Heading out before 6:30 you can see the town as if there were no tourists (they are still sleeping). The locals can reclaim their streets and are busy getting ready for the day. Teams of mules and horses loaded with packs are driven through the streets. Street vendors who have to carry their entire store with them day and night are setting up along the side of the roads. Store vendors who only have to move things inside at night are moving display cases out onto the street and hanging everything else from awnings to attract passers-by. Men push huge carts loaded with fruits and vegetables to their self-designated spot on the main road.
Many are still sleeping. In India, homelessness is not a problem, it is a way of life. To many who live in the cities, the cost of a house or apartment is far beyond their means. In Delhi, thousands sleep on the grass and benches of the city parks. Sadhus sleep at the banks of the Ganges on the steps of the ghats. They have a bamboo mat and a blanket, which they roll up and sling over their backs with a piece of string during the day. That and a pot for water and a cup for money are all they own. Beggars will often sleep in the alleys and side streets. Many people sleep where they work. Most shops that you visit have cots set up in back where the owner's family sleeps. At each hotel that I have stayed at, if you come downstairs early, you have to step over the sleeping bodies of the hotel staff on the floor, tables or cots. In the morning everyone ignores you, and you can walk unhindered, just observing.
I met up with Jim from England who is 45 and will be joining his 21 year old son next week to travel together. We hit it off right away and decided to hike into the hills in the afternoon to get some exercise. We headed up a path to a forest road behind the hotel. It was a beautiful hike with the Ganges valley on our right and the tropical forests of the Himalayan foothills on our left (and all around us).
We met very few cars or trucks, but many locals who walk this road daily from their homes to town. Many ignore us, but some stop to chat. Mostly they want to know which country we are from, where we are going, and what do we think of India. It's still the monsoon season, and it had been raining all morning. A light rain was falling as we left. My boots were soaked from wading through temporary rivers that ran across the road. We even passed waterfalls that splash over the high banks of the road.
We turned around after two hours and headed back. The sun sets early here (6:00) and by 6:30 it was dark. We hiked another 1/2 hour in the dark by following a local man and his son into town. About 22 km total. Ate a huge dinner afterwards!
The streets of Rishikesh really come alive at night. It is like walking in a dream. It reminds me of a carnival midway, or a chaotic mid-east bazaar. The strangeness that you can handle during the day seems more fantastic by night. The people seem to leap out at you from the dark streets.
On the platforms at the top of each ghat, pilgrims and holy men gather to pray and sing and chant, sitting around huge bon-fires. The ashrams are brightly lit with streams of people coming and going in and out. Pilgrims bathe in the river by torchlight and others light glowing orbs that float and send them downstream. Families gather by the river and light incense and hold private ceremonies. The lights and fires from the opposite bank light up the river with red and orange streaks. Hanuman the monkey god is making his rounds, offering to paint an orange streak on your forehead and say prayers for you.
The image of Rishikesh as India's spiritual Disneyland is quite accurate. Imagine what the average Indian would think if a 7 ft mouse and dog approached them in the dark. Much of this is really gimmicks for the Hindu tourist, and is meant for fun and entertainment. For example: when I first got into town I saw, sitting on a chair on the top of a table at the front of a restaurant, two young men covered in purple paint with mystical symbols all over their bodies, wearing only a loin-cloth and ringing bells. I really couldn't handle it and had to move on to something more familiar. But they are only kids dressed up as a popular Hindu deities to try to lure people into the restaurant. No different than a guy in a mouse costume at Chucky Cheese pizza. The pilgrims love it and take family photographs with them. And after a while one gets used to it; it's all part of the adventure, no big deal.