The train from Delhi to Haridwar was almost on time. We quickly got in and loaded all the luggage. Mamu was kind enough to give me company since my seat was away from the rest of the gang (I was a late addition to the trip). His real interest may have been the person sitting next to me – Joanna, a brit medicine intern. As the train started moving, she started speaking to Mamu in her broken Hindi. Mamu’s Hindi was worse… They quickly dropped the pretense and switched to something more convinient – English. She was in India for her summer internship spending four weeks in Lansdowne and four weeks somewhere in Tamil Nadu.

One thing I love about traveling by Shatabdhi is the food. They just keep it coming. Early morning tea was followed by good hot breakfast. After enduring the cold dinner on board the JetLite, this tasted yummy. It was indeed yummy. While I was trying to engage Joanna in some cultural exchange 😉 Mamu was engrossed himself in spotting various birds outside the train – Herons, various egrets, peigons and so on… About five hours later we reached Haridwar. The city has nothing extravagant. But, the people make it very colorful, strikingly colorful. We made ourway through the sea of piligrims and got out of the station.

Vikram: Rishikesh is about 30 Kms from Haridwar. There are trains and buses that ply between Haridwar and Rishikesh. However, the most fun way to reach Rishikesh is to go by a Vikram. Vikram is a over grown auto rickshaw. It can seat six people easily – eight with some difficulty. It has ample luggage room on the top. Most of its weight comes from the armour – and it is surely built for combat. The driver showed off his dexterity all along the way… once in a while reminding us why such an armour makes sense. The thirty kilometers took more than an hour to pass by. In that hour, the weather had eased from being extremely dusty and sultry to something more managable. A light drizzle also helped cool things down. But what took my breath away was my first look at the mighty Ganges.

The Ganga resort is surrounded by mountains. The Ganges makes her entry from behind some of those mountains, flowing past the famous Ram Juhla and Laxman Juhla (hanging bridges of Rishikesh), past numerous ghats, jumping and dancing over the rocks before nearing the resort. For a distance, one can not make out the force of her current. She appears to be gently ambling her way through. It is only when you get close or get your feet wet, you can know her real power. Pilgrims on the ghats show their respects to Ganga a variety of offerings – flowers, fruits, food and so on. Even funeral rites are also done. In spite of all the noble intentions, they end up polluting the river. The resort however, is very secluded from the hustle and bustle of the ghats. Lunch at the resort was simple and sumptuous. But some of us found it to be very bland. The bill however was a surprise – 1000 bucks for seven people was clearly on the costlier side. But this was only warning signs of what was to follow in the coming days.

After a quick rest, we started towards down town Rishikesh – which is enssentially a two street town – one on either side of the Ganges. the two streets are connected by two hanging bridges couple of kilometers apart. Our fist stop was Laxman Jhula – Laxman’s Swing. The ride from the resort to Laxman Jhula was on a Vikram and costed Rs 7/- a piece. Some haggling with the enthusiastic guides and a deal for our guided tour was made. Rs 30/- for half an hour of expert service. The guidance available was limited to reciting the names of all the temples and urging us to go in. He even tried to incite us into doing some shopping at a “favorable” artifacts shop. The boring tour ended at the Laxman Jhula – home of a colony of monkeys. They make their living on generous left-overs and gift from their human cousins. On the way to the Jhula, hawkers sell monkey and fish food to be consumed by these fellas.

At Laxman Jhula, we crossed the Ganga on to the other side of Rishikesh. This side is colonized by the langurs. Like the dogs, cows and the horses in Rishikesh they are also pretty happy to be living amidst humans. There is an astonishing number of dharma shalas where poor and helpless travelers can avail shelter and free food. Long live the donors who keep these institutions running. A jeep ride took us from Laxman Jhula to Ram Jhula. Rishikesh is also known for delicious jilebis. We inquired at a couple of sweat-meat stalls and shops. Apparently it is a mornings-only dish. Nevertheless, we entered the Geeta Bhavan determined to have some sweet or the other. Lakshmi zeroed in on besan-ki-burfi. Um… it just melted on its way in.

Near Ram Jhula is a famous ashram by name – Paramartha Nikethan. Here is where the famous “Ganga Arthi” of Rishikesh takes place every evening at 6:15 PM (ish). We were right on time. We bought the artis (Rs 5/- a piece) and made ourselves comfortable in the first few rows. A young priest was kind enough to guide us to the vantage point. Later all kind of people (common and the privileged) started pouring in. A BJP convention was arranged in Rishikesh on the week-end. How can high Profile MLAs and their wives miss the aarti? Every body wanted a front row seat. This led to some confusion and over packing. The aarti in itself was a very satisfying experience. Bhajans, shlokas were chanted by priests and mesmerized devotees. This was followed by hundreds of people lighting their aartis and letting them afloat in the river. The river seemed to respond by increasing her fervor. It was finally concluded by the head priest who thanked all the VIPs for coming and pledged support in the upcoming elections… what a let down to the otherwise exhilarating spiritual experience.

Dinner had to be at the Chotiwala – the most famous hotel in all of Rishikesh. Chotiwala means “a guy with the topknot”. There are two such hotels, probably brothers who inherited equal rights over the name. Both of them use live mascots to attract travelers, whether or not they are hungry. The food is ordinary, but the service is enthusiastic. We tried to find out about “the gharwal speciality” if one existed. Perhaps because Rishikesh is a traveller’s city, it caters more to visitor’s choice than its own. Hence all that the hotelier’s could recall were varieties of kheer and dal.

By yanam49

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