The moment I boarded the train for Rishikesh, I was surprised by the large number of foreign tourists already seated. Armed with bottles of mineral water, they all seemed excited about exploring this seemingly nondescript Indian town – a town that is quickly gaining popularity as a wellness and yoga hub. Most tourists were here to attend the International Yoga Festival, which is an annual event that draws Indian and international tourists in large numbers.
At 11 a.m, we all de-boarded at Dehradun, the nearest rail head for Rishikesh. The whiff of fresh mountain air was intoxicating, setting the mood for a great week ahead. The drive from Dehradun amidst lush green fields and the river was an easy passing. The Rajaji National Park route is known for its big cats and deer and lucky travellers have been known to cross paths with a herd of elephants or a lonesome bull on more than one occasion.
With much anticipation, I reached my place of stay and, much to my surprise, my co-passengers from Belgium and California had checked into the same ashram (read yoga center). A traditional Indian welcome awaited us with flower garlands and a refreshing welcome drink. There is something captivating about Rishikesh; the magnificent Ganges can be seen from nearly every spot and the people here are always smiling.
Even for a first timer, it almost feels like home. Wellness is a way of life here – all about yoga, meditation and a purified body and soul. After some refreshment and rest, we met in the central courtyard of the ashram where a meditation session began. People of all age groups and nationalities had gathered there, strikingly each bearing an expression of calm – the ‘Rishikesh effect’. It offers space to introspect, to reflect and, most importantly, to slow down. An hour of meditation and deep breathing seemed to have a cleansing effect on everyone, and for me personally it was cathartic. I thought that if this was the effect of an hour’s meditation, surely a week here would mean bliss.
During my one week stay there were a couple of faces that I had started recognizing as Rishikesh is a very small town. The area around Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula are the epicentres of life here. These are the two suspension bridges across the Ganges. The view from the bridges is simply breathtaking – high mountains on all sides and the Ganges seems to flow with purpose.
Perched at 1220 ft above sea level, rains and clouds are an integral part of Rishikesh and there are moments when white clouds suddenly rush towards the land, caress surprised onlookers, and finally pass over the hills as if playing a game of hide and seek. At one moment the sun is high above and moments later there might be pouring rain – and this is the beauty of Rishikesh. People here do not seem to be hassled by this unpredictable weather and what comes your way.
On one of my evening strolls along the river, I met Diane Keegan from California who has been coming to Rishikesh for the last four years. “I come here to find inner peace. Yoga has changed my life completely and is part of my daily routine now. Coming to Rishikesh is something I look forward to whenever possible,” says Keegan.
There are many like Keegan in the Western world who have found peace and comfort in yoga and meditation. Music is another healer here and there are many who are taking Indian music classes. A Japanese couple I met here said that for the past seven years they have made Rishikesh their home. They came here for a month’s visit but failed go back, held by the magic of Rishikesh.
As the sun sets each evening, all the action shifts to the ghats, meaning river banks. The temple priests come down with lamps to perform aarti, a ritual of praying to the Almighty amidst loud chants of prayers. Locals as well as tourists gather along side and join in the evening prayers.
Flowers and often small lighting lamps are set afloat in the Ganges in hope of one’s prayers being answered. When in Rishikesh this is a must-see as everyone joins in, each with a silent prayer in their hearts. After seven blissfully long days and many friendships later, it was time for me to head back and leave this peaceful place. Whenever I am in need of tranquility, calmness and a little purification – I know Rishikesh is the place to be. There are many things I will miss and many memories that I am carrying along but my take-away from this trip was: you need a pause to set the pace.