The great escape
Rishikesh, India

There is no doubt, however, that divinity is in the air here. You can’t escape from the wafts of incense, nor can you turn a corner without running into a weathered sage or an emaciated (albeit sacred) cow or a brightly painted statue of a Hindu deity or a holy tree that inconveniently defies sensible town planning. And it’s all to a backdrop of the hypnotic hysteria that you’d expect from any Indian urbanity. It’s quite a spectacle and I’m enamoured. But is my soul cleansed? Not really. For me, Rishikesh is a day trip and frankly the least chakra-realigning and life-affirming part of my few days in the area. I actually find far more peace in the little village of Singthali, some 20 miles from Rishikesh, at the Taj Rishikesh Resort & Spa, where I’m staying during this trip. 




And before you chastise me for being a comfort queen, let me tell you why. Because it is here and in its surrounds that I experience nature’s healing powers, away from the supernal pageantry of Rishikesh itself.

Of my own accord, I rise daily at dawn each morning to walk down to the pebbly beach that melts into the milky green Ganges. I sit quietly on its bank, switch off my phone and let the cool breeze caress my skin as light slowly emerges over the terrain. I love the staggered sunrise here. It reminds me that, regardless of whatever happened yesterday, I can start the new day beautifully. I wash my face in the fresh riverwater, not as a blessing, but to awaken my senses before an hour-long yoga session (or stretching class, as I choose to call it) accompanied by local birdsong and followed by a stress-busting champi (head and shoulder massage). En route to breakfast, I stop at a paved garden where five trees, each said to be sacred in Hindu mythology, entwine. I admire its botanical beauty not for its mysticism but for its likeness to how, just beyond it, the valley, mountains, river and rural living interweave. 

I take long hikes in mesmerising landscapes, with the roaring Ganges beside me to navigate me up and down stream and the snow-capped tops of the Greater Himalayas, peeking over the Uttarakhand hills, as a landmark. And, while I know everything I see probably has an extraordinary fable to it, here I can make my own decision as to whether what I see in front of me is the work of gods or a quirk of geology.

I cross bridges that stretch across the valley and encounter little temples and shrines along the way. For me, it’s more ‘magical’ here than in Rishikesh. I prefer the birds and butterflies to the holy cows. I’m more enthralled by the miracles performed by the local women I meet than I am by the old sages. They walk in just flip-flops – some barefoot – on the narrow path, balancing enormous bundles of sustainable (they replant five trees for every one they fell) rosewood and sal on their heads, many times their body weight. They laugh and joke in their native Garhwali (my guide Ayad can’t translate what they’re saying – the dialect on this side of the river is different from that on the other) and flash smiles as I amble past. I later learn that it is these women who gave birth to tree-hugging activism as we know it today. Around the same time The Beatles visited, the Chipko movement (‘chipko’ means ‘hug’ in Hindi) was founded by these local tribeswomen, who were back then already protesting against commercial logging in these mighty forests. 

A pink, disused watermill appears as a marker to descend to the white-sand beach that stretches for miles. I unlace my boots and feel the soft powder between my toes. It feels uncharacteristically cold. Ayad says something poignant at that moment, as he carefully balances some pebbles on top of each other: “pleasure is always derived from something external, but joy is derived from within”. 

But little did I know that during this trip I am to take the ultimate rite of passage with Mother Ganga. At a pit-stop on what was a surprise excursion – an exhilarating white-water rafting adventure on the river – I’m asked to climb up high on a rock and leap into a patch of the Ganges that is inexplicably still. I emerge feeling like a new person, physically revived. The expedition leader feeds me some story about soul-cleansing as I tuck into a plate of warming, chai-wallah-brewed Maggi instant noodles (if you grew up Asian, this is food for the soul). Baptism is what he calls it. I call it hydrotherapy.

“The Chipko movement was founded by these local tribeswomen, who were back then already protesting against commercial logging in these mighty forests.”

As the sun sets each day, the Taj Rishikesh Resort & Spa performs its own Ganga Aarti ceremony, inviting priests from a local village to lead the ritual. It’s a low-key affair and the vista makes the event far more ethereal than back in ‘Disneyland’, as the cerulean sky turns bright pink and orange. It is a timeless moment, one of absolute beauty in the present.

As night falls, I feast on clean, freshly cooked Pahadi food – Himalayan Indian gastronomy by celebrated chef Satya Sharma. In itself an art form, it’s occasionally matched with Ayurvedic nutrition principles. At other times, it’s just pure, unadulterated gluttony. And this is the difference between an experience like this and going to an ashram. Should I want to sup a turmeric martini or five, I can do so without guilt. 

It’s ironic that it’s here in one of the most spiritual parts of India that I discover that I’m actually a rationalist: I maintain that truth should be determined by reason and fact, rather than faith. There are times when I’ll go along with things, of course. I’ll accept that it’s okay to believe that there may be more to the world than meets the eye. But here, when there’s real-life ‘magic’ as far as the eye can see in its natural wonders, it affirms that all the things that matter – beauty, creativity, love and ultimately happiness – can certainly exist in the physical world.

Uwern’s trip to India was in partnership with Abercrombie & Kent, who offer a three-night stay at Taj Rishikesh Resort & Spa, including transfers and accommodation, and a seven-night experience that includes four nights at the property as well as three at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, with all international and domestic flights and transfers as part of the itinerary. A&K also offer flexible booking conditions to their meticulously planned journeys and can help you create bespoke and authentic experiences to push your boundaries, wherever they might lie. The company’s long-standing networks allow them to uncover local secrets beyond the reach of most.

Photography by Uwern Jong, Intek1/iStock, Tye Morrs/iStock, Vivek Renukaprasad/iStock, Saiko3p/iStock, Jatin Malhotra/iStock, Narinder Pal via Unsplash and Aman Upadhyay via Unsplash

Get out there

Do…

… sample the local food. It’s flavoured with unique spices, such as jakhya mustard seeds, from the Himalayan foothills and often cooked without onion or garlic (considered aphrodisiacs), in line with traditional Hindu cooking.

… try your hand at white water rafting the Ganges with a reputable operator. It’s a thrilling way to experience the river and if it was good enough for Edmund Hillary (he navigated the Ganges by speedboat after he climbed Everest), it’s good enough for us.

… consider visiting at the end of winter or early spring. The waters are clearest when the glacier starts to melt.

Don’t…

… forget to study up on some Hindu mythology before you leave for your trip. Guides and locals alike are encyclopedic in their knowledge of it and can sometimes forget that you may be utterly clueless. A little background reading goes a long way.

… expect every moment of your trip to Rishikesh to be luxurious. India will often ‘keep it real’ and throw you some surprises that bring you back down to earth, but it’s all part of the experience.

… ever get in the river on your own and go off the beaten track. The currents here are surprisingly strong and can be dangerous even for expert swimmers.