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Female tourists should not wear skirts in India, says tourism minister

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If you’re a woman travelling to India, you may have been issued a ‘welcome kit’ upon arrival, which lists dos’ and don’ts for your own safety. In addition, tourism minister Mahesh Sharma, in a press conference over the weekend, has said: “For their own safety, women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts … Indian culture is different from the western.”

He also suggested that women shouldn’t go out alone at night in the country’s small towns and cities, and that they should take a photo of the vehicle number plate whenever they travel and send it to friends “for their own safety”.

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The Hills are Alive in Kerala

Straddling the ridge

Straddling the ridge

A sliver of land in southern India, Kerala is a lush landscape that’s bordered by the ocean on one side and the mountains of the Western Ghats on the other. If you have time to spare away from its backwaters and coastal towns, Kerala’s mountainous interior offers visitors a window into Kerala’s wilder (and cooler) side.

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Kerala: Land of Happy People

All tuktuk drivers seem to have marigold charms

The signature hammer-and-sickle red flags are posted almost everywhere you look. Building walls are adorned with colourful graffiti and posters with ‘CCCP’-style icons emblazoned on them. If you’ve just been plunked here, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in some surreal, Stallinist beach resort, but fear not. This is a holiday, and there’s no food rationing or hard labour here. This is Kerala after all, home of the happiest communists on earth.

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Rishikesh: On Spirituality, Rafting and Reincarnation

Rishikesh

Rishikesh has long been affiliated with spiritualism, wandering saddhus with mile-long hair and/or beards, and obligatory visiting dreadlocked hippies. A hotspot for yogis and yoga centres, there is no shortage of temples and ashrams open to any traveller looking to seek inner peace amongst the hustle and bustle of this busy little town. To add to its whole mantra of spirituality, this town is strictly vegetarian, so no meat can be found in any menu.

Veggie fare

Veggie fare, including a dubious-looking pizza

The town is nestled amidst the towering mountains of the Himalayas, with the Ganges flowing through it, essentially separating the town into 2 portions. Two suspension bridges connect the 2 portions – which can get busy when it’s packed with pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the occasional cow. The river is sacred here, and you can often see devotees taking a dip in its freezing cold waters along the ghats (steps) – it’s not such a pretty sight when you see male bathers who’ve had one too many chappatis, wearing nothing more than your average supermarket tighty whities.

Everywhere you go, the air is rife with incense, tuktuk fumes and the odd cow pat aroma. Yet, these don’t deter any spiritual seeker – you can easily identify them with their rather vacant gaze who respond to the word ‘Ohm’. And spiritual seekers come in droves – if you’ve travelled to other parts of the state and wondered where all the travellers have gone to – it’s right here. And it’s not just the hippies who come – Rishikesh is also where the world-famous Ananda Spa is located; voted as the ‘World’s No. 1 Spa’ by Conde Nast Traveller 3 years in a row, its celebrity clientele like Ricky Martin fly in by private helicopter.

Those who do stop over here should not miss the daily evening puja – a fire ritual held by the ghats along the river. Everyone at the temple (including visitors) partakes in this social event, where much chanting, fire-waving and singing happens. It’s definitely a picturesque ‘kumbaya’ session involving saffron-clad boys, bearded saddhus and the odd confused tourist.

Evening Puja. Does the head priest look bored?

RAFTING IN RISHIKESH
Another reason so many people come here is to get away from it all. Especially people from nearby cities like Delhi, who come in large groups to go camping and rafting. Indeed, rafting in Rishikesh has made a splash amongst adventure seekers in the last decade. Plenty of rafting operators (at last count, there were around 40) line the streets in town, offering combinations of rafting, riverside camping and trekking. In fact, Rishikesh is also a meeting ground and starting point for most trekking trips into the Himalayas, as it has the most ground logistics, and plenty of hardcore adventurers rub shoulders with spiritual seekers here.

Depending on the operator and the rafting option (ie. the full or half day), you will put in upriver at different points from Rishikesh. The level of operators vary, but there are plenty that offer excellent services and equipment, like Red Chilli Adventures.

Rafting at Rishikesh

One of the rapids

After the preliminary safety briefing, guides would normally get you acquainted with the river – which means an icy cold dip off the raft. As spring is the best rafting season, you’ll essentially be rafting in meltwater, which is kept icy cool by its location high in the mountains. So pay attention to pre-trip advice when they say ‘wear long-sleeved, non-cotton material’ – just because it’s hot or sunny in Rishikesh doesn’t mean you can’t freeze your butt off in the river.

Once you’re shivering on board, your rafting adventure begins with a few small rapids with silly names – and some guides might get you to do silly things like standing up on the edge of the raft over such rapids. After a few laughs, the real rapids begin (these are at Grade III-IV depending on the season), and the silly names continue, with rapids like Three Blind Mice that involve 3 rapid successions of whitewater.

Raft turnovers aren’t uncommon in challenging portions of rapids, but most adept guides are good at what they do. Besides, rafts are accompanied by spotters on kayaks at all times – and even if you do end up in the water, remember that it’s holy water and many would travel for miles to dip in it.

Picturesque rafting

Picturesque Himalayas

River Camping
If you want to stay near the river but away from the din of the town, plenty of river camps line the Ganges. These campsites are full board, as it’s hard to get in and out of the site at night. There’s no electricity, so you’ll need your own torchlight everywhere you go – including the sand toilets which are a distance from the tents. What you do get in return is an amazingly crisp view of the starry sky with the peaceful lap of the river nearby, and your feet in the powder soft sand. Unless of course, you picked the campsites that are just off the main road where trucks and lorries seem to be the only road users – but in any case, traffic is minimal, as there are no street lights for miles.

If you’ve been to Rishikesh, or want to, do drop us a line!