2km upstream, where most of the ashrams and hotels are located. The two suspension bridges that cross the river are pedestrian only, but you can also cross by shared boat. Swarg Ashram, on the eastern bank, is the traffic-free ‘spiritual centre’ of Rishikesh, while High Bank, on the west, is popular with backpackers. In this extract from our guide Best Escapes North India we tell you about the best places to visit.
LAKSHMAN & RAM JHULAS
The two jhulas (bridges), dedicated to Lakshman and Ram, dominate the entire town. The more important of the two is Lakshman Jhula, where it is believed Lakshman crossed the Ganga on a rope bridge. The present bridge dates to 1939.
This is the most sacred ghat in Rishikesh and is supposed to be the confluence point of the three holy rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Although the Saraswati has disappeared, many believe that it still flows underground. Devotees throng here to take a dip in the river and wash away their sins. This is where the grand evening aarti takes place; even if you are not religious, the experience is a powerful one.
This is the busiest area in town, filled with temples. The main temple here is Kailash Niketan, a massive 13-storey structure, painted in vivid ochre, with multiple spires. Bells can be rung on every level, and the carnival-like atmosphere is highlighted by stalls selling devotional music and other items.
NEELKANTH MAHADEV TEMPLE
This temple is a 3hr walk (7km) along a forest path from Swarg Ashram. Mythology tells us that it is here that Shiva drank the poison originating from the churning of the sea by gods and demons in order to obtain amrit (nectar). Built in the South Indian style, sculptures of various gods and demons depict the Samudramanthan scene. Inside, a massive Shiva lingam is the presiding deity.
ADVENTURE SPORTS IN SHIVPURI
For years, Shivpuri, 19km from Rishikesh, was just a quiet place with white sandy banks and pebble beaches. Two decades ago, some adventurists discovered the thrill of riding the rapids of the icy Ganga here. The rest is history. Add to the river experience the surrounding forests and web of hiking trails – not to mention sunbathing and bonfire nights – and you have a destination that many return to repeatedly, with a wide choice of beaches and resorts to choose from.
Rafting: Rafting down the white-water rapids is not as scary as it sounds. The rubber raft usually seats eight people, and you are safer than you can imagine with life jackets, crash helmets and very experienced guides to accompany you. Rapids range from 1 to 5 in degree of difficulty, but as enthusiasts of the sport like to say – no two raft rides are ever the same.
Kayaking: As you aren’t in a group but braving the waters alone, kayaking can be a lot more thrilling. You are many degrees closer to the water and the smaller boat feels the ups and downs of the water that much more. A good trainer will equip you to handle a Grade 1 rapid.
Rock climbing: Camps provide rock faces that range from easy to difficult, as well as a quick lesson in rock climbing. You’ll be attached by a rope at all times, so aching limbs are more likely than crashing into the rocks below. Imagine the thrill of reaching the top on your own!