Asia | India – The Great Ganges
I have spent the past two weeks in a place called Rishikesh; and I must say that it has been a difficult place to leave. I was fighting the flu (nothing too exotic) and feeling the first vibrations of an old knee injury; but the latter as reasons for staying here, really do not do this place the justice it deserves. Like anywhere, when one remains long enough, the initial guise of an area slips away, and the hidden niches of a locale begin to unfold.
Rishikesh is a bustling market town, complete with dirt roads and wailing street vendors. Start to head not more than a kilometer out of the main center and you find yourself in a world of shocking colour where beautiful women walk in electric pink and sky blue saris. This is the land of the Shadhus ‘babas”; skinny orange robed men who stroll around looking particularly reverend (especially the ones with big beards!) The dyes mix with the dusk along the great Ganga River. Peachy robes, vibrant dresses, and the last rays of sun blend into the vapours that float above the cool water surface.
This picture is created almost every evening in the Ramjhula district, which lies on both sides of the river and is connected by a long narrow bridge. The area known as Lukshmanjhula is similarly planned, and lies a further one kilometer up stream. I spent many an evening at the old river view chai cafe, watching people crossing the bridge towards the large yellow and orange thirteen story lakshman temple- its bright triangular tiers setting the opposite bank on fire. All the monkeys took the mandatory high road, and got to the other side by balancing along the loosely strung suspension ropes. Whenever I personally crossed, I was struck by the incredible degree of air conditioning the great river supplies for the town. – While standing in the middle, I could feel the strong cool breeze from the waters continuously rushing up to sooth my hot breath.
The lie of the land is wholly built around the praise and ceremony of the Ganges. Many of the small shops and temples fall along one central pedestrian road that follows the curve of the river. Between the clusters of Hindu excitement are stairs leading down towards little bays, which are flanked by numerous small concrete jetties. The shelter that this arrangement creates, allows people to bathe in the knowledge that only their sins will be washed away by the tumulus monsoon current. Then there are the episodic beaches of white sand and pebble. Many a time I expected to hear squawking seagulls overhead, but I have seen people meditating for hours on these stretches with only cows and crows for company.
There is another aspect to the Ramjula waterfront; that being the cool white stone terraces surrounded by strings of orange banisters. The contrastingly clean scene, almost looked like a rainbow had been projected over the image of ancient Greeks carrying their urns on the white marble next to the rivers.
Each evening, as the Indian mantras started to sing across the painted concrete, I would make my way down to the main temple terrace to join the Puja ceremony. The significance of this daily rite is manifold, but I was content simply to spend my two Rupees on a small bowl made out of banana leaves – delicately crafted, arranged with soft pink, red and orange petals; and topped with a deliciously lit waxy candle. The pleasure was to walk to the water edge and send this representative prayer (or wish) floating off into the great river. As the sky darkened it was possible to see hundreds of tiny flames gliding away. Mine was usually caught by the little eddies and sucked under; but there were those practiced hands who caught the streams of calm between the turbulence and watched their prayers materializing from far away.
My days here were not always so clear, and torrents of rain regularly flooded the streets. While the holy men crouched under ashram shelters praising the great God Shiva. I would find myself huddling under some overhanging roofs, lined up with a string of cows, asking favours from the gods of the small things (like umbrellas for example)
What fascinated me about the people, was the amount of space their skeletal frames took up. Whether sitting or lying down, their bodies all seemed to fold up and fit into eachother. Were it not for the pitch of colour it would become easy not to notice whole groups sitting together. Having said this, it was difficult not to see the hundreds of hairy men in my comparatively large very conspicuous face, shaking their tins and asking for money. There is a tradition whereby greetings are made with a slight bow of the head, hands pushed together in prayer position, and the words hare Aum repeated. I used to walk past and recite the gestures all through the day. What I appreciated about the ritual was that it became a very polite way of not giving someone money! I felt that at least I was affording either the beggars or the Babas (if you choose to distinguish between the two) with some degree of respect, as opposed to walking past and simply ignoring each one.
It is said that the Shadhus live holy lives and rely only on peoples goodwill to survive; but I think it should be noted that while traveling in these parts, it is useful to keep a healthy balance of belief and cynicism.
Many people who have heard of Rishikesh associate it with John Lennon who came here in the sixties in search of his Guru and it is said that he found one! Someone told me that finding a true holy man was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I think what is comforting is that the needle does exist. Whether you find it or not is another question. The place used to be inhabited solely by monks who virtuously followed the teachings of a Lama named Shivananda. The influx of tourists has (to some extent) distorted this. Not everyone, who wears a cross, is a saint, and there are those orange robes that are definitely in the market for mysticism and perhaps a little bit more. To believe that all Swamis have rejected worldly attachment is a little bit far fetched.
There seems to be a variety of models that fall under the category labeled Shadhu. Ive seen the somewhat colonial looking peachy robe upright sunlight strollers, who walk around with the protection of an umbrella generally minding there own business. Then there are those who take the image a bit further. Their painted faces and large tridents are often (but not as a rule) costumes that are more photographed for a small fee, rather than revered.
The majority of the Shadhus are those who dutifully follow the three Cs Chai (tea), Chapatti (flat bread), and the smoking of a lot of Chillum! I laughed when I read the sign in one of the Ashram windows-TOURISTS HAVE BEEN KILLED BEWARE THE CHILLUM SMOKERS!
Now I dont believe that a little bit of holy smoke has ever hurt anyone, and I wouldnt be surprised if these particular tourists had lost their balance on one of the exquisite hillsides that surround Rishikesh maybe a bit of metaphorical murder of the once untainted soul?
But for all my skepticism I must admit to taking part in , and relishing the Yoga and meditation classes that abound in the town. It is probably a good thing that I left when I did. Nobody likes to read about someone elses five hours of transcendental reflection. I must admit though, there were some excellent teachers; and yes, they were wearing orange robes!
I realize I am running the risk of getting a little bit esoterical. It was one thing that worried me about coming to India; and Im afraid my fears have come true I am writing about Ashrams and meditation as opposed to all the undiscovered hill tribes of the Himalayas Nevertheless, there are some other interests that have presented themselves to me. As far as my ailments went, I did what seemed the most appropriate thing to do in this country, and I went to the Ayurvedic hospital. The building was a once turquoise dilapidated concrete block. It is worth mentioning at this point, that almost all the buildings in India have very little structural integrity, and there is little recourse towards any sort of restoration.
The electricity had failed, so I could just make out the dirty red checked floors and the plastic yellowing ripped curtains that gave a patient some semblance of privacy.
The doctor began by taking my pulse in twelve areas around my body. By listening to the rhythm and force of the beat , they are able to pinpoint the locality of any sickness or pain. I realize that holistic healing is not everybodys cup of chai, but I was personally amazed by the accuracy of the doctors findings on me. I received various oil massages, and had my feet vibrated by a small machine that was probably donated to the clinic about thirty years ago. To cut the explanation short, I am now taking a mixture of powdered herbs that have been tailored to fit my bodies constitution or type. The object of these herbs is to restore imbalances that are created when one of the five elements (earth, air, fire, water, ether) are either hyper or underactive in the body. Apart from this, Dr Singh was quite cagey with his information, but I assumed this was because he gave expensive courses in Ayurvedic treatment.
Ive also been receiving some other tip bits of arcane information. My questions about A prolific (and supposedly very spiritual) seed called a Rudraksha that are made into necklaces, led to some explanations about the precious stones and crystals found and sold in India (and very cheaply I must add). If I am not careful I will end up with a rucksack of rocks on my back; something akin to the penance of some middle-age monk! Almost all the Shadhus wear malas made of the seed. These brain chains are energy giving, and represent different gods depending on the amount of natural sections the seed is divided into. If it is soaked in water, which is drunk the next day, they can also cure diabetes. Many a time some ingenious Baba has got one of these seeds into my unwitting hands, and expected prompt baksheesh or payment for the charm. The secret is either to have a lot of faith, or, keep your hands tightly by your sides.
There are a few places that I feel worthy of mention for anybody planning on travelling here. The first is my small five-roomed guesthouse. I still do not know the name of it; only that it is run by Mama Ji and her family. She is renowned for giving the best home cooked meals in the area. Her English is severely limited but somehow she will always produce what you ask for, with all the pleasure she can muster. She called everyone either son or daughter which gave the atmosphere a rather personal touch. She is also a shrewd businesswoman. Her enjoyment of late late night gatherings in the simple but comfortable house is economic rather than philosophical. The Idea being something to the effect of, ‘the more people smoke, the more they eat!’ The place can be found near the Swiss Bandari cottage in Luhshmanjhula. The latter is in my opinion somewhere to avoid, unless you enjoy listening to Techno music late into the nights.
Another gem was the Shanti River Music Café. It is a small thatched affair which takes a bit of effort to find, but is well worth the visit. The man who runs it concocts the most fantastic array of herbal teas . One in particular left me feeling a bit like the god Shiva must feel having the Ganges flowing from his head. It was after drinking his potion, that my flu and fever completely cleared up within the space of an hour! He also gave me some odd Chinese green ointment to put round my face. The stuff burned like hell, but left me feeling (to quote Vijay) as light as a flower.
Two weeks down the line – I had petals growing out of my ears, and my blood was running chai!
As for the music; well that could be found in the small outdoor, thatched workshop of Mokesh, who came across as the archetypal humble craftsman.
This is the place to come for anyone interested in making his or her own wooden instruments. As is the saying in India anything is possible, from the creation of drums to digeridoos. I simply sat there in the mornings enjoying the atmosphere. It is a refuge within the main crowded town, where small groups of foreigners and locals like to simply hang out
Some of the more interesting visitors to this place were the snake charmers. The best of the musicians was one red clothed orange turbaned man named Jamu. He would sit for hours playing the Bis-, a decorated Indian mixture between a flute and a bagpipe. The Music was hauntingly beautiful. I sat calmed and mesmerized; more so I believe than the snake! Somehow I got the impression that the serpent was not very charmed at all. It was probably thinking Bloody Bis again, well at least I can stretch out of this damn small basket for a few spits of a second. I would have been a lot happier knowing that the baksheesh that was expected of me was going towards the freedom of the poor permanently crunched creature. My money was unfortunately doing exactly the opposite.
Culture can be cruel, and this is just something I will have to learn to live with.
Deciding on my next destination was a bit like throwing a dart at a map. Well, I suppose if I did, I would end up off the chart and in the netherworld; or at least, the person that I hit with the point would! Although I feel adverse to following the main tourist circuits, my curiosity got the better of me and I elected to take a small diversion through the mountains before returning to the east of India. With rocks, herbs and clear head in my hand a bit like the horseman – I rode my train to Dharamsala!