During our time in northern India we visited Rishikesh, a city renowned for yoga history and culture. Located in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, Rishikesh thrives along the Ganges River, India’s holiest and most sacred river, also called Mother Ganga. The water is believed to hold magical, purifying and healing energy. Devotees of Mother Ganga come to Rishikesh to witness her power and beauty. In Hindu lore, the river is formed when the god, Shiva, lets down his hair; the two holy rivers forming the Ganges, the Yamuna and Alaknanda, as well as feeding smaller streams and rivers, are said to be locks of Shiva’s hair. Coming down from the Himalayas, across the western plains of India and into the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is the third largest river in the world. Aside from being a stunning natural phenomenon (one of the most beautiful we have ever seen), many Indians depend on the river for crops, hygiene, power, drinking water and other daily needs.
Rishikesh is sectioned into two areas, Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, along the river. Miss//Miss stayed in a guesthouse booked on Agoda, our most trusted booking site that you should definitely get familiar with if you’re traveling in Asia. Our guesthouse was located on the hilltop between Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula, giving us easy access to explore both areas by foot.
Many westerners walk Rishikesh on their path to enlightenment. Spiritual travelers from all over the world come here to study yoga, transcendence and meditation. Some days, every corner of the city seems contrived for enlightenment journeys, featuring lanes full of raw juices, kombucha, Ayurveda clinics and restaurants, yoga shops, chill-out cafes and Om t-shirts and pants and hats and leggings galore. One could really deck-out in ancient mantra gear, and that’s just what many of these spiritual vagabonds do, giving the impression of utmost enlightenment and transcendent skill.
But don’t let flighty nomads and western appropriation deter you from visiting Rishikesh, a true gem of a place with an innate spiritual resonance that is as tactile and bold as the cool, aquamarine Mama Ganga. From beach days to hiking and rafting, Miss//Miss enjoyed some truly fringe-worthy, budget-friendly experiences. Here are 6 off-the-beaten-enlightenment-path experiences that we highly recommend.
- Hike the Neer Garh Waterfall//Secluded pools, cascading water and vibrant flora make this it an experience not to miss.
Whether walking to explore a new city or hiking, we are continuously looking for ways to be active travelers. Neer Garh Waterfall feeds into the Ganges and is close enough to Rishikesh to walk to in 40 minutes, or to take an auto to in 15. The trip can be done in a half day or more—it can take 3-6 hours depending on how you much you want to wander and wade. The trail starts two kilometers north of Lakshman Jhula and its easy to find your way by Google maps and asking locals along the way. Because it was a cool, October day in Rishikesh, we walked down the not-too-busy Badrinath Highway (stay in the shoulders) and enjoyed watching the Ganges from the low cliffs above. From the trailhead, the trek is a moderate 2km (20-30 minutes, depending on your fitness) hike through North Indian jungle terrain. We went on a weekday and the trail was empty minus two other small groups. On the way up to the main waterfall, there are a few smaller waterfalls and wading pools nestled in the woods. Look out for side trails to these cozy and quiet coves, as they are not marked—we stumbled upon them by happy accident, as they were the highlight of our trek. You can also hike beyond the main fall to find more hidden pools. Careful of leeches in and just after the monsoon. Unlike the main waterfall, which is congested with tourists, you can experience these smaller falls privately and connect with Mother Nature tete-a-tete.
Cost//There is a 200 INR [3 USD] entrance fee; we were happy to contribute to the upkeep of this gorgeous fall, which has, compared to much of India’s natural sites, been well-maintained.
- Tat Café//Best place to watch the sunset shimmering over the Ganga.
You will find this café on many travel blogs, and rightfully so. While the food is simple and low key, the view is exquisite. The café overlooks the Ganga River on the west side of Lakshman Jhula. Walking through the bazaar, a narrow, stone alleyway, Tat Café sits discretely next to the flamboyant (but delicious) Beatles Restaurant. We happened upon this café at sunset after we had just arrived. Miss S was navigating us through the streets, using her ancestral senses to find the river, which she had been yearning to see and touch for her entire life; the desire to be with the river before dark was strong and urgent. Leading us into the Tat Café, to get a topographical assessment of how far we were from the river, Miss S had unknowingly brought us to the sunset peaking over the Ganges, spreading a surreal light across the water, illuminating its spectacular crystal-like blue. We surrendered to the moment, tearing up as we were, in utter awe. We weren’t particularly hungry or thirsty, but the sunset was mesmerizing. After enjoying a tea, we walked down to the banks of the river, only a 5 minute walk from Tat, to enjoy the sunset ankle-deep in the tender current. During the next week in Rishikesh, we discovered that the surrounding restaurants, more popular and touted than Tat are over-crowded and over-priced. Tat maintains a cool aloofness, a spot where many have quietly paid tribute to the union of Arun and Ganga, sun and water.
Cost// Tat Café has a full menu ranging from 80-350 INR for food and drinks, per person. It hosts comfy places to sit and lounge, and most sitting areas have a favorable view of the river. Perfect as an everyday pit stop for coffee, lassi, limonanna, honey ginger lemon tea or chai, as you hang out in the afternoon, relaxing or doing some work. Tat is also a fine place to have a simple but long dinner or date.
- Beatles Ashram//A quiet adventure outside of the city where you can wander and get lost in overgrown ruins.
When we first came to Rishikesh we read about the Beatles Ashram and thought “that’s probably lame and cheesy,” and quickly brushed off the idea. About three days into the trip, with our love for the Beatles lingering within us, we decided to Google the ashram to see if it might actually be worth the trip. To our surprise, the ashram looked amazing—it seemed remote and unoccupied, which it was. One morning after watching the sunrise on the riverbank, we decided to venture over to the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram, otherwise known as the Beatles Ashram, outside of Ram Jhula. We mapped out the thirty minute walk (from the Ganga in Ram Jhula) on Google maps. The map took us into the Tiger Reserve, which had us a little shaken, as no one seemed to be around except maybe tigers. After wandering around beyond the blue dot on the map, we decided to ask for help. We found a ranger who had no idea what the Beatles Ashram was (alarming?), but told us to get in to the car where he told us tigers are spotted almost every night in this reserve. He took us back to a taxi stand we had passed earlier, where we were able to get the correct directions to the ashram. Apparently, the ashram is not visited much, as even the taxi drivers seemed confused by the map and all our attempts to describe the place (in Hindi!). We later came to know that, after being abandoned in 1997, the ashram had just reopened in February 2016 as part of the Tiger Reserve.
Because we arrived so early in the morning (9:30 am, when it opens), no one else was there, so we definitely suggest you go at this time. It was magical to be here all alone. The ashram is completely overgrown and begins in a maze of small meditation quarters made of stone. You can go inside each one, though there are like 200 of them, so don’t expect to see each one. Inside, people have painted and written all over the walls, composing beautiful tributes to the Beatles, who came to this ashram in 1968 to learn Transcendental Meditation (other well-known celebs visiting here include Donovan and the Beach Boys). This was considered to be the Beatles’ most productive time, where they wrote most of the White Album and a few hits from Abbey Road. Filled with strange and ritualistic architecture, the ashram holds amazing surprises around every corner. We spent three hours wandering the property and still could have stayed longer, and would have if we didn’t have plans to meet our friends. There is a huge open-air structure, called the Beatle’s Cathedral, filled with commissioned murals honoring the Beatles and their message of peace and love. There is also a stone-cool, cave-like meditation hall containing 87 tiny meditation rooms, each of which represents a pose in Ashna yoga. We also saw a herd of shy Hornbills, which was fantastic. You can walkthrough and explore every thing! Go now, before they put red tape on this beautiful treasure (which will be for good reason, we’d hate to see this place destroyed).
Directions//Having had quite a debacle in getting there, nearly believing that we had imagined the whole things existence, we are here offering solid directions to the Beatles Ashram: On the east side of the Ganges River in Ram Jhula, ask around for directions to the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. There is one road, partially paved and partially unpaved, that you will walk down for quite some time (about twenty minutes) that wanders by walled-in fields and farms, a few small houses, cattle, and past a large taxi stand where drivers hang out and drink chai. The reserve is further up the road, but close to this taxi stand, so just keep walking, it’s only another 5 minutes at the most. Once you reach the Rajaji Tiger Reserve entrance (there is a noticeable sign), turn right down the dirt path and walk in front of the Tiger Reserve sign. You will walk about two minutes down a dirt path until you arrive at the ashram.
Cost// The fee is high for foreigners at 650 INR, but if you can convince them you are a student (bring your ID) then it’s only 150 INR. Even if you have to pay the foreigner fee, we highly recommend the visit (and money is always a big consideration for us). Totally worth it!
- White Water Rafting//The best way to enjoy the breadth and spirit of the Ganges.
As both Miss//Miss have had their fare share of awesome white water rafting experiences, before we came we were again hesitant to invest in this experience, especially since it’s so easy to get tourist-trapped in Rishikesh. However, our minds were quickly swayed quickly changed once we first laid eyes on the Ganges River in Tat Café. The sheer magnificence of the river made us want to float on it, and our instinct was right-on. There are rafting tour companies around every corner in the markets and at hostels/hotels. We suggest you go for a smaller company (ask around), as it costs less and, from what we observed, has significantly less people in each raft. Some of the bigger companies stuffed people in the rafts like sardines, hosting up to 12 people per raft. We only had our group of four in one raft (and so many apologies, the company was so small, we can’t even remember the name—serious fail). We chose the 16km ride, which lasted about two hours and only cost 400 INR (5 USD)—though the prices go up to 650 INR (7 USD) for the 16 km tour, depending on how you book and with which company. Besides being super cheap, the trip was as wonderful and magical as expected. Imagine: floating down an aquamarine holy river shored with Himalayan jungles, where elephants may be spotted drinking water.
This is one of our favorite memories…of life! Our guides were really chill and fun and they let us jump into the water and literally body surf the small to medium sized rapids. A few of the rapids were raging, which definitely got the adrenaline pumping for a few second, but most were very light and easy (the rapids ranged from level 0-3 when we were there in October, but are more like 2-5 in the summer—the water level is noticeably 10 feet lower in the winter, but equally stunning). We enjoyed many moments of serenity and peace, giving us time to watch monkeys playing and people from local hill villages gathering water and bathing on the riverbank. Near the end of the journey, there is a cliff jumping spot which can be overcrowded since all the touring companies stop there (you can buy chips and Maggie and chai before you dive in). The trip ended with Miss K cliff jumping, energized by the cold Ganges River water.
Cost//Depends on company and distance, but can range from 400-1200 INR
- Nightly Ram Jula Puja, or Aarti//A neat way to witness Hindu worship along the Ganges.
Along the ghats of the Ganga, throughout the country, Indians gather around the water for puja, or prayer worship. Pundits and devotees perform several rituals during pujas along the Ganges, including offering lamps clad with flowers and incense as a gesture of their gratitude and devotion to the river. The melodious hymns of the temple bells and drums can be heard everywhere in the city, and the entire vicinity opens with colors echoing the setting sun. The aarti in Ram Jhula begins daily at 5:30pm. You won’t be the only foreigner here as the aarti gets crowed with locals and travelers.
Miss//Miss Tip//Locals will sometimes act welcoming to foreigners by guiding them, without their request, through the rituals. They may put their hand on your back or guide your hands through the gestures. First, be careful of pickpocketing here, as aartis get very crowded. Secondly, these locals will ask you for money at the end of the ceremony and might even follow you until you give in. If this starts to happen to you during the puja, express your desire to be left alone and gently move away.
- Beach on the Ganges//White sand and solitude with Mama Ganga.
On our walk to the Neer waterfalls, Miss K spotted, from the cliff above and across the river, an empty, white sand beach along the Ganges, at the end of Lakshman Jhula. We went the next day to find some solitude and we ended up spending 4 hours sunbathing and dipping in the water (you can only go ankle deep on the beach we were at—despite there not being many people, there was a guard making sure no one got swept into the current).
Though there are many beaches to chose from, this one was our favorite: Once you cross the Lakshman Jhula suspended bridge, heading east, turn left down the street crowded full with vendors, and walk about half kilometer (5-8 minutes) past all the guesthouses and restaurants. You can see the beach to your left and eventually you will see a small, trashed wooded path that comes just after an old hotel and a motorcycle parking area. Take this path down to the sand and sink in. Along the Ganga River, away from the crowds, this spot was breath-taking in every possible way. We sat on this beach for hours, meditating, taking pictures, and enjoying the sound of river raging powerful but tranquil. We sat until sunset and came back the next day. We dream about going back to this spot.
Rishikesh has been one of our favorite experiences in India. We even ended up staying an additional night because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave (we understand how people get lost here for years!) Like most tourist destinations, in Rishikesh, you have the opportunity to curate your own adventures, tailored to your style and pace. For us, we are always looking for authentic experiences, which are often found in our ability to float and wander freely. We also want/need to maintain a frugal budget. Rishikesh was a perfect spot to wander on a budget and is not to be missed if you are in Northern Indian.