Rishikesh: A bridge too far

Rishikesh: A bridge too far

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 9 April, 2016
Once a hub of international tourism and an important destination of pilgrimage for all the Beatles fans of the world, Rishikesh today has become more of a lacklustre town sustaining on hollow icons of easy-to-digest spirituality. Srija Naskar writes about her recent visit to the place.

I have always been drawn towards mysticism since the time I started reading Wordsworth in high school. And in college, when I was acclimatising myself to rock ’n’ roll, I was drawn towards George Harrison. George, who has always been my Beatle, reserved, quiet and full of mystique (appropriately, his early pseudonym was L’Angelo Misterioso). So when my traveloholic friends decided to explore the divine town of Rishikesh, I was ready with my backpack in my quest to know what attracted one of the best bands in the history of the world to spend some spiritually enlightening months there.

We planned the trip on a shoestring budget — neither did we want to spend a bomb on accommodation nor did we want to miss out on the potential opportunity of a lifetime of adventure. So after booking with Wildlife Adventurers; our package consisting of Rs 1,900 per person —  including white water river rafting, jungle camping, breakfast, lunch and dinner — we were all set for a rejuvenating weekend. With excitement, curiosity and a fascination for all things beautiful, I and my friends embarked on a six-hour bus ride from Delhi to the Yoga capital of the world — the bus ride being particularly memorable, as we threw a surprise birthday party for one of our freinds on the way.

In college, when I was acclimatising myself to rock ’n’ roll, I was drawn towards George Harrison. George, who has always been my Beatle, reserved, quiet and full of mystique (appropriately, his early pseudonym was L’Angelo Misterioso). So when my traveloholic friends decided to explore the divine town of Rishikesh, I was ready with my backpack.

As soon as we reached the Rishikesh bus stop, we called for our driver whom we had pre-booked for our entire stay. The 15-minute drive on serpentine roads at 6 a.m. in the morning carried us through lush-green forests, valleys after valleys, along the side of an artificial lake formed by the backwaters of the Tehri Dam. It was a thrilling drive through the mountains as our Tata Sumo took some bumpy turns and twists until we reached our camp area in Tapovan. On our way, I was pretty surprised to see Oyo Rooms and Zostel finding their way in this area, which happened to be cut off from the Rishikesh main town.

I could see that the concept of backpackers’s hostel and social travel has really begun to catch up in India.

Tapovan which is a few kilometers away from the lacklustre town of Rishikesh has the combo of a beautiful meadow and a mesmerising view of the Shivling peak. We camped right on the riverbank of the sweet spring water of the Ganga, surrounded by thick Sal forest, under the clear blue skies in what turned out to be one of the most exhilarating tented stays in Rishikesh. If Wordsworthian wisdom is to be believed, which talks about how nature is capable of alleviating the tormented mind of man, one cannot find a better way of experiencing it. Nature really comes alive here in the beautiful Inula (a sunflower-like flower) that grows in nooks and corners of the plains of Rishikesh, in the white pebble riverbed of the fast-flowing Ganga, in the chirping of the wild myna that we mostly woke up to during our stay at the camp.

White-water rafting in Rishikesh.

The campsite offered us three permanent tents, each comprising two beds, mattresses and linen as temperature was really harsh in Rishikesh, too cold in the night and too hot during the day. With no facility of electricity and running water, jungle camping is all about living devoid of basic amenities. What it really offers is the cool mountain breeze to breathe in, far from the rat race of busy city life.

The first day of our trip began with the almost one-hour strenuous jungle trek to the Patna waterfall. The Patna waterfall gets its name from its location — it lies on the route to a small hamlet called “Patna”. The trekking to the waterfall began from Neelkanth Mandir Road, a few kilometers away from our base camp. Included in the package that we had availed for, our camping club had provided us with a trek guide. A beautiful 1.5 km route through the Rajaji forest, trekking got tricky with the midday sun hanging right above our heads. But once we reached the waterfall, we were left too spellbound to not click pictures as part of our memory treasure trove.

While thin water streams, the sound of flowing water engulfing the silence around in the forest and the cool breeze kept our enthusiasm high, intermittent obstruction from hordes of mules traversing the narrow trails of the forest up to the limestone caves located next to the waterfall would often slow our pace. Legend has it that there is a temple and an idol of Lord Vishnu located deep inside one of these caves. On being asked, the herdsman told us that an ashram was under construction on the slopes higher up the waterfall, to which we frowned knowing how steep a climb it was beyond the waterfall. 

Ashrams, aplenty in Rishikesh, like roadside tea stalls, were part of my exploration. I wanted to find more about Rishikesh’s “ashram culture”, the origins of which we can trace back to the year 1968, when the Beatles first arrived here.

Our first visit was to Parmarth Niketan, the town’s largest ashram, which is popular the world over for its sunset Ganga aarti. It is known to draw thousands of believers from all communities.  Since I grew up in Calcutta, it’s tough for me to imagine a clean Ganga.  My childhood recollections of the river are entwined with images of a water body strewn with plastic waste, parts of dead bodies, immersed Durga idols. So I was quite taken aback by the cleanliness of the Parmarth ghat. Funnily, the aarti turned out to be nothing short of a media spectacle: with national and international photographers trying to capture the yellow-robed monks chanting and clapping by the Ganges. Not to say, those flocking the ashram were only half-interested in the happenings, listlessly typing away on their smartphones as the place seemed to provide one of the fastest Wi-Fi networks.

If Wordsworthian wisdom is to be believed, which talks about how nature is capable of alleviating the tormented mind of man, one cannot find a better way of experiencing it. Nature really comes alive here in the beautiful Inula (a sunflower-like flower) that grows in nooks and corners of the plains of Rishikesh.


It would have been a shame to have come back from Rishikesh without indulging in river rafting, for which the place is popular; adventure sports being nothing short of a multi-crore industry there. The white waters are an excellent alternative, especially if one wanted to avoid crowds of devotional tourists packed into bhajan-blasting buses, making their way to Haridwar.

Situated close to the Ram Jhula, a visit to the legendary iron suspension bridge seemed inevitable, since we were already nearby — at the Parmarth ashram. The flea markets around the jhula looked like a  mandi full of kitsch, selling all things hippie, which one of my friends would later aptly go on to describe as something like: “Indian goods being sold by other Indians at prices very un-Indian, and being picked up by Indians who cannot come back home empty-handed when out on a tour.”

By the time we were about to visit the Beatles Ashram, one of the hot spots for all Beatles fans, my enthusiasm had died down after witnessing the plethora of lodges and cafes titled “Moksha” and “Karma” (ideas which seemed the selling point of the place). These joints had mushroomed around the countless yoga centres and ashrams, and seemed to dish out the best deals to enthusiasts with tempting names such as the “Chocolate Yoga” or “Trance Dance Yoga”, looking like rave being superimposed on Yoga. White people comprised the majority of the population there, roaming around carefree, half naked, soaked in tattoos, body art and piercings, and all of this after the much-hyped relentless sessions of spiritual liberation that meditation at these ashrams would provide.

Yoga’s origins, as some historians put it, may lie nestled amid the Himalayas, along the historic Ganges in Rishikesh. But a first-hand look of the place only gave the impression of yoga being a big fad here, with the Westerners into it because it seemed to be a trendy diversion for them: perhaps a way to kill boredom, or maybe the result of an obsession with the body beautiful and the cult of hedonism.

Paul Saltzman, in his book The Beatles in India, while documenting his stay at the Maharishi Yogi Ashram or more famously, Beatles Ashram, during the time the band visited, wrote of how the Beatles had dumped the Maharishi after feeling cornered about how the latter had used them to promote himself, how his celibacy was a big lie, and what seemed to be his focus on money, unexpected by them in a spiritual leader or a holy man. The band, later went on to compose “Sexy Sadie”, originally titled “Maharishi”, and John Lennon was known to have said, “There is no guru. You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you, mate.” 

It would have been a shame to have come back from Rishikesh without indulging in river rafting, for which the place is popular; adventure sports being nothing short of a multi-crore industry there. The white waters are an excellent alternative, especially if one wanted to avoid crowds of devotional tourists packed into bhajan-blasting buses, making their way to Haridwar.

Although Pankaj, our raft guide, instructed us regarding all the basic commands to be followed while rafting — of easy forward, hard back, left back, hard forward, all down — what paid off the exercise was our team effort. As we climbed into our raft and set off, even before we could grasp the furious first rapid, a huge wave crashed over the raft drenching us in icy cold water. The latter rapids, more furious than the former, did  their best to throw us into the boulders but we survived and by the end of it all, the arctic feeling from the river water encompassed us with a sense of sublime satisfaction, of probably having conquered all our fears.

That night, when I boarded the dingy, noisy sleeper class of the Mussoorie Express, despite the dull ache in my arms and shoulders, I slept for eight hours straight and woke up with a truly uplifting feeling, and a renewed perception of what Rishikesh means: as something more than a holy town pandering to mystical ideas.

 

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