India: Spirituality, Colors, And Contrasts - Trip to Rishikesh And Delhi
If I had to choose three words to describe India, they would be spirituality, colors, and contrasts. I feel I had only a glimpse of this incredible culture. India is a big, highly populated country with a complicated history, and multiple religions. Most people go to India to see the golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur), or to immerse themselves in spirituality. I chose Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga; then I went to Delhi because my husband had to work there.
When I come back from a trip, I always try my best to write an honest and raw account of my experience. India is a beautiful country, but there is much more to say than just describing the scenery, and talking about yoga and meditation. Here you can find my personal opinions, based on what I saw, and information I got from locals—without filter.
The Airbnb, where we stayed is located in the complex "Aloha on the Ganges," and it has a view on the Ganges and the Himalayas. Here, the stillness of the Himalayas meets the flowing water of the Ganges forming a sacred union. The running water creates movement, but a subtle calmness embraces everything. This peaceful and romantic scenery offers relief from the bustling downtown.
Walking around Rishikesh was not a relaxing experience. The city doesn't have sidewalks; motorcycles and vikrams (local auto rickshaws) honk, travel fast, and pass very close to the people who walk on the sides of the road. The Laxman Jhula is a suspension bridge and lookout point—be careful here too because motorbikes are allowed to travel on the bridge. Before crossing the bridge, visit the Shivananda Ashram. Rishikesh has become popular in the last ten years, and for this reason, the spirituality that the place offers has been commercialized. There are many ashrams, but few of them are authentic—Shiavanda is one of those. The east side of the river is a bit quieter because the main road is on the west side, but streets are narrow and packed with people—and cows, roaming free.
The first spiritual experience we had in Rishikesh is called Aarti, a ceremony that is performed in holy cities. Aarti in Rishikesh occurs every day at sunset on the banks of the river in front of Parmarth Niketan ashram (on the east side of the river). The ceremony is performed by ashram residents and the children who study there participate too. The chanting and the ritual around the fire are mesmerizing. Like many other things in Rishikesh, the ceremony grew in popularity and became more commercial than it used to be—but it is the closest you can get to an authentic sacred ritual.
There are two short trips that you can take from Rishikesh: one is Kunjapuri Temple (1 hour by car), and the other is Vashistha Cave (30 minutes by car). Keep in mind that times may vary depending on the season. High season in Rishikesh (fall and spring months), can be very busy, and it can take hours to reach the places I mentioned. We were in Rishikesh in July, which is considered low season because of the Monsoons. We expected a lot of rain, but the weather was decent, and there were few Westerners, mainly Indian tourists. It is very hot and humid during this time of the year, so stay hydrated.
Kunjapuri is one of the 52 temples built on the Himalayas dedicated to Sati, Shiva's wife. One of the best times to visit the temple is sunrise or sunset. The complex "Aloha on the Ganges" works with tour agencies, so it was easy to organize the trip. The road to get there is wavy, so bring pills to help with nausea if you suffer from it. The car stops at the foot of the temple; then you have to walk 300 steps to get to the top, so be prepared. The view from the temple is worth the effort. Remember that this is a sacred place, so silence is appreciated. We were surprised to see that people who wake up early to see the sunrise at the top of a temple in the Himalayas spend more time chatting and taking selfies instead of enjoying the view and meditate. Please be mindful.
Vashishta Cave is an ancient cave where the sage Vashistha reached enlightenment. The cave is located on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by a lush forest, where monkeys live. This is the least touristy place that we visited in Rishikesh. The cave is dark, and there is just the light of a few candles. You can meditate in front of the altar, and leave offerings if you like. This is also a great spot to get close to the Ganges away from the craziness of downtown Rishikesh.
Indian food is delicious, spicy, and offers a great variety of dishes such as Daal (lentil soup), naan (bread), and chutneys (condiments made of fruits or vegetables with vinegar and spices). At "Aloha on the Ganges," there are two restaurants: one is a buffet, and the other is a la carte. We had amazing food in both places. The buffet offers typical Indian food, while the one a la carte also includes international kitchen. Our Airbnb host, Sanjay, invited us for lunch at his place, and his wife cooked a delicious meal for us. To be honest, I don't know how the food in downtown Rishikesh is because we didn't want to risk. Many people get sick in India, and looking around we didn't see places that seemed properly clean. In addition to the restaurants at "Aloha on the Ganges," Sanjay recommended GMVN Restaurant, Tavole Conte (Italian), Vasundhra Palace, and Hotel Grand Alova. In any case, if you travel to India, bring charcoal for food poisoning, Imodium, vitamins and extra vitamin C to make sure your body remains strong when exposed to toxins and pollution, which is high in India. Do not drink water from the tab, and always purchase sealed bottles.
Aside from touristy attractions and food, we had the chance to understand more about the Indian culture chatting with Sanjay. One of the things that left us puzzled is the way rich people treat waiters, and people who work in the service industry. At "Aloha on the Ganges," we were thanking the staff several times for their courtesy and efficiency, but we noticed that Indian tourists were dismissive and rude. I asked Sanjay why in a culture that is so big on spirituality the rich treats the poor with detachment. The answer is complicated and it has to do with the caste system, which is rooted in the Indian culture. It is also connected with the idea of karma and reincarnation. To make it simple, poor people in India consider poverty as a temporary state that depends on previous lives, so they are more likely to accept it as part of the spiritual journey. Although I understand the concept, I have to admit that it was hard to see so many people working hard being treated poorly. If you go to India, remember that the best gesture of gratitude is placing your hands in prayer to heart center and bow your head. Sanjay said that many people forgot the special meaning of this gesture; they do it quickly, and without paying attention to the details. Keep in mind that this important gesture is a way to recognize the other as a soul, and it has to be done properly to convey the message.
If you go to Rishikesh, I recommend that you stay at "Aloha on the Ganges," booked through Airbnb. Sanjay owns some apartments in the complex, and they cost less than the rooms offered by the hotel. You pay less and enjoy the same services including free activities such as early morning walk in nature and yoga, restaurants, spa, and the infinity pool overlooking the Ganges.
In Delhi, we only spent three days, and we chose a hotel located at the outskirts of the city, close to the office where my husband worked. We wanted to see the Taj Mahal, but it takes four hours by car from Delhi, and it is closed on Friday, the only day we could go sightseeing. In Delhi, we saw the Red Fort (residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty), Humayun's Tomb (precursor of the Taj Mahal), and the Lotus Temple. This last one is a modern temple, and house of prayer of the Baha'i faith, one of the several religions present in India. We didn't particularly like the Red Fort but I recommend the other two attractions.