If you love to travel, it’s difficult to avoid religious places, because they are always at such beautiful places. Hilltops, beaches, river banks, lake sides, close to the waterfall, by the lonely jungle trail – if you are close to natural beauty, you are never too far from a place of worship (maruti service stations can take a tip).
But there is another side to it too. They are always filthy. They defeat one of the most important objectives of a vacation – to get away from the crowd. And, you don’t even accomplish what you set out to do – get a few paces closer to god.
That’s why, when my family made their yearly visits to Lord Jagannath in Puri, the only thing I looked forward to is the food inside the temple, apart from evenings on the beach, of course,Lord Jagannath is clearly a foodie god. His daily meals include more than 56 items that includes snacks, appetizers, main courses, desserts and more. For me, this is the greatest take away place in the world. Much to the disappointment of my family, while I have gotten close to tasting the whole menu, I have not made much progress on the belief front.
I guess sometime in the last decade, the case was escalated and I was taken to Haridwar and Rishikesh in the hope of some divine intervention. While my heart did not well up with fervor, it skipped a beat though. It was the height of monsoon and I remember standing on the bridge connecting the banks of the river at Har Ki Pauri. The sheer force of the river and the steady shaking of the bridge combined to produce an effect that overwhelmed my IMAX and Dolby influenced senses. Then there were these unbelievable little playful kids who would jump into the water bobbing up and down at amazing speeds as the river carried them like twigs. Just when you think you should raise an alarm, they will hold onto the some ropes under the bridge and come ashore. If that was a game, I didn’t want to play or watch it.
I have made numerous trips to the twin cities after that and to the cottages inside Rajaji National Park which is close by. If you are interested in visiting the place, it is known as Chilla and is highly recommended. There are a few mud huts, each with a sizable lawn, toilet, cooler and comfortable bed of its own. The river is on the other side of the front lawn and you can have your meals out in the front.
There is a barrage close by and though the nights are too dark, there are some awesome walks out there too. It is also the place where two branches of Ganga meet, one coming down from the hills and another through the towns. When we visited, there was a stunning dry river bed with exposed white rocks and pebbles that are characteristic of mountain rivers. We spent a morning posing on the riverbed and collecting pebbles. Only then we discovered that a few of the larger pebbles were actually human skulls, thanks to the cremation grounds upriver.
Rishikesh is also known for another very spiritual activity – rafting. We would start from Shivpuri, raft downriver and then wait to be driven back to the camp on the beach. Yes, the river bank at Shivpuri is called a beach and rightly so. Both the trips are equally tumultuous; thanks to the river and the cab drivers who I fancy drive with scorpions in their pants.
However, between the launch pad and the landing beach, the surfs and the rapids, stands lone cliff. It’s more of a stone outcropping, roughly forty feet high. All rafting boats make a mandatory stop here so that the willing can take a dive. At the top there are two jump off points, one six feet higher than the other. Apart from the awesome white water rafting, this is a good reason to go to Rishikesh. Even when I don’t go rafting, I make sure that I take this holy dip.