The Most Famous Ashram – Rishikesh, India

A trip to Rishikesh is not complete without a visit to the Ashram of Yogi Maharishi Mahesh, also known as the “Beatles Ashram.” The old, long-abandoned ashram was made famous after the Beatles stayed there in the late 60’s… a visit that ushered them into an era of prolific songwriting as a result of their time at the ashram.

Although there were reports of rampant drug use by the Beatles despite repeated requests by the Maharishi to uphold the rigid standards of ashram life (it was the 60’s, after all) the guru, best known for popularizing Transcendental Meditation, was reported to have a penchant toward giving into temptation himself, particularly the kind brought about by the fame, fortune and notoriety the Beatles unavoidably brought with them.

After a few months, the Beatles stay at the ashram ended amidst great upheaval and controversy over allegations of both financial and sexual impropriety by the Maharishi. The ashram (sans its original leader) continued to operate for decades after the controversy and closed its doors for good in 2003. It has been abandoned and decaying ever since.

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Annabell inside one of the individual meditation huts.
Annabell inside one of the individual meditation huts.
Old huts and painted trees
Old huts and painted trees

While the Maharishi’s original intentions were likely pure, and he did in fact bring the healing practice of meditation to light for millions, his story is but another example of the controversies surrounding spiritual gurus that invariably arise every few years, reminding us that even the most ‘advanced’ spiritual practitioners can fall prey to the exact ego which spiritual pursuit is meant to dismantle… an all too common pitfall along the path.

Today, the ashram continues to slowly crumble and has become a favored spot for graffiti artists and muralist to showcase their work. When I first visited in late 2015, the ashram was technically “off limits” to the public, a limitation easily removed by a hundred rupee note slipped to the guard. Since then, however, the place has been taken over by the government and is now considered a tiger reserve (?) which also enables them to charge us foreigners a hefty 600 rupee fee to enter. Regardless, it’s a worthwhile expenditure in order to spend a few hours here wandering about, absorbing the artwork, taking photographs (including gratuitous, self-promoting yoga photos!) and tuning into the history and energy of a bygone era.

Natarajasana - dancer pose
Natarajasana – dancer pose, on the painted platform of the mediation hall.
Posing with the boys
Posing with the boys
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Several new murals by the same artist have appeared… and I absolutely love their work.
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“Painting is Prohibited”
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Sacred cow sports sacred geometry.
Carrying her crown chakra with grace.
Carrying her crown chakra with grace.

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{{ I’d like to extend a special thanks to my dear friend Annabell, for not only accompanying me on this incredible journey, but for her artistic talent which produced all these beautiful photos of me! So grateful for you! }}

Namaste, My Friend – Rishikesh Part 2 – India

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

A place to take it all in.
A place to take it all in.

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.

The path to Arundhati Cave
The path to Arundhati Cave

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.

The shoes: mine.
The shoes: mine.

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.

A dark, beckoning into the earth.
A dark, beckoning into the earth.

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.

A small alter near the cave entrance. I do not know who the picture is of, but I suspect it is the swami that started the ashram here.
A small alter near the cave entrance. I do not know who the picture is of, but I suspect it is the swami that started the ashram here.

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.

My homage to this sacred place.
My homage to this sacred place.

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.

Mother is shopping, child has pressing issue. Some things are universal.
Mother is shopping, child has pressing issue. Some things are universal.

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.

He didn't speak much, but he consented to a photo. His dreads were admirably down to his knees.
Admirably, his dreads were down to his knees and he didn’t speak much, but he consented to a photo.

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.

The delightful Raja Baba.
The delightful Raja Baba.
Making friends over a glass of chai.
Making friends over a glass of chai.

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.

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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.

For the goddess Ganges.
For the goddess Ganges.

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.

Gratitude, floating downstream.
Gratitude, floating downstream.

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.

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Fire and water.
Fire and Water, Earth and Air.

~~~~~

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.

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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.

 

Rishikesh, India
Rishikesh, India

 

Om Namaha Shiva – Rishikesh Part 1 – India

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.

I have arrived...
I have arrived…


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Getting inaugurated.
Getting inaugurated.

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.

We are that... Awareness
We are that… Awareness
Astro Divine Remedies.
Astro Divine Remedies.

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.

Staying current.
Staying current.

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.

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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.

One of my neighbors.
One of my neighbors.
One of the men I spoke with each morning. He came to Rishikesh eight years ago because his guru told him to study here, and in spiritual pursuit he relies on the kindness of others for food and shelter.
One of the men I spoke with each morning. He came to Rishikesh eight years ago because his guru told him to study here, and in spiritual pursuit he relies on the kindness of others for food and shelter.

 

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.

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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?

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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.)

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Like-coated corn on the cob.
Lime-coated corn on the cob.

 

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.

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This man asked me to take this photo, I swear!
This man asked me to take this photo, I swear!
And then suddenly there was a baby on my lap.
And then suddenly there was a baby on my lap.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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The old meditation hall has become an ode to the Beatles.
The old meditation hall is now full of art, much of it an ode to the Beatles.

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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.

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Moonrise over Rishikesh.
Moonrise over Rishikesh.

Until tomorrow…

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