Looking for a rejuvenating holiday in the Himalayas, off the tourist traps, where you can connect with nature and parts of yourself that you had forgotten? Look no further…
It is a chilly 3 a.m. Yet, I find myself slouching grouchily through a garden brandishing a frightfully pink yoga mat. Surrounded by nauseatingly cheerful people: A fiesta of track pants, tattoos and chic, jewelled turbans.
Spiritual Rishikesh is not easy to love. Certainly not at first sight. Not if your mantra is materialism, at any rate. Or if your idea of a holiday involves croissants in bed at 11.00 a.m.
Yet, by 4.00 a.m., we're meditating in cross-legged silence on a stony floor, 'awakening our chakras'. Well, some of us are. My chakras only respond to mochaccinos. Fortunately, no one frowns on Shavasana, that deliciously languid yoga posture. So I lie down and sneakily nap till breakfast.
And a good thing too.
We're at Parmarth Niketan, set in Rishikesh's Swarg Ashram area on the east bank of the Ganga. Where the action never stops.
Signing up with 'Connect With Himalaya' for a healthy, holistic holiday, I imagine spas, boutiques and river cafes. I quickly learn that Gaurav Punj's idea of rejuvenation differs vastly from mine. (In hindsight, I should have got suspicious when his packing list included an LED torch, Electral packets and running shoes instead of eyelash curlers, body shimmer and stilettos.)
Our power-holiday begins at Parmath, where Rishikesh's annual International Yoga Festival is in full swing. Resting at the foothills of the Himalaya, beside India's most holy river, Rishikesh has drawn the spiritually inclined for centuries: powerful mystics seeking solitude, yogis training their bodies into lithe time-capsules, troubled truth seekers desperate for redemption.
They came quietly, setting up kutirs in caves and rocks, living lives dedicated to silence. Then in 1968, The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram (now closed), and introduced Rishikesh to the Western world. Suddenly India, specifically this sleepy town, was the cure to disenchantment. Everyone from hippies, high on marijuana and music, to health junkies, touting veganism and six packs, flooded Rishikesh. And Rishikesh absorbed them all.
Today, in addition to being a serious centre for yoga and spirituality, it has grown into a refuge for an eclectic collection of karma chameleons, soul searchers and bendy yogis from across the world. They arrive in droves for the festival, all impossibly toned, enviably flexible and inevitably festooned with the usual Kundalini-questing paraphernalia: jingling silver lockets, lotus tattoos and chunky rudraksha malas.
To be in Rishikesh is to be far away. Cut away from your world, and all its trappings. It's both disconcerting and vaguely thrilling. Especially during the electric Ganga Arti, when singing, music and lamps welcome sunset by the river. As the prayer reaches a crescendo, people release bobbing diyasinto the swift inky water, where they rush away in warm circles of light.
At the festival there's plenty of kooky jumping, vaguely-embarrassing garden dancing and obscure new-age philosophy. But the most satisfying (and difficult) classes are the ones taught by yogis determined to stay true to the principles of their school — even if they do jazz things up with music and fluidly choreographed movement.
Mohan Bhandhari, for instance, co-founder of YogiYoga in China, takes classes on Hatha Yoga. Los Angeles-based Marla Apt teaches the restorative postures of Iyengar yoga. And Kishen Shah, adjunct professor at UCLA, leads students though active and static meditation, demonstrating how stillness can be as challenging as intense movement.
Yet, it isn't all flexing, sweating and downward dogs. We ramble around the Lakshman Jhoola area, crammed with pretty handicraft stores, twinkling tea stalls and quirky cafes. Watch silvery fish from boats that take us across the river. Pant two km uphill to Kunjapuri temple, majestically overlooking the Gangotri range.
Further upstream at Shivpuri, the Ganga changes character, roaring impatiently at the muddling white water rafters. The first rapid grabs and tosses us playfully, the second has us clinging to our slippery boat in terrified delight, the third forces us to dive in, screaming with the shock of icy water. In half an hour we're ‘body surfing' blissfully, holding a rope dangling from the boat and thinking deep thoughts. Such as — what's for tea?
Crisp onion pakodas and frothy coffee, in case you're wondering — intensely satisfying in the way only comfort food can be when you're hungry and exhausted. We're now at Ganga Riviera, run by Anil Bisht of Adventure Trails. A former mountaineer still gripped by a love affair with the Himalaya, Anil has set his camp right by the river, but well away from the madding crowd. Access involves a half-an-hour walk, followed by luggage-bearing mules.
Silences that speak
Our trek from here is on the old — and startlingly scenic — Badrinath paidal marg, cut into the cool rock for shade. It's so silent you can practically hear the mountains breathe. Till you hear the tinkle of an ambling horse's collar bell. Or run into a shepherd, carrying an adorably cuddly lamb, amid a roadblock of woolly sheep and shaggy sheepdogs.
At night, the sky practically bursts with stars, as we curl up by the toasty bonfire at camp, listening to chilling stories about mountain spirits. As the fire dies, we stumble towards our welcoming canvas tents in pitch darkness, led by flickering lanterns.
There's nothing quite as satisfying as being bone tired, wrapped in a fluffy quilt and lulled to sleep by the murmur of a mighty, and now comfortingly familiar, river.
‘Connect With Himalaya' (CWH) is all about exploration, far away from the tediously over-run tourist traps. Run by Gaurav Punj and Rujuta Diwekar, both passionate about the mountains and their people, two-year-old CWH is about being an active participant rather than a gawking tourist.
The duo encourage trekkers to experience Himalaya the way the locals always have: Taking on the challenges of the terrain by foot, following paths of the shepherds and sleeping under the stars. They also focus on giving back to the community, often poor mountain villages that generally benefit the least from big group tour-style tourism.
(More details at www.connectwithhimalaya.com/)