Rishikesh, India: The yoga capital of the world

Motez Bishara, CNN Published 16th February 2017
(CNN) — For better or worse, the holy city of Rishikesh, which rests on the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, will always be associated with the Beatles and their sojourn to study transcendental meditation in 1968.
Although Rishikesh is the self-styled "yoga capital of the world," there's lots more to do there than simply run through vinyasas mouthing "Om Shanti."
In addition to being a melting pot of worldly intellectuals, the Hindu pilgrimage site that rests peacefully on both sides of the sacred Ganges river has recently become a hub for outdoor activities.
Here's a basic Rishikesh to-do list which can be explored over several weeks or in just a few days.

Experience ashram life

Rishikesh boasts one of the world's largest clusters of ashrams, loosely defined as spiritual retreats. The process of bunking on site begins with a 5 a.m. call to mediation followed by a sunrise yoga class, and ends with more yoga, chanting, lectures and group meals.
The more authentic ashrams, like the picturesque Parmarth Niketan -- host to the International Yoga Festival coming up in March -- offer basic shared rooms without internet for as little as $12.
Heating and hot water can be inconsistent, however, which is worth bearing in mind between November and February.
Ashrams tend to be either yoga-centric, like the massive Sivananda ashram, or geared more to mediation like Osho Gangadham and Ved Niketan Dham. The more upscale Yog Niketan provides luxurious river views and a spa at a premium.
Most ashrams allow drop-ins, something ideal for those who value satellite TV, Wi-Fi and room service from the comfort of nearby accommodation, like Hotel Yog Vashishth.

Take part in a Ganges aarti ceremony

The Hindu religious rituals known as aartis are performed on river banks every night at sunset, and involve music and fire as offerings to the Ganges, known as the "mother" in Hindu culture.
A traditional Ganges aarti ceremony at Parmarth Niketan ashram
It is not uncommon to see bonfires blazing in the distance, signaling a body being cremated with ashes soon to be scattered into the river -- a Hindu ritual that promises to free the soul from the constant cycle of rebirth.
Dipping your feet in the Ganges while setting a flower bed afloat is part of the tradition -- as is full bathing, for those who want a more authentic experience. The river runs rapidly, however, and the banks can be slippery with moss, so do exercise caution.
A day trip to the charming neighboring city Haridwar is worthwhile to contrast its aarti, which is less catered to western visitors. Be wary of false holy men looking to fleece you for a "donation," however.

Attend a kirtan session

Rishikesh is home to a number of small temples which act as makeshift venues for musicians performing kirtan (lengthy call and response prayer chants) accompanied by harmoniums, tablas, flutes, symbols and whatever other instruments happen to be lying around.
These sessions can carry on at all hours and participation is usually welcomed (though it is best to ask first with a silent nod).

Visit the Beatles Ashram

Technically it's the former ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who famously taught transcendental meditation to celebrities that included Mia Farrow, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger. But it was the Beatles who put the Maharishi and Rishikesh on the map when they visited his sprawling 14-acre ashram in 1968.
Despite distancing themselves from the Maharishi after their trip, Rishikesh was a creative boon to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The pair wrote over 30 songs at the ashram, including most of The White Album, while the visit would have a lasting impact on George Harrison both musically and spiritually.
The compound was left discarded after the Maharishi moved to Europe in 1970s. Although the Indian government has done little to restore it, it was opened to the public in 2015. Foreigners like to gripe that they are charged nearly $9 for entry, while Indians pay $2.
Inside, you can walk into the domed mediation caves that inspired "Dear Prudence," written about Mia Farrow's sister who wouldn't "come out to play," hike up a trail with a view of the Ganges, and visit the great meditation hall festooned with colorful graffiti.

Enjoy the outdoors

Only a 90-minute drive away, Rajaji National Park is home to more than 500 elephants, along with scattered panthers, leopards, deer and even anteaters, and offers on-site accommodation for those who want to take in more than a day's worth. The park is also home to one of India's 48 tiger reserves, though you're more likely to spot a shooting star in the night's sky then a roaming Bengal Tiger.
Rishikesh is surrounded by hiking trails, some challenging and others that weave into short hikes to temples which provide stunning views into town. Guided treks that range between four and 16 days to the Himalayas can be booked by the Red Chilli adventure company.
Rafting has become increasingly popular and can be booked for half or full-day excursions down the Ganges, taking in up to 36 kilometers of glorious scenery along the way.
For even more adventure try bungee-jumping from a purpose-built cantilever dangling from a cliff off the Ganges.

Cross one of two giant footbridges

A more pedestrian form of outdoor activity -- but one that can be just as treacherous -- involves crossing Rishikesh's two narrow suspension footbridges.
Pedestrians and motorists share a narrow path on Lakshman Jhula.
Built in 1929, Lakshman Jhula rises 59 feet above water level, stretches 450 long, and is just six feet wide. Though it is mainly used for foot traffic, pedestrians crossing the bridge -- which shakes noticeably -- must maneuver around honking motorcycles and bicyclists, as well the odd cow or family of monkeys swinging from the cables.
Though its sister bridge Ram Jhula was built in 1986 and spans 750 feet, it offers no less of an adventure.

Visit Rishikesh Town

Many pilgrims to Rishikesh bypass this microcosm of India, unaware that a bustling street market exists just minutes from their quiet confines.
Rishikesh town is a maddening cluster of restaurants, sweet shops, vegetable and fruit stands, mechanics and bric-a-brac shops hugging either side of busy Haridwar Road.
Sampling the specialty sweets as well as the fresh peanut brittle is highly recommended.

Socialize at the cafes

As a holy city, Rishikesh strictly forbids alcohol and non-vegetarian food, so dining out is a pretty sober affair. Though restaurants are plentiful -- with some making feeble attempts at serving international cuisine -- it's the coffee shops that get buzzy.
The Pumpernickel German Bakery near Lakshman Jhula, for instance, doesn't offer pumpernickel bread, but does serve terrific coffee alongside tasty desserts and food items.
Many travelers tend to hang around these cafes for a lot longer than a meal, since Wi-Fi is free and relatively stable. This can be a fun way to exchange stories with other travelers, link to their Instagram accounts (a virtual must-have for travelers in photogenic India), and keep track of their journeys.

Embrace the animals

As in most parts of India, many different animals coexist with humans around town, including sheep, cows, pigs and dogs. Monkeys are notorious for grabbing food off people as they walk by, or raiding hotel rooms if they spot open windows -- even while attended.
Though it's best to avoid the monkeys, feeding the peaceful dogs any leftovers is a cause worthy of stirring up some good karma.
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