It’s a chilly 3 a.m. Dark. Windy. Quiet. Yet, somehow, I find myself racing through a garden grouchily brandishing a frightfully pink yoga mat. I’m accompanied by nauseatingly cheerful people: A fiesta of track pants, tattoos and chic jeweled turbans.
Spiritual Rishikesh’s 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 a.m.
Yet, by 4 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 (see box) for a healthy holistic holiday I had pictured spa-styled rooms, languid river cafes and quirky boutiques. I quickly learnt that Gaurav Punj’s idea of rejuvenation differed 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 Himalayas, 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, 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. Religious songs sung with nasal American twangs and guitars blare on the streets from bookstores abounding with titles such as ‘The soul of love’ and ‘Death must die.’
All this on rustic Swarg Ashram road, crammed with fiercely bearded swamis in saffron, tea stalls fragrant with ginger and beatifically rambling cows.
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. Like discovering a secret garden in your backyard.
The festival brings together brilliant and quirky teachers from across the world, demonstrating how incredibly plaint yoga can be — translated into so many powerful, and relevant, versions. While there’s plenty of kooky dancing, cheerleader-style whooping and running around the garden, 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 in Hatha Yoga, aimed at strengthening the core and spine. Then there’s LA-based Marla Apt who demonstrates restorative postures using the props of Iyengar yoga. And Kishen Shah, adjunct professor at UCLA, leads students though active and static meditation, demonstrating that stillness can be just as challenging as intense movement.
Yet, it wasn’t all flexing, sweating and downward dogs. Rishikesh is the gateway to the Himalayas, about1360 feet above sea level, and Gaurav ensured we explored it, luring us out of the cafes (abounding with gooey chocolate crepes, bright mezze platters and elegant pizzas) with promises of hills carpeted in flowers and glimpses of mountains draped in snow.
Our walks take us over the delightfully wobbly Ram Jhula bridge and into the Lakshman Jhoola area, crammed with pretty handicraft stores, twinkling tea stalls and quirky cafes. We squeal across the Ganga in a boat, flashing silver with fish. We pant and gasp 2 kms uphill to Kunjapuri temple, majestically overlooking the Gangotri range.
Back at Parmath, it’s time for our last Ganga Arti, an hour filled with singing, music and lamps. As the prayers reach a crescendo, people release bobbing diyas into the inky river, where they rush away in warm circles of light.
Further upstream at Shivpuri, the final leg of our trip, the Ganga changes character, roaring impatiently at the many muddling white water rafters. The first rapid grabs and tosses us playfully, the second has us clinging to the 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. Like 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 tired and hungry. We’re now at Ganga Riviera, run by Anil Bisht of Adventure Trails. A former mountaineer still in the midst of a love affair with the Himalayas, 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.
Our trek from here is on the old – and startlingly scenic – Badrinath paidal marg, cut into the cool mountains for shade. It’s so silent you can practically hear the mountains breath. Till you hear the tinkle of a rambling horse’s collar. Or run into a shepherd, carrying an adorably cuddly lamb amidst a roadblock of wooly sheep supervised seriously by shaggy sheepdogs.
At night, the sky practically bursts with stars, as we curl up by the crackling bonfire at camp and listen to chilling stories about mountain spirits. As the fire dies, we stumble towards our welcoming canvas tents, lit with flickering lanterns. Then, comfortably exhausted, we fall asleep listening to the languidly hushed murmur of the Ganga.
Connect With Himalaya
Trek to Miyar valley, land of the blue poppy. Though quaint mountain villages, lush pastures and up a theatrically coloured glacier. Get initiated into the mysteries of Ladakh. Stay with the locals in snow leopard country, mountain bike across the area’s moonscape and raft on the Indus.
Or head to the valleys of Rupin and Supin, where you traverse spectacularly high ridges, to discover a mysterious forgotten lake, Baradsaar, revered by the locals.
‘Connect With Himalaya’ (CWH) is all about exploration. The travel outfit introduces city slickers to new travel experiences by following the old rules. Run by Gaurav Punj and Rujuta Diwekar, both passionate about these mountains and their people, Two-year-old CWH encourage trekkers to experience the Himalayas the way the locals always have: Taking on the challenges of the terrain by foot, following the paths of the shepherds and sleeping under the stars. And, most importantly, by moving away from the well-trod paths of the big operators.
“Right now the tour operators show a very limited area, and it’s thoroughly exploited,” says Gaurav, explaining why his routes are refreshing. “Manali, for example, has become a hub of adventure activities and there are now more travel agents than tourists there.” He adds, “You can’t ever know everything about the Himalaya. It’s so diverse — regions, people, culture, geology.” After travelling extensively for many years, he finally realized the best information came from the locals. “I got to know, for example, whom to trust for arranging my trek in Ladakh, or my stay in Munsiyari, or my transportation in Spiti. This is when the idea of CWH was born.”
Focused on sustainable tourism, CWH works with local guides, porters and drivers, in an attempt to inject money into the poor villages. “We believe in responsible tourism, and work on understanding the culture and lifestyle of the Himalaya’s people,” he says, talking of how every trek involves them, with homestays and adventure activities.
CWH offers about 25 trips a year, of which about 60 per cent are completely new, born out of exploratory treks. Their focus is on discovering the unusual, whether it’s a café tucked into a stony cliff or a valley of flowers.
Gaurav insists that evading the coaches and finding fresh destinations is not as tough as you would imagine. “About 90 per cent of the Himalaya tourism is in 10 per cent of the region,” he says, adding with a grin, “I have trips planned for the three years, all new places.”
For these are mountains you can explore your whole life, and still not completely discover.