A Saturday trip to the Eternal Land of the Yogis

Lakshman jhula -- the bridge joining the eastern and western banks

Well, not just the yogis, but pretty much everyone.

Neha, my friend of a number of years, is in Rishikesh for almost two months to learn yoga from a visiting teacher from France. Since it is just an hour’s drive from Dehradun (where I live) I decided to pay her a visit and see the historical town. Finally.

Rishikesha, meaning Lord of the Senses, is one of the thousand names of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity. The town today justifies the name in many ways; it preserves several kinds of sensory experiences, and propagates them. If you are a seeker of divine presence; a practitioner of yogic forms for a more fulfilled life; an enthused wader of the waters of the sacred Ganga at a place where she leaves the laps of the Himalayas to embrace the hot plains; a lover of cheap hallucinogens; or an intrepid traveller interested in trekking, mountaineering, river rafting, Rishikesh has it all for you. And more.

The town — its air, its dust, and indeed its waters — has the ability to make you see divinity, if you let it. At least that is what many people believe.

The Hindus come here to see their beloved Ganga in its final mountainous avatar, to pray at the famous Triveni Ghat, and visit the numerous temples. As most Hindu pilgrim sites are wont to, however, the river bank, the temples, the ghats, all nurse suppurating wounds on propriety and respect. This might be one of the biggest mysteries in this land. We uphold propriety and respect for others as the supreme virtues, and yet have precious little to show for it. Waste lies all around, people defaecate and urinate at the most inappropriate of places and allow the animals to do the same, shop-keepers throw their discards on to the road sides. No nook, no cranny is spared. Not even the ever-loving, ever-patient Mother Ganga.

Curious People from the Worlds Afar come to seek a kind of peace they feel only India can provide: by way of its ancient, mysterious wisdom, or through its sometimes happily lax policies for weed. Some pick a wave from the veritable tsunami of ashrams and schools offering courses in yoga, meditation, ayurveda, and many more concepts most of these schoolists know zilch about, and ride it. (The ones knowing something worthwhile normally don’t accept pupils just like that. And most don’t make inflated promises on signboards in front of their dilapidated huts.) Still others take their yoga mats along the banks of Ganga and sit and try to meditate. Its enormously normal-looking waters promise a quietude they don’t seem to find at any other place. And then, there are those people that mostly inhabit the Tapovan part of the town, who are living an extended rush of the 60s.

Rishikesh is a heady mixture of everything you’d want from a quickie vacation. Or, more accurately, a mixture of things you might seek and things you are bound to hate. My time there was spent catching up with an old friend, who is sure she has found what she was looking for most of her life — yoga. It challenges her, fulfills her, settles her. She is happy. As are the many I couldn’t help noticing even as I drifted in and out between conversations with Neha and with Rishikesh. There are people running booming businesses by milking spirituality; some are seeking their long-elusive dreams. All find some connection with whatever they wish to get connected to.

When I was driving back to my home, to my reluctant-to-let-me-go husband, and to our ever-welcoming dogs, I thought it might be a good idea to tell you about this ʻstrange placeʼ I had heard about, and have now seen. A few hours is of course nothing to gauge a place, but people and places radiate vibes; they either feel good, or bad. Rishikesh, despite its strangeness, felt good. Give it a try some day. It is one of those cliched things — you can hate it, or love it; but it never allows itself to sink unnoticed.

This is the only place around the Lakshman jhula, Ram jhula area where Ganga warbles a little. Everywhere else, it is calm and quiet, like it is for the rest of its journey through the plains.
Another view of the river, Lakshman jhula, inhabitants of its banks and aspiring rafters
An unsure woman, taking a dip in the water sacred to a billion and more
This man was standing with his arms spread wide over the water for a long time. By the time I could decide to take a picture, he'd begun wringing a piece of his clothing
For a long time, I kept looking at these rocks and thought they were elephants taking a welcome bath. I need new glasses. And while you are looking at the faux elephants, try not to see the waste on the hill-side.
One of the big ashrams with a lot of promises
Just about to hit the partially 'white' waters.
Lakshman jhula -- the bridge we took to go for 'the best meal in all of Rishikesh'
Neha, taking a picture of me as I took one of her
Two of the many places for seekers of wisdom of all kinds
Mother monkey, keeping an eye on the people, for the good ones throw goodies
So that they can then pick them up from the bridge floor
But their best performance is as rope-sitters. Windy weather doesn't threaten their perch one bit.
I don't know why he was rubbing these bamboos clean, but he was.
I heard this sadhu saying "Thanks" as we walked past.
The first thing across the bridge is this. A very 'India' place. Every corner has a bit of its very unique identity. The sign on the round-about under the statue of Lord Shiva says "Please take off your shoes before you climb."
This modern dude didn't flinch when I "shoved the camera at his face", as Neha put it.
One of the many fascinating shops, selling Indian-ness
This beautiful building is reminiscent of the ideal architecture for this heat. Most houses are now a silly mixture of confusion. Sad.
Finally, The Little Buddha Cafe aka Buddha German Bakery. We had awesome Tomato and Garlic Bruschetta and Watermelon juice. Rishikesh is a strictly vegetarian, alcohol-free zone. But such places do offer tuna and Ganga-trout, and eggs, too. And pot, should you be brave enough to ask for it.
A glimpse of the ghat, the place where people gather to pray, to bathe.
Seekers of something, all.
But these boys know what they want, now, don't they?
He looked like the sadhu who thanked me for taking his picture. But then, all sadhus look the same.
This photographer stands underneath a lemonade stall umbrella. No takers for either. The signs warn of many things,including photographers like him: "Please check the photographer's credentials before allowing him to take your picture." Another sign reads "Please only give food materials to the monkeys at one side of the bridge. Do not harass the monkeys. Put the food only at the stipulated places."
A man posing as 'monkey-god' Hanuman. He tricks passers-by into putting a tilak (vermillion on the forehead) and then demands money.
My favourite thing in the whole trip. These bright orange Hanuman car-ornaments. They promise all that is good (and beautiful, I think)
But this young man looks completely unimpressed...

19 thoughts on “A Saturday trip to the Eternal Land of the Yogis”

  1. “Curious People from the Worlds Afar come to seek a kind of peace they feel only India can provide: by way of its ancient, mysterious wisdom, or through its sometimes happily lax policies for weed.” I loved the entire post, Priya, but this sentence was my favorite. And the photographs are incredible. If you need new glasses, please keep the old ones to wear when you’re taking pictures.

    1. Thank you for liking the images, Darla. I loved being there, soaking it all in. Technology is a wondrous thing sometimes.

  2. Wonderful post Priya! Bravo! I agree with Dave – I too feel as if I’ve been on holiday. Your photos are outstanding. I agree with Charles – “Don’t change your glasses!”

    Its beautifully written. I love your descriptions of the various peoples and the Ganges surrounded by waste and filth, especially this sentence

    “A few hours is of course nothing to gauge a place, but people and places radiate vibes; they either feel good, or bad. Rishikesh, despite its strangeness, felt good.”

    1. The beauty of such pilgrim’s hubs in India is that they don’t seem to realise they are beautiful. With all their glory, history, natural beauty and human molestation, they gleam brilliantly. That is what I like about these places, Rosie.

      Thank you for your appreciative words. Reading you always reminds me that world is a beautiful place.

      1. Priya I told one of the Indian security guards at the museum about my friend Priya’s (you are my friend 🙂 wonderful post about R…. but I couldn’t for the life of me remember Rishikesh! So frustrating! Thankfully he knew his Indian geography and it didn’t take him long to guess Rishikesh. I was stumped again when he asked me where you live. I said “Its in the north”. I’m glad you shared the name of your town in this post. Its a lovely musical name -Dehradun.

      2. Thank you, friend, for remembering to talk about this post with a fellow landsman of mine. He must’ve been as delighted to talk about it, as I am to hear of your conversation.

        I like the name Dehradun, too. It is usually called Dun or Doon in short, which again has a musical feel to it.

        I am pasting a small trivia from Wiki here:
        “Dehradun is made up of two words Dehra and doon, where ‘Dehra’ derived from the word “dera” means camp whereas “doon” is term for valley that lies between the Himalyas and the ” Shivaliks”. When Sikh Guru Ram Rai , son of Guru Har Rai, came to this region along with his followers, he established a camp here for their stay. It was around this time that the city started to develop . This is when the word Dehra was linked to doon , and thus the city was named Dehradun. Some historians also believe that the word Dehra itself has a meaning; that it can not be regarded as a term for camping. This word is still used in Punjabi and Hindi.”

  3. There is so much there! You’re right about the senses thing – every part of one’s body is engaged in taking in that experience. I’m so puzzled by the juxtaposition of the waste and filth alongside the natural beauty. Has anything been done about fixing that problem? Any public health education efforts? Do people who live there not notice what they’re doing? Thank you so much, Priya, again, for bringing us into this world. I could never imagine it on my own. And so beautifully written about it as well – see, you’ve then touched the other sense in doing so!

    1. Before I say anything, Jean, you must understand the dichotomy I felt while writing this post. Or any post I have written about India in the past, or will write in the future. You will find an expression of exasperation at our seeming apathy towards a simple thing called cleanliness, and yet, each time I am ready to publish, I feel terrified of what my readers would make of this apathy. I know, however, that anyone knowing anything about India ‘knows’. Still, I feel like a nervous host every time. 🙂

      Having said that, I must tell you that there are efforts abound. Things happen. Regardless of that, there is this almost devastating sense of “What do I care” among the people. Why? I do not know.

      The one thing I can tell you about the mandirs (temples) is that the obeisances to the gods require a lot of this and that — flowers, sweetmeats, incense, water/milk baths and many more things. Their proper disposal is apparently a herculean task since there are thousands of devotees, hence they are left around, rotting; or fed to the animals around the temple. Some temples prohibit the usage of these things now. They are spotless.

      The general filth around us could be traced back to a lot of our characteristics, but the primary one, I think, is an imbalance of material and spiritual identity (sounds too vague and highfalutin, I know. But thankfully, this is my opinion, so I can take brick bats for it without feeling like a fool). Most are too busy with worldly obligations and stresses to bother or care, or pick up their rear sides to indulge their spirit a little. What does the poor soul do if it is swarmed with visual and virtual muck? It is a shame that the land that gave ayurveda (which propounds cleanliness of the body, mind and soul as the first step towards a healthy life), now houses people, who couldn’t care less.

      You are kind, Jean. Thank you for your comment.

      1. Priya, I hope you didn’t think I was criticizing the people who live there – or acting like the high and mighty American. It’s just seems so contradictory for anyone living in a beautiful, spiritual setting to then disregard basic cleanliness. But we see it everywhere, don’t we? And I find it so odd that most people willingly live among it.

      2. No! I did not think so at all.

        I see the two of us sitting somewhere surrounded with lots of greens, sipping the Suitable Drink for the Day, and talking about the vicissitudes of life, Jean. Let’s do this someday. Let’s make this vision come true!

  4. I love your clear-eyed perspective on the ironies of our belief systems. There is usually such a breach between essential meaning and reality. The photo at the top of your post is absolutely stunning! But then you went on to amaze me with some really fine portraits. I wonder if the sadhu was thanking you for your presence or for taking his photo. It is one of my favorites. But I was equally enchanted by your modern dude and the little boy at the end. Thanks for sharing a part of your world with us!

    1. This breach between the essential meaning and reality is what keeps us spinning an unnecessary spin, Linda.

      Good to see you here, as always!

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