Monday, 10 June 2013

Finding Yourself in Rishikesh

We’ve talked before about the cultural and spiritual significance of the Ganges River.  Now let’s find out more about Rishikesh, a favoured destination for people with interests ranging from yoga and meditation to rafting and adventure.

Rishikesh is one of the names of the god Vishnu and roughly translates into “lord of the senses”.  In the Ramayana, the great epic saga of ancient India, Lord Rama came to Rishikesh to atone for having killed the demon king Ravana.  Who, by the way, had kidnapped Sita, Rama’s wife, and attempted to seduce her.  Despite having killed the villain, Rama had to seek the gods’ forgiveness, so off to Rishikesh he went, meditating on his actions and bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges.

And why did he choose Rishikesh?  Because meditating there helps bring you closer to moksha or the liberation from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  Not only is Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges River, at the point where it leaves the mountains, it is also the starting point for pilgrims travelling to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri.  These four sites constitute one of Hinduism's most spiritual and auspicious pilgrimage circuits and every devout Hindu should visit them at least once.
Lord Rama’s association with Rishikesh is celebrated by the town in countless ways – for example, the famous Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula Bridges. Lakshman Jhula (see photo) is close to the point where you leave the river if you raft down to Rishikesh from Himalayan River Runners’ Ganga Base Camp. These days the bridge is made of solid iron but legend says that Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana crossed the Ganges on a flimsy jute rope at this very point.
Lakshman Jhula affords spectacular views of the river and the huge storied temples of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshawar. If you stop to look and take photos, make sure you are not carrying any food or the resident monkeys will harass you!

The Beatles in Rishikesh
Some of us from a certain generation first heard of Rishikesh in the late 1960s when The Beatles visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  As with everything else The Beatles did, meditation became all the rage and several other artists and musicians followed in their footsteps.
The Beatles composed nearly 48 songs during their stay in Rishikesh – an amazing achievement considering they were only there for a month or two – and many of these ended up on their double album “White Album”.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram is now deserted. Its stone meditation huts, halls and shrines have been reclaimed by the jungle. But you’ll find many other ashrams, Ayurvedic centres and yoga retreats in tranquil settings around Rishikesh, offering classes for tourists as well as for aspiring yoga teachers worldwide.

Whatever your reasons for visiting Rishikesh, remember that you’ll find only vegetarian food there and drinking alcohol is frowned upon although not unknown.   

Photo: View of Rishikesh across Lakshman Jhula Bridge. Attributed to Meg and Rahul and obtained from Flickr
Tags: Rishikesh, rafting, Beatles, yoga, meditation, ashram, ashrams, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Vishnu, Rama, Lakshman Jhula, temples, Swarg Niwas, Shri Trayanbakshawar, Ganges River, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Ram Jhula, Ganga

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Monkeying Around the Himalayan River Runners Camp Site

Monkeys are a familiar sight around the Ganges River and the Himalayan River Runners camp site. You might even find one or two watching with great interest while you take a shower! There are two kinds of monkeys in the area – the grey langur (sometimes called the Hanuman langur, after the Hindu god) and the rhesus macaque. 

Grey langurs are generally shy and like to hang out in forests and wooded areas, although you will also find them in cities.  There are actually several different species, although only an expert could tell the difference. Most are a pretty silvery grey with long silky fur, black faces and ears and a long elegant tail. Some species have a golden tinge and there is a cousin, the golden langur, which is a gorgeous ash blonde.

In general, grey langurs live in low to moderate altitudes but some can be found as high as 4000 metres up in the Himalayas.  Their size varies – males are larger than females – but they are approximately 51 to 79 cm from head to rump, with tales ranging from 69 to 102 cm long.  Langurs move with a graceful economy, whether walking on all fours on the ground or swinging through the trees. 

Since grey langurs can adapt to various habitats, they don’t mind sharing space with humans.  And like most humans, they sleep at night, whether in trees or, when they’re living in a city, making an electrical pole or a tower their bed.  When it comes to diet, they are mostly plant eaters but may enjoy a protein supplement from the occasional termite mound or spider web.  They will accept handouts from humans, and may hang around places where scraps are available.  But for the most part, they are gentle, non-aggressive creatures.

Rhesus macaques

Rhesus macaques, however, are another matter. They are very bold and have become pests in Indian cities. You will almost certainly encounter them if you take a trip into Rishikesh from the Himalayan River Runners Ganga Base Camp.

To be fair to these monkeys, much of their marauding in cities is due to the loss of natural habitat.  That’s why you’ll find them sorting through your rubbish for food or even trying to remove the cover from your water tanks to relieve their thirst. But it’s hard to remind yourself of that when you discover them invading your garden or taking a swim in the water tank!

Rhesus monkeys have the widest geographic range of any nonhuman primate. You’ll find them across Central, South and Southeast Asia, living in open areas or grasslands, woodlands or mountains. Like the langur, the rhesus monkey sleeps at night and subsists on plants for food, with an occasional snack of insects. They have pouch-like cheeks, so they can temporarily store food in their mouths.

The Bandar-log

There is some debate as to whether it was the rhesus macaques or the langurs that were the “Bandar-log” (monkey people) of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  In these stories, the monkeys are portrayed as a feckless bunch, held in contempt by the rest of the jungle for their irresponsible ways. Their foolish chattering is described in Kipling’s “Road Song of the Bandar-Log”:

“Here we sit in a branchy row/Thinking of beautiful things we know;
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do/All complete, in a minute or two—
Something noble and wise and good/Done by merely wishing we could.
We've forgotten, but—never mind/Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!”

Our rhesus relatives

When it comes to family relations, it is the rhesus monkeys rather than the langurs that are closest to us. We were distant cousins about 25 million years ago, sharing a common ancestor, and we also share about 93% of our DNA sequence with them. For this reason, rhesus monkeys are used frequently in medical research because they are anatomically and physiologically similar to humans. 

The next time you’re on the Ganga or in the area of the Himalayan River Runners camp site, keep an eye out for langurs and rhesus monkeys. Their antics are fun to watch and they are often fiendishly clever.  Do take care, though, and keep your distance.

Photo: Rhesus macaques in Rishikesh, taken by Ulrike Boecking of the German School, New Delhi

Tags:  rhesus monkey, grey langur, macaque, rhesus macaque, Himalayan river runners, Himalayas, Ganga river, Ganga base camp, Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book, Bandar-log, primate, Hanuman langur

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Staying Safe While Enjoying the Ganga

As highlighted in the previous post, the rafting guides of Himalayan River Runners (HRR) are truly white-water heroes. They are a vital part of HRR’s commitment to keeping our guests safe as they enjoy the many moods of the Ganges River. 

HRR has always insisted on maintaining solid guide experience and inculcating a culture of safety as the foundation of its business of river running throughout India. We recognise that any sport, especially one related to the outdoors and nature, has an element of risk involved.  Otherwise it would merely be a theme park experience and not a real adventure. 

Our aim is to provide an environment where young people (and adults) can test their limits under the watchful eye of an experienced guide. We believe that this provides valuable opportunities for personal growth and also re-connects people to the realities of nature, all too easily forgotten in an urban environment.

It is hard to beat the kind of exhilaration generated by successfully overcoming our fears and meeting physical and mental challenges. Teachers and corporate human resources departments agree that outdoor adventures, responsibly organised, boost self esteem and team spirit among individuals. Special kinds of friendships develop after a challenge shared with others.

But, of course, risk must be minimised and we do this in the knowledge that it cannot be entirely eliminated. To that end, we have re-trained and re-certified all our guides in CPR and First Aid. 

How government can help increase rafting safety

Yousuf Zaheer, Founder and Manager of HRR, says that the 140 rafting operators on the Ganga are now working more closely together on safety issues than previously, and that HRR is active in assisting promoting training initiatives for new guides. His timely suggestion that new guides be tested and assessed by the experienced guides has been approved by the rafting operators’ association.

Yousuf also points out that government outreach is needed to ensure stability for all the operators. At present, only 20 to 30 permits are given per season. These permits have to be renewed annually and the operators are not always confident of receiving the permit. With that concern in mind, they find it difficult to invest in training for their guides. Another complication is that if overseas clients want to book an expedition more than a year in advance, the operators cannot legally accept that booking. This means that operators lose money on bookings – money which could be used to better train their guides and increase safety.

With the 2012-2013 season coming to a close on the Ganga, the operators hope the next year will see more cooperation between the government and the industry. In the end, this will be good for everyone – rafting operators, guests and the state of Uttarakhand, which will benefit from increased tourism and more jobs for the local workforce.

Tags: Himalayan River Runners, HRR, whitewater rafting, rafting operators, rafting guide, rafting guides, rafting safety, Ganges River, Uttarakhand tourism, Ganga

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Whitewater Heroes – HRR’s Rafting Team

"Resham phiriri, resham phiriri...
Rafting ma monkey,
Trekking ma donkey, resham phiriri...
Kodo jharyo makai jharyo
Jyan payeko chhaina..."

“Rafting is for monkeys, trekking is for donkeys.” Or words to that effect! Stay at one of Himalayan River Runners’ base camps and, round the campfire, on the river or on a trek, you may hear these (slightly modified) lyrics to a well-known Nepali song.

At HRR there are a number of Nepali staff. Of the rafting guides, Ram and Ganesh (the senior guides) plus Rum and Prabhu are all from Nepal, while others, Ranjit and Chintu, are Bihari. The head cook Shrikant is Nepali and other staff are from Garhwal.

White-Water Training in Nepal

Many white-water guides working in India come originally from Nepal. This Himalayan country with its famous rivers like the Kali Gandaki, Karnali, Sunkoshi, and Trishuli, has the reputation for training some of the world’s best river runners.

HRR’s senior guides, Ganesh and Ram, were born in villages near the famous Chitwan National Park and learnt their skills through a guiding apprenticeship system unique to Nepal.

Ganesh, from a farming family, was 12 when he began washing dishes at an adventure company. For the next 5 years he worked around the camp and gradually built up his rafting experience until by the age of 17 he was a fully fledged guide. He was awarded his rafting licence in Nepal and came to India in 2000.

Ram, son of a motor mechanic, was 16 when he started his career. Like Ganesh, he did general tasks and honed his rafting skills for 5 years until he qualified as a guide at 21. Unrest in Nepal in the first decade of the 21st century affected tourism and led to the closure of some rafting companies, forcing trained guides like Ram to seek work elsewhere. Fortunately, there were opportunities in India, where rafting was a growing sport, and Ram came to HRR in 2004.

The Craft of Kayaking

Rum, younger than Ganesh and Ram, is nevertheless a highly experienced rafting guide and a talented kayaker. Every summer, when monsoon rain means closure of HRR’s Ganga Base Camp, Rum heads to Japan where he works for Japanese companies, undergoes more training, and further refines his skills.

Watching Rum manoeuvre his kayak is a delight. The man and the craft are one as he flips, loops, surfs and spins through the waves. Rum regularly enters kayaking rodeos in which he is often highly placed.

Yousuf Zaheer, Founder and Manager of HRR, ensures his guides enhance and maintain their technical skills by regularly rafting India’s most challenging rivers. Under his direction, the team tackles difficult white-waters from the Kameng in Arunachal to the Zanskar in Ladakh.

“With this breadth of experience on high-end rivers, my team are among the top white-water people in India,” he says with pride. “I have complete confidence in their skills and expertise.”

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Join Us on the Tons River!

As the mercury climbs and we all brace ourselves for another blistering summer, it’s time to start planning a getaway!  We have just the answer – exploring the area around the marvellous Tons River.

Where is the Tons?

The Tons River originates from the glaciers of the Har-Ki-Dun region in northwest Garhwal bordering Himachal Pradesh, and is the primary tributary of the Yamuna. It is a river runner’s dream come true as it percolates through the evergreen forests of the middle Himalayan ranges through a series of Class 3- 4 + rapids that equal any in the world.

The HRR Tons Base Camp
Himalayan River Runners Tons Base Camp is located 160 km from Shimla and 140 km from Mussourie. The Base Camp's idyllic location in a pine forest on the banks of the Tons River, at 4000 ft in the secluded Tons valley, makes for a wonderful setting.  Anyone who wants to spend time in the heart of nature will love this place!  And there are plenty of activities to keep everyone happy.

Accommodation at the base camp is in large deluxe tents on a twin share basis. Each tent has two camp cots, a small table and two chairs. The tents are set amidst pine groves with glimpses of the river and set apart from each other so that each enjoys relative privacy.
Toilets are dry pit western style, in keeping with environmental standards. And there are even facilities for hot showers!

The food served is a mixture of continental and Indian and caters to the international palate.

So Much to Do!
With so many activities available, your days will pass in a flash!  You can do a 2-3 hour long white water rafting trip on the 'river without peer'.  Or arrange a day hike, carrying a packed picnic lunch and returning to the base camp at night.  For anyone interested in an overnight trek, there is one that will take you up to a good vantage point to see the snow-capped Himalayas. 

Some of the well known treks in the HRR repertoire that originate from the Tons Base camp are the challenging Buran Pass, the moderate Ruinsara and many other alpine meadow treks from easy to moderate and moderate+, such as the Kedar Kantha meadows trek.  Please see our website ( for more details.

Other activities include bird watching, trout fishing in virgin waters and long swims in idyllic forest pools.  For those looking for something more physical, rock climbing, rappelling and mountain biking are also available.

Don’t Delay!
Our Tons Base Camp opens on 01 June and is operational until 30 June.  Don’t miss this golden opportunity to enjoy clean air, refreshing waters and the bliss and serenity of being in nature! 

For information call:  91-11-2685-2602 / 91-11-2696-8169
Or email:

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Ganges River as Sacred Geography

The Ganges is hugely significant for Hindus because they believe that bathing in the river remits sins and releases the soul from the cycle of life and death. That’s why people travel to the Ganges to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in her sacred waters. How did the Ganges become so important? There are several reasons. 

The Ganges is the personification of the goddess Ganga, who represents purity and holiness because she first existed as the pure water of the heavens. Bathing in her waters is very powerful, and even simply looking at the Ganges assures sanctity. Like rivers everywhere, the Ganges is a symbol of plenty and prosperity because she provides sustenance for many people. Added to all of this is Ganga’s association with the gods Vishnu and Shiva, which makes her even more potent.

Birth of Ganga 
Ganga was born when Vishnu stretched his left foot to the end of the universe in order to measure it. The nail on his big toe pierced a hole in the covering of the universe and out poured heavenly water. The water washed over Vishnu’s feet and entered our universe, becoming the Milky Way. Befitting her celestial origins and her association with Vishnu, Ganga was extremely beautiful and extremely proud.

Several years later, there was a king named Sagara who had 60,000 sons. The sons, while searching for a horse for Sagara, managed to disturb a hermit sage while he was meditating. The sage, by the name of Kapila, was so enraged at having his peace shattered that he burned the 60,000 to ashes with a single glance. Their unfortunate souls wandered the earth because their final rites had not been performed. 

Ganga and Shiva
Sagara’s great-grandson, Bhagirath, wanted to purify his ancestors’ ashes so their souls could enter heaven. To accomplish this, he needed Ganga to descend to earth and flow over the ashes. However, Bhagirath knew that Ganga was so powerful that her strength would shatter the earth as she fell from the heavens.  So he convinced Shiva to let the heavenly waters land first on his head and then flow through his matted hair.  Shiva agreed, and Ganga, annoyed and insulted at being ordered to perform the task, decided to drown Shiva. But she hadn’t counted on Shiva’s great power, so instead of wreaking havoc and destruction, Ganga found herself trapped within Shiva’s hair. Once trapped, she flowed benevolently to earth and became the all important Ganges River.

The story of Ganga is an important theme in Indian art and culture. You’ll find her on the doorways of temples across India. In the south, she appears on both jambs, and in the north, she is on one jamb and Yamuna (the personification of the Jamna River) is on the other. You’ll also find Ganga in the caves in Ajanta and Elephanta. So the next time you find yourself in the waters of the Ganges, treat the goddess with the respect she deserves!

Photo: Sunset over the Ganga by mckaysavage, reproduced under a Creative Commons license from Flickr

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Running the Ganga Gorge - Different Classes of Rapids

If you're new to white water rafting, one of the terms you'll learn is the Grade (or Class) given to a river or a stretch of water.  This grade indicates the level of difficulty of the rapids.

The Ganga gorge above Rishikesh has 13 exciting white water rapids ranging from Grade I to Grade 4 on the International Scale of River Difficulty.  All have catchy names which feature in rafting folklore. Here’s an introduction to the rapids of different grades you can tackle from Himalayan River Runners Ganga Base Camp.

Sweet Sixteen (Grade/Class 1)
This gentle rapid features an easy, slow-moving current. The waves are small, passages are clear and there are no serious obstacles.  You only need very basic skills for Sweet Sixteen.

Double Trouble, Hilton and Terminator (Grade/Class 2)
The stretch of river from Brahmpuri to Rishikesh has a range of Grade 2 rapids and is an excellent introduction to white water rafting.

Double Trouble, Hilton and Terminator are among the famous Class 2 rapids on this section. The whitecaps are bouncy enough to be exciting but not large enough to need more than basic paddling skills and this section is perfect for beginners and children. You’ll hear squeals of excitement from the kids as the raft bucks through the waves and everyone gets a splashing.

Three Blind Mice, Cross Fire, Roller Coaster and Golf Course (Grade/Class 3)
These are thrilling rapids requiring some technical manoeuvres. Three Blind Mice is actually three rapids in quick succession, hence the name. Expect churning waters and a bouncy ride.
There are also exciting waves at Crossfire, a small rapid with a narrow passage and a small whirlpool.

Roller Coaster lives up to its name. You’ll certainly go up and down on this stretch of thrashing whitewater. It’s a more difficult Grade 3 rapid and could be Grade 4 at certain river levels. It has high and unpredictable waves plus hazardous rocks and boiling eddies.

Don’t be fooled by the gentle name of Golf Course. With its fast-flowing current and powerful breakers, this is a heart-pounding run rather than a quiet game of golf! It’s one of three rapids in succession with a golfing theme. Start with Tee Off (easy Grade 2), go into Golf Course, (Grade 3 plus) and end at Club House.

The Wall (Grade/Class 4)
The legendary Wall is the Ganga’s most thrilling and challenging rapid. Rafters are tossed around like a cork on wild chaotic water before facing a huge trough and the monstrous wall of water that gives the rapid its name.  An adrenalin rush is guaranteed even for the most experienced river runners!

Safety for all
Keep in mind that the grade of the rapids is a broad indication and is not linear or fixed.  Individual rapids can be more or less difficult depending on water flow in the river.

Himalayan River Runners pays careful attention to the ranking assigned to every river we raft or kayak.  We emphasise safety for everyone and ensure that you have the skills needed for any river adventure. 

On the Ganga it is easy to get out of the raft and walk along the bank. So if you feel nervous about any rapid, you can just walk around it.