Parmath Niketan: Authentic India

Authentic Indian ashram, Rishikesh
Authentic Indian ashram, Rishikesh

SWARG ASHRAM—In the throbbing heart of Rishikesh, on the left bank of the Ganges lies Parmath Niketan, a long-established ashram frequented by pilgrim of all sorts—though not so many Westerners.

RISHIKESH IS THE PLACE: Rishikesh is the place to go for Western yogis and yoginis and the town has increasingly based its economy around Westerners. Though it has long been a place of pilgrimage for Hindus by virtue of its location on the banks of the sacred Ganga River (which we call the Ganges) and its proximity to the equally sacred Himalayas there are other more sacred sites along the river, usually connected with Kumbha Mela, a sacred water rite which is held every three, six, twelve or 144 years in four different cities—nearby Hardiwar, Prayag (Allahabad) in 2019, Ujjain and Nashik—attended by hundreds of thousands of devotees. (https://www.kumbhamela.net)

Statue of Shiva at Parmath Niketan
Statue of Shiva at Parmath Niketan

BATHE IN THE GANGES: But for some of the Hindu pilgrims who come to Rishikesh, the chance to bathe in the Ganges could be their only trip out of the environs of their villages; for others, it may be an annual rite. In any case, Rishikesh overflows with accommodations to suit everyone: Westerners, poor and rich pilgrims alike. 

Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River
Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River

LAKSMAN JHULA BRIDGE: Across one of two narrow suspension bridges, designed for pedestrians only (though motor scooters and cows, even bulls, cause regular traffic jams) are Lakshman Jhula and Swarg Ashram, both offshoots of Rishikesh itself, with major temples, ashrams, hospitals for pilgrims offering ayurvedic and other treatments. Of course there are countless shops, restaurants, cafes and Indian pharmacies containing the latest (and also the oldest) ayurvedic treatments.

GHATS AND PILGRIMS: Boats laden with pilgrims cross the river every few minutes, dumping them onto the ghats, or river steps where chains guide bathers in the shallow riverine border; the Ganges, even here in town, flows fast and cold. Worshippers wading out too far have been swept to their deaths; even good swimmers don’t stand much of a chance.

Beatles Ashram 16 Leslie Smith
Ganges below Beatles Ashram

PARMATH NIKETAN ASHRAM: Smack in the middle of this munificent mayhem is Parmath Niketan, founded in 1942. Wandering from its impressive ghats, with statues of Shiva, Ganesh and others in through its tall gates is a bit like taking a trip to Disneyland. Hinduism is unabashedly allegorical and let’s face it, there is no better way of telling a story than to show observers exactly what it’s all about: hence, the larger-than-life-sized statues of a variety of Hindu gods and saints, set amidst spectacularly manicured grounds.  Many wings branch off the wide avenues, containing a dining hall, countless rooms, a yoga shala, satsang room (in Hindi only) and other chambers.

NO WESTERN SELF-DENIAL: Having gotten a bit fed up with Western self-denial, I wandered through Parmath Niketan’s front gates and up to Reception. There, I met Indra, who talked me through a typical ashram day. Yes, there was meditation, but only for about 15 minutes morning and evening, along with a bit of yoga (“not too much,” she confided) along with satsang and ganga aarti at the riverside in the evening.

Road to the Ganges
Road to the Ganges

COMFY CHAIRS AND TABLES: All of these events were inserted into a curriculum which, it seemed (to me, having spend nearly two weeks in various ashram, eating frugally) was largely based around eating. Early morning tea was followed by breakfast, then mid-morning snack. Lunch was succeeded by afternoon snack, late afternoon tea, then dinner…and later-night snacks. All on real china, with cutlery, comfy chairs and even marble-topped tables. 

This was about as far from what I experienced at my “Western” ashrams as it was possible to get. Sitting at plastic tables with tin plates and a single spoon, we felt luck to be able to each rice or congee and dal with every meal; sometimes there was fresh fruit but usually the ubiquitous curried cauliflower. 

BY DONATION: As with most ashrams, admission to Parmath Niketan was by donation, Indra explained; a higher donation was expected for the river-view rooms. However, closer inspection revealed most rooms had only shutters on the windows and rather tatty bedding. A mosquito net and sleeping bag with pillow seemed advisable baggage to bring, along with a good filter water bottle and iodine or other anti-bacterial tablets to add to drinking water.  

Find out more about staying at Parmath Niketan and book at http://www.parmarth.org.

Parmath Niketan: a map in case you get lost...
Parmath Niketan: a map in case you get lost…

WATCH OUT FOR: It goes without saying, don’t drink the water unless it has been boiled for ten minutes or properly filtered; don’t eat fruit that you yourself cannot peel (unless you are certain the water that it was washed in was also boiled for ten minutes or otherwise filtered). Carry hand sanitizer and use it constantly.

Ganesh, god of new beginnings (and engineers!)
Ganesh, god of new beginnings (and engineers!)

Bathing in the Ganges requires a suit of light cotton pants and long-sleeved top; it is highly improper to enter the sacred waters without being fully clothed: that means no bathing suits and certainly no underpants, though young local boys are given a pass.

BEATLES NEARBY: Just down the road about a kilometre is the so-called Beatles Ashram, part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve which contains real tigers, elephants and a bevy of naughty monkeys sitting on a wall waiting to ambush unwary travellers (they like to throw unpleasantries)—and the inspiration for The Beatles’ song, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”

IF YOU GO:  Regular flights go from Delhi to just outside Rishikesh; the short flight is well worth the higher cost. Buses, even private ones, take eight hours or more to pass through the ridiculously disorganized traffic. Trains will get you as far as Haridwar, about 25 kms away; then take a taxi (approximately one hour). 

Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River
Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River

Related Images:

Escape from the Ashram

Photos and story by Leslie Smith

Om ganga mai, ganga mai, ganga mai mai/Om ganga mai, ganga mai, ganga mai mai….                —repeat 108 times every day for seven days.

RISHIKESH, INDIA–“What’s for lunch today?” I ask Vishal as she hands me a menu. “Everything!” she responds. Vishal is the owner of Ayurpak, a vegetarian restaurant nestled in its own garden in Rishikesh—the yoga capital of India.  “Are you big hungry or small hungry?” she asked, trying to determine how much to feed me. Big hungry, as it turned out. Life in an Indian ashram proved not all that it is cracked up to be—and after five days, I had just escaped. And boy, was I big hungry!

Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River
Rishikesh nestled beside the Ganges River

My two weeks in various northern Indian ashrams was shortened by two days when it turned out I was severely allergic to the 125-year-old Phool Chatti Ashram located on the banks of the Ganges, 20 minutes from Rishikesh.  Yoga every day left me sore and my mind puzzled; vegan food and no caffeine until 9 a.m. resulted in a pounding headache. Yet the location  beside the fast-flowing holy water of the Ganges River was breathtaking and the air—at least in the countryside—was as pure as I hoped my soul would become. 

The ashram’s once-splendid gardens were destroyed by floods 10 years ago and were being restored, but whole theme of the place—like elsewhere in India—was decay. But resilience and resourcefulness were evident everywhere.  People by the roadside were ready to sell something or to repair it—fresh sugar cane juice, patched car tires, fruits or dung patties for cooking fires.

Phool Chatti Ashram is a typical ashram run for Westerners according to a strict set of rules which Indian ashrams do not observe. Silence is enforced from the 5:30 a.m. wake-up bell until 1 p.m.—but by then I was so overcome with fatigue from chanting cross-legged, anemia from lack of meat, eggs and dairy, and nausea from mould and constant burning of incense in the yoga shala that I had little to say. 

Monkeys made daily raids, driving the two musky-smelling German shepherds guarding the place into a frenzy. Scorpions in the hallway and spiders the size of my hand hung from every tree.  Cobra-and-skull motifs of Shiva the Destroyer completed the Haunted House theme. 

Statue of Shiva at Parmath Niketan
Statue of Shiva at Parmath Niketan

One day, three wandering sadhus stopped by for a free lunch. These homeless holy men and women renounce conventional life to wander the roads clad in saffron-coloured robes, begging and praying. They can be seen everywhere, carrying only a pail in which to put their food and a blanket to cover them, depending upon charity to live.

A steep two-storey concrete stairway led to Phool Chatti’s open-air dining room, with marvellous views over the raging Ganges, though the formerly pristine and rocky banks of its beach were being transformed into ghats (steps for bathing in the river) and a crematorium. Tireless workers carried heavy loads of rebar to the riverside, as wave after wave of inflatable rafts carried day-tripping tourists through the rapids.

Most ashrams are pretty basic. Rooms are spartan with a foam mattress on a platform. Meals consist of dal (a lentil broth), rice, chapatis, fruit and a vegetable dish as well as gallons of  tea.  Depending upon where you stay, the washroom may  have enough water pressure to power the shower; otherwise, it’s an Indian-style bath in a plastic bucket. 

The ashram day begins early—around 5:30 or 6 a.m. with guided or unguided meditation for an hour, followed by 1.5-2 hours of  yoga and a nasal-cleaning ritual using a neti pot full of hot water. Breakfast is at 9 a.m. followed by karma yoga—a period selfless service to the ashram such as cleaning chores. A hike, study time or satsang (a question and answer period with the resident guru) happens before lunch, the main meal of the day. Students eat off tin plates, and drink from tin cups, which they wash, dry and put back on the shelf after every meal. Afternoons are for personal chores such as laundry, naps or more study. A second 1-2 hour yoga session takes place in late afternoon, followed by meditation, then fire puja or aarti, two linked Hindu ceremonies of gratitude meant to drive out darkness.  After evening kirtan (chanting and playing sacred music) and another  meditation students tumble into bed.  

Though I followed variations of this schedule for several days sneezing, headaches, dizziness and nausea soon plagued me whenever I entered the yoga shala —a space I was supposed to occupy 6-8 hours daily. Finally, I could take it no longer. My escape from the ashram took place at midday; I departed by taxi for Rishikesh to the comparative luxury of the Dewa Hotel. A real bed, sumptuous buffet breakfast, swimming pool and heavenly view of the Ganges awaited. 

Authentic Indian ashram, Rishikesh
Authentic Indian ashram, Rishikesh

For two days, I patrolled Rishikesh, visiting the sites and stuffing myself with tasty food. Laxsman Jhula footbridge, built in the 1930s, is packed with pedestrians, scooters, monkeys and even Brahma bulls. Across the bridge is Tera Manzil, a 13-storey Hindu temple. Each level is packed with shrines to gods and goddesses, souvenir shops selling icons, alcoves housing astrologers and priests. Kirtan is sung in the evening beside the Ganges and pilgrims float ganga aarti—candles burning in paper bowls with flowers—as a blessing. 

At Rishikesh’s tidy Anand Prakesh Ashram the daily routine was  relaxed. Yogrishi Vishvketu, its founder, was friendly and hip. We visited briefly before he hopped a flight to Beijing to lead two yoga classes, then fly back to India. Vishvi-ji summers in Canada giving classes and workshops. 

The Truth About Ashrams

I discovered the truth about ashrams at Parmath Niketan Ashram, across the Ganges from Rishikesh. Inside, I freely wandered the luxurious grounds, studded with statues of Hindu gods and goddesses. At the reception desk I met Indu, who told me that for a $40 CDN daily donation I was very welcome to a room overlooking the Ganges. The price included three daily meals plus snacks in a very nice dining hall with granite-topped tables, comfy chairs and not a tin plate in site; two hours of yoga per day; 15 minutes of meditation; 30 minutes of aarti/fire puja; an hour of satsang; plus lots of free time to wander the grounds, bathe in the Ganges, chat and enjoy the lively streets of Rishi. She smiled when I explained the daily routine at the Western ashrams I had been staying at. My tales of endless routines, silence and deprivation seemed foreign to her.  Would I like to book in now, she asked, so I could experience a real Indian ashram? I reluctantly declined her offer.

Next stop was Auro Valley Ashram near Haridwar, founded by Swami Brahmdev in 1985 in memory of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo. The two venerated yogic philosophers lived and worked for many decades in Pondicherry. Swami Brahmdev has a large following in South America and Russia, and though the ashram was mostly deserted when I arrived, its stunning circular, marble-capped buildings and gardens conveyed a sense of peacefulness. Located just outside the southern edge of the Rajaji Tiger Preserve, the immaculate grounds occasionally experienced intrusions from elephants, deer, peacocks and even the odd tiger.  Wildlife and farm animals could be glimpsed from the rooftop terrace of the egg-shaped dormitory building, where a giant painting of The Mother’s eyes watched over guests. 

The circular library hosted morning satsang with Swami Brahmdev while evening meditation took place in a special meditation hall with a glowing green and crystal sculpture at its centre. In another marbled yoga hall, Shri Yogi Sachidanandaji taught us that all life is yoga, and that yoga is the basis of  love. That night, I fell asleep listening to the catcalls of wild peacocks. An elephant trumpeted somewhere near the banks of the Ganges, and I dreamed of a warm, green glow. 

If You Go

Air Canada’s overnight Halifax-London flight connects with Air India’s Heathrow-Delhi flight; or fly direct to Delhi via Air Canada from Toronto. The 230-km Delhi-Rishi journey by private bus takes eight hours. Daily flights from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport arrive in one hour and cost $150-$300 return. Trains, long-distance taxis and coaches are plentiful. 

Ashrams have different schedules and philosophies so try to find one that suits your goals before leaving home. Yoga is viewed differently in India than in Canada; be aware of what style of yoga you will be practising. Ask how many meals are included, what type of accommodation is available and what the daily routine is; silence for half the day is not to everyone’s taste. Ashrams are generally reasonably priced though guests are expected to pitch in for 30-60 minutes of daily chores and wash their own plates. 

Road to the Ganges
Road to the Ganges

Outside larger centres not everyone speaks English or any other European languages. India has 13 major languages of its own plus 720 dialects—written in 13 different scripts; even Hindi isn’t universally spoken.