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.