Backpacker’s Guide to Rishikesh
One of the reasons I absolutely love living in Delhi is the sheer number of getaways it has to offer. You have the lush Himalayas, lustrous Punjab, cultural Rajasthan and the historical Uttar Pradesh as your playground. Since I’ve moved here now from Bombay, I try to get out of the city whenever I can. So this August I headed to Rishikesh on the foothills of the Himalayas. Himalayas, just a 6-7 hour bus ride away from home! I’m sold to Delhi already!
The hills during the rains, specially the Himalayas, are breathtaking. The green foliage, the mist, the waterfalls, the alluring woods, what’s not to like? Rishikesh has all of this and more to offer. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is one of the closest hill station to the Capital. Scenically located, it is one of India’s major backpacking hub, thanks to The Beatles who came to the town in the late 60’s at the ashram of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi to detox and rejuvenate. This put the town at the forefront of the backpacking circuit and loads of hippies traversing the Hippie Trail and independent backpackers started flocking the town, and still do. No surprise the town has such a cosmopolitan vibe to it.
The center of the town has nothing of interest for visitors, it is in the areas about 5 km away from the center, around the Laxman Jhula and the Ram Jhula bridges where the action lies. Both of these are the suspended foot bridges across the Ganges which flows through the town. The areas surrounding Laxman Jhula cater more to the backpackers and travelers, with cheap accommodations, Yoga studios, souvenir shops and multi-cuisine restaurants galore. Whereas the places around the Ram Jhula cater more to the local populace and pilgrims who come to Rishikesh for religious tourism, because of the Ganges-the holiest river for the Hindus-being relatively unpolluted, and of the numerous temples and Ashrams that dot the town and the surrounding areas.
Getting to Rishikesh is not a difficult task at all. Though a hill station, but being at the foothills makes it conveniently accessible. The best way to get there is via an overnight bus from Delhi. I took a late night Uttarakhand Roadways bus from Kashmere Gate ISBT and the next day at 6:30 AM I was at the Rishikesh ISBT bus stop, welcomed by a severe deluge, it being the month of August. Bored of taking shelter at the bus stop I decided to move. Usually shared autos ply from the bus stop to the touristy part of the town, i.e. towards Ram and Laxman Jhula bridges but that morning because of the rain the road was blocked and there was a long traffic jam. I decided to shun it and headed on foot 5 kms towards my hostel since I just had one rucksack to carry. Also life’s too short to be stuck in traffic jams during your holiday. (Moments like these are where travelling solo helps, since not everyone will be willing to walk 5 kms in the rains with you.)
So somehow, getting drenched, I reached the hostel and I’m glad they allowed an early check-in looking at my plight.
Best time to visit
When to visit Rishikesh really depends on the individual. If you’re looking for serenity and to find solace, visit specially during the winters, i.e. November to January since the travelers desert this place and you can have the all indigenous town to yourself. Further it doesn’t get that cold during the winters as in the hill stations at higher altitudes since it never snows.
If you’re looking for a lively environment and a buzzing backpacker scene, February to April and August to November would be the perfect times. If you wish too see the hills during the rains, visit the nearby waterfalls, and see the Ganges is in its full flow, visit during the monsoon month, i.e. August. However, note that the adventure sport activities such as river rafting are not conducted during the monsoon. Also the water of the Ganges is dirty during monsoon since it carries the silt on its way from the glaciers, but during rest of the year, it’s clean and minty green, worth taking a dip into.
The summers can be really hot so avoid visiting during May and June. Also in the month of July a religious festival called Sawan is held so the town is really crowded.
(I would personally recommend being there during the winters, since I love winters and the tranquility it brings. :))
Since I visited in August, at times there was heavy rainfall while at other times the clouds would clear suddenly leaving a blazing sun and a lot of humidity. But the rains would make all of it bearable. 🙂
Things to do in Rishikesh
Many people come to Rishikesh for adventure sports such as cliff jumping, white water rafting, bungee jumping etc. whereas others, as I mentioned, come there for religious tourism. Many backpackers are also attracted towards Rishikesh for its spirituality and its reputation as the Yoga Capital of the World. Whatever gets your ball rolling, Rishikesh has it for you. My intention to head there on a break from the hectic work schedules was to devour the hills in the rains, enjoy some tranquility and of course, to pay my respects at The Beatles’ Cathedral (that’s what they call it) at the Beatles’ Ashram.
Here are some things one can try when in the town.
Hike in the woods
If you love the woods, Rishikesh has many places nearby where you could take a hike. There are a couple of small villages up in the hills where one can hike to during the day, spend some time with the locals and head back before sunset. All of these hiking places are on the end of the Laxman Jhula away from the town (called serene end hence). That part is covered in lush greenery with mountains and even a walk on the main road passing along the banks of the Ganges could be pleasurable, and if you’re lucky, during the monsoon you might be able to see some waterfalls on the distant hills on the other side of the river.
While wandering around that part of the town I got into the woods via a small path and hiked inside for a while. It was an uphill hike since the landscape is mountainous. It’s so peaceful when you’re in the middle of the nature with no sound around but of the birds chirping and of the streams of water and the Ganges flowing by. Such a change from the chaotic and noisy metropolises we live in.
After spending sometime in the woods doing nothing, while I was returning, I encountered an old man going the way from where I was coming back, I asked him where does this path go and he informed me that it leads to a small village 2-3 kms uphill whose name unfortunately I can’t recall. I was told it’s a small village of about 10-15 houses, and the only way to get there was this narrow path through the forest.
Another thing that’s best done during the monsoon is the visit to nearby waterfalls. Neergarh waterfall is the closest to Laxman Jhula and most easily accessible. Another one worth a visit is the Patna waterfall which is bit far from the town but nevertheless, both can be reached via a trek. One can also rent a scooter and explore the nearby places, including the waterfalls, but yet some extent of trekking can’t be avoided.
I could not go there since I was short on time, but the next time I go to Rishikesh, I’ll make a point to visit the falls.
Once the Ashram of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, (whom the Beatles revered but later had a bad fall out with – interesting story, worth reading) it’s the legendary place where the Beatles stayed for a while in 1968 in their bid to rejuvenate and try transcendental meditation. Their time here is considered as one of the most productive periods of the band. Here’s where they wrote most of the songs for the White Album.
This was the major reason for my *pilgrimage* to Rishikesh. The Ashram is located at a serene, green and peaceful spot on the banks of the Ganges away from the town, and it would have been easier to find if Google Maps didn’t point to the wrong location. Luckily a Sadhu chilling by the road saw me lost, guessed I was looking for the Beatles’ Ashram, and pointed me to the correct location. To get there, go to the serene end of Laxman Jhula and take a right when the bridge is on your back. Keep walking for little over 3 kms and keep an eye for directions towards Rajaji Tiger Reserve and follow it. You’ll get there.
The Ashram closed long time back and what now lie there are its ruins. The dilapidated buildings are visited only by fans from across the planet, who contribute in their own way by beautifying it with the graffiti. Their quotes and paintings are so full of love, optimism and positivity.
Maybe, they were right – love is all we need. 🙂
After being a disputed site for many years, the Ashram is now under the forest department and the charges to get in are Rs. 150 for Indians and Rs. 600 for foreigners.
Here’s some footage from 1968 with a bad cover of Dear Prudence in the background.
The Jhulas, two of them – Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, are suspension bridges connecting the town to the other serene end. No point mentioning it in the list because passing through them is unavoidable in Rishikesh but when there, gawk at their beauty and take a look at the river below, specially during the night when the cool wind from the river blows, lean by the balustrade and soak it in. It’s beautiful. Though the Jhulas are always chaotic, with people passing by and monkeys stealing their food, during the night it’s so peaceful.
The Laxman Jhula is the older of the two, built in 1929, the Ram Jhula is a recent addition, built in the 80’s. My advice – stick to Laxman Jhula. There’s nothing much interesting around Ram Jhula and it’s overcrowded with pilgrims.
Ganges and Adventure Sports
Outside of the monsoon months, the Ganges is quite clean and minty green in color at Rishikesh. There are some excellent beaches around Rishikesh as well where one can take a dip in the river. The beaches emerge when the rush of monsoon water passes by and the Ganges becomes relatively still. It’s during this time the adventure sports activities, as mentioned in the post above, also flourish. Since I went during the monsoon, I didn’t get a chance to visit the beaches, whereas adventure sports is concerned, I’m not really keen towards it.
If you’re a Yoga enthusiast, this town is your haven. There are multitude of Yoga classes spread around the town with in-your-face advertisements and schedules displayed everywhere. Specially on the serene end of Laxman Jhula, there are Yoga classes on every nook and corner. Many Yoga classes conduct long residential Yoga student and teacher courses, whereas many others are walk-in classes where you pay per session.
Take a Walk in the Bylanes
In every town I visit, walking in its bylanes is one thing that I do for sure. It is here where you see the real people live; away from the tourist spots, you get to see how the locals spend their lives. Narrower the bylanes, more interesting it gets for me. Passing by people’s homes, getting a glance of their routine, maybe it might sound mundane to some, it gives me a peek into the lives of people, and makes me aware of how different the kind of lives that people lead across the planet are. Maybe that’s why I love to wander around Old Ahmedabad’s pols, Shahjahanabad’s lanes or Dharavi’s slum.
In this front, Rishikesh won’t disappoint you. It has many narrow lanes, specially on the serene end of Laxman Jhula, where you get to go uphill as well and see how houses are built in a hilly terrain. It can lead to many surprises, for example in my case I chanced upon a scenic view of the valley from a rooftop atop a hill.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to interact with locals who are usually curious to see a camera laden traveler taking pictures of their surroundings (the kids specially are very communicative). Which brings to me the next point on the list.
Interact with the people
Now this would apply anywhere you’re travelling and is not specific to Rishikesh, but here I got to meet so many people and listen to so many different stories they had to tell. From a young Spanish couple at the Beatles’ Ashram who wouldn’t stop talking about how much they loved Bombay to a sprightly Argentinean solo female backpacker at my hostel, to a local in whose veranda I took shelter from the rain while exploring the bylanes who had been a Chef in Bombay, Kenya and Oman, to the local lady who took care of street dogs like her own children (giving them baths, worrying about their diet). This way you get out of your cocoon and get to know about the lives of others, and realize how so many people in the world have their priorities in life so different from yours.
And again, this is convenient when you’re travelling solo, because when traveling with company you don’t generally get to interact much with others apart from your travel companions.
Temples and Ashrams
If you’re religious or want to explore Hindu culture, then being a pilgrim town, Rishikesh has a multitude of temples and Ashrams to cater to you. Most popular temple being the 13 storeyed one called Trimbakeshwar right there towards the serene end of Laxman Jhula. There are many others too, small and big, to be explored if you have time.
Oh where do I start! But before anything else, keep in mind that being a Hindu religious town, meat and alcohol are banned in Rishikesh. Though thankfully eggs are available at some restaurants. The area around Laxman Jhula is filled with cafes offering a range of cuisines from Mexican to Continental to Israeli catering to the international backpacker base. I even saw a Korean cafe by the road.
If that’s not what you prefer, you’ve got Indian food available at roadside stalls which is friendly on the pockets too.
Being a Mediterranean food lover, I mostly had Israeli food throughout my stay. Ok, I will stop writing and let you look at these pictures for yourself. 🙂
And thus came to an end my trip to the beautiful Rishikesh. So, when are you heading there? 🙂