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...

Only jealousy

It is only jealousy. Just a little liquid sensation that fills up your tissues to perk up the senses, you know? I first became a ready and keen practitioner of this emotion when Anita showed me her collection of glass gems and brilliant stones. I was a collector myself, but realised (or so I thought) that the ones I had weren’t half as brilliant as the ones she’d so painstakingly gathered from here and there. We both kept them in our separate plastic boxes. Mine was lined with a sumptuous layer of cotton (my mother had told me this would protect them from scratching each others beauty dim). Hers wasn’t. But they still glimmered beautifully. I had a dull green one I loved best. Yes, I know it was dull and not brilliant, but still. There was something very devil-may-care about it. And something elegant. Anita’s box had a deep purple one I wanted to steal. Each time she went out of the room, I felt my fingers inching towards it, as if they had motor senses of their own. Each time, a little girl perched in the withins of my heart threw a heavy stone that fell right to the depths with a thud. It hurt.  And to add to the trauma, this heartless  connivance somehow defuncted the motorability of my fingers. They had to limp their way back to where my cotton-lined box was. She would come back with lemonade or orangeade, and some biscuits. And we’d discuss the glass gems against the incandescent bulb-light of her room. The drink invariably melted the stone the devil-girl had dropped, which  helped me lift myself up without a heavy stone grinding me to the ground. I’d get up and go home. After just a little glance at Anita’s collection. Oh the purple, purple dream!

Once home, I’d open up my box, ask my mother to come and look at the coloured treasures with me. She’d help me look at the various facets, the play of light, pointing out how each was differently beautiful. “But Anita’s purple one is the most beautiful..”

“Really? But how about this pink one here? I love the tens of sides it has.”

“But that colour, Mummy.”

“I like purple, too. It reminds me of the peacocks we had at home.”

“See? She has a better one.”

My mother usually allowed me time to find out just how I wanted to deal with feelings that made me unnecessarily adamant about stressing the unfairness of the world. And I usually did.

But jealousy, the green, green feeling is something else.

The beauty of this emotion is that you usually get enough opportunity to cover it up with seemingly plausible excuses, and give yourself a chance to feel like you simply must catch up. Of all the emotions I have written about in this category and the ones I  intend to write about, this one makes me feel like I really know it, inside out. I can dive into its icy hug and feel the cold grip me enough to say “I do not have this. And she/he does.” For those moments, it’s as if nothing I have counts. No, I am not an envious witch, who  isn’t happy with what she has. But like most of us, I feel a desire for things I know I do not have (and probably don’t really want). If a small voice inside me says there’s another gem I could stash in my plastic box because She/He has it, I see green. Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, sometimes even a few days. But eventually, thankfully, the stone-dropper drops the stone.

Ours is a world that readily provides easy-to-acquire models with which to mould ourselves. Everything is within reach, the best looking eyebrows, the hottest pout, the coolest car. And the most amazing book ever published. Or that tinkling laughter coming from the other end of the room, reminding you that just this morning your son said your laugh made him nostalgic for Shrek. In this deluge of things you’ll never be or have, you forget that your child painted you a picture for Christmas, your wife once told you how she loved the feel of your fingers against hers. Or how the letters you write to friends make them keep asking for more. What is it that you have that the world doesn’t? A dull green glass gem that may be dull, but shines with brilliance nevertheless. And everyone has a devil-may-care stone-dropper.