Statue of Shiva at Parmath Niketan
BATHE IN THE GANGES: But for some of the Hindu pilgrims who come to Rishikesh, the chance to bathe in the Ganges could be their only trip out of the environs of their villages; for others, it may be an annual rite. In any case, Rishikesh overflows with accommodations to suit everyone: Westerners, poor and rich pilgrims alike.
LAKSMAN JHULA BRIDGE: Across one of two narrow suspension bridges, designed for pedestrians only (though motor scooters and cows, even bulls, cause regular traffic jams) are Lakshman Jhula and Swarg Ashram, both offshoots of Rishikesh itself, with major temples, ashrams, hospitals for pilgrims offering ayurvedic and other treatments. Of course there are countless shops, restaurants, cafes and Indian pharmacies containing the latest (and also the oldest) ayurvedic treatments.
GHATS AND PILGRIMS: Boats laden with pilgrims cross the river every few minutes, dumping them onto the ghats, or river steps where chains guide bathers in the shallow riverine border; the Ganges, even here in town, flows fast and cold. Worshippers wading out too far have been swept to their deaths; even good swimmers don’t stand much of a chance.
PARMATH NIKETAN ASHRAM: Smack in the middle of this munificent mayhem is Parmath Niketan, founded in 1942. Wandering from its impressive ghats, with statues of Shiva, Ganesh and others in through its tall gates is a bit like taking a trip to Disneyland. Hinduism is unabashedly allegorical and let’s face it, there is no better way of telling a story than to show observers exactly what it’s all about: hence, the larger-than-life-sized statues of a variety of Hindu gods and saints, set amidst spectacularly manicured grounds. Many wings branch off the wide avenues, containing a dining hall, countless rooms, a yoga shala, satsang room (in Hindi only) and other chambers.
NO WESTERN SELF-DENIAL: Having gotten a bit fed up with Western self-denial, I wandered through Parmath Niketan’s front gates and up to Reception. There, I met Indra, who talked me through a typical ashram day. Yes, there was meditation, but only for about 15 minutes morning and evening, along with a bit of yoga (“not too much,” she confided) along with satsang and ganga aarti at the riverside in the evening.