The Accessible Himalaya
Visits to Sacred Spots Builds Karma
Travel in India is difficult for everyone, but don’t get discouraged. My friend Ben, a double-leg-amputee, desperately wanted to visit the areas near Rishikesh, and he did. Indians believe that effort and expense build good karma, especially travel to hard-to-reach spots. The more difficult, the more good karma you acquire for this lifetime and the next. Disabled travelers are much respected for this reason. To start, fly to New Delhi. (Remember that visas are not available upon arrival in India. Obtain your visa at an Indian Embassy; U.S. citizens can order them online.
Before-You-Go Web Sites
www.state.gov/travel (exchange rates, emergency numbers, health info, etc.);
www.cia.gov/publications/factbook/geos/in (country facts);
www.toursofindia.com/fot/links (Indian govt. tourism office locations);
www.incredibleindia.org (visa regs);
www.lonelyplanet.com/india (maps, information about Rishikesh, etc.).
If you arrive at New Delhi International Airport before 6 p.m., you can book your train at the airport. The train reservation counter is to your left as you exit the airport through the green channel of customs. Ask an Indian army staff person for the train reservation counter. There is no charge for any service other than baggage porters. Do not give people money.
The New Delhi airport is wheelchair accessible, and staff people are accustomed to disabled and ill citizens.
If you arrive after 6 p.m., make your train reservations at 9 a.m. at the New Delhi Railway Station’s International Tourist Bureau, second floor. The staff speak great English and railway bookings are quickly done by computer. It’s a great place to unkink from travel. Seats and berths are allocated for non-Indian travelers.
Delhi to Rishkesh
Bus tickets to Rishkesh from Delhi must be bought at the New Delhi bus company office near Majnu-ka-tilla. I take the Shatabdi Express, 2nd class, air conditioned. This is comfortable, private, and inexpensive. The trip takes eight hours.
You can also book your train trip to visit Mcleodganj/Upper Dharamsala here. Go to Patankot. From there, get a local bus to Mcleodganj. A railway porter will direct you. The fee is around 30 rupees.
Be sure to book a room weeks in advance (see below). You can always change when you’re settled. Monasteries and ashrams (Hindu monasteries) rent rooms in separate buildings for the many travelers, and the income helps support them. You are not expected to attend services or participate in any way.
Sadhana Mandir (Swami Rama’s Ashram). Get directions to the ashram when you book the room. Ground-level rooms and cottages are wheelchair accessible. Excellent vegetarian food. On the sacred Ganges river. Free daily bus into HIHT hospital daily, 7 a.m. Very reasonable rates, no charge if you’re for clergy. Tel. 0135-412-081, 082, 083 and 0135-413693; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sivananda/Divine Life Society Ashram. Go to the Sivananda Office, next to the Swami General’s office and hospital. Free meditation classes held daily at this swami’s office, 5 p.m. Swami Jivanmuktananda’s visiting hours for curiosity, questions, personal guidance are Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. Large, clean rooms. Private rooms available on request. Good food. Largest ashram in town with many services daily, all free. Ask at the office for wheelchair accessibility, free daily yoga classes, and further travel into the Himalaya. Tel. 0135-430640. Donation for room charge.
Other large ashrams, some wheelchair accessible, are across the Ganges river bridge. Ask for a porter’s help if you’re a wheelchair user.
Mcleodganj, Upper Dharamsala: Many buildings have stairs, but guesthouses with ground-floor rooms are wheelchair accessible.
Pema Thang: For long-term stays. Rooms have kitchens. Near the Dalai Lama’s temples and many monasteries. Check www.pemathang.com/contact.html for price.
Chonor House: Near Pema Thang and the Dalai Lama’s temples. $30 per night. See Dechen, the Tibetan manager, and his efficient staff for specifics. Outdoor garden, restaurant.
The Dalai Lama’s monastery, Namgyal Monastery: Go to the monastery office (turn left after the first flight of steps). 180 rupees per day.
Chinmaya Tapovan Ashram, lower Dharamsala (near HH The Karmapa’s residence/the Dalai Lama’s monastery, Gyuto): Room with meals included, 180 rupees per day. Speak with Mr. Pye. Sandeepany Himalayas, Sidhabari, Himachal Pradesh 176 057, 011-91-1892-23425/ 234324; fax 1892-236199; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.chinmayamission.org.
Sivananda/Divine Life Society: Rajpat Nagar, New Delhi, 6461061. Call the Rishikesh office at 0135-430640 if the lines are busy.
Majnu-ka-tilla, Tibetan New Camp: Tibetan refugees who arrived in India with the Dalai Lama in 1959 now operate guesthouses for visitors. Here is a partial list with phone numbers; use New Delhi codes. Most are very reasonable (150 rupees). Little English beyond reserving a room.
Gomang Guest House, 3932537; Ladakhi Monastery, 3520455; Loling Jangchup Choling, 3441856; Loseling Guest House, 3939436; Norling Guest House, 3939436/3942292; Sakya Guest House and New Sakya, 3937193 (wheelchair accessible, English; Sera Je Monastery (end of tourist road to the left); Sherig Pharkhang, 3932531. Check for ground-floor rooms.
In Majnu-ka-tilla you can buy bus tickets to Mcloeldganj and catch the direct bus there, too (350 rupees, 12 hours, daily at 6:30 and 7 p.m, not wheelchair accessible).Visit the Tibetan Buddhist temple while you’re there. Mornings and evenings it’s packed with families chanting prayers and incantations. The two temples welcome visitors. Before entering the temple, slip your shoes off. If the monk in charge sees you, he’ll come out to help you up the short flight of steps into the temple. Ask for help from people if you need it. Palm up, using your entire hand and all fingers, point at the temple door.
An autorickshaw from the New Delhi train station to Majnu-ka-tilla costs about 80 rupees. From the airport the charge is 250 rupees for a taxi. The airport bus is wide and costs 15 rupees, with kind staff it drops you at New Delhi train station.
Travel in the Sacred Himalaya
Upon arriving in Rishikesh, or any station you want to stop at, call to a baggage porter while you’re still in the train; this is normal behavior for everyone. Say “Loading,” and point at the things you want moved, including yourself if this is what you need. Porters generally charge very reasonable fees.
An option: Take an autrorickshaw to Rishikesh. Get off the bus at the Rishikesh stationyard, and hire another autorickshaw (20 rupees) to take you to a wheelchair-accessible ashram.
All Uttarpradesh has been a sacred area for thousands of years: an exotic world with scores of beautiful temples, painted religious men carrying shrines on red poles, sari-clad ladies in saris with trays of flowers and tiny lamps and more. Hindus and Buddhists alike feel that this land belongs to Lord Shiva.
When travelers see India’s great need, they want to volunteer. Check with the various ashrams and hospitals and speak with the Swami General when possible. Sometimes the ashrams rely exclusively on their devotees and monastics.
Dehra Dun: HH Sakya Trizin Rinpoche and his family (one of the Dalai Lama’s assistants in exile). Rajpur Road (peaceful suburb of Dehra Dun). Visiting hours Monday-Friday: 9-11 a.m. Ask him directly; he speaks excellent English. The hospital is attached to his monastery. His sister, Jetsun Kusho Rinpoche, needs help at her headquarters in Canada. Sakya Trizin Rinpoche’s phone: 0135-234081 or 234011.
Sai Baba Mandir (temple) Dehra Dun: Rajpur Road. Visit the temple next to Sakya Trizin’s monastery and inquire there.
To make your plans you can contact the Dalai Lama’s office at email@example.com to learn when he’ll be in Mcleodganj. The Dalai Lama gives free classes at his temple.
The Dalai Lama’s temple is not completely wheelchair accessible. Plan to hire a porter to carry you up the three short and one long flight of stairs. From the end of Temple Road there is a smoothly-paved ramp leading only as far as the temple’s Tibetan Buddhist bookshop and stairs with landings thereafter. The view of the Himalaya from here is famous. There are benches where you can rest and most are in wheelchair accessible areas.
To circumambulate the temples, follow others to the right. If people jostle you, reprimand them! It’s often crowded here
These are a few referrals for medical care. I’ve used them all.
Delhi: (for questions, referrals, consultations, great English). Drs. Manvir and Dhiraj Bhatia. Dr. Manvir Bhatia, Sri Ganga Ram Hospital Dept. of Neurology: 9811120548 (cell phone); email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Dhiraj Bhatia; 2651370 (home phone) or 9811189828 (cell); same email as above. Consulting office address: L-23, Gate #4, Aurobindo Road, Haus Khas Enclave, New Delhi, India. Sliding scale fees. State your budget.
Dentist: Dr. Soni’s Dental Clinic, 28 Feroze GhandiRoad, Lazpat Nagar, #3, New Delhi. Very skilled, good English. 500 rupees for cleaning.
Rishikesh/Dehra Dun area: HIHT Hospital. Wheelchair accessible. Frequent shared autorickshaws to and from Rishikesh, 10 rupees. Can be reached from Dehra Dun by autorickshaw. Modern, clean, founded by a well-educated Indian saint, Swami Rama. Contact the Neurology department and Holistic Health department head for personal guidance. Note: the yoga therapy department is famous. Tel. 0135-412044; email@example.com. Reasonable fees (less than $1).
Rishikesh proper: Sivananda/Divine Life Society, hospital in Ram Jhulla, Rishikesh, next to the Sivananda Ashram Office. (Say “Sivananda Office” to the local, shared autorickshaw/private autorickshaw. You’ll get there ASAP. Very reasonable fees.
Mcleodganj, Upper Dharamsala. Delek Hospital Branch Clinic, Bhagsunath Road (near the Dalai Lama’s Security Office). Experienced Tibetan nurse practitioners treat most problems and injuries. Western volunteer physical therapists. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. M-F. Very reasonable fees (under $1 for visit and medicine).
Delek Hospital, Tibetan Government in Exile. Western volunteer doctors, Tibetan nurses, dentists. Mornings are best, M-F. Take an autorickshaw or taxi to this area, 60 rupees (no local transport). Under $1.
Optometrist: Tibetan Childrens Village. (I recommend this service; avoid local Indian care!) Mornings best. Take autorickshaw (20 rupees) or shared jeep (5 rupees) to Forsythe Ganj. A long journey up the mountain past lovely Dahl Lake to this Tibetan orphanage based on Montessori; Tel. 0182-21354. Very reasonable fees for exams; no glasses made. (Kamla Nagar in New Delhi is good. Also Unique Opticals. All are fast, cheap, and reliable.)
The Dalai Lama’s former doctor, Dr. Yeshe Donden, has a private practice on Post Office (Jogibhara) Road. (Ask a local for directions.) He’s often lecturing in at the Univ. of Virginia, but his translator is also a good Tibetan doctor who keeps the office open all year. Very reasonable fees.
Note: Tell all doctors the specifics of your condition and any sensitivities to drugs or foods. Bring x-rays and test results if you have them. Take the RXs exactly as directed, and get the office phone number in case of problems. Use your good judgment. I discontinued all herbal and vitamin therapies; my very low blood pressure worsened. I do not recommend consulting Rishikesh’s ayurvedic pharmacies, which cater mostly to local pilgrims.
Mary Ann Davis is a pianist, writer, and photographer. She left Nepal because of its increasingly violent civil war. She taught, wrote and illustrated books for Tibetan refugees in India.