Are you an urban monk? I am. Or at least that is how I perceive myself. Ok, that is how I like to perceive myself—not unlike many others who love the city life and its dynamic vibrancy but are equally at ease with spirituality, restraint, and minimalism. Is that not the new order? And when we go to places that are hubs of spirituality, well, we just tend to experience them a tad differently. 😀
But first a disclaimer. I came across the nomenclature “Urban Monk” a few years ago when I visited a site by this name. I then and there decided, if I ever were to visit Rishikesh and Haridwar I would put together a guide and yup, call it the Urban Monk’s guide. And no, this post is not related to the Urban Monk site in any way.
So, here we go:
Located an hour’s ride apart in the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, the twin national heritage cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar, steeped alike in mythology, are stepping stones into Hindu spirituality. Whilst the former offers a more new age route replete with yoga, meditation and organic cuisine, Haridwar is grounded in Indian sensibilities. Rishikesh attracts foreigners. Haridwar, the locals. But hey, why should one have to choose.
Referred to as “Gateway to the Himalayas” and “Yoga Capital of the World,” Rishikesh has attracted sages and ascetics in search of enlightenment since ancient times. A Sanskrit word, it literally means “Lord of the Senses” and refers to the apparition of Vishnu that sage Raibhya Rishi saw right here in reward for his meditation and fasting. Rishikesh is also where Rama [in the Ramayana] did his penance for killing Ravana.
Haridwar, meanwhile, along with Nashik, Prayag [in Allahabad], and Ujjain, is one of the four sites where the celestial bird Garuda accidentally spilt drops of amrit, the elixir for eternal life, from its pitcher making the city sacred for perpetuity. It is pronounced as both Haridwar [doorway to Hari] where Hari is Vishnu, as well as Hardwar [doorway to Har] where Har is Shiva. There is an earthiness to Haridwar: Of flesh, life, and death.
The River Ganges flows past each, gushing at Rishikesh, and waddling placidly in Haridwar. Why choose, I repeat. Here’s what I recommend you experience in the two as an Urban Monk yourself. 🙂
1. Explore the heart of new-age Rishikesh at Lakshman Jhula
Of the two identical bridges which span the River Ganges in Rishikesh, Lakshman Jhula in Tapovan is the more celebrated one. Surrounded with tattoo ateliers, hip cafes, yoga studios, racks of cotton fashionwear, and new age graffiti, Rishikesh here is the Goa in the hills sans the alcohol and with a spiritual twist. Why, it even has beauty parlours which will shape your eyebrows for you, based on Ayurveda!
The 450-metre-long iron suspension bridge dates back to 1929. According to legend, Lakshman, from the Ramayana, crossed the Ganges at this very spot using jute ropes. Next to the bridge is the 13-storeyed Trimbakeshwar Temple dedicated to Shiva. It is well worth the climb to the top for the panoramic views and the little prayer the priest-cum-astrologer will happily do for you in the uppermost shrine.
Travel tips: 1) Have a meal at the Germany Bakery—the food is so-so, but the views of Lakshman Jhula and the hills is gorgeous. 2) Lakshman Jhula is a 30-minute walk from Ram Jhula along the banks of the Ganges.
2. Meditate on graffiti at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram
Combine transcendental meditation, an ashram on the foothills of the Himalayas, top pop bands of the 1960s, street art and you end up with the Beatles Ashram at the other end of Rishikesh, near Ram Jhula.
Beatles spent the winter of 1968 in Mahesh Yogi’s ashram looking for answers, catapulting the sage to overnight global fame. Mahesh Yogi eventually moved to the Netherlands, the pop band disbanded, and the ashram fell into ruins. That is, till a Canadian street artist by the name of Artxpan aka Pan took it upon himself to give this once sacred space a new lease of life in the form of an ever-evolving community art project. Though still in ruins, the crumbling walls amidst wild grounds and birdsong for company, are now spattered with stunning art by Pan and Miles Toland in the most unexpected places.
You may also like to read: Photo essay: The hidden graffiti of Rishikesh.
Travel tips: 1) Ticket: Rs. 150 for Indians, Rs. 600 for foreigners. 2) The ashram is a 30-minute walk from Ram Jhula in the opposite direction to Lakshman Jhula. 3) Ensure you leave the site by sunset as it is located in a forest and prone to visits by wild animals.
3. Chant the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Ashram as the sun sets
One of the meanings of aarti is “remover of pain.” As a ceremony, aarti is, hence, not addressed to any particular deity. It can be to anyone—to god, to nature, to another human being. When performed on the banks of the River Ganges it becomes a request to the river itself, that she, all powerful, removes our pain. What a beautiful way of expressing it, I thought, as I read Parmarth Ashram’s prayer book. Founded in 1942, the ashram is the largest in Rishikesh with over a thousand rooms and a monumental Shiva floating on the river.
Ganga aartis are performed throughout the length of the river in India, at various sites associated with Hindu mythology. Whilst some have become commercialised, the one at Parmarth Ashram’s Ganga Ghat is still carried out in its original form. A prayer to remove our pain.
Travel tips: 1) Ganga aarti at Parmarth Ashram begins every evening at sunset. 2) The aarti is preceded with a 30-minute Yagna [chanting of Vedic mantras].
4. Indulge in gastronomical delights, from the urbane to the street smart
Whether you are looking for organic vegetarian concoctions or simply old-fashioned desi street food, the two spiritual cities of Uttarakhand do not disappoint. Always purely vegetarian, Rishikesh veers towards the global fusion variety with the likes of khichdi sprinkled with sesame seeds while Haridwar is grounded in Indian traditions and offers kachoris and aalu puris galore—very much in line with their individual dispositions.
The well-rounded gentleman above is the famous choti-wala at the equally famed Chotiwala, one of the oldest riverbank restaurants in Rishikesh [it opened in 1958]. No trip is complete without a thali here. [P.S. I wish he’d smiled for my camera!]
Dining tips: 1) Kachoris at Kashyap Kachoriwala [Haridwar]. 2) Aalu puri at Mohanji Puriwale [Haridwar]. 3) Sweets at Mathura Walon Ki Prachin Dukaan [Haridwar]. 4) Full thali at Chotiwala [Rishikesh]. 5) Organic meals at Sanskriti Vedic Retreat [Rishikesh].
5. Immerse yourself in the raison-de-etre of Haridwar, Har ki Pauri
At sunrise and sunset, Har ki Pauri, the ancient ghat dating back 2,100 years in Haridwar swells with thousands of pilgrims from far and wide chanting the Ganga Aarti and setting afloat folded leaves piled high with flowers and flickering diyas. For a few brief moments they are almost connected to the divine within themselves.
In-between these two monumental events, Har ki Pauri is bathed in human bodies engrossed in ablutions, guided by the firm belief that the ritual would cleanse them of all mortal sins. Scattered through the day are moments and those who sit by the flowing Ganges with a lump in their throat as they bid good-bye to the remains of their loved ones, gently releasing their ashes into the waters. Gently letting go.
Har ki Pauri. It is the raison-de-etre for one’s visit to Haridwar, the doorway to god. Everyone has their own reasons for visiting it. The ghat accepts them all.
You may also like to read: India travel shot: Hari ki Dwar – doorway to god – Haridwar.
Travel tips: 1) It gets very crowded during evening aarti so go well in advance and find yourself a good seat. The morning aarti is relatively deserted. 2) The entire river bank is pedestrian only. 3) Footwear is not allowed at Har ki Pauri.
6. Make your way to the mountain temples of Neelkanth, Mansa Devi, Chandi Devi
Gods abide in the mountains. The belief is intrinsic to Hinduism, more so in the case of Shiva and Parvati. Rishikesh and Haridwar contain in the peaks surrounding them some of the most sacred sites dedicated to these two deities. Their power supreme whether you choose to make your way to their abodes to ask or simply say Thank You.
Neelkanth, outside Rishikesh, has an interesting myth associated with it. The temple is built on the exact spot where Shiva is believed to have swallowed the poisons which emanated from the churning of the oceans by the gods and demons in their quest to obtain amrit [elixir for eternal life]. The poison turned Shiva’s throat blue, hence the name Neelkanth meaning “blue throat.”
In Haridwar, Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi sit atop hills blanketed in green forests. Together with Maya Devi on the banks of Haridwar, the three are the city’s Siddh Peeths [believed to fulfil wishes]. Mansa and Chandi are avatars of Parvati, Shiva’s consort, and are usually found next to each other. Do try and rope in all three temples to complete the circle. ❤
Travel tips: 1) Neelkanth is 32 kilometres outside Rishikesh. Shared jeeps are available from Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula. 2) Visit the temples in the early morning; they get very crowded from mid-morning onward. 3) The combined ticket for Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi at Rs. 335 includes the cable car and bus ride connecting the two sites. 4) Photography is not allowed inside any of the temples.
- Getting to Haridwar from Delhi and back: Shatabdi Express from New Delhi Railway Station to Haridwar Junction; Leaves at: 6:45 am; Returns at: 6:15 pm; Travel time: 4 hours and 40 minutes one way.
- Getting to Rishikesh: I took a tuk tuk to Rishikesh and a bus for my return. Rishikesh is a one-hour [23 kms] road trip from Haridwar.
- Getting around: Central Rishikesh and Haridwar are mainly pedestrian only. Auto and cycle rickshaws are available in the outer lanes.
- Staying there: I stayed at Sanskriti Vedic Retreat next to Ram Jhula in Rishikesh and Devnadi – The Heritage Hotel in Haridwar, both through makemytrip.