Greetings from Rishikesh, Northern India, the ‘world capital of yoga’.
There’s something very thrilling in exploring a new place, like getting to know a potential lover.
Rishikesh is certainly a great place to get to know. A very scenic town, it sits in the foothills of Himalaya where Ganga river rushes down from the mountains.
It was the Beatles who put Rishikesh on the world map back in 1968. The band members and their wives and assistants attended ‘transcendental meditation’ in an Ashram here. Their high-profiled visit changed western attitude towards Indian spirituality.
I came here not exactly for my spiritual pursuit but for some ‘me’ time, doing yoga, reading and writing, in this inspiring setting, filled with fresh sweet air.
Now I’ve been here for almost a week, mostly enjoying myself.
I checked into an ashram, which I believed to be the best in town. I was lucky to meet an Australian backpacker/motor bike enthusiast called Ben on the train from Delhi to Rishikesh. He introduced me to his friends, who are long term residents here. They all congregate at this ashram. It’s easy to see why: centrally located, it crouches right on the river front.
I took a ‘suite’. Though not as grand as the word implies, it has a sitting area and a balcony overlooking the river.
Rishikesh has its charm. Its beauty is not the showy sort – if I may borrow the human comparison- that makes people turn their heads in the street but rather the sort that can stand scrutiny.
In front our ashram, there’s the ‘beach’ – a long patch of white sandy area. Tourists pose in front of their cameras; yogis practice their yoga. Emily, one of Ben’s friends, sometimes does her impossible yoga tricks here, like ‘flying double birds’ carrying two yogis on her firm legs while she lays on her back! Most of all, the beach belongs to sadhus – the holy men, who are clad in their bright yellow robes, often with their matted hair and painted faces, usually carrying a metal fork or such a tool. They meditate, chant, make their teas and huddle over small wood fires.
Rishkesh is surrounded by mountains. In the morning, mist often hangs over the peaks, reminding me of Chinese landscape painting.
Not all aspects of Rishikesh are poetic. The narrow roads are dotted with rubbish and cow poos. Cows roam around as if they own the place. Monkeys are even more aggressive, grabbing your fruits if you carry any in the open.
Being a holy place, pilgrims come in droves. Every evening, spectacular puja ceremony is carried out at several temples on the river front. It is a spiritual place with many temples on both banks. There are many centers for meditation and yoga studies.
Rishikesh is also a highly commercialized place packed with shops. It is deeply exotic as well as chaotic.
Like India itself, Rishikesh is full of contradiction.
In any case, it serves my purpose very well. Everyday, I do yoga, I go out with people from the ashram to have lunch or tea; I lunge about on the roof top cafe of ‘the office’ over looking Ganga, reading or day dreaming. I take ferry rides with pilgrims. During the day, the river shimmers in the bright sunlight like a piece of giant fish scale.
In the evening, I mostly stay in the room and write. For the first few nights, I found it too cold to concentrate. Now I’ve bought a tiny heater, which warms up the whole room. This morning, I toasted my left over Tibetan Momo (dumplings) before dashing out for my yoga.
If I am pleased with my work, I treat myself massage or facial or delicious cakes. Since it’s a holy town, there’s no meat available. I found the food surprisingly tasty.
Tonight I am going out with a few people from the ashram for dinner and possibly attend a concert of traditional Indian music instruments at a roof top restaurant in the other side of town.
Tomorrow, the xmas day, I’ve signed up a hiking trip to a Shiva temple up in the mountain. I shall look forward to it.
A different and memorable Christmas.
writer, journalist, social commentator and public speaker