In the last dozen years, I’ve made at least one annual trip down this road; very often on my own, down a cut and dried route.
It starts with a night bus from Delhi that reaches Haridwar in the wee hours. A quick chai in the lone, just-open tea shop outside the bus stop, then a cycle rickshaw ride down dark empty gullies of the ancient pilgrim town where the Ganga flows into the plains for the first time in its route. I get off at Har-ki-Pauri ghat and linger: the night campers will soon rise and head straight to the waters for a dip. The shared sawari tempos plying between Haridwar and Rishikesh, my final destination, will only stir at daybreak. This dawn vigil of mine is for the aarti by Ganga Ghat, which fires up the dimly lit sky, offering prayers to the holiest of rivers.
The 25-kilometre road to Rishikesh cuts across smaller towns and the tiger-rich Rajaji National Park. Outside its tempo stand my pace quickens, amid shops on a narrow lane selling “hippe ware” and instrumental bhakti music that resettles my city-strung energies. I watch the Ganga play peek-a-boo from gaps in the stores until I reach Ram Jhula, the first and the bigger of Rishikesh’s two suspension bridges. Amidst hundreds of tourists, bothersome monkeys, bulls, and annoying two-wheelers, I negotiate the two-metre wide swaying bridge. And, every time, I am startled anew by the full spectacle of the Ganga around me—muddy and fearsome in the monsoon, sparkly emerald in winter.
Located at the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas, on the Ganga’s banks, Rishikesh is also a gateway to the mountains. In my early 20s, it was an easy escape from the city. I’d cross it on my way to craggy, snow-peaked upper reaches of the river, but gradually I began tracing my way back to it as the final destination. Rishikesh’s deep-seated spirituality became an added draw, until familiarity bred dependence. Before I knew it, it became my safe space to unravel existential dilemmas, and revel in the simple pleasures of travel.
I return to Rishikesh for how the town and the river calm me. But I come to mostly remind myself about the first time I realised that the road had an inexplicable pull for me. I was 21 years old when I ‘travelled’ for the first time in March 2006, on my second trip to Rishikesh. The premise was simple and had been decided by two friends (I am now married to one of them): you don’t need a lot of money to travel. We weren’t romanticising being broke students. All we wanted was to get out of Delhi.
Back then, inter-state bus tickets cost just a rupee per kilometre. With enough money for food and the 200-kilometre journey to Haridwar, our stop for the night, we rode into the sunset with backpacks that held no clothes but newspapers, bedsheets and shawls.
The crowd separates at the crossroads, at the end of the half-kilometre-long Ram Jhula. I turn left and follow the Ganga upstream. Ashrams line up to my right, and I match steps with ascetics, many of whom are ochre-robed. Rishikesh provides me with constancy, but I am not oblivious to how it has changed over time. When my partner and I came here to ring in the new year, 2018, I noticed how the city council had begun landscaping the riverfront. Thankfully, the untended riverside beyond the bridge has remained unchanged. Rocky or sandy, depending on the season, it gives landlocked Delhiites a space to swim, sunbathe and frolic. As one walks farther away from Ram Jhula and closer to Lakshman Jhula, the riverside, overlooking a lush green hillside, affords more isolation to read and ruminate. For about 25 years, another favourite landmark, Sushil’s chai cart, stood here under the shade of a peepal tree by the river, before it was relocated during the beautification drive. Fifty-something Sushil still has magic fingers when it comes to making chai, my partner and I discovered when we found our way to his new by-the-wayside location last year, but the absence of his usual eclectic mix of patrons—mendicants, foreigners, local backpackers—told its own story. He requested us to mind his shop as he popped out for some urgent errand. Apart from chasing away cows coming for his larder, we were not really kept busy.
Crossing the river again at Lakshman Jhula, I head to Devraj Coffee Corner and German Bakery, a café I’ve have been frequenting for years. Perched high above the bridge, it affords grand views of the Ganga, a sight I relish with their ginger-lemon-honey tea, spinach lasagne and dark dense German rye bread. Rishikesh is an alcohol-free, vegetarian-only zone frequented by foreign tourists, and I always find much to savour in its kitchens simmering with world cuisine. At the rooftop café, Pumpernickel German Bakery, the vegetable dim sums make me as happy as the river views from its location on the road connecting the two jhulas. I sometimes drop by at the Chotiwala Dhaba right next to the Ram Jhula, not so much for its pan-Indian menu as much to spot and smile at the portly man who sits at the entrance, face painted in colourful floral patterns, and balding head sporting a vertical, ramrod-straight tuft of hair.
After lunch, I retrace my steps to the town’s busier parts, past the Ram Jhula. A cut in the road leads to the hilltop Bhootnath temple, whose spiralling staircases challenge a devotee’s lung power in exchange for stunning hill-and-river views of Rishikesh from the top floor. Down the same road is the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, popularly called the Beatles Ashram after the band studied transcendental meditation here in 1968. I spent a considerable time there with my yoga group in the spring of 2017, trying to clear my head before my wedding. Located at the outskirts of the Rajaji National Park, it has been claimed by the neighbouring wilderness and is in desperate need of upkeep. However its experimentative architecture—wide spaces, honeycombed caves and egg-shaped meditation rooms, and the recent Beatles-inspired graffiti, is transportive.
I walk on, past the sprawling Parmarth Niketan Ashram preparing for the spectacular evening Ganga aarti. There is a gaushala on my left for abandoned cows. I keep moving amidst more temple town crowd. Slowly the people thin out and the ominously but aptly named Last Chance Café and Guest House comes into view. I go on till I reach a dead end—the river takes a turn and the bank melts into thick vegetation. I make myself comfortable on a rock, deliberating on a day spent in contemplation and leisure, and watch the sun dip into the Ganga in front of me.
Back in March 2006, en route to Rishikesh, my friends and I were to spend the night under Haridwar’s open sky with other pilgrims. Upon reaching Har-ki-Pauri ghat, we only scanned the place for exclusivity, not the sky or its gathering clouds. We found a spot large enough to fit the three of us and placing our backpacks to mark territory, we sat on the stairs by the river, letting the breeze peel away the fatigue of our bus journey. We leaned back, enjoying the sounds of the babbling water and synchronised snores; our eyes followed the bravest among the earthen lamps pilgrims had floated on lotus leaves, flickering but alive on their watery grave. And just like that, we who led hedonistic lives in Delhi, got sucked into the spirituality of the place, amid all those sleeping strangers. Earlier, on our way to the ghat, when we had crossed the 100-foot Shiva statue, there was a similar stirring in my heart, followed by a tinge of anxiety. In the coming years, I would come to anticipate that as a sensor for adventure.
A sudden yawn from one of my friends brought me back to the ghat, and tiredness weighed down upon me. The clock tower showed nearly midnight and we were looking at an early start to Rishikesh. Spreading out newspapers and bedsheets that battled with the wind, we wrapped ourselves in shawls that suddenly seemed scant in the face of a night by the cold river. Resembling three cocoons, uncomfortable and overwhelmed under an overcast sky, I found it hard to believe that I’d get any sleep that night. I drifted off before I could complete another yawn.
I woke up to thunder, followed by fantastic bursts of lightning. The storm had led to a power cut. Another flash lit up the clock tower: it was only 2 a.m. We could hear the restlessness of the river between thunderclaps. I lay down again and slept off, grumbling to the thunder like it was a loud, bothersome neighbour. My friends later told me it drizzled but only for a while.
When I woke up in the morning, I briefly wondered if I had dreamt up the thunderstorm. But I was soon
distracted by a growing mummer that filled my ears and I slowly opened my eyes. I shot up. My friends, still dead to the world, had to be shaken from sleep. And together we took in the magnificent scene: we had been lying on a crooked square patch. And there were thousands of human feet around us. We had overslept; the phone alarm we had set for five did not stand a chance. Every inch of the ghat except for our makeshift beds was filled with people who must have arrived at daybreak for the auspicious bath. It was a miracle that we did not get crushed in a stampede that morning.
As we quickly packed the newspapers and clothes, and fled the place, I let out a silent prayer of gratitude in the direction of the giant Shiva statue. For the stirrings of a new life I felt within me. For tuning me in to the call of the road.
Paloma Dutta works as an editor in a publishing house for her bread, butter and bus ticket (more often than not to the mountains). Travel makes her believe in serendipity, essential kindness of the human heart and the power of Bollywood to build instant friendships anywhere in the world.