In the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand, where River Ganga tumbles down the Shivalik Hills into the northern plains, lies the holy city of Rishikesh. According to legends, it was here that Lord Rama did penance for killing Ravana, while his brother Lakshmana crossed the river using a jute rope. The beliefs attached to the place led to the establishment of several ashrams. But for the outside world it remained an obscure little town until the 1960s, when The Beatles arrived here for a three-month course on Transcendental Meditation and inadvertently put Rishikesh on the world map. In 2000, after the International Yoga Festival was introduced, the town saw an influx of tourists and came to be known as the yoga capital of the world. For adventure seekers, this town is a gateway to extreme sports like bungee jumping and river rafting; wellness enthusiasts flock here for the city’s wide array of spa resorts. There is something for every soul in Rishikesh. By Satarupa Paul
Whether you’re looking to nourish your body, mind, or soul, Rishikesh is the answer.
One of the most ancient and sacred temples in the city, Shri Bharat Mandir was established by the Indian philosopher Adi Shankaracharya in 789 CE, following which the city is believed to have come into existence. Nestled in tranquil surroundings, Swarg Ashram is reportedly the oldest ashram in India and an ideal place for meditation. Gita Bhawan offers shelter to over 1,000 pilgrims every day, while the striking architecture of the 13-storeyed Trayambakeshwar Temple, or Tera Manzil Temple, makes it a prominent landmark. With 84 derelict meditation caves spread over a wooded hillock, Beatles Ashram draws in a different kind of devotee. This is where the famous four members of The Beatles spent three months learning meditation and writing, by one account, as many as 48 songs!
One of the oldest yoga retreats in Rishikesh with over 1,000 rooms and lush gardens, Parmarth Niketan Ashram offers traditional Ayurvedic treatments and spiritual programmes. It also serves as the venue for the annual International Yoga Festival. One of India’s top yoga schools, Sivananda Ashram offers free yoga and meditation classes daily for beginners. Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram conducts akhanda yoga classes, often followed by a fire puja. For those interested in Osho’s meditation techniques, Osho Gangadham is the place to be.
Bridge to Belief
The most famous landmark of Rishikesh, Lakshman Jhula is a 450-foot-long, 70-foot-high iron suspension bridge over River Ganga, built in 1930 at the point where Lakshmana had supposedly crossed the river with a jute rope. Its twin bridge, Ram Jhula, was built in 1986 and is another splendid feat of engineering. Located at the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati, Triveni Ghat is considered the most sacred bathing spot in Rishikesh. This is also where the enthralling ritual of Ganga Aarti is held every evening. Close by is a natural hot spring called Rishikund, or the ‘pond of the sage’. The beautiful Neer Garh Waterfall can be reached by taking a short trek through a forest from Lakshman Jhula.
Rishikesh offers a plethora of adventure sports in its surrounding hills, rivers, and forests. White-water rafting in the upper reaches of the Ganga, in the town of Shivpuri, 19 kilometres upstream from Rishikesh, is the most popular activity. Along with camping by the river and kayaking or canoeing, this activity ensures a thrilling weekend getaway. Farther upstream is Kaudiyala, a popular rock-climbing spot that also provides one of the best stretches for white-water rafting. Mohan Chatti is home to Rishikesh’s best spot for bungee jumping as well as Asia’s longest flying fox trail. Jumpin Heights, an extreme-adventure company, offers these activities with reassuring safety standards. A safari in Rajaji National Park, 16 kilometres away in the Shivalik foothills, offers thrilling sightings of wild elephants and leopards.
Rishikesh is a convenient base for several important pilgrimages in the Himalayas.
Nestled in the Himalayan ranges of Uttarakhand are four sacred destinations that form one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage circuits, known as the Chota Char Dham. The pilgrimage traditionally begins from either Rishikesh or the holy town of Haridwar. Badrinath, situated on the bank of River Alaknanda, is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Kedarnath, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is the northernmost of the 12 jyotirlingas (devotional representations of Lord Shiva).
Overlooking River Bhagirathi, the shrine of Gangotri is devoted to Goddess Ganga, whereas Yamunotri, dedicated to Goddess Yamuna, is located in the picturesque Rawai Valley. During the pilgrimage, set some time aside to visit the town of Devprayag, where Alaknanda and Bhagirathi meet to form River Ganga. For those who can’t embark on this strenuous holy expedition, Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, located just 32 kilometres from Rishikesh, houses one of the most revered Shiva shrines. Vashistha Cave is another holy site in the vicinity. This is where Vashistha, one of the seven great sages, is said to have meditated.
Wine & Dine
Though Rishikesh is predominantly vegetarian, the city has eateries offering varied cuisines, from Italian to Israeli.
Right by Lakshman Jhula are two of Rishikesh’s most famous eateries, which are blessed with undisturbed views of the Ganga,. While Freedom Cafe is frequented for its fluffy pancakes, shakshukas, and shakes, the treehouse-style 10 Little Buddha Cafe serves the best pizzas in town. German Bakery is another hangout popular for its yak cheese sandwiches and fruit pancakes. Located in Swarg Ashram, Tip Top Restaurant serves Italian and Israeli dishes, whereas Oliva Italian and Vegan Kitchen does authentic wood-ﬁred pizzas and delectable mushroom pastas. With a cosy ambience of lanterns and candle-lit tables, Oasis Restaurant boasts a multi-cuisine menu. The backpacker’s favourite, Swiss Garden serves homemade pastas and schnitzels, its non-vegetarian menu being a rarity here.
Fresh & Organic
Ramana’s Garden has a lovely outdoor seating and salad bar, and its menu includes vegan, lacto, and ovo options. Moreover, buying a meal here contributes to an orphan’s schooling. At Ayurpak, a local family readies your meal within 30 minutes with fresh vegetables from their garden. Elsewhere, Pure Soul-Cafe & Organic Kitchen offers organic fare in a homely environment, true to its name. La-So-Va Fresh Kitchen is a one-man show run by Eshu, who cooks holistic buffet-style feasts of vegan and vegetarian dishes with local and seasonal ingredients.
The age-old Chotiwala is the top choice for a home-style meal of Garhwali dishes—kafuli (made with spinach and fenugreek leaves); aloo ke gutke made from potato, red chillies, and jambu (a herb grown in the higher reaches of Kumaon); mandua (a local cereal); and singodi (a dessert of coconut and condensed milk). The riverside Ganga Beach Restaurant serves scrumptious snacks and chilled lassi, while the unassuming Pappu Lassi serves unique warm lassi in earthen pots.
The no-alcohol policy in Rishikesh means that chic cafes thrive as local hangouts. Beatles Cafe, also known as The60s.Life, is a tribute to the band, and serves burgers and smoothies with views of the Ganga. Decorated with reclaimed crate furniture and low-hanging light bulbs, ChatSang Cafe does innovative twists on Indian and international dishes, including several varieties of khichdi, deconstructed burrito bowls, and masala oats. The Revive Cafe attracts a guitar-strumming crowd with a menu of Israeli dishes, pizzas, and antioxidant smoothies.
Religious paraphernalia, bohemian clothes and accessories, sandalwood, and spices are the popular picks here.
From beautiful idols of gods and goddesses to aromatic incense sticks, Ayurvedic oils, religious books, precious stones, and authentic rudraksha prayer beads, the local shops at Lakshman Jhula Market sell all sorts of religious souvenirs. If it’s spiritual music you’re looking for, Music For Soul has a large collection of CDs on chalisas, prayers from Bhagavad Gita, religious songs, and even trance music. It’s also one of the few shops outside of the ashrams that sells yoga mats.
Shyampur Haat Bazaar is a great place to get an authentic local shopping experience. You can ﬁnd the freshest local produce as well as a variety of Indian spices at great bargains. Sandalwood items are popular purchases in Rishikesh, and one of the best places to get them is Sudha Chandan Mahal. Besides sandalwood strings, it stocks a huge collection of handicraft items made of beads, pearls, shells, and a variety of precious and semiprecious stones.
The largest shopping hub in town, Rishikesh Main Market is frequented by locals and tourists alike for clothes, perfumes, and jewellery. At the small but busy Gole Market, you’ll ﬁnd a variety of ethnic wear as well as colourful traditional bags, jholas, and purses. You can even get your own sari made from scratch— just select the fabric, border, and blouse. Ram Jhula Market is another place to scour for clothes, especially harem pants and cotton kurtas that can double up as yoga gear. The Garhwal Wool and Craft Shop offers a wide selection of woollen scarves, mufflers, sweaters, caps, as well as wool spools.