There’s just so much to do when Backpacking through Rishikesh….
A cow follows a group of full-on Hare Krishna devotees singing and jumping in unison with tablas and harmoniums in hand, while a man dressed as the monkey-god Hanuman is tugging on your arm for some spare change – the background having towering lush green hills flanking each side of the Ganges river. A typical scene on the streets of Rishikesh.
After spending almost 2 weeks in Rishikesh while on the backpacking India trail, here are my thoughts on the must-do items in this wonderful little city. Being the self-proclaimed “Capital of Yoga”, it’s no wonder that I’ve put Yoga as the top must-do in Rishikesh. But there are plenty of other things to experience as well in this holy and majestic town frequented by Western and Indian tourists alike.
1) Yoga in Rishikesh: “The Capital of Yoga”
Rishikesh: the self-proclaimed “Capital of Yoga”. Whether you are an absolute beginner, a veteran, or somewhere in the middle, Rishikesh offers more varieties of yoga classes than any other place on earth. The streets are lined with endless Yoga studios and Ashrams, offering a wide variety of yoga courses varying from drop-in beginner classes, to weekly long holistic yoga courses, all the way up to 500 hour 3-month Yoga Teacher Training courses. Rishikesh, being the sort of “Harvard” of Yoga schooling, is full of aspiring yoga instructors from the West who want some true holistic yoga methodology training.
I’ve written a more detailed article about Yoga in Rishikesh. Click to read more!
Satsangs are very common in Hindu culture, being a mix of religious songs in Sanskrit or Hindi (usually accompanied by musical instruments), and a spiritual discussion led by a priest or guru covering a variety of topics. Sometimes in these discussions people sit cross-legged and ask questions to gurus about interpretation of religious texts, meditation and the meaning of life. As with Yoga in Rishikesh, satsangs here vary greatly in terms of audience size and scope. Many of the ashrams and temples here host daily satsangs within massive compounds attended by hundreds of followers, notably the Divine Life Society, Kriya Yoga Ashram, and the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Just be on your guard, as many of these places try to recruit people into “surrendering” and becoming long-term followers of the gurus (and subsequently asking for substantial donations, of course).
While I shyed away from these large (and sometimes over-the-top) satsangs, I was lucky enough to catch a famous guru to Rishikesh known as “Mooji” while he was town giving a few satsangs. It was a pretty fun experience in itself, and fun for anyone whether you want to sing, listen, learn, or just observe. I also attended a very small 8 person satsang which was simply one-hour of question and answers about meditation. This was definitely more my style!
Your best bet is to jut ask around different ashrams and yoga studios while you are there, as schedules and topics are constantly changing.
3) White water rafting down the Ganges river
When in Rishikesh, you cant miss the armies of jeeps full of tourists and inflated rafts driving to and from the hills north of the city. Many Indians in particular long to plunk these massive inflated rafts down the holiest of rivers in India and take a full-on plunge in the icy refreshing water. While this may seem touristy on the surface, it was actually a really really cool experience, and I’m totally glad I did this on my last day in town. For the record, these are Class 3 rapids, which are certainly more than a simple leisurely cruise down the river. For 600 rupees (US$10) for a 2 1/2 guided cruise down the river, its a bargain at even 5 times the price.
I booked through an excellent company called Wet n Wild Explorations, and was lucky enough to have the eccentric owner Daz Clarkson-King come along for that day’s trip. We started at 10am on a clear and sunny day, receiving first about 15 minutes of safety instructions on gear (helmets and life jackets), and other precautions and orders. We then plunked our raft into the river, softly paddling while flanked on each end by towering hills, my Indian raft-mates sarcastically singing religious songs. Eventually, the first set of rapids enters the fray, our the guide yelling unexpectedly yelling at us to paddle FASTER! FASTER!
Our boat starts to tilt down into the oncoming rapid, followed by a massive crash into an oncoming wave. Our faces are smacked hard in the face by the force of water. Another tilt down of the raft, and another crashing wave. There’s yelling and screaming and water everywhere, as we struggle to keep paddling. And then the rapids ease off, and we exit the madness. Calmness ensues, our drenched bodies feeling the warmth of the sun again. The yelling and cheering starts from the boat. And more religious singing as we hi-five each other.
This happened 7 times over the course of the 2 hour cruise. In between rapids, we were invited to jump into the river for that epic “Ganges plunge” that many Hindus are absolutely stoked to take. I was personally thankful to be able to dunk inside the refreshingly cold holy water, which started its decent from the Himalayas weeks ago, if anything just to escape the sun beating down our bodies. I enjoyed it so much that I did it again and again (sometimes with somersault jumps mixed in). After 2 hours, we were thoroughly wiped from all the paddling and swimming, and ended the journey with some tea in the hot sun along the banks of the river. A pretty awesome day.
3) Stay in guest house, a little longer than planned…
As for places to stay, there are plenty of cheap backpacking hotels in Rishikesh along the Ganges river. You can just show up to the main Laxmanjhula Road and walk from hotel to hotel to find one (although I would suggest booking one in advance during the busy season of Jan-March, if even for a couple of nights to get your bearings)
You’ll have to look a little harder for a long-term cheap guest house during the busy season of Dec-March. I arrived during this time, and searched for hours, getting the same response from all of the owners: “Full.”. Eventually, I found a guest house that had a room opening up 3 days later, so I locked that one down and gave her a deposit on the spot. The spot was had a private clean room, private clean bathroom, and shared balcony in a beautiful new house all for 500 rupees a night (US$8). Totally an amazing deal. Here are some pictures:
4) Rent a scooter and check out the outskirts of Rishikesh
The outskirts of Rishikesh are well worth the visit, with lush green hills flanking the emerald green Ganges river for miles on either end of the city. I thought I’d get a room outside the city to little change of scene for a couple of days, while I waited for my guest house in Rishikesh to free up (see above).
I found a room in a lovely house called Divinity Commune about 30 minutes outside the city, right along the Ganges river. The scene out there is quite different: massive houses on massive plots of land, each plot sectioned off by brick walls and gates. The house itself was perfect. Quiet, wide open, with its own private beach on The Ganga and even a beautiful study room with views of the river where I could get lots of writing done.
They also arranged for a scooter for me for a couple of days, which ended up being such a great option. The owner was nice enough to map out some very cool routes to take in the outskirts, including a newly built canal system for the Ganges stretching out for miles on the south end of the city, with barely anyone in sight! I did however make the acquaintance of a few cows and bulls chillin along the river.
Further north of Rishikesh, the curvy windy cliff side roads offer breathtaking views of the Ganges and serenity from the hustle and bustle of the main city. You can drive endlessly for miles along these beautiful roads, stopping at random stalls to have a cup of chai and soak in the cliff-side views of the Ganges.
5) Chill at the cafes along the Ganga river
The Ganges cuts the city of Rishikesh in two, so naturally there are plenty of cafes lines along the river offering breathtaking views, cool river breezes and serenity. Take some time to chill out and sip some masala chai or coffee at these places while staring out into the river and soaking in the scene. These cafes are also a great way to meet other travelers for good conversation and learn about city events, places to stay etc.
Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to relate to some of the westerners here. Many of them have been here in Rishikesh for a long long time meditating and attending satsangs and whatever, and may be operating on a different planet than you. To me, this was all part of the Rishikesh experience.
Some of the long-standing cafes to check out include Pyramid Cafe and Zorba Cafe. My personal favorites were Ganga View Restaurant and 60’s Rishikesh Cafe (Green Hills Hotel). It’s also a bit of a hustle to find the places that have good reliable high-speed WiFi, so good luck!
6) Sunset Activities in Rishikesh
A few different things are always happening during sunset along the Ganges, being a very auspicious time of day in Rishikesh. Temples and Ashrams are loaded with devotees singing and praying to various gods and goddesses. Riverside ghats are filled with people dipping their feet and placing floating trays of flowers and devos (small clay-potted flames) into the river, watching them float away as an offering. Others congregate at specific stoops and beaches along the river, playing musical instruments, singling, talking, dancing, juggling, and just chilling out. And others are just taking a very leisurely stroll across one of the the bridges and along the Ganges, sometimes with yoga mats in hand on their way to or from an evening class.
Sunset is a a pretty special time in Rishikesh. If you have the opportunity, I’d suggest you try each of these options in your evenings in the city.
7) Photography and Videography in Rishikesh
A cow follows a group of full-on Hare Krishna devotees singing and jumping in unison with tablas and harmoniums in hand, while a man dressed as the monkey-god Hanuman is tugging on your arm for some spare change – the background having towering lush green hills flanking each side of the Ganges river. A typical scene on the streets of Rishikesh. There is just SO MUCH to capture in, from natural scenery to religious and spiritual events, to eye popping human spectacles, giving your senses a run for their money. So make sure your batteries are fully charged, venture out into the city, and film away.