When the Beatles rocked up in Rishikesh in 1968, Ringo Starr said he thought it was just like Butlin’s. I’d say it’s more like Disneyland, but foreign tourists come here in search of gurus and spiritual enlightenment, rather than fast food and Mickey Mouse. Indian visitors also flock here because it’s the place where the Ganges emerges from the mountains, although the true spot where it enters the plains lies a little further downstream at Haridwar.
Both towns represent the worst of Indian city life, congested roads and piles of rubbish. As a pedestrian you have to brave yourself against the onslaught of cars, lorries, buses, rickshaws and cows. Drivers use their horn more than the gears or brakes, many of them instead of. It’s an enervating experience just walking from A to B. No wonder yoga and Ayurvedic massages are all the rage here. There’s so much stress to get rid of.
I was lucky, though, as I stayed in a guesthouse in High Bank, a quiet pedestrian enclave above the chaos which surrounds the two suspension bridges spanning the Ganges. I guess if you’re in Rishikesh to do something like a yoga course, you’d probably get more out of the place, but I didn’t think it was worth it just for a few days and I had no interest in spirituality or “finding myself”. But there’s nothing of historical or architectural significance here and so for me there was little to keep me occupied.
For Indians it does have a religious significance and there are ceremonies down by the ghats (steps) to the river every night. Plastic bottles are on sale so people can scoop up the holy water to take home with them, although one man told me you can buy bottled Ganges water in Delhi. Kids pester you to buy flowers and candles for offerings to the river. The idea is you put them in a little boat and set it adrift down the river. I saw several Westerners pretending to be Hindus and making offerings. Religion and soul-searching are big business here.
In the end I have to admit it wasn’t my kind of thing. It’s probably more due to my cynicism than anything else, but I’m just not interested in places whose existence is built entirely on tourism. On a more positive note, there are some good restaurants offering a change from the usual Indian fare and great bakeries with apple pie. You can escape the crowds and traffic by walking out of town north from Laxman Jhula bridge and follow the river up the beautiful valley. As a place to relax and eat well after a few weeks roughing it in the mountains, it did the trick for me, but I was anxious to move on to somewhere more real.