The Ganga , The Ganges or ’’Ganga Maiyya’’( the mother river) is what pervades the consciousness of this town in Uttaranchal. The sight of the river flowing down and cutting across the massive gorges is just awesome.When one speaks of Indian culture and tradition, one name reasonates every time throughout, the Ganga , holy river for millions of Indians, the banks of which have seen the rise and fall of empires and the changing of history. Be it mythology, history,literature, arts the Ganga will forever be a part of the Indian pysche.
Rishikesh nested in the foothills of the Himalayas is one of the most beautiful places one must visit in India. One of the few places where you can discover yourself spiritually through yoga or undertake a river rafting expedition on the Ganga , or just walk around the town taking in the numerous temples dotting every nook and corner.Rishikesh is one of the best spots to see the Ganga, for this is where the mighty river leaves the mountains to enter the plains. I remember the first time I went to Rishikesh, it was my first sight of Ganga. I had woken up early morning and gone to the Lakshman Jhoola. It was sunrise and as I stood on the bridge gazing at the mighty river flowing majestically through the mountains, and under my feet,I was just transfixed. Surrounded by the towering hills and the river flowing, one feels lost completely. Rishikesh is not located in the Himalayas, rather it starts at the foothills called as Shivalik ranges which are the inner Himalayas.
In fact most of the Himalayan hill stations are located in the inner Himalayas. Rishikesh is again divided amongst 2 districts, one side of the river is Tehri Garhwal and the other side is Pauri Garhwal . Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world and you can find many phirangs there talking a walk around town and coming here for spiritual enlightenment.
There are many legends associated with Rishikesh. One is that God appeared as an answer to the severe penance performed by Raibhya Rishi and hence the name. Another legend is that Ram,Lakshman,Bharat and Shatrughan performed penance here to atone for the killing of Ravan.In fact this is the only place in India, where you would find a separate temple dedicated to the other 3 brothers. Legend says that the spot where Lakshman Jhoola stands is where Lakshman crossed the river on a jute rope and hence the name. Another legend holds that this is the area where Lord Shiva swallowed the deadly poison which came out during the churning of the ocean.
Lakshman Jhoola is the most visible and prominent feature of Rishikesh. It is a must visit for the awesome view of the Ganga which you get from here. The sight of the Ganges cutting through the hills and taking a bend is one for the eyes. One can stand for hours just to watch the sight and enjoy the cool breeze from the river. Heavy vehicles are not allowed on this, but two wheelers do go across. This is actually a hanging bridge with pylon supports and was built in 1939 by two Agarwal brothers from Rajasthan. The other suspended iron bridge is Ram Jhula which was built recently and connects the Swargashram area with the Sivananda Ashrama. You can see the fish from the Ram Jhula and feed them too.
Of the other famous spots Bharata Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu,this is one of the oldest temples in the town. This temple was believed to have been constructed by Bharat, one of Ram’s brothers. This has a black statue of Vishnu, and was consecrated by Adi Shankaracharya. The idol of Vishnu is carved out of a single Saligrama.
The Swarga Ashrama is the hangout place for many in Rishikesh with the numerous Ashrams and temples dotting the area. Legend has it that Ram and his 3 brothers performed penance at this place and hence the name.It is also a favorite haunt of tourists and visitors with many shops and eating joints. Most of the shops sell you the famous navaratna mala( a necklace of 9 precious stones) and the very rare one face Rudraksh. To the uninformed Rudraksh is a set of beads made from the plant of the same name. It gets it’s name from Rudra(Shiva) and Aksh(tear) meaning ’’ The Tear of Lord Shiva’’. Rudraksha malas are supposed to be having powerful effects on the wearer and its an integral part of Hindu culture. While there are different varieties of Rudraksh, Rishikesh is famous for the one faced Rudraksh which is the most powerful of all as its a symbolic representation of Lord Shiva’s 3rd eye which is the symbol of unlimited power. Do be careful with the shops,many are quite a rip off. Thankfully Rishikesh doesnt have the nosy, aggressive shopkeepers associated with other places. And while on eating out, dont miss the Chotiwala restaurant, it has a great variety of vegetarian food at affordable prices.
Triveni Ghat is the main Ghat of Rishikesh and a must see for the evening Aarti performed here daily. So called as it is believed to be the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, this is the spot where the Ganga takes a completely right turn and is considered one of the holiest places where you can take a dip in the Ganga. To those who want to take a dip in the Ganga,be very careful, the currents are very strong and the water is freezing cold. If you are not alert enough,you could find yourself swept away also. And the best is the Gangarati. As the sun sets, bells,gongs,conches rise to a crescendo and holy chants fill the air.Devotees float tiny lamps on leaves out into the river and the sight of thousands of lamps floating down the river with the bright color of the sunset makes it an ethereal experience. Even if you are not much into religious stuff, watch it just for the wonderful experience it offers. No where in the world can you behold such a wonderful sight except in India.
Located about 12 kms from Rishikesh, Nilkanth Mahadeo Temple , at a height of 1675 m above sea level on a hill overlooking the Swarg Ashram, is one of the most important Saivite temples in India. Legend has it that this is the spot where Lord Shiva drank the poison which came out during the Amrit Manthan( the churning of the Ocean). Due to this, the Lord’s throat turned into blue, hence the name Neela kantha( the one with the blue throat). One can take a long trek up the hill, and you do often come across monkeys and even elephants also.The view of the Himalayas from here is just breathtaking and on a clear day, you could even see some of the famous Himalayan peaks of Uttaranchal.
Even if you are not much into the religious stuff, Rishikesh can be visited for the adventure sports it offers. Of course the best is the river rafting in the Ganges. The experience of floating down the Ganges in its full fury, with the water splashing across your face as it careens down dizzying rapids is just heart stopping. Do ensure you have a trained instructor with you. One of the best excursions here would be to undertake a 2 nights/ 1 day camp, where you could travel along the river and camp along the river bed.
You can also pay a vist to the Rajaji National Park which lies between Rishikesh and Hardwar. This park is especially famous for its elephant herds, and you also have tiger, leopard, Sambhar,Cheetal and other animals here. Many species of reptiles and birds can also be dfound here. Rishikesh is also the starting point for the Char Dham yatra featuring the holy spots of Badrinath,Kedarnath,Yamunotri and Gangorti. Being the gateway to the Himalayas,it also offers many opportunities for trekking and is also the base point for places like Mussorie,Auli etc.Even if you are not much into all this you can just visit it and laze on the banks of the Ganga. Nothing to rejuvenate your soul like this. Yoga is one of the major activites here and you have many centers offering courses in Yoga too.
Rishikesh has many good hotels, though you dont have many luxury hotels. Do check out the Tourist Guest houses, you can also get decent accommodation in many of the numerous Ashrams dotting the town. Rishikesh can be visited the year around, as the climate is very pleasant,not too cold nor too hot. However during the monsoons roads get blocked due to the landslides so try to avoid that time. Easily accessible from Delhi, Dehradun and all major towns of UP. So to enjoy and absorb the true beauty of India, visit this place, if not for anything,just to behold the sight of the mighty Ganges cutting its way across the mountains.
Mansa Devi ,located on the top of the Bilwa hill,is dedicated to Manasa Devi one of the Shakti forms of the Goddess. One can go to the top of the hill using a cable car ride. You get a great view of the city from here. Chandi Devi is another temple dedicated to the Devi located on Neel Parvat, which is other side of Ganga. Constructed by a Kashmiri king Suchat in 1929, this can also be reached by a cable car. One of the holiest Shakti peeths of India. Maya Devi is also regarded as the patron deity of Hardwar. According to Indian mythology, when Lord Vishnu cut Sati’s body into pieces, her heart and navel fell at this place.
Daksha Mahadev Temple which is located at a place called Kankhal ,which is about 4 km from Haridwar. This deals with the story of Daksh and Lord Shiva. Daksh was the father of Sati, and when he did not invite Lord Shiva to the Yagna, Sati,unable to bear the insult to her husband, burnt herself in the Yagna Kund. On hearing this Shiva’s hordes attacked the place and Daksha was beheaded. But later Mahadev bought Daksh back to life and this temple is dedicated to this.
Hari Ki Pauri is one of the holiest ghats in Hardwar, this is believed to contain an imprint of Lord Vishnu’s footprint. Many of the people who come to Haridwar bathe in the Ganga at this place, as they believe that a dip here washes away all sins. However do beware of the force of the Ganges here,its strong currents could sweep you away and most of the ghats are quite slippery. Also bewared of pundits and touts, who accost you to perform pujas, rituals and hawkers trying to sell you anything. Some of them can be quite aggresive and if you are not careful it could lighten your wallet. And yes like in Rishikesh, the Ganga Arti is a must watch here.
Dushera though celebrated on a grand scale here is more associated with the descent of the Ganga than with Ram’s victory over Ravan.Haridwar is not a holy town just for Hindus, but also for Muslims, many of whom congregate here to observe the Urs of Piran Khalier located just 23 km from Haridwar. It is observed at the Dargah of Hazrat Makdhum Sabir located on the outskirts of Roorkee.
For shoppers you do have a lot of handicraft emporiums here and the river stones used to make small idols.
Haridwar has a wide range of accommodation from Govt tourist rest houses to medium range hotels to free Dharamshalas and well maintained Ashrams. If you are the adventurous kind, you can undertake trekking trips from here to places like Valley of Flowers,Dodital and Pindari glacier. Haridwar is not just a spiritual and religious center, but an educational center also. Two of India’s finest educational institutions are located here. One is the Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya which offers training in the true Gurukul tradition and stresses a lot on Indian culture, traditions and spirituality. The other is IIT, Roorkee, which is one of the oldest engineering colleges in India and is considered one of the best institutions in India.