Wednesday, March 9: Rishikesh: Magnet for spiritual seekers. 1960s rock-out spot for the Beatles at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “Yoga Capital of the World.” Meditation and mind expansion. Pilgrims and tourists. Vegetarians. The Ganges. Serenity. Ommmm.
Rishikesh is a veritable Shangri-la.
It’s quite cool starting out in the morning at the Hotel Divine Resort in High Bank, on the west side of the Ganges. We eat breakfast and walk around our multi-layered hotel looking out over the Ganges River. The river is hemmed in by mountains on both sides. It is perfectly utopian-lovely. A cool breeze rinses over us. We can tell right away we’re going to like this place.
We are now a day behind on our itinerary, due to yesterday’s disastrous trip. We were supposed to have arrived in Rishikesh early yesterday afternoon, but of course we didn’t get here till 10 p.m. The original plan was to spend some of this morning here as well, taking off for Corbett Tiger Reserve late this afternoon. There is no way Jayne and I want to leave Rishikesh today for another long drive. We want the whole day here and we want to spend the night here, but of course that will require some rearranging by our travel agent and by Singh. We are so irritated by Singh at this point that we tell him we don’t want to see him all day; we will find our way around. We tell him we will meet him back at the hotel at around 1:00, at which time we hope he will have arranged our second night’s stay in Rishikesh. We emphatically tell him we DO NOT want to drive to Corbett today.
We walk down Lakshman Jhula Road for quite a distance, then cross the Ganges on a pedestrian-only bridge called Ram Jhula (suspension bridge). Somehow no one else seems to know it’s pedestrian-only as numerous motorcycles roar by nearly knocking us over. On the east side of the bridge is Swarg Ashram, the traffic-free “spiritual center” of Rishikesh. In Swarg Ashram, we encounter cows on the street (surprise!), a man pushing a cart of these red carrots which don’t seem to be carrots at all but some unidentified vegetable, and guys selling glittery gold jewelry from their motorcycles.
We walk along an asphalt path where we can see inviting sandy beaches on our left and on our right closed gates overgrown with weeds and ruined, dilapidated ashrams. There are too many cute shops with enticing and colorful clothes and textiles and beautiful jewelry. We come across a large temple on the river bank called Shri Trayanbakshwar Temple that looks like a 13-story orange-iced wedding cake.
Near that temple, as we are preparing to cross back over the river on the Lakshman Jhula, an entire Indian family stops us and asks to take their pictures with us.
A teenage boy poses behind me and I’m worried that he will try to steal something out of my backpack, which is between us. I feel that in India, people always want something from you, usually your money, so I have come quickly not to trust anyone.
Across the bridge, where once again we are nearly run over by motorcycles roaring by on the pedestrian-only bridge, we stop for a cappuccino and an apple lassi at the Devraj Coffee Corner, perched high above the bridge and looking back at the wedding cake temple. This is a German bakery (these seem to be ubiquitous in India) that serves breakfast and fresh breads and cheeses, apple strudel and croissants, as well as the usual luncheon fare of soups, pizzas and enchiladas.
While sipping our drinks and enjoying the breezy view, we meet Nancy from Calgary. She has spent the entire month of February in a yoga ashram for a cost of $3,000. She’s decided to extend her stay through March, but she’s now staying in a place for 600 rupees (~$14) a day with all meals included. The funny thing is that Nancy has never left Rishikesh to explore the rest of India, nor has she had any massages or tried out the many different types of yoga here. There is a kind of “laughing yoga” which Jayne is dying to try but we can never find a place to do it; this is only one of the many types offered here. We are a little surprised that Nancy is not venturing out of Rishikesh during her entire stay. Neither does she intend to.
Only in hindsight, after we finish our final two weeks of travel through India, do we think that maybe she had the right idea. Because. Rishikesh is simply lovely. And the rest of India, at least the northwest of India where we traveled….well, it’s a hardship.
Right beside Devraj Coffee Corner is the Ganga Emporium Bookshop, packed with used books. Jayne and I both pick up a couple of Kama Sutra gift books. Jayne intends to give them to friends while I’m curious to read my books myself.
On the steps outside the coffee shop is a bearded and turbaned fellow playing some kind of colorful bulbous musical instrument and charming a snake. I give him some rupees for his little performance. I think this man is a sadhu, which I will describe later in this blog.
We then wander along further and come upon the Divine Ayurvedic Therapy Centre & Massage School. Jayne feels we will finally get a deal here since it’s a school. In fact, we get cheap 45-minute foot and leg massages which feel amazing after walking so much in India and being cramped up in the car all day yesterday.
As we leave the Massage School, we see another guru’s shop, the Ganga Astrology and Palmistry Centre. We both want to check out the Varanasi guru’s prediction against that of another guru. Kind of a check and balance. We wander in and watch the guy, Astrologer (ex-Scientist) B.P. Uniyal, in action with another group. He says he will be busy for a while with this group so he asks if we can come back in a half hour or so. We watch him a bit and are quite impressed. He is asking his customers all kinds of probing questions and is entering the information on his computer. We like what we hear and decide we’ll wander up the street and then return to get another, possibly truer, reading.
We stop in various cute shops where we see gorgeous textiles and scarves. There is definitely good shopping in Rishikesh. We stop at a music shop where Indian beats are playing on the loudspeaker, and we buy some Bombay Beats at the owner’s recommendation. Wandering into some little temples, we see relief sculptures of elephants dancing and Indian dancers with red dots on their foreheads. As always, little shrines sit happily in their nooks, overflowing with brightly colored paintings of octopus-armed gods, flowers, leis, masks, feathers, ceramic tiger-lions, pitchforks, 6-handed goddesses, swatches of jewel-colored textiles and colorful baubles.
Back at the guru’s office, we give Mr. Uniyal the requested information. He can do a more thorough reading for me (supposedly) because I know the time of my birth. Jayne doesn’t know her birth time, so she gets the cheaper and shorter version. He feeds all the information into a computer program and then prints out a multiple-paged document, after which he proceeds to read my future… as well as my palm.
The guru’s credentials are as follows: “He took education from Kailash Ashram, Rishikesh and from Acharya Krishna Nanda in Himalaya. He has having more than 40 years of experience in these fields. He gives a Vedic horoscope, where he writes the predictions for whole life of the person about their Health, Wealth, Education, Enemies, Love Affair, future partner, Marriage, Childrens, Disease, Age Fate, work and job, Earning and Expenditures. We suggest to wear remedial gems and Stones, Yagya (worship), Chanting of Mantra, Fasting, for positive effects of star and planets for gaining of cosmic energy for better health and luck. We [also] do microscopic studies of lines on hands and do the predictions for your future.”
Here is what this guru tells me: I will live until I’m about 85. He doesn’t say how I will die. I will have a lover after July, 2011, and he will be someone I know (??). He says I had problems when I was 52, and that was about right because I think I had the worst year of my life in all of 2008 (I turned 52 in October of 2007). He says I will be okay as far as property and I will own my own house. I will work two jobs, one in education and the other will be a creative endeavor, possibly writing. I will have a peaceful later life and good health, except for a little trouble with my eyes in 2021 and again in 2032. After 2023, I will have some trouble [on] my blood pressure. I’ll experience some nervousness, but he doesn’t say when. I will experience urinary problems (!) in 2030-31. My financial position will be good (he didn’t say when!). My children are supportive to me and they will do well in business or service. I will live a long life.
He continues to say I will have a friend in life from June 2011 onwards (Hmm, is this the same person as the lover I will have after July 2011, whom I already know?). I will do some side business after 2017, related to writing or teaching. I will be active in my work until 2028! Long awaited work will come in 2020 and 2028 related to children and other purposes. I will have a few downhill periods in 2030, 2032 and 2037 and will be governed by old age factors after 2041 (At this time I will be 86. Of course I will already be dead by then as he said I will die at 85). I will have a period of strong spiritual growth from 2028 onwards to 2037.
He told me I should wear a ruby set in gold either on the ring finger of my right hand or as a pendant on my neck. I should chant a mantra: Om Namaha Shivya (“Oh, Lord of the Cosmos, bless me by your cosmic energies. I salute to you!”)
I will do social or charity work from 2030 to 2037, at which time I should wear a cat-eye or tiger-eye in silver. I will work in 2013-2030. On the first Wednesday of each month, I should fast. I can take liquids: water, milk, tea, coffee, or fruit juice, but no food all day. For dinner, I can eat a vegetarian meal, but no alcohol at dinner.
The guru tells me I am very emotional.
While we’re in the guru’s office, a bizarre dreadlocked man covered in caked dust and wearing a loincloth wanders in and touches Jayne on her head. He then carries on a long conversation with the guru and then reaches to touch Jayne’s head again. Jayne cringes and backs off, telling the guru, “Tell him not to touch me!!” I find myself trying not to look at him in the hope that I’ll remain incognito to him and he won’t touch me! He is carrying all kinds of paraphernalia, none of which is remotely identifiable.
The guru tells us the strange fellow is an Aghori ascetic, which is a type of sadhu. Sadhu is a common term for a mystic, or ascetic, a practitioner of yoga and/or a wandering monk. A sadhu is dedicated to achieving, in Hinduism, final liberation by contemplating Brahman. He usually wears ochre-colored clothing to symbolize renunciation.
The Aghori is a type of sadhu that distinguishes himself from other sadhus by his alcoholic and cannibalistic rituals. A real sadhu will pull human bodies out of the River Ganges or from the cremation grounds, and consume them either cooked over an open fire or raw. He believes that a “dead man” is just matter devoid of life, and doesn’t believe anything is wrong with his practices. The Aghori goes naked or wears the shroud of a corpse, covers himself in the ashes of the cremation ground and always has his hair disheveled or in matted dreadlocks. It is said the Aghori also lives in the cremation ground, drinks from human skulls and is on a search for salvation.
Since sadhus and Aghoris in India are common attractions, we’re not really sure if the guy is a poser, just a guy looking to make a buck by posing for pictures with tourists. It seems the guru says something to this effect, but I’m not sure. Either way, we don’t take a picture, nor do we want him in our midst, and especially not touching us.
We leave the guru holding our computer printouts and notes we’ve taken from his predictions. Now that we have our future in our pockets, we head for lunch at the Buddha German Bakery, where Bob Marley sings Buffalo Soldier on the sound system:
I’m just a buffalo soldier in the heart of america,
Stolen from africa, brought to america,
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for america.
Dreadie, woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,
Woy yoy yoy yoy, yoy yoy-yoy yoy!
While listening to this song on the thatch-roof deck looking out over the River Ganga, I sip on a pineapple juice while Jayne goes to a nearby jewelry shop to buy a silver coral ring, which the guru told her to always wear for good luck. I don’t need to buy my recommended ruby in gold because I know I have one at home that I bought in Bangkok in 2008.
When Jayne returns, we eat Tibetan spinach cheese momos, ricotta cheese and spinach filled dumplings served with spiced sesame seed sauce. A lovely breeze whispers through the restaurant as we lazily watch rafters negotiate the rapids on the river below. I am feeling peaceful for the first time in India. I could linger here a long time, maybe like our Canadian friend Nancy. I can see the appeal of chilling for months on end in Rishikesh. But. We have told Singh we will meet him around this time to sort out our plans for tonight. So we head back to the Divine Hotel, nearly an hour late for our appointed meeting. On the way, we buy some rudraksh mala, strings of beads used in puja made from the nuts of the rudraksh tree, which originally grew where Shiva’s tears fell.
When we meet Singh, he is smiling from ear-to-ear, obviously quite smitten with himself. He has arranged a new hotel for tonight so we can stay in Rishikesh without a problem, and he thinks we will be more than pleased with his choice. We can tell all day today he is trying to make it up to us for yesterday, and we can’t help but soften toward him as he is so contrite and apologetic. He takes us directly to the Narayana Palace Hotel, which has quite a lovely setting, with rooms set around an emerald lawn and lush garden and a shimmery turquoise pool. Our room is the British Colonial style with a parquet floor and paneled ceiling, beautiful woodwork, sage green curtains, and plenty of room. The pool nestles in a lush tropical setting with a backdrop of coral-colored buildings and ruffled mountains. We move our stuff into the room and then go lie out by the pool for an hour or two, napping and reading and chilling.
It has been Jayne’s wish to do yoga in Rishikesh, and we can both use the stretching after our horrendous cramped day in the car yesterday. So we arrange a yoga session with Rajkumari Chauhan, a serene Indian lady. In a common room at the hotel, she gives us mats and we do stretching and chanting, more chanting and jumping up and down yelping. She also sings some chants herself and we relax into our poses. “It’s all about breathing and peaceful mind,” she says.
After yoga, we have Singh drop us in town as it’s too far to walk from our new hotel. We find a lovely scarf shop where we buy more scarves to wear with our salwar kameez. We run into our guru on the street and Jayne shows him her new coral ring, which he advised her to wear. Jayne wants to find another yoga place, but none are open after 7:30. In fact the whole town seems to close down quite early.
We find the most adorable restaurant ever, our absolute favorite in all of India, the Ganga Beach Cafe & Restaurant, with a riverside location, a spacious terrace, and a cushioned chill-out area. Hippie music, very mellow, stuff of acoustic guitars and mandolins and sitars, permeates the cafe. That interspersed with classic rock and roll. We sit on cushions at low wooden tables and order pomegranate juice, mint raita, vegetable biryani and vegetable Jhal frezi that are both heavenly, accompanied by butter naan. It is cheap and healthy and the mood here is otherworldly. Around us are sitting dreadlocked Westerners with scarves wrapped jauntily around their necks or their hair and wearing colorful Himalayan patchwork jackets. Like every restaurant in Rishikesh, it’s all vegetarian and no alcohol is served. This spot is pleasant, the mood is chill, and the food is bursting with Indian flavors of coriander and cumin. Every one of our senses is pleased beyond words. It’s so lovely that we don’t want to leave. The music, the tastes, the sights (the colorful hippie westerners and the River Ganga below), the soft cushions and the tickling breeze, and the scents of all the food throughout create an ambiance we don’t experience anywhere else in India.
On our way back up the hill to meet Singh in the little town square, we come across an internet cafe and go inside. We note the price differential: here in Rishikesh, where everything is very inexpensive, we pay 20 rupees (45 cents) for 40 minutes of internet time, where in the Varanasi Ramada, we paid 221 rupees (nearly $5) for a half-hour.
We are each on a computer and I update my status on Facebook. Jayne comments on my status and then she updates her status and I comment on hers. We start laughing because here we are in India, sitting a few feet away from each other, talking by way of Facebook. Some other Westerners in the internet cafe start laughing at this too. Ah, the age of social networking online.
We will be sad to leave Rishikesh tomorrow morning.