Rishikesh, the self-dubbed 'Yoga Capital of the World' is spiritual consumerist central and in amongst the ashrams and gurus it can be difficult to find a truly authentic experience. I found one 22 kilometres out of the main tourist area of Ram Jhula at Neelkanth Temple.
Located on a mountain top at around 1,000 metres in the Pauri Garhwal region, it is a temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Neelkanth means 'the blue throated one' and legend has it that Lord Shiva swallowed poison from the sea during the infamous 'churning of the ocean of milk' that you see referenced in many temples in India and Asia. As a result his throat turned blue.
We started out early, very early in fact, which I would recommend would-be visitors do before temperatures begin to soar. Beginning the day at 6am as Rishikesh awoke around us, I met my friend in the centre of Ram Jhula Bridge. The wind whooshed through the railings and the holy river Ganges roared beneath us. It was exhilarating.
The entrance to the trail begins after the Swarg Ashram (just ask any local to point you in the right direction). If you pass a very large Shiva 'lingum' (phallus shaped statue that represents the god) on your left hand side, you are going the right way.
The walk itself is an extremely pleasant (although steep at times) hike. Don't forget to have breakfast and take water - there are many little chai wallah and sweet stalls along the way but you won't be able to get a decent meal until you arrive. There is the usual assortment of Indian 'dhabas' or local restaurants at the top.
As is customary, we bought a 'darshan' plate full of offerings, including honey, water, sweet 'prasad' or food and pictures of Shiva. Worshippers line up to crowd through the inner sanctum where you can take a glimpse of the deity (a representation of the God) and you offer the gifts of your plate. A common Shiva worship ritual is the pouring of the sacred water onto the lingum. There is also a smaller sanctum where an agni (sacred fire) burns and you can be blessed by a priest who will mark your forehead with 'tikka' in the shape of a trident - Shiva's characteristic three-pointed fork.
After a 22 kilometre hike, you won't want to be walking down in a hurry. Luckily, there are plenty of share jeeps available to hunker down in with far too many people than health and safety requirements would deem appropriate. All part and parcel of the classic Indian experience.