Offbeat If you go to Rishikesh and decide to neither trek nor worship, just what else can you do there?
There are apparently only two reasons you go to Rishikesh, according to the local populace. We are constantly asked the same questions: “Have you come on pilgrimage?” “No.” “Have you come here to trek?” “No.” And they persist. “Perhaps just to see the Ganga aarti?” We shake our heads and they grow silent. “We just came to sight see.” More silence.
Rishikesh has a beauty that is often the boon and the bane of a pilgrimage town. The emerald Ganges speeds through it, recorded bhajans bring the evening to a close, and the precariously narrow roads with its jhulas offer a kind of setting that you don’t find elsewhere. Throw in its cow and monkey population, along with the milling crowds and Rishikesh welcomes you warmly even on a biting cold evening.
There is much to see here, if you aren’t just the temple-hopping, ticking-sights-of-your-list kind of traveller. There are shops that sell Yak cheese but it’s not something for the faint of stomach. But you can revel in its misty mornings, gobble down hot croissants and lemongrass tea at the German Bakery, buy a pair of funky pants, travel gear or good quality hemp from Nepal, or just browse in shops that sell homemade jams, Himalayan honey, aromatic candles and warm quilts. And if none of this tempts you, take a walk on any of the jhulas and enjoy a view of the city from the water. White water rafting is another activity, but we don’t try it.
As it happens, we do begin our stay with the iconic Ganga aarti, with large crowds waiting in long lines for the aarti to be done so that they can place their flower baskets and incense sticks on the water. We watch basket after basket being swept away, the flames shining bright as far as the eye can see.
The Shiva statue on the river towers over the aarti procession. The sunset itself is a beautiful sight from the Ram Jhoola, when the entire city is silhouetted with its dark domes standing out against a sky bathed in orange light.
The next day we walk to Lakshman Jhula and the Lakshman temple, looking around the myriad shops selling interesting trinkets. There are antique compasses, hand-woven woollen caps and colourful beaded necklaces. Here, the ambience is rather touristy unlike the spiritual mood of the roads that lead to the Ram Jhula.
That evening we are enveloped in the warmth of a hundred flames outside the Parmarth Ashram. After the aarti, we dine at the popular Chotiwala restaurant. The thalis are sumptuous and we walk back to the hotel, our stomachs and hearts filled to the brim.