Finding zen in the world's yoga capital

BELINDA MERHAB
Last updated 11:23 22/07/2014
The Beatles and their wives, Rishikesh
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BEATLES IN RISHIKESH: The Beatles put this city on the map in 1968 when they stayed at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where they are said to have written most of the White Album.

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Bleary-eyed and hungover with an hour's sleep under my belt is not how I'd imagined starting my journey of spiritual development.

So travelling to an ashram for a week of silence, meditation and yoga straight from a four-day bender in Goa is clearly an oversight in my itinerary planning.

I arrive in Rishikesh, the so-called yoga capital of the world, in the early afternoon after pulling an all-nighter with my travel buddies, boarding two flights and taking a winding, hour-long drive.

The ashram grounds are a gorgeous maze of gardens and statues of Hindu deities but finding my way around is a mission.

I ask for directions but am instead asked for "one photo", a request you quickly get used to while travelling through India, though I still wonder what's become of all those photos of me holding adorable Indian babies.

My room is austere but quaint: a timber bed with a blanket for a mattress, a "shower" - otherwise known as a cold water tap - and a squat toilet.

And silence.

Complete silence, disrupted only by the anxious thoughts rushing through my mind.

Living in silence, alone with nothing but my thoughts for a week seemed like a great idea three months ago, from the adventure-craving, soul-searching comfort of my work desk.

The plan was to end my big, fast-paced, two-month trip with rest and reflection, learn how to meditate, find my inner Zen, become a head-standing yogi, discover what I really want in life and fly back home. Easy.

But as I quickly learn, sitting alone in silence does not magically transport you to a higher state of consciousness.

So I decide to get out and explore.

Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, which is bordered by Nepal and Tibet.

The Beatles put this city on the map in 1968 when they stayed at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where they are said to have written most of the White Album.

Abandoned decades ago, the crumbling ashram is covered by overgrown jungle and thought-provoking artworks - definitely worth checking out.

Since then, Rishikesh has attracted travellers from around the world seeking enlightenment of one form or another.

Considered one of India's holiest cities, and meat and alcohol are prohibited.

The place is dotted with ashrams and you can spend your days perusing spiritual bookshops, doing all sorts of yoga, meditation and healing classes, or attending satsang (spiritual discussion) with a guru.

Hindus flock there to wash their sins away by bathing in the holy river Ganga (Ganges), which runs through the city.

The Ganga at Rishikesh is breathtakingly beautiful, flowing fresh and fast from the Himalayas.

It bears no resemblance to the Ganga I bathed in at Varanasi (reluctantly, but that's another story) where e-coli levels are 3000 times higher than the safe amount.

The streets of Rishikesh are lined with sadhus (holy men) in orange robes, mischievous monkeys and roaming cows that graze on rubbish and occasionally wander into eateries before being bundled out.

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Vendors greet those passing by with "Namaste" and hawk their street foods from steaming masala chai (spiced milk tea) to pani puri (hollow puffs filled with chickpeas and spicy water) and murri mixture, a delicious crunchy and tangy mix of nuts, noodles, onions, tomatoes, coriander and lemon juice, served in torn pages from school books.

Come sunset, it's time to give thanks to Mother Ganga at the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony, at the Parmarth Niketan ashram.

I make my way through the market place to buy an offering for the river - a basket made of leaves, filled with marigolds and roses, an incense stick and a candle made of clarified butter.

I take my shoes off and walk down to the ghat (steps), where hundreds have gathered, sitting side by side, awaiting the arrival of Pujya Swamiji, the spiritual head of the ashram.

Some are clapping along to the music of the Rishikumars (orphan boys taken in as students by the ashram), while others set their offerings adrift, watching their candles and roses float out of sight.

At the end of the ceremony, the Rishikumars light aarti lamps and pass them around.

An Indian man with a kind smile passes me a lamp and I'm suddenly surrounded by pilgrims who cup their hands over the flames and raise their palms to their faces, receiving the blessing of the fire.

He grabs my arms and shows me how to rotate the lamp clockwise, nodding in approval as I get the hang of it.

My spiritual journey doesn't end up going to plan in Rishikesh - I never do learn how to meditate.

But what I end up with is even better.   

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE You can get to Rishikesh by road, rail and air. By air, you'll need to fly from Delhi to Dehradun's Jolly Grant Airport and then get a taxi to Rishikesh (there's a pre-paid taxi stand at the airport). From Delhi, you can get a taxi (seven hours), train or bus to Rishikesh. Some helpful websites are haridwarrishikeshtourism.com and makemytrip.com.

STAYING THERE If you're after a spiritual experience, there are plenty of ashrams to choose from around Swarg Ashram, Parmarth Niketan being one of the main ones (parmarth.com). Otherwise, there are many hotels and hostels in the Lakshman Jhula area.   

PLAYING THERE If you're staying at an ashram, yoga classes may be included in your overall fee/donation; otherwise, there are plenty of walk-in classes around Lakshman Jhula.

Make sure you check out Ramana's Garden Orphanage, where you can eat delicious organic food (grown on site) and watch a movie, all while supporting the orphanage (sayyesnow.org).     

The writer travelled at her own expense.

- AAP

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