You just read the header and are wondering where on earth this yoga capital is. If you haven’t googled it already, it is a town named Rishikesh in a northern state of India called Uttarakhand. Lower Himalayan range ‘Shivalik’ laps this quaint state, popular amongst domestic as well as international tourists alike.
As if the status of ‘Yoga Capital’ wasn’t enough, holiest river in the world, the Ganges, borders this town. It leaves you in awe of the Himalayas and the river, both in a single frame. What makes traveling here comfortable is the air, rail and road connectivity unlike many other towns in the state. Rishikesh is hardly 20 km away from the nearest Jolly Grant Airport that receives multiple flights from the national capital New Delhi, along with flights from Mumbai every day. Let’s see how you can both heal and spoil yourself at a place secretly popular even amongst Hollywood celebrities. 😉
1. Yoga and Meditation: No prize for guessing! 😛 Jokes apart, there are several ashrams (residential training centers) as well as individuals that teach yoga and meditation in traditional, modern as well as customized formats. The Ashrams include lodging and simple, healthy meals at a reasonable price. Most of these places either overlook or are at a walking distance from the Ganges. There are various levels of Yoga and Meditation that you can learn here, ranging from beginner to advanced, depending on your period of stay. For those unaware of what Yoga really does, it’s a holistic way of healing not just your body but also your mind and soul. Basically, it works at the higher union of the body, mind, and soul and activates your seven chakras when practiced regularly. People who religiously practice yoga and meditation are more intuitive and calm than those who don’t.
Do not underestimate the exposure and language proficiency of trainers on the merit of their appearance. Some of them have traveled and trained people across countries, humility is merely a by-product of spirituality. 🙂 Chanting shlokas during morning sessions can be an inclusive activity. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that you can learn to find serenity amidst chaos during and after your stay at this place with ‘good vibes’. Your trainers would invariably help you to understand the Indian culture and what makes it pioneer the ancient path to spirituality.
2. Ayurvedic Treatments: If Thai massage is all you have fancied so far, you are certainly in for a surprise. The traditional Indian massages have a wider range; add to them the enchanting ambiance and aromas and you are in heaven! ‘Shirodhara’, a treatment in which drops of aroma oil drop at the center of your forehead (the third eye spot) will relax you and get you the kind of sound sleep you wouldn’t have in ages. ‘Ayurveda’ the ancient medical science of India is comprehensive enough to understand and categorize body types and design a meal plan accordingly. The three body types are ‘vata’, ‘pita’ and ‘kapha’ that are categorized on the basis of physical symptoms and recommend a certain diet to suit them.
If you are willing to splurge, ‘Ananda in the Himalayas’, the Palace Estate in Narendranagar is the place for you. Hardly 18 km away from Rishikesh, this destination spa has been voted as world’s best numerous times by Conde Nast Traveller. Spanning 100 acres, the serenity of this heritage property will blow your mind. You can understand their level of seriousness by the fact that children below the age of 14 years are not allowed there. Their Spa team is big and comes from the best of training centers India has to offer. The food is as amazing as the services and staff, the friendliest I’ve ever seen. Complimentary morning Yoga sessions are only a trailer for what the rest of the day entails. They take guests for guided tours for Ganga-Aarti and Kunjadevi temple darshan as well. ‘Ananda’, meaning ‘euphoria’, is surely one of a kind experience. Oprah Winfrey, Kate Winslet, and Uma Thurman are some of the celebrities known to have stayed there.
3. Adventure Sports: Raft in the mighty Ganges, Bunjee-Jump off the Himalayas, Zip-Line across the river or choose Flying Fox and the Giant Swing; there is no dearth of adrenaline rush to give the spiritual image of Rishikesh goosebumps. There are plenty of rafting organizers in town, but choosing one with government license and high safety standards is recommended. One raft can take on board 6-8 pax, including 2 guides from the organizing company. Paddle-India is one of my favorite rafting organizers lately.
Camping and trekking are other activities you can indulge in. Camp right beside the Ganges and wake up to the sound of soothing waves. For those not willing to involve an organizer, you can buy camping apparel and equipment from Adventure Axis at Laxman-Jhula, Rishikesh. There are treks and hikes of various levels for beginners as well as experts. Roopkund trek on Nanda Devi glacier and Satopanth Trek from Badrinath are some of the most magnificent ones.
4. Ganga Aarti: See it to believe it and feel it. You don’t have to be a religious being to indulge in this meditative experience. When all elements of nature, including a holy fire, are in tandem, your soul is bound to feel gratitude. The priests clad in red uniforms chanting shlokas will only make the moments more stirring.
There’s a morning Aarti and there’s sunset Aarti, I have always attended the latter. There are 2 places where it takes place simultaneously. One at Parmarth Niketan in Ramjhula, across the bridge and the other in the main town of Rishikesh at Triveni Ghat. Times may vary in summer and winter so be advised to figure it out in advance.
5. Beatles Ashram: Yes, ‘The Beatles’ not only stayed in Rishikesh in 1968 but also paid their beloved place a tribute by dedicating it a song. Don’t believe me? Check out ‘The Rishikesh Song’ on youtube. I had it as a ringtone for months. 😀
Traditionally known as the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, this is where the Rock Band was at its most creative self and gained massive popularity soon after going back. The dope band was invited by Maharishi to learn advanced transcendental meditation. After being abandoned in 1997, the Ashram was in ruins. The Forest Department of Rishikesh then converted this place into an eco-friendly tourist destination and also offered nature walks and bird watching as additional activities. The fusion of ruins and graffiti with the Ganges flowing behind personifies the spirit of Rishikesh. The old walls painted in vibrant hues add a forest-hippy vibe to it. If you are a Beatles fan, you must visit this Ashram, if not, you may become one after your visit. 🙂
6. Vashishtha Gufa: A narrow, downhill route from the Rishikesh-Badrinath road will take you to this reassuring scene. ‘Gufa’ means a cave and Vashishtha was the saint who lived and worshipped in that dark cave for decades (Not convinced? I saw him there as a kid). After the demise of Shri Vashishtha, the place has been converted into a low-cost lodging facility for pilgrims but the real catch is the view from the other side of Ashram. A stony trail leads you to a mesmerizing view of the Ganges with mountains right across it.
Please be advised not to attempt swimming without confirming the safe areas from a trusted source, there or anywhere else in Rishikesh. The government approved ‘ghats’(concrete banks) allow people to take dips but some other stretches of Ganges are deep and rocky, hence can be fatal even for expert swimmers.
7. Hog at the Shacks in Laxman Jhula: Before and across the bridge are shacks and cafes with diverse menus. From all-day breakfast to Continental and Israeli food, the options are plenty for healthy as well as sinful meals. The fresh, seasonal juices and home-baked bread and desserts are my personal favorites. You can practically have all the three meals for days without digging a hole in your pocket or feeling unhealthy.
Besides food, it’s the views and ambiance to look out for. I have cherished drizzled sunsets while listening to live music from European tourists at some of these open cafes. Yes, you can carry your musical instruments, sing and play for fellow guests or just listen to those performing. One of my regular, ‘The 60’s Cafe’ is a music theme cafe with a good French-press coffee and chocolate pancakes. ‘Ganga View Cafe’, ‘Freedom Cafe’, ‘Pyramid Cafe’ and ‘Little Buddha Cafe’ are other great options. Please be informed that none of the eateries in Rishikesh serve non-vegetarian food or alcohol for religious reasons. However, there as places on the outskirts of Rishikesh towards Haridwar and Dehradun that serve both.
8. Knick-knack shopping: Whether it be organic fragrances, silver jewelry or Ayurvedic products, there is an ample number of things you can buy without weighing heavy your pockets or baggage. The little music shops sell great spiritual/indie or fusion music that you can listen to before purchasing. There is a musical instrument maker across the Ganges in Laxman Jhula who is the only one in the world to make that specific wooden instrument. What’s more, he can teach you how to play it as well. 😀
There are roadside Tibetan stores that sell exquisite Tibetan jewelry, Buddhist artifacts, paintings etc. (I have two Buddhist chant paintings hanging pretty on my wall right now) 🙂 There are also some stores that offer cotton kurtas, printed stoles, incense sticks, aroma oils and pretty little things as souvenirs. Honey-hut, a cafe that uses honey instead of sugar, is at a stone-throw distance from these stores. The hip harem pants and Om print kurtas will surely turn heads back in your home country.
9. Weekend trips: As if you need to wait for weekends in Rishikesh 😛 Either checkout Dehradun, the valley city of schools or go meet the admirable Ruskin Bond in the small hill station Mussoorie. There are plenty of places to eat non-vegetarian meals and have alcohol at these twin cities, unlike Rishikesh. Some must-see places in Dehradun are The Forest Research Institute, Tapkeshwwar Mahadev Temple, and the Buddha Monastery. Uphill from Mussourie are Landour and Dhanaulti, lesser crowded and more scenic places as compared to the former two.
You can visit Chamba and Kanatal and put up in the eco-friendly homestays. ‘Pahadi house’ is one of them and ‘The Terraces’ is great too. Another option is Chopta on Badrinath road where you need to be prepared for camping or unpredictable weather. You can trek further up to Tungnath from Chopta, it’s beautiful! If you have more time on your hands, extending your trip to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri is advisable, but only between the months of April and November. Gangotri is where the Ganges descends from and likewise for river Yamuna from Yamunotri.
10. Jim Corbett National Park: A must visit for wildlife lovers, this oldest national park of India houses more than 400 varieties of flora and fauna. You could get lucky to have a rendezvous with the critically endangered Bengal Tiger along with the splendid landscape. The popularity of this destination has led to plenty options for accommodation, from low to high budget.
There are Corbett Safari, Jeep Safari and Pugmark Safari besides waterfalls and nature trails. The Kosi river is where you can spot numerous wildlife during morning and evening hours. There is also an adventure park and museum if you have kids along. Jim Corbett is located amidst attractive tourist spots like Nainital, Ranikhet, Almora, and Bageshwar.
Feel and fall in love with Rishikesh, it loves you and calls you back! 🙂
Some information regarding Jim Corbett National Park and The Beatles Ashram has been taken from: