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In Rishikesh

Soul Searching: Top Ashrams

Most genuine spiritual retreats shy from any kind of media attention, which while understandable means that it is hard for the newcomer to differentiate between the great masters and masters of fraud. All over India, and in Rishikesh particularly, ashrams have increasingly begun to cater to Western aspirations for spirituality, doling out a mere part of the magnificent ancient Indian concept of Yoga, namely, the physical exercises known as yogasanas. Combine these with deep-breathing techniques and meditation and you have a package ready to be delivered, but it's worth noting that this is far from completing a journey (and not considered as even necessary by the serious adherent) along the spiritual path. It can nevertheless become a useful stepping-stone for the first-timer. Rishikesh offers all manner of courses, schools, ashrams, and holy men -- other than contributing to general bewilderment, some of these are highly suspect, and you should only sign up with an organization or person who comes personally recommended by someone you trust. Or choose from the following; while by no means comprehensive, these Rishikesh ashrams are safe, solid options.

The Divine Life Society (tel. 0135/243-0040; http://sivanandaonline.org) although the most "true" to the ideal following the great master Sivananda, sadly offers yoga courses only to men. Also for serious students (open to all genders), the Yoga Niketan Ashram (tel. 0135/243-0227; www.yoganiketanashram.org) is an excellent place to learn, but demands serious commitment as it follows a rather strict disciplined schedule, with sessions as early as 4:30 in the morning. More relaxed but a tad commercial, the Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram (tel. 0135/244-2344; www.anandprakashashram.com), offers its share of courses to both learn and teach, while the Parmarth Ashram (tel. 0135/244-0088; www.parmarth.com), will woo you with its lovely arti in the evenings (attracting hordes of visiting tourists) and courses that have obviously been fine-tuned to suit the average Westerner -- the latter is the most expensive and, driven by serious marketing strategies, in many ways the most user-friendly. All options offer courses ranging from 2 weeks to several months and offer in-house staying arrangements with meals.

The Real Happy Clappies

All the elements of a good, heady get-together conspire to make Rishikesh's evening Ganga Aarti a truly special, spiritually intoxicating experience. Arrive early at the ghat in front of Parmarth Niketan Ashram (leave your shoes at the counter first) and spend time watching the crowds flood in, while orange-robed boys from the ashram usher in VIPs. The whole service, at the edge of the river, is centered on a gigantic white statue of Shiva, who sits cross-legged and serene behind a central flame, around which the holy fire ceremony, or yagna, is performed. A concoction of herbs mixed with ghee (clarified butter) is offered to the fire, accompanied by the chanting of mantras (prayers), said to purify the area where aarti is being performed and to call up the holy vibrations. Try to get a seat as close as possible to the fire ceremony, preferably at a raised elevation so you can clearly watch the intricate rites as well as the crowds.

But things are only just getting started. At an appropriate moment, as the sun starts to set, the ashram's high guru, His Highness Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, descends the broad steps leading down to river's edge; he arrives like some highly venerated celebrity (which he is), all flowing robes and long, shaggy hair on his head and face. He'll join in the rites around the fire, and then, taking his place at the microphone, launch into some of the most stirring singing you'll hear in India, performed with calm and grace. In a beautiful, sublime moment, shot through with an urgent spiritual charge, the crowd, whether sitting or standing, will spontaneously sway and clap in rhythm to the swami's crystal voice and gentle aura, the movement occasionally building to a passionate frenzy. You are very likely to lose yourself in a moment of bliss, and feel your heart soar as you offer thanks to the life-giving waters of the Ganges. After he has sung, Swami Chidanand philosophizes in Hindi for a while, the kindness in his voice more telling than the words themselves. And then, in a blink, he'll disappear up the steps and into the ashram, guarded by an entourage of supplicants. Be prepared to devote around 2 hours to the whole experience, and then pick up the CD, Songs for the Soul (Rs 325), featuring the very hymns that have just touched your heart.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.