In October last year, I travelled to a city with 100 000 people to find silence and solitude.
I step out of the small and somewhat chaotic Dehradun airport in India and into a sea of name boards, one of them marked for me. While helping me into a weary-looking car that is my ride to Rishikesh, my driver, Amit, smiles warmly and says, “You are most welcome.” We climb a winding road through thick forest and vegetation, passing brightly decorated trucks and tuk-tuks, passenger-laden motorbikes and the occasional roadside monkey during the 40-minute journey to my final destination, and the ashram that will be my home for the next 12 days.
Situated on the banks of the Ganges River (or holy Mother Ganga as it’s called locally) on the foothills of northern India’s Himalayan Mountains, Rishikesh is a place of ancient spiritual practices and thousands of years of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda. Known as the yoga capital of the world, it is one of the holiest places in Hinduism, and sages and saints have visited here since ancient times in search of higher knowledge.
I’m here in what’s turned into a year of “eat, pray, yoga and self-love” in a quest to step away from the madness of digitised life and seek out a healthier and happier me. I’ve signed up for a nine-day deep cleansing transformational retreat with Namaste Retreats India that promises to not only cleanse my physical body but also still my overactive mind — no mean task.
Determined to fully immerse myself in the experience, I have opted to stay in the ashram and not with the rest of my group at the hotel where the retreat is being hosted. I’ve cut back on sugar and coffee in preparation for the five-day detoxifying juice fast that kicks off the retreat, and I plan to abstain from all other vices. Rishikesh, as an alcohol-free and entirely vegetarian city, is the best place for it. In addition to the fast, there are walks in the mountains, yoga and meditation — plenty of time for introspection. In my spare time, I walk the city, often in silence, almost always with the local dogs in tow.
The most recognisable image of Rishikesh is the view across the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge to the huge, 13-storey temple of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar, which looks a little like a fairy-tale castle. It has dozens of shrines to Hindu deities on each level, interspersed with jewellery and textile shops. Walking south along the east bank of the Ganges you’ll find ashrams, an incredible bazaar, sadhus (India’s holy men) and the bathing ghats — steps leading down to the Ganges, where religious ceremonies are performed at sunrise and sunset each day.
My stay coincides with Dusshera, a major festival that celebrates the Hindu god Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana, symbolising the triumph of good over evil. As night falls, fireworks light the sky, musicians bring their song and rhyme to the thick, scented air and crowds pour onto the bridges and banks of the Ganges.
It also marks the end of our five-day fast, and we gather for chickpea curry, palak paneer and deliciously spicy dahl. Despite my now-full belly, I feel a new sense of lightness and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the things that truly matter: friends, nourishing food and good health.
Known as the yoga capital of the world, it is one of the holiest places in Hinduism, and sages and saints have visited here since ancient times in search of higher knowledge.
Getting there: Emirates and Ethiopian Airlines offer convenient connections from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Delhi, via Dubai and or Addis Ababa. From there book a flight to Dehradun on Air India or IndiGo Airlines. A driver will meet you on arrival and transfer you to the hotel in Rishikesh.
Visas: South African passport holders do require visas for India and an e-Tourist Visa can be conveniently applied for online — https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/
Booking Details: Namaste Retreats India offers numerous transformational detox and yoga retreats in India each year. Their packages include accommodation, meals, workshops, yoga and activities, as well as the invaluable guidance of Annie Wyatt and Veechi Shahi. www.namasteretreatsindia.com. Look out for their latest retreat dates here.
Read my other blog posts about my visit to India with Namaste India Retreats.