By Monidipa Dey
Rishikesh is one of India’s most famous tourist destinations. From rafting to meditation, tourists and pilgrims visit this tiny Uttarakhand town for various reasons. Rishikesh is considered as the gateway to the famous chardham yatra/pilgrimage to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, and Yamunatri. Located at an altitude of 1,160 ft above sea level, with crystalline green waters of the Ganga flowing through it, this town with its many ashrams and temples has a sacred aura of its own, wherein it is believed that if one meditates here, he or she can attain moksha.
The word ‘Hṛṣīkeśa’ is believed to have been derived from two words: hṛṣīk that means senses, and īśa which means master, referring to Vishnu, the master of the senses, who had appeared in that form (Hrishikesh) to bless Raibhya Rishi. The Sthala Purana, however, gives another story where it is stated that Raibhya Rishi after being blessed by Vishnu decided to not leave the beautiful place, and he remained there in the form of plants that looked like matted locks of hair, thus giving it the name of Rishikesh, or the hair of the Rishi.
However, as per another local folklore, the name Rishikesh was derived when after the cremation of Raibhya rishi the only part that wouldn’t burn was his hair, and it remained behind, giving the place its name of Rishikesh. Skanda Purana refers to this place as Kubjāmraka, as Vishnu had appeared to Raibhya Rishi under a mango tree. This place is also known as Agni-tirtha, as it is believed that Agni deva had prayed here in penance, after earning the wrath of Shiva. Rishikesh is also mentioned in the puranas as the place where Vishnu had defeated the powerful asura, Madhu.
The town of Rishikesh also plays an important role in the epic Ramayana, because it is in this sacred town that Ram along with his brothers came to offer penance after killing Ravan. While Ram performed his penance a little ahead of Rishikesh in Devaprayag, his two younger brothers Lakshman and Shatrughna performed it on the side of the river Ganga in Rishikesh. The point where the two brothers had meditated have two temples to mark the sacredness of the spaces. The point where Lakshman had crossed the Ganga had a jute-rope bridge for many centuries, which remained as such until 1889, after which an iron-rope suspension bridge name Lakshman Jhula was built to facilitate the pilgrims. After this bridge was washed away in the 1924 floods, a new one was built in its place by the Jhunjhunwala family from Kolkata. A little distance away from Lakshman Jhula, near Sivananda Nagar, another similar suspension bridge was built in 1986, which was named Ram Jhula.
Things to see in Rishikesh
Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula: Lakshman Jhula is popular among tourists for shopping, and adventure activities, such as, rafting. Both sides of the bridge have various shops selling interesting curious and handicraft items. The famous Tera Manzil Temple also known as Tryambakeswar temple is situated near the Lakshman jhula. Lakshman Jhula is now strictly a pedestrian bridge, and all vehicular traffic has been stopped. A little distance away is the Ram Jhula that connects Swarg ashram side to the Sivananda Ashram (on the main highway side). Boats are also available for crossing the river near Ram Jhula.
Ram Stambh: A monument dedicated to Ram, which collects all the paper chits that come with his name written on them. It is near the Ram Jhula.
Gita Bhawan: Gita Bhavan is a huge ashram located near the Ram Jhula. It is a large complex with a temple, gardens, discourse hall, and more than 300 rooms for tourists. A red sandalwood, few brahmakamal plants, and rudraksh trees are the main attraction in the garden here. Slokas from the Bhagvad Gita are written on the walls of the ashram.
Parmarth Niketan: Parmarth Niketan Ashram is located adjacent to the Gita bhavan. The ashram has many beautiful murtis placed in its garden. A tree-of-life forms the main point of attraction in the garden here. A large 400-year-old peepal tree whose one trunk is shaped like a Ganesh forms to be a point of attraction for the devotees, while well-sculpted Navagraha murtis are arranged in the open near the tree, and also have shrines of their own. The main highlight of this ashram is their daily Ganga aarti in the evening (5 PM in winter and 6 PM in summer). The ashram ghat has a huge murti of the Adi Yogi (Shiva) built over the Ganga.
Shatrughna temple and Lakshman temple: Shatrughna temple is located near the Ram jhula (on the Sivananda ashram side), while the Lakshman temple is located near the Lakshman jhula. These are the two places where the two brothers had meditated, and the sacred sites now hold temples in their names.
Bharat Mandir: it is situated at the center of the main Rishikesh town, near the main market, and is reached via the ChandraBhaga bridge. It is among the oldest temples in Rishikesh, and is dedicated to Vishnu. It is here that Raibhya Rishi meditated and received blessings from Vishnu. The temple has a small museum attached to it that exhibits old artefacts. Temple Timings are 5 am to 11 am and 3 pm to 9 pm.
Triveni Ghat: situated near the main market this is the largest ghat in Rishikesh, and is famous for the daily evening Ganga aarti.
Neelkanth Mahadev Temple: This Shiva temple is situated around 32 km away from Rishikesh and is at a height of 4347 ft. As per the epics and puranas, after consuming poison during samudramanthan Shiva came here for meditation. Since his throat had turned blue, the temple is dedicated to him in the name of NeelKanth. The temple timings are 5 am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 9 pm.
Besides the ones mentioned here, Rishikesh has many more temples, yoga centres, ashrams, and little cafes to explore. A walk from Lakshman jhula to Ram jhula is an interesting one with little shops lined up on two sides. While there are many shops selling attractive wares, it is always advisable to buy from the government shops and khadi centres.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal. All images provided by the author.)