“Hello, Rishikesh?” The cry heralded the arrival of yet another tuk-tuk. This driver, like all the others we encountered in Haridwar, seemed intent on taking us to Rishikesh. It didn't seem to matter that it was already 10pm. What better time to embark on a lengthy journey into the mountains? We were curious to find out more about Rishikesh and why it was so popular. Although when we did finally go there, we took the train.
Hugging the banks of the Ganges, the city of Rishikesh is strung out along a steep, wooded valley. Most visitors head for the northern suburbs, a series of small hamlets packed with temples, ashrams and cafes. This is also the place to buy yoga mats, garish Ali Baba trousers and all kinds of outdoor clothing. We began to understand why the designer gear was so cheap when we saw a pre-programmed sewing machine stitching North Face logos onto generic jackets.
Rishikesh marks the point where the Ganges leaves the Himalayas and begins snaking across the plains of India. It's a holy town and an important site for Hindu pilgrims. The main reason that most tourists visit however, is for the yoga.
Yoga In Rishikesh
Chuckling quietly to ourselves, we crouched down low and began waddling in an extremely ungainly fashion up and down our yoga mats. This ridiculous 'crow walking' was just the start. We later contorted ourselves into camels, pigeons and even a flying snake pose. “Like a dead body” crooned Yogi Mohindra, signalling a welcome break. He was referring to the aptly named corpse pose. It's the perfect relaxation pose, if you can stay awake long enough to enjoy it. This was our first yoga class in Rishikesh. So far off to a good start.
After a few sessions, we were promoted to the intermediate class. This was a longer class with the extra time used to teach us some important physiology. We learned that we have one hot nostril and one cold nostril. The hot (right) nostril plays an essential role in digestion. It goes without saying therefore, that any nasal problems will in turn cause gastric turmoil. Worth remembering the next time we catch a cold.
As well as yoga twice a day, we took some meditation classes. It turns out there is more to meditating than just sitting cross-legged chanting “Om”. During the sound meditation, we waved our arms around to gather energy while we were chanting. Concentrating on this was easy enough. Sitting silently for the second half focusing on our 'inner om' was more challenging. The quiet meditation was even worse; 45 minutes where we were supposed to concentrate on our third eye. We weren't given any instructions on where to find said third eye. Disappointingly, this wasn't covered in our physiology lessons either.
Rishikesh, Yoga Capital Of The World
Rishikesh has been dubbed the 'Yoga Capital of the World'. This is at least in part thanks to the Beatles, who practised transcendental meditation here in the 1960s. They stayed in Rishikesh for a month or two and were inspired to write nearly 50 songs during that time. The ashram they stayed at is still there. It's now derelict but is still popular with tourists.
Ayurveda In Rishikesh
With the holistic vibe in Rishikesh, it's unsurprising that Ayurveda has blossomed. We decided to take advantage of the Ayurvedic massage on offer. I found it a little disconcerting that the masseuse stared intently at me while I was undressing. I then sat, exposed and chilly, while she massaged my head. Lying down on damp, cold towels wasn't the most relaxing but they soon warmed up. After that, it probably rates as one of the best massages I've ever had. The masseuse worked hard to knead out the knots and tension. She also used a lot of oil, which was great at the time but two showers later I still felt slimy.
Enthused by our massages, we decided to relax with some Ayurvedic tea. As people who don't like aniseed, choosing a drink brewed from fennel and liquorice root was a mistake. “Never again” we swore as we sipped hot chocolate to recover. Sadly, the very next day we were fooled by ambiguously labelled 'herbal tea'. More hot chocolate ensued.
Where To Eat In Rishikesh
Rishikesh is considered by Hindus to be an extremely holy place. Among other legends, a Hindu saint saw an apparition of Vishnu in Rishikesh. As a consequence of this elevated status, the whole town is vegetarian and alcohol free. Despite the lack of meat, there was no shortage of great food in Rishikesh. The momo (Tibetan-style dumplings) at the Little Buddha Cafe were a definite highlight. The chef had come down from his usual home in the mountains to wait out the winter in Rishikesh. We also whiled away many an afternoon at the Ganga View cafe. We chilled out on cushions, chatting to other customers in the communal seating area and taking in the great views of the river.
How To Get To Rishikesh
By Air: Fly from Delhi to Dehradun airport, about 25km from Rishikesh. Take a taxi or bus from there to Rishikesh.
By Train: Take a train from Haridwar to Rishikesh. There is a direct train from Delhi to Haridwar.
On Arrival: We stayed in Lakshman Jhula, the most northern of the hamlets particularly popular with tourists. This was several kilometres from the centre of Rishikesh so we took a Vikram. These vehicles hold around 6 passengers, without luggage. When we arrived, we had a comfortable and cheap journey to Lakshman Jhula. When we left however, there were at least 10 of us crammed into the wheeled tin can. We weren't the only ones with sizeable rucksacks jammed in on top of us. We were also charged twice as much as before though it was still cheap.