Yoga International Day 2016 was celebrated by millions the world over on June 21.
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi mingles with the attendees at Chandigarh after the yoga exercises.
The 30m Siva statue in Haridwar.
Rishikesh and the River Ganges.
Parmarth Niketan Ashram.
Ganga aarti ceremony at Haridwar.
Rishikesh’s sports activities include rafting and kayaking along the River Ganges.

R.Gowri gains insight into the wellness programmes and spiritual landscape of some of the cities of North India

INDIA’S health tourism undoubtedly embraces the ancient practices of yoga and ayurveda. Thousands visit the spiritual and wellness centres there where these usually go hand in hand.

Yoga, especially, has been revolutionised in the West, into physical exercises that some claim are distant from its true practice and philosophy. So what better place to observe and learn about this system for achieving mental and physical balance than in the land in which it was born.

This year’s Yoga International Day held on June 21 was special for me. On the invitation of India Tourism, I found myself, together with a small delegation of journos, walking down the pavements of Chandigarh at 3.30am, amidst heavy security along the thoroughfares of this capital city of Punjab and Haryana in north India.

Preparations for Yoga International Day had begun the day before but it had rained during the night. Would it rain this morning, when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is to participate in the second International Yoga Day since the United Nations declaration on Dec 11, 2014?

Thankfully, the sun’s rays cleared up the puddles and eagles soared in the sky above as some 30,000 people seated themselves on colourful yoga mats on the green before the Capitol Complex building, designated a World Heritage site by Unesco.

The complex is a massive modernist structure by the architect Le Corbusier, and houses the seat of governments of the two states. Within its 100-acre grounds is the gigantic Open Hand, a metallic sculpture, Chandigarh’s emblem that stands for “Open to give”, “Open to receive”.

Modi arrived on time. Passionately he espoused on the benefits of yoga practice. Stepping down from the stage thereafter, he sat barefoot on a red mat amongst a section of the crowd and launched into yoga asanas (postures) as two young men on a platform gave instructions in Hindi and English. Six yoga adepts behind them showed the people the way.

Senior citizens, young children, civil servants, the disabled in wheelchairs — people of all faiths and races — stretched and turned and breathed in and out simultaneously. It stood to confirm what the Prime Minister of India had said earlier about the ancient practice. “Yoga is not a religious activity... Yoga is the science of this world, helping to synchronise body, mind and soul. Yoga is for believers and non-believers.”

GARDENS OF CHANDIGARH

The first planned city after India’s independence under Le Corbusier’s hand, Chandigarh is arranged in a grid, dotted with parks and boulevards. It is definitely the cleanest and most well-kept city I have visited in India. Several other architects have contributed in making Chandigarh a well-planned urban hub.

There are swanky restaurants and malls and its prosperity is evident; many business tycoons have made this city their home. The foremost tourist attraction here seems to be the 40-acre Rock Garden in Sector No.1.

It was created by the self-taught artist and government servant Nek Chand, and within its labyrinth of paths, shaded by giant trees with meandering branches, are 2,000 curious but enchanting statues placed along walls, embankments and in unexpected corners. There are also amphitheatres — one large one has giant swings. Following the trails I pass under low arches, squeeze through narrow passages, cross bridges and streams, climb steps carved out of rock, and thrill in the spray from waterfalls. Nature entwines with art here and it would take half a day to truly appreciate it all in leisurely fashion. A word of advice: Arm yourself with a bottle of water, wear non-slip sandals and keep the kids in view as it’s easy to get lost here. It’s a great place to snap selfies beside the multitudes of statues made entirely from throwaway materials.

Chandigarh is linked to New Delhi by air, road (246km) and rail.

STEPS OF GOD IN HARIDWAR

We continue our journey onward to places famed for their ashrams and yoga practices and arrive at Haridwar (212km from New Delhi, 203km from Chandigarh), one of the seven holiest cities in India and situated in the state of Uttarakhand.

The main draw in the city termed the Gateway (dwar) to God (hari) are the shrines on the banks of the Ganga. Here on the ghats (Har ki Pauri), pilgrims gather to immerse in the waters of the holy Ganges, to cleanse themselves of sin.

A 30m-tall statue of Lord Shiva nearby presides over the city. Haridwar (or Hardwar) is a main pilgrimage site and one of the four places in which the largest of Hindu religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, is held, every 12 years.

It is also famous for its daily Ganga aarti or Prayer for Goddess Ganga, by the river at sunrise and sunset. The sunset worship is very surreal. It is a beautiful atmosphere which anyone can enjoy. My companions and I take our positions on the other side of the river from the shrines (bring along a newspaper or a plastic sheet to place on the floor).

As the sun casts its last rays on the now swiftly flowing waters of the Ganges, a row of pundits line up on the steps holding multi-tiered lamps. They make offerings of flowers and sweets to the deities and holy chants vibrate loud and clear from speakers. As the beautiful aarti song of the Goddess Ganga is finally sung, the fire from the lamps glow even more brightly in the descending darkness and the bells are rung. There is a fervour and yet, along with it, a sense of peace and beauty.

Be sure to arrive an hour early for the sunset aarti to get a good “front row seat” on the ghat. The aarti ceremony on auspicious days is especially splendid. Vendors sell pretty leaf bowl diyas (lamps) with marigold to float on the river as offerings for ancestors or the gods.

Just a little distance from the banks is the huge outdoor Moti bazaar. The shopping here is worthwhile, especially for traditional Indian apparel, fabrics, jewellery, spices and utensils made of copper, stainless steel and brass. Haggling is expected except in stalls where it is clearly stated “fixed prices”. I tried but failed to budge the vendor with the “fixed price”.

Haridwar is not a beautiful city, so don’t expect orderly traffic or proper management of refuse. But for the culturally curious, it is intrinsically mystic India, where mendicants, sadhus and wealthy merchants alike come to worship. Take some moments to be still and notwithstanding the seeming chaos, its fascinating personality comes through.

On a hilltop of the Sivalik Hills, a little distance from the ghat (about 5km) are two more temples, the Mansa Devi Temple and Chandi Devi Temple. Take the cable car from within the city or walk 1½km up the hill. Tickets are less than 50 rupees (RM3) for a return but on festival days, the queues are very long. Another temple of astounding beauty is the saffron-coloured Jain temple on Rishikesh Marg, Haridwar, made of intricately carved Jaisalmer stone.

HEALTH IS WEALTH

The saying “health is wealth” must be the cornerstone of the Patanjali Yogpeeth under the guidance of Swami Baba Ramdev. He is among the most popular yoga teachers in India and led the Yoga International Day celebrations in Faridabad.

Yog means “to unite” and peeth, “centre”. Patanjali refers to the compiler of the ancient texts on classical yoga, the Yoga Sutras.

Baba Ramdev founded the Patanjali group of institutions. His ashram and the Yogpeeth on the Delhi - Haridwar National Highway, about 18km by road from Haridwar, is one of the largest places in India in which to learn classical yoga. Free daily classes are offered at hourly intervals. Yoga camps are held regularly, with food and lodging provided at a fee.

There is also a hospital that treats thousands daily. It offers free medical consultancy. There are ayurveda treatments, diagnostic services and surgical procedures, child delivery, cancer treatment, lasers for glaucoma, and in fact, diagnosis and treatments for most ailments. It even has a dental clinic for implants and root canal treatment.

The Patanjali research centre with its team of scientists conducts R&D into naturopathy and ayurveda for promoting health and well-being, and for synchronising modern medicine with the traditional in a beneficial way. There just isn’t time enough to tour all of the buildings here but certainly time enough for a simple but tasty vegetarian lunch in one of the food halls.

The products manufactured and sold here are based on ayurvedic research and include beauty and healthcare products, also foods like vegetarian oat biscuits, which receives unanimous lip-smacking approval from our group.

The University of Patanjali offers degrees in yoga science and health. Enter the gates of the Yogpeeth Phase I and II and a metropolis of Vedic science and modern facilities lies within.

RISHIKESH

This city known for its rishis (sages) and yoga practice is 25km by road from Haridwar and 242km from Delhi. Known as the Gateway to the Lower Himalayas (Garhwal Himalaya), the city lies on both sides ofthe Ganges that flows through. Here ashrams, which also act as yoga centres, abound. In fact Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world. It is forbidden to bring any meat, meat based-products or alcohol into the city.

Parmarth Niketan is the largest ashram in Rishikesh and one of the largest spiritual institutions in India. It has welcomed the British royalty as well as leaders of the world who have participated in its ceremonies. It is located in Swargashram (meaning heavenly abode, on the left bank of the Ganges).

Our visit was to experience a yoga session in the early morning and then a yajna (a ritual of offerings into a sacred fire) and the famous aarti by the Ganges.

The evening ceremonies conducted by the swami, H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, amid throngs of tourists and worshippers to the singing of hymns and chants, is uplifting to all who have gathered here from various parts of the world — the various races and faiths joining in a prayer for blessings, peace and unity.

The ashram offers yoga programmes for beginners and those who wish to instruct in yoga. It specialises in Vinyasa yoga, Hatha yoga and yoga Nidra as taught by the sages.

Also worth visiting in Rishikesh is the 13-storey Trayambakeshwar Temple on the east bank of the Ganges at Lakshman Jhula Bridge. Legend has it Lord Rama’s brother Lakshman crossed the Ganges on jute ropes between the sites where this bridge is built.

Rishikesh has its other attractions and sports activities here in the lap of the Himalayas include mountain climbing, camping, horse riding and river rafting. Unfortunately, these were not on the agenda for us. There are also several high-end holistic wellness centres for rejuvenation of the body.

Shopping is eclectic and here you’ll find crystals and gemstones, statues, organic products, music instruments and interesting bookshops. But prices can be steep.

Next week: Journey to South India

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