Written by Alicia Crone, (Texas Christian University) Student Correspondent UW in India: Delhi Intensive Language, Summer 2018
Rishikesh was truly a retreat. It was a retreat not only from the stresses of daily life, but simply from the hustle and bustle and heat and pollution of Delhi. It gets its fame from the Beatles and the “Hippie trail” of the 60s and 70s, which included other freewheeling places around Asia like India’s coastal state of Goa, today still home to many foreigners living the relaxed life. Rishikesh is also widely known as the birthplace or capital of yoga, and offers retreats, classes, and teacher training at various ashrams along the holy Ganges or “Mother Ganga” River.
Being longtime yogis and curious about health and wellness in India, my program roommate and I decided to use one of our weekends to make the pilgrimage there. We booked accommodations at the biggest and most popular ashram, Parmarth Niketan. For those who don’t know, an ashram is a place of retreat headed by a guru, often with its own lodging, classes, events, canteen, and devotees. Parmarth has over 1,000 rooms starting at 800 rupees ($12 USD) a night for double occupancy with air conditioning. Meals were 70 rupees each ($1 USD) for a refillable thali (Indian meal with multiple small dishes).
At the ashram, guests have to obey quiet hours, adhere to a diet without intoxicating substances, eggs, and meat, and dress conservatively. Lodging at the ashram is only open to those seeking spiritual and yogic guidance and insight, and is available for 15 days straight for first-timers. Unfortunately, we could only stay for one night since we had to take a 7-hour overnight bus there and back from Delhi.
We arrived at 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, weary but eager to explore. From the drop-off point we shouldered our backpacks and hailed a tuk-tuk to the beautiful Ram Jhula footbridge – as close as we could get to Parmarth, since the area of Rishikesh we were staying in does not allow cars. After crossing the Ganges on the swaying bridge, we arrived in a long, thin area composed of souvenir shops, yoga bookstores, and crystal sellers on one side; the ghats (large, stone steps down to the river) lay on the opposite side. We walked for 10 minutes and arrived at the bright orange ashram touted as our “Himalayan Home.” Lush green Himalayan foothills loomed over the river, and the devotional sounds of bells and chanting could be heard in the distance.
While waiting for the check-in office to open, we met a friendly, sweet old man who bought us chai and galub jamun (a dessert) at the canteen, and who also claimed to be able to read palms and read ours for us! He told me I would have a long life, one boy and one girl child, and I would be the strong one in my marriage. He also said I would start making a lot of money after age 35. Hopefully one day I’ll reflect on this prophecy and see what has come true!
When we checked into our room, it was hot and sparse and full of bugs and lizards and had a power outage – not exactly fine living, but part of the ashram experience is living simply and being in community and nature, not stuck in your room. Because we were so tired and yoga wasn’t until 4 pm, we rested a while. Then, we decided to explore the Beatles ashram, now abandoned and since brought into the land owned by a wildlife reserve.
It was a short walk along the river to the magical place. It was easy to see how the Beatles had spent 4 months here, writing songs, learning transcendental meditation, and consulting with their guru. The property has 84 two-level meditation huts made of river stone, and these gave the ashram an otherworldly feel. Elsewhere on the land are buildings like a post office, a triangular-shaped apartment building for those taking teacher courses, various bungalows, the guru’s house, a canteen, and more. Everything is now covered in gorgeous and heartfelt graffiti, murals and quotes from artists and visitors to the ashram throughout the years — check out the pictures! My roommate and I wandered around watching the monkeys and marveling at the mountains and art for a long while, and wished that we could have stayed there when it was still open.
After our walk it was time for a real Indian yoga class! We stretched out our mats (hers borrowed, mine brought from home) in front of a serene-looking woman along with a handful of other foreigners and a few local Indian people. Our class started with chanting “Om” and a few sun salutations, also known as surya namaskar. The class pace was extremely relaxed, and we did not flow all of our poses like some other classes I had been in. In the middle there was a large section where we simply stood and controlled our breathing for 5 minutes. This was great, but because of the lack of air-conditioning and the 90+ degree temperature, it was like doing hot yoga and I felt a little lightheaded! We ended with corpse pose or savasana, like all typical yoga classes.
After yoga we had dinner and went to the Ganga Aarti, which Parmarth is famous for! The Aarti is a nightly sunset offering ceremony at the Parmarth ghat, and a huge attraction for tourists from around India and the world. The ashram devotees perform Hindu devotional songs in their saffron robes, and burn oil and flowers in ceremonial lamps and pits. Onlookers buy small leaf boats full of flowers, candles, and incense to light and send down the river, a tribute to any God one wishes to worship or simply the holy river itself. A man put silver paint bindis on our forehead, and we swayed to the happy music for an hour before casting our boats into the fast-moving water and watching the sun dip below the horizon.
The next day, we had breakfast at the canteen (aloo paratha, potato-filled grilled flatbread) and ventured out to wander the streets and shop more. I ended up purchasing some beautiful Himalayan crystals for my family and friends, and my roommate bought a rudraksha mala (a sort of Buddhist rosary made of special holy seeds) and a chakra healing crystal.
Though we were leaving on a bus that night, we were in the mood for one more adventure. A guy from the Netherlands staying at the ashram had recommended we take a Jeep up to a temple in the mountains, so we strolled across the bridge and into a travel agency, and they had a Jeep for us within minutes! The 1 and a half hour ride was dizzying but breathtaking, and somehow there was still a traffic jam in the mountains. Once we got higher, though, the air was clean and cool (the exact opposite of Delhi) and all around us were priceless views of the Himalayan foothills, the Ganges, and Rishikesh. Ascending to the temple involved a long walk with our guide up into the clouds, and on top of this mountain we removed our shoes and were blessed in the inner sanctum with red powder and puffed rice on our foreheads.
Coming down from the mountain was another great ride, but bittersweet as we prepared to leave the sanctity of the beautiful ashram and return to Delhi’s chaos. We had felt peace in India and spent lots of time in nature, as well as connected with ancient religious and spiritual traditions. After the whole experience, I would love to stay at an ashram or monastery for a full retreat, as well as get my yoga teacher certification!