As we’re preparing for a tour of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, news headlines flashed about Sylvester Stallone getting his sons’ last rites performed at Haridwar last month. The Hollywood star sought to give a peaceful transition to his departed sons’ soul on the banks of sacred River Ganga after he experienced disturbed sights of his dead son. Haridwar, literally meaning the entry to abode of Gods, is where the river Ganga that flows through different valleys after descending from Himalayan glaciers takes a plain path on the ground.
We started our tour from its twin city Rishikesh that shot to fame in the Western world after the visit of Beatles in late sixties. Rishikesh is an entry point to the Himalayan range of mountains and also to a tour to the abode of gods. The serene foothills of the Himalayas satiated Beatles hunger for peace through yoga and meditation. Beatles had come to this yoga capital on the banks of river Ganga to learn ‘transcendental meditation’ from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom they accepted as their spiritual guru. The ashram (pious dwelling) in the Himalayan woods of the Rajaji National park is today an abandoned place after the death of the yogi, but has a mystical aura that continues to inspire creativity.
The Beatles Ashram, as it is popularly known now, is a peculiarly interesting place. It was our first destination for the day. We drove up the mountain for twenty minutes along the road from the Ram Jhula to Swargashram area to arrive at a deserted beautifully arched building. A big signboard on the door cautioned unauthorized entry by trespassers into the protected national park. A caretaker of the ashram peeped out at the screeching halt of the wheels and opened the door to let us in as we had pre-informed of our arrival. Gate crashers have to deposit their identity cards and pay an amount of 50 to 100 rupees (depending on the moods of the care taker) to get an entry.
A few stairs up the hill and we saw a heavy iron gate of the Maharishi ashram. A long avenue of striking egg-shaped, stone dwellings among the woods is visible on the right. We step into an uninhabited villa that has a circular room. Plain stone slabs were stairs to go up and a semicircular attached bath had a broken WC. Another small circular room upstairs had an arched opening to the terrace that has the views of river Ganga- a perfect setting for meditation by the disciples of the spiritual guru, including John, Paul, George and Ringo of the Beatles. India was a time of inner discovery for the Beatles. Rishikesh is the holy place where Beatles regained their peace of mind and got inspiration.
Tens of individual stone dwellings of single and double storey, herald the popularity of the guru. Back at the iron gate, a straight road leads to a big building that might have been dining hall with an attached kitchen. A few abandoned buildings along the road look like one-time staff quarters. At the end of the road is a big hall with a podium and a seat for the guru. The dilapidated main congregation hall has now become a Beatles Cathedral Gallery has come alive with scattered art, murals and paintings by members of the group who claim to be friends of Beatles. The graffiti on the walls is a mix of scribbles by visitors and fine, co-ordinated work by die-hard fans. A beautiful butterfly draws our attention to the door-less exits on the other side to offer views of the wooded jungle beyond. The place still has a sense of serenity in its rundown status and it is not hard to imagine its majesty during hey days. There’s no wonder Beatles could connect with their inner voice and got composed to deliver some of the best music that is cherished even today.
We drive back down to the city and walk the main street leading to Laxman Jhula (hanging bridge), the tourist hot spot. Hundreds of ashrams and yoga centers crowd the city of Rishikesh today. Many peace seekers from across the world come to spend weeks, months and even years in this peaceful, divine town. Small cafes, eateries, shops selling wools, garments, sacred Ganga water in sealed copper vessels and other popular memorabilia dot the street. Laxman Jhula, a hanging bridge across the clean turquoise waters of Ganga connects Rishikesh with its island suburbs of Tapovan. A climb up the 13 storied Swarg Niwas Temple was worth-it for its picturesque view to track river Ganga’s path through beautiful valleys onto the plains of Haridwar and the amazing sight of crowded bridge itself. The temple houses statues of all the Hindu gods on its different levels. Only the Shiv temple on the top floor has puja or regular worship.
Lunch at Ganga beach restaurant, right on the banks of the river was a feast for the eyes and the tongue. Any dish from long menu with Indian, Italian, continental, Lebanese, Greek and Israeli cuisine will ultimately come down to simple localized food that tastes divine may be due to use of fresh Ganga water or just the hunger after all the climbs and walks. We had to squat on the carpeted floor of the cosy room and relax against soft cushions and the food was served on low level tables. The hall next door was a bigger one with many such tables. The best part of bamboo walled Ganga Beach restaurant is one of the best views of Rishikesh-the hanging bridge, people dipping in Ganga river a few steps away and of course, occasional river raft boats that pass along the river. Rishikesh is a paradise for white water rafting. It was heartening to hear the story of flooding that had washed away most of the restaurant two years ago. The rebuilt place is much smaller, owing to stricter administrative norms. Service boy Yogesh was optimistic that mother Ganga’s blessings would fulfill all their (restaurant staff’s) needs. The eatery’s vibrancy authenticated his wish.
Yes seeking River Ganga’s blessings is an essential activity for a visitor to Ganga. After another stroll through the town and a fresh-up at our comfortable resort-Aloha on the Ganges across the river, we head to Swami Parmarth ashram for a sunset aarti (way of worship) of Ganga. Behind the ashram, steps leading to the river were filled with people seated for prayers. Young disciples of the guru chanted Sanskrit prayers seeking blessings for prosperity, peace and harmony. Different nationalities united to sing in chorus, as the tempo rose along with holy flames. Floating little lamps on flowerbeds set afloat on the river by devotees created beautiful bright spots in the darkness created by setting sun.
Northern Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is welcoming back tourists after completing the renovation and repairs of the entire damaged infrastructure from the devastating floods of 2013. Newly laid roads have made the journey to its beautiful snow clad mountains easier and the registration of tourists at the entry point of the state has created accountability to track tourists’ safety.
World class ski resort at Auli, Jim Corbett National Wildlife Park scenic, snow peaked Himalayan mountain range with gushing pure river waters, indigenous flora and fauna, hill resorts and small mountainous villages and towns with people of simple lifestyle make for refreshing and memorable tours.
Written by Anand & Madhura Katti