October 26 & 27, 2015
Early morning, before all the street vendors have set up, I walk through the quiet village on my way to breakfast, pausing to sit on one of the stairwells leading down to the river, smelling the subtle incense that permeates the air. At this hour, the river is a surprising flurry of activity… clothes washing, bathing, the filling of water jugs, prayers and offerings.
I watch, completely amazed at the proficiency with which the women are able to undress out of their wet sari’s and into dry ones, all the while maintaining their modesty. You understand at these moments, how life here revolves around this never-ending flow of sacred water.
This morning starts out cold and overcast and I actually need some the warmer clothing I’ve been hauling around. Regardless of the clouds, the Ganges continues to shimmer it’s distinguishable turquoise-green. Enjoying breakfast at one of the many cafes along the river bank, I’m having what I now think is the best masala chai yet (I keep saying that, but they keep getting better.)
These cafes are comfortable hangout spots, where the tables are low, soft cushions line the floors and ample bolsters are strewn about for you to recline against while hip, mellow music, a la Buddha Bar, plays softly in the background. All this, as you sip hot mint tea, chai or one of the many different fresh squeezed juices (I opted for pomegranate today) and watch the river slide by, dancing its endless dance. This, I would say, is a wonderful variation of heaven.
I could sit here for hours, as I did yesterday at another cafe downstream, but I am excited to get on the road, beckoned by something special that awaits me up in the hills.
After a 30 minute taxi ride, feeling queasy from the diesel exhaust and the tight, winding roads, we arrive at a nondescript gateway that leads down to a small ashram on the banks of the Ganges. From this vantage point, with almost no other people around, you would have no idea you were standing on some of the most holy ground in this sacred region.
I am at the Vashishta cave, the revered meditation spot for the great Hindu sage, Vashishta, believed to be the human son of the all-encompassing Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation.
There is a second, smaller cave close by, and legend, supported by some very old, very esoteric documentation has it that Jesus spent a long period of time here during his ‘lost years’. True or not is impossible to say, but as the focus in India is on Hinduism, the Arundhati cave and it’s Christian lore is not given much attention.
For me, I simply find great allure in the fact that so many devout souls, regardless of religion or specific teachings, have spent vast quantities of cumulative time in meditation and solitary contemplation at these caves throughout the centuries… and the energy I feel as I sit in either of them affirms this.
I first spend some time sitting in the little alcove cave that is Arundhati, looking out at the river, astounded that I have such a mystical place all to myself. It seems impossible.
After some quiet time, lost in the enormity of how uniquely special this is, I move on to Vashishta. There is an entrance built around this cave as part of the ashram, and finding your way inside once you’ve moved out of daylight is precarious, taking several long minutes for your eyes to adjust to the solitary candle light deep inside the darkness. As I feel my way in, guided by the cool, surprisingly smooth walls, I start to discern that there are about three other people inside, sitting in meditation, facing the dimly lit alter. Silence is the only sound and yet I already feel the strong vibrations in my ears.
I sit in this holy cave for approximately an hour and I do my best to meditate, as that is the main reason I have come. In the moments of quiet, the energy here is intensely palpable and it is almost too much to bear. But like the Ganges, people flow in and out, sometimes taking the silence with them. There were moments when groups of people made their way in, louder than appropriate, but these people came to make an offering at the alter, say a prayer and be on their way.
I know this because despite wanting to go inward and meditate, I keep opening my eyes… I cannot help myself. I am like an excited, wide-eyed child and I want to take in and fully experience every single moment, every glorious detail, every individual’s coming and going.
At one point with only one other person sitting here with me, three holy men enter, breaking the silence with their glorious chanting. After lighting more candles at the alter, the chanting gets louder and they begin ringing a duo of beautiful bells in accompaniment. The reverberations of this heavenly sound echoed incredibly and loudly against the cave walls and straight into the depth of my being. To say that it was an emotional moment would be entirely insufficient. It was beyond sight or sound and their presence and ritual inside this sacred piece of earth touched a sense inside of me that has no name. It was pure energy, a strong surge of never-ending vibration that transcended space and time, and this dark, ancient, enclosed space was overflowing with it.
Upon their exit and full of the deepest kind of gratitude for this experience, I close my eyes once more, committed to spending this last little while in meditation before they close the cave for afternoon prayers. After several minutes however, I open my eyes again because I realize I am now alone. Tears spring up uncontrollably now and I slowly get up from my seat and go kneel in front of the sublime, candle lit alter, making this space, for one moment in eternity, all mine.
When it is time to exit, I am not yet ready to get back into the car and re-enter civilization, so I walk the wide, rocky river bank and find a place to sit and watch the water, integrating the experience between mind, body and overwhelming emotion. The only sounds are that of the water gently flowing and the wind periodically rustling the trees, interspersed with an occasional outburst of monkeys screaming about whatever it is they scream about. Peaceful is not at an adjective here… it is something you simply become.
There are no other people around, although after some time I notice a monk of some sort off in the distance, sitting in the sand bar with a video camera and cameraman facing him, and I smile. This is the 21st century, after all, and while the energy of this place is certainly unchanged and the teachings may be primarily the same as they were eons ago, the dissemination of knowledge has carved some very different pathways.
The afternoon was, well how can I say this… the universe works in magical ways. I had wanted to go to the south end of the city for aarti, the evening fire and prayer river ritual. This happens nightly all along the river, but this particular aarti happens at one of the larger ashrams and is supposed to be lovely, with music and fire dancing. But after a 30 minute, bone-jarring tuk-tuk ride to the other end of the city I realized I had mistimed it, giving myself far too much time to shop and look around this bustling, chaotic end of Rishikesh.
It was mid-afternoon and I was hours early for the river ritual and could not occupy enough time here since the south end of the city is not tourist friendly in the way the north end is.
Somewhat disappointed, I started heading back up north, thinking I was fortunate to have had the morning I did, and that was more than enough. But of course when one door closes…
Once I got past the bustling city and back into the calmer countryside, I happened upon a very interesting soul. Sitting outside some small ashram or temple along one of the back roads, he waved me over. I’ve learned to take these opportunities here in Rishikesh, since frequently these people simply want to talk, or at worst, they will ask you to buy them food.
Raja Baba, as he introduced himself, wanted to show me his drawings and then have tea together. We spent a good hour talking… he, I, and the locals who lingered about the chai cart… and upon my leaving he gave me a picture he drew and a simple mala-bead necklace for good luck on my journey. He asked for nothing in return, happy only to make a new friend, and continued to call out “Namaste, my friend!” as I walked away. This kind of authentic simplicity holds a very special space in my heart.
Walking further upstream, contemplating the ritual of worshiping this great river, as so many did, I decided to give my own offering in gratitude of this amazing journey. Stopping at a large stairwell where people were gathered to swim, socialize and generally do what they do all day long, I bought an offering bowl filled with flowers from a stall run by a little girl.
She was so ecstatic I chose to buy from her (and give her what must have been an excellent price, which amounted to about US $1) that she piled extra flowers on top, taking special care to decorate it perfectly for me.
Taking my shoes off to step into the river, I inadvertently christened myself (slipped and fell) soaking my skirt and losing some of the flowers to the river… which was ok considering that’s where they were going anyway. Unfortunately I also lost the little bits that sit on top of the flowers that are meant to be lit on fire (I am unable to tell what these bits are made of, but from observation it is something that will burn for awhile as the bowl floats down the river) but that did not detract from the beauty of it. My prayer of thanks went out into the universe all the same.
Back on the main road, close to home, hungry and exhausted from the long walk, I almost unwittingly passed by one of the most beautiful moments of the day. Something pulled me towards a small hidden path leading back down to the water, and I arrived here just in time to see the sun putting on an extraordinary show of setting. But even more extraordinary, there at the river were two men doing their own aarti… chanting, passing their hands over the fire, swirling incense through the air and tossing flowers into the water in time with their prayers… and upon seeing me, they immediately beckoned me to join them. The intimacy of this ritual was so touching and I knew instantly, that although seeing the big show at the ashram would have been wonderful, this was infinitely more special.
Today I leave, and while I am compelled to feel sadness at wanting more time with Rishikesh, my overwhelming feelings of gratitude for all I have seen, and for the chance to meet and speak with some very special souls, over-rides everything else.
I attend morning meditation and then have breakfast at my favorite-chai cafe, saying my farewell to this magnificent river and all it has given birth to.
Saying goodbye to a love like this is never easy, but I will take a piece of Rishikesh with me, and leave a part of my soul here in return. And so, until we meet again… Namaste, my friend.