October 24 & 25, 2015
Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas and built along either side of the sacred Ganges river near its source, Rishikesh has a beautiful intensity that is entirely unlike every other place I’ve been so far. While still densely populated, the chaos is severely dialed down, letting the natural beauty of this place come to the forefront, and it’s easy to see why people have been making spiritual pilgrimages here for centuries.
India, I believe, is intense by nature. With a population of over 1.25 billion (vs. 315 million here in the US) it cannot help itself, and that intensity has been difficult for me to embrace. But this city was love at first sight for me. Not the sexy, languid love like Goa gave me or the unsustainable sort of adoration I felt for the Ellora and Ajanta caves. No, Rishikesh is that deep soul connection you feel the moment you meet someone you know is going to change your life. She and I are very different on the outside, yes, but at our core, we are one and the same… we understand each another.
Perhaps it sounds cliché, but I think it’s no coincidence that the feel here reflects the fact that this city revolves around yoga, meditation and spiritual pursuits. Yes, people still need to make a living, and let’s face it, yoga, teacher trainings, retreats and ashrams are big business attracting a spirit-seeking type of tourism, and where there is tourism there will always be people trying to make a buck… but that desire for your tourist dollar is so much less oppressive here.
There are no scams, no tricky conversations, no baiting, no badgering… just simple, peaceful interactions, even when they are outright asking you for money or when you decline what they are selling. In a word, Rishikesh is polite.
The hotel where I am staying is a little ways uphill from the center of the village, and I quickly learn my way through the tight maze of twisting, winding alleys that lead to the main path, occasionally encountering a scooter or another person, but more often, a wandering cow or stray dog. It is along one of these alleys that I pass a small ashram posting a notice about nightly meditation, and I bookmark that in my brain, hoping the timing works out for later that day.
The suspension bridges (there are two, one on either end of the city) are the only connection between the east and west banks of the river and subsequently, the east and west sides of the town, and during the day the four foot wide path is very tricky territory, giving a whole new dimension to the term ‘traffic jam’.
Scooters, cows, and what feels like a million people jam the flow of traffic, which has absolutely no rhyme or reason to it (how very India) as people stop to take selfies, group photos or throw offerings over the side… all the while, the bridge slightly sways. It can be a harrowing experience, but an unavoidable one if you want to see more than one side of town.
Meandering through the crowded streets lined with vendors, I am thrilled that no one tries to aggressively pull me in or call at me, baiting for my attention, save for the occasional cart owner telling me they have the best chai. For the first time, I am actually free to peruse the shops and carts at my leisure without the hard sell hitting me over the head. In fact, the few times I actually purchased things I had to seek out assistance in order to pay, leading me to ponder, where am I again?
People are incredibly friendly here, quick with their smiles and wanting to talk, and the diversity is much greater here as well. The locals and Indians who have traveled here are similar to that of the big cities, coming from all sorts of religious backgrounds, discernible by their style of dress and adornment, but there is a much stronger western presence here and for the first time I am not the only white person for miles.
There are many bohemian, hippy, spiritual seekers, both young and old, speaking in dialects from around the globe. It is a true weaving of human cloth with a strong common thread… that of opening oneself toward the pursuit of truth and inner peace, with each individual modality, belief or ritual for doing so, offered here and embraced. (I must add, in defense of the big cities, the cohabitation of religions and styles of worship is quite impressive and admirable there as well, perhaps even more so given the harshness of big city life.)
As a tourist (and a single woman tourist at that) there is still much interest and attention, yes, but it’s noticably gentler and entirely welcoming here.
Each time I go down to sit on the bank of the river, I am approached for photographs, but the dynamic is completely different, as exemplified by the woman I saw approaching me out of the corner of my eye one morning. I braced myself to decline whatever she was going to try and sell me, but to my surprise she warmly grabbed my hand, her smile as wide as the Ganges, and nodded toward my phone. She simply wanted me to take her photo. Are you kidding me?! Yes, of course!! She and her companion happily posed, but the second I started taking pictures, her entire group wanted to join in! How delightful this entire interaction was, highlighting the difference of intention behind the attention.
Taking a long walk through the countryside, searching for the abandoned ashram made famous by the Beatles decades ago (and artfully graffiti-ed up in recent years) I fruitlessly stop to ask for directions several times.
English becomes scarce once you’re outside the immediate tourist area and so I wouldn’t have guessed these two men sitting in their make-shift tent/storefront/home knew any English, but they called me over to see if I wanted some food and so I inquired if they knew the place I was looking for. Success!
But first they had to smoke (what, I’m not exactly sure, but there seems to be a lot of ganja (not to be confused with Ganga) smoked around these parts) and they even offered to share, which I politely declined… I’m just getting brave enough (and my stomach acclimated enough) to try street food, so better judgement tells me not to smoke any unknown substances while traveling alone in another country, although something tells me it could have been a crazily entertaining experience.
And so, after a few minutes, when he was ready, instead of just pointing me in the right direction, the man on the right walked me all the way to my destination trying his best to converse with me in his limited English. Again, how delightful.
Arriving at the dilapidated, overgrown ashram I am greeted by a huge gate that says “No Entry” and I wonder for a quick second if I came all this way for nothing. But having learned a thing or two in the last three weeks I understand what this means… 100 rupees to the guard and I’m on my way inside.
Back in town, the day begins to wind down with one of the best meals I’ve eaten yet in India… a mushroom mutter masala and the freshest cucumber raita I’ve ever had. Content from my days adventures, I realize I don’t even miss the fact that I’m not having a glass of wine with dinner, even though sitting outside on the patio, watching the river glisten in the moonlight would be the perfect place to have one. But in true devotional spirit, Rishikesh is not only an entirely vegetarian city, there is also no alcohol served here.
I finish dinner in time to make the 7pm meditation sitting at the ashram near my hotel, at once enamored and calmed by the serene beauty inside of sacred space, and it is the perfect end to a perfect day.