Tapovan captures the heart of the spiritual tourism industry, yet provides relief from the relentless hustle-and-bustle of Rajasthan. Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, I found myself on the edges of gorgeous Rishikesh. The birthplace of yoga and a tranquil getaway just hours away from some of India’s most chaotic stopovers.
Rishikesh came as a breath of fresh air after a number of weeks exploring Rajasthan, the relentless ‘Golden Triangle’. After two days on busy sleeper trains and grotty transit hotels, I was welcomed into this chilled out pace of life like an old friend. I had picked up a Workaway assignment, so made my way Northeast toward Tapovan to meet my hosts. I was pleased to arrive into a relaxed, leafy village nestled into the banks of the Holy Ganges.
Tapovan – The forest of austerities
Note: there are a number of Tapovan’s in India! However, this post is about the one in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
Tapovan in sanskrit means forest of austerities, a fitting name for a leafy quarter overlooked by countless ashrams. Up on the hills emerald jungles hide secret waterfalls and hiking trails up into the Himalayan foothills. This really is a rather special spot. I recommend Tapovan if you want keep a foot in the tourist-loop, yet relax a little more than other areas.
1 Meditation without the masses
India provides a feast of meditation options, and is perhaps one of the elements the country is most famed for. Across the sub-continent you can find mind-blowingly large meditation halls swarming with meditators of all experience levels. However, Rishikesh offers smaller, less touristy and cheap (sometimes free) options to dodge the crowds and have a chilled, authentic, meditative experience.
There are plenty to choose from, and in & around the Tapovan area you can expect to pay around 300rs for a session. I opted for the free evening vipassana sessions at Ajatananda Ashram and had a series of excellent experiences. (They also provide free morning hatha yoga and various other fantastic things)
2 Lakshman Jhula bridge
One of the most iconic and beautiful parts of Rishikesh I discovered was Lakshman Jhula, the iron suspension bridge connecting Tapovan village with Jonk village across the river Ganges. During the day this swaying contraption is brimming with selfie-wielding tourists who give ways to scooters, vendors and cows.. All the while monkeys dangle precariously, taking juice boxes from children and adventure-seekers paddle rafts underneath.
This is one of my favourite places to stop and take in the madness that is India – the sights sounds and smells of street food, scooter bustle and local women doing their daily washing in the river below. Unfortunately, this hive of activity is home to pickpockets, so, as with most places in India, keep a close eye on your belongings.
Overlooking Lakshman Jhula on either side are a number of great cafes serving up good food at good prices, as well as great views especially at sunset – I particularly enjoy Cafe De Goa on the Tapovan side for excellent sunset views of the bridge & the aarti.
3 Breathe in the nature
Rishikesh has an abundance of nature unlike anywhere in nearby Rajasthan. Far from the arid desert-scapes of Jaisalmer or the tireless bustle of Delhi, Rishikesh provides a refreshing burst of green forests and clear running water. It’s an easy stroll down to the river beach, where many take a dip in the refreshing waters. Before you get any visions of burning bodies and mukey, toxic waters, Rishikesh is different. This is where the Himalayas birth the Ganga – fresh and clean, before any of those goings-on.
TIP: There are plenty of great treks in the area that will take you to bubbling waterfalls or the marvelous sunset point. If walking isn’t your thing (but sunsets & waterfalls definitely are), you can always jump in a tuk tuk at the crack of dawn and take a peek before starting your day.
4 Camp on the banks of the Ganges
Does simply the word ‘India’ insite visions of camping? Nope? Me either. But, turns out it’s a thing – and a pretty popular thing at that. Usually bundled in with a rafting package, camping on the riverside provides an entirely new way to see the holy river Ganga.
A simple scan of Tripadvisor will show just how popular Rishikesh camping has become – from the humble, simple tent right through to glamping and river-front ‘camping’ luxury cabins, I reckon you might just find something that will suit your tastes.
5 A welcome break from the crazy
I arrived from Jaisalmer, via a stopover in dust, hectic Bikaner. Before that – a whirlwind tour roughly around parts of the Golden Triangle. Crazy is an understatement – honking horns, relentless touts and partying backpackers set the scene for my previous few weeks. Rishikesh, however, is different.
This is a Hindu Holy city where meat and alcohol are strictly banned. Instead of bars and tandoori joints, Rishikesh is home to health-food shops, delish veggie cafes and juice bars that have found their niche with the health-conscious yoga crowds here. Whether this is to your taste or not, there’s no arguing that this city with a holy focus is a little more chilled out than it’s clambering neighbors.
Tapovan is the perfect village to kick back and watch the world (and the Ganges) go by with a thali plate packed full of veg curries + a masala chai. Check out the Free Spirit Cafe or Beatles Cafe for a relaxed, booze-free spot (with exceptional food) to enjoy the ambiance.
6 Don’t just feed your belly – feed your soul
Tapovan provides plenty of opportunities to get your hands dirty and give back to the community, especially if you are planning to stick around for a few weeks or months.
Ramana’s Garden Children’s Home is perfect if you are looking for a longer-term volunteer plan & want to work with children. “Ramana’s Garden Children’s Home in Rishikesh, India is home to over 60 at risk children and a free English medium school for over 160 students from Ramana’s Garden and local underprivileged families.” You will need to commit for a minimum of three months, but if you have the time & love to spare it is a magical place and a wonderful cause to get involved in. Click here for a link to their ‘about volunteering’ page for more info.
Can’t stay this long? Or perhaps a children’s home is not quite up your alley? There are a number of Workaway hosts who will provide accommodation and food in exchange for voluntary work. In the region you can Teach English to young Tibetan monks, help out at a shelter for distressed women and children, teach in a charitable school, or perhaps work in healthcare with a women’s support NGO.
7 Explore the markets
Market culture is a way of life here. Like all Indian villages, the local market is the solid foundation underlying the community, Rishikesh is no different. If you explore either side of Lakshman Jhula you’ll find sari’s, jewels, and fragrant offerings of sandalwood, marigolds and roses. Receive a massage, have your astrology charts read or stock up on mangoes and holy Ganga water while you’re here.
The touts and shop owners are much less aggressive here than in cities further south, and although they seem a little less open to heavy bargaining, the experience of window shopping is considerably more pleasant than in Jaipur or Agra.
You will find more spiritual sellers on the Tapovan side peddling sandalwood jewelry, joss sticks and shiva statues. The Jonk side hosts a larger selection of cafes, restaurants and vendors selling clothing, jewellry and souvenirs.
8 Ganga Aarti, but not like you know it
Rishikesh is one of 3 holy cities India to host the spiritual power and incredible atmosphere of the Ganga Aarti. The other two, Haridwar & Varinasi, tend to be massive affairs packed full of worshippers and onlookers. Each and every dusk the lamps are lit, the bells are rung and the mesmerising chants begin. Although not in Tapovan, Parmarth Niketan is your closest stop to soak up this massive spiritual spectacle, of if you feel like heading further into central Rishikesh then Triveni Ghat is the other breathtaking place to go.
For a slightly smaller affair, park up near Lakshman Jhula around dusk for a smaller (but still breathtaking) Aarti, you can watch from either sides of the banks or perch yourself atop one of the restaurant balcony areas.