“Ganga’s very forgiving”, Vikram, our raft guide from Aquaterra, proclaimed as we paddled vigorously down the river, out of breath and watching in horror as our fellow paddlers from other rafts were carried past us by the currents. She didn’t seem very forgiving at that point, I can tell you that much, but as we continued to raft down the rapids of the Ganges, I could understand what he meant. The waters and the 15-foot rapids might scare the living daylights out of you, but they won’t kill you. (Not unless you do something stupid like panic, or disregard the instructions of the pros.) Instead, they’ll take you along on a joy ride – a very cold, liquidy, watery kind – injecting you with an instant adrenalin rush, and then let you drift gently in calm waters. The river has many moods: persistent, with waves gushing, rushing past and over each other constantly – one can almost hear them go ‘move, move, move, move, make way, make way, make way’; passionate, as the water rushes furiously over eddies and currents to form its famous rapids; and quiet, as it softly rolls to the river bank and slinks back slowly, riding the crest of the oncoming lap of water.
Rafting on the river – getting high on hormones
Rafting on the Ganges is an experience one must have in one’s lifetime. We covered 36 kilometers in two days, complete with many rafts toppling over, many paddlers washed away in the river, and many, many stories of horror and awe from our instructor. Resisting the water’s force to draw us into its depths, seven people paddling as one to catch the crests of the rapids, almost losing my balance (and my sanity) as the raft leaned dangerously to one side and nearly gave in to peer pressure from the water, taking me with it – these are memories I will savour for a long, long time. In those moments, I felt alive. What an adrenaline rush!
But the one thing I will cherish the most is the quiet evening I spent with just the river for company. Ganga and I said nothing to each other. She went about her routine quietly, flowing calmly while I sat on the banks with folded legs and watched her. There was only the tinkling sound of water, occasionally interrupted by the chirps of a flying bird or two. I must have sat that way for hours, I think, because when I dragged my eyes away from the river, it was dusk. I have now found my happy place to go to in my head when things around me get chaotic.
Nature/eco camping – going back to the basics
Eco camping is not for the faint of heart or for those who love their luxuries. The camps are set up along the sand banks of the river and are miles away from Rishikesh town. The first time our jaws dropped when we saw the camp – three leaps away from the holy river, and without floating bodies too! – and the tents that would be our home for three nights. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. Our jaws dropped a second time when we saw the bathrooms – longish tents, the kinds you find illustrated in Asterix and Obelix comics to show Roman camp settlements, with a deep hole dug into the sand for a toilet and a bucket of sand-limestone mixture for a flush. It. Was. Traumatic. Our expectations from the nature camp weren’t fully calibrated, so despite our ‘make-the-most-of-what-there-is’ attitude eventually, the first few hours were a total shocker. But let me be a good soul and set the dial of expectations to ‘Real’ for you. Here’s what you’ll find at nature camps in Rishikesh:
- No electricity
- No hot water
- No ‘modern’ toilet facilities
- Giant spiders, and very venomous-looking at that
- Great food
- Great views
- Absolute peace and solitude
- An opportunity to be one with nature
Evening aarthi at Parmarth Ashram – a sea of yellow by a river of grey
As I left my footwear and walked past the arch, I was greeted by innumerable devotees donned in yellow. A little beyond was the Ganga, above whom loomed a large statue of Lord Shiva. Notes from the bhajans swirled around me as I took my seat behind a family who were wrapping up a special pooja. Non-Indians sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Indians, all of them clapping in sync to the tune. Disciples of all ages, dressed in yellow dhotis and kurtas with stoles of the same colour, closed their eyes and chanted away. Some others offered flowers and incense to the river, hoping for a blessing in return. Brass lamps took centre stage, waiting to be lit. As the evening progressed, the bhajans increased in fervour, reaching a crescendo as the lamps were lit and passed around for people to do the aarthi. The heady combination of the fire, the bhajans, the riverside, the rush of people and the feeling of godliness made for a mesmerising experience.
Rishikesh was full of adventures, the likes of which I’ve never had before. The camping was different and memorable – despite the bathroom bit, the rafting was brilliant and the trip to town for the aarthi was just as good. In the three days that I spent there, I was more me than I have been in a while. If you’re interested in that sort of discovery, you should go too.
Getting there: Rishikesh is a six-seven hour drive from Delhi. There are no direct flights to the town. There are also day trains from Delhi to Haridwar, from where you’ll have to hire a cab and ride for about an hour.
Go if: You seek adventure, peace and yogic knowledge, want a tete-a-tete with the Ganges, love rafting, wants to see what stillness and silence feel like, want to do high rope courses, like nature camping and are a sucker for cultural experiences.