It’s 8:00am in Rishikesh, India, and the sun has not yet risen above the hills that line the Ganges River (the Ganga). January is a bit chilly here in the evenings and the mornings, especially on days when the fog rolls in and mists cover the hillsides, and one hears the wind howl and watches it snarl and unfurl the scarves and shawls most people wear for warmth. Soon, the sun will crest the hills (hills? small mountains, really – foothills of the not-too-distant Himalayas), the sacred river – the soft green of a ripe avocado — will sparkle in her currents, and the noisy, lively, vibrant bustle of Laxman Jhula will again rise to full throttle.
Laxman Jhula is one of two graceful, heavily trafficked, steel-cabled footbridges that span the Ganga in this region. It’s mainly for pedestrians, but often gets snarled, even gridlocked, with its additional traffic of cows, burros, monkeys (stealing popcorn or shiny packages from unsuspecting naïve humans), carts, motorbikes, and Indian couples and families on pilgrimage, snagging the pace even more by snapping group pictures in front of the beautiful view (many of these pilgrims now, even those who look relatively poor, recording this moment for posterity on a cell phone camera).
I am just winding up my too-brief month here. About 150 miles north of Delhi, Rishikesh is one of the most appealing spots I’ve found in any of my travels. Returning here for this length of time has been a treasure. It’s a unique place. Until the 1960s it was pretty desolate, home only to a few scattered ashrams that rarely attracted foreigners. Then the Beatles came to study with their guru (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). One can still visit the large, gloriously decrepit ruins of this ashram, on the banks of the river, being swallowed by the lush jungle-like forest (Maharishi lost the land years ago in a tax dispute with the state). It’s home now only to cows, monkeys, vermin, and a handful of sannyasins (spiritual mendicants) who, when I visited, were napping, studying, praying, or perhaps simply passing the time.
To get a visual sense of this place, imagine a picturesque alpine village morphed with an over-the-top Bollywood set, with hearty dashes of P.T. Barnum, Baz Luhrman, and Mother Theresa thrown into the mix. My small, sweet hotel room overlooks the bridge and the river, affording a panoramic view of the cluttered, ramshackle, utterly lovely buildings, beaches, ghats, and large piles of rubble on the other side. The immediate vista is dominated by two large, show-offy ashrams flanking the bridge, built in the 1970s in an architectural style combining pretentions of grandeur with the frilly, multi-tiered effervescence of an Italian wedding cake.
To get a deeper sense of this place, a circus metaphor might work best. Although this area of Rishikesh is gentle and low-key by Indian standards, it is still a sensory assault, replete with an actual, unavoidable soundtrack. The soundscape starts daily at 5:00am with the rhythmic, insistent, railway-crossing-like bells and clangs of attendants waking up the gods at the many temples and shrines (I myself lean toward a religion where the gods sleep til 8:30, and then know how to wake themselves, maybe even prepare hot cereal for their faithful). Smaller bells and gongs clatter throughout the day; motorbikes shriek and toot; hammers and mallets pound in the ever-present construction. And these foothills are alive with the sound of music: lush, well-produced, “world” versions of traditional Sanskrit chants blast from the many CD shops catering to foreigners; and, for the Indian tourists, we are all treated to the screechy, high-pitched, fast-paced music familiar here.
Immediately across the bridge is the area’s densest arcade — the circus midway. There, one is greeted by a glorious, lifelike murti (sculpture) of the beautiful/handsome god Shiva, with fabulous long, thick black hair, velvety blue skin, an androgynous face, steroidal body, and gold earrings the size of small doughnuts. He wears a golden yellow tiger skin (think Barney Rubble), sports a necklace of a serpent, and lords, literally, over the boisterous festivities. He looks a lot like Deana, the psychic female counselor on the second Star Trek series (the extent of whose futuristic psychic empathy, by the way, usually extended to, “Captain, I sense the aliens…are…feeling pain”). A bit further up the slope, in serifed-lettering that, either by chance or wit, heightens the “circus” connection, an inn’s green painted tower proclaims, “Hotel Hill Top.”
So the circus theme dominates here, and most everyone who falls under Rishikesh’s spell seems to enjoy the ride (there are even street vendors who sell popcorn that tourists buy that monkeys steal that Indians photograph on the cellphones they buy from selling popcorn…). And there is yoga, yoga, yoga: Rishikesh has positioned itself as the self-proclaimed “yoga capital of the world,” a marketing asana that may or may not be accurate.
Still, what distinguishes this place from most of the other funky-groovy Asian travel destinations I’ve landed in, and what draws me (along with many of the other foreigners, and Indians, who cherish this rapidly changing place), is not the carnival. Although no longer a remote region dotted with the occasional ashram, Rishikesh is still a magnet for those on “a path” — seekers of a deeper connection with spirit, or bliss, or mystery. Squashed between the cracks of the dilapidated buildings, wafting up from the smells of cow dung and incense, gazing out from the yellowed eyes of the wizened beggars and the shiny smiles of Western devotees in white garb and pricey angora shawls, one senses something here that takes a while to identify, so absent is it in most of our lives: Rishikesh feels holy. This holiness is Rishikesh’s greatest allure, its center of gravity.
My time here has mostly been spent as I had hoped: meditating, writing, reading, meeting with teachers, and stepping into some of the spiritual communities that thrive here (several gurus – Indian, Brazilian, American – spend months in residence here every year, along with their followers). One of the teachers I have met with regularly is an older Swami who has lived here, in his own ashram in the jungle overlooking the river, for at least fifty years. He is cranky, eccentric, gifted, loving, critical, and often wise (who knows; perhaps he’s wise all the time, and I just don’t get it yet). I meet with him every other day. We sit around the small fire he has taught me to build in an old chipped brazier. He wears a long orange woolen robe, has a thinning, disorganized tangle of longish hair, and speaks softly in heavily accented English (“a-vare-ness, Steefin, a-vare-ness”).
I forget what a rare opportunity –much less a cultural phenomenon — my visits with him are. How quickly I have come to take for granted the gift of this thrice-weekly ritual: Trekking thirty minutes to his ashram (tapering past the clamor of Laxman Jhula, and then the shops selling textiles and saris, and then the stalls of Tibetan trinkets, and finally just the empty, quiet road); entering the gate, seeing the simple buildings (one of which says, in English and Sanskrit, “Lead me from the Unreal to the Real”); kneeling under the Boddhi tree meditating; doing some chore for Swamiji(collecting firewood, or sweeping, futilely, the dirt from the outdoor meditation platform with an Indian whisk broom, or raking up big leaves), and then sitting together to enjoy sweet milky tea, or heated apple juice, and tending the fire. Swamiji (as he is called) got sharply annoyed with me midway through my month-long visit, because I wasn’t bringing him a clear enough question. I answered that simply being with him was of benefit, and this has been true.
I have also spent time with another teacher, an American woman who came to India twenty years ago as the disciple of a guru here. She now has a devoted flock of her own – from what I can gather, many hundreds of people worldwide, perhaps even more – many of whom come to be here during the winter months, when she is residence at her guru’s ashram. I sit in her satsang (daily gathering) and listen as she dispenses advice, or wisdom, or takes questions, or leads a chant, or speaks of whatever is tickling or irritating her at the moment. Her devotees, mostly European, more women than men, adore her. She doesn’t fit any stereotyped notion of “guru”: her style is plainspoken, at times blaming, at times banal. She has come to mix traditional Vedantic teachings with Native American ceremonies, Peruvian shamanism, and the current New Age absorption in the Mayan calendar and prophecies. And I easily see — no, feel — why she is revered. At moments being in her presence defies words, so palpable is the energy of loving, transcendent divinity that radiates from and around her.
So: I don’t mind the circus, I breathe in the holiness, and I love the cheap digs and food (Rishikesh feeds both my longing for the sacred and the pathological delight I take in thrift: an afternoon of spiritual nourishment, and then dinner for a dollar. Does it get any better than this?). And I am grateful for how India, and most of Asia, cannot help but remind me of, rub my nose in, awaken me to, taking nothing for granted.
Last week, I needed some small tailoring done. I asked one of the café owners for his recommendation. He immediately sat me onto the back of his motorbike and whisked me half a kilometer down the road to the residence of Prakesh, a man he said was a fine tailor, whom his family had known for years.
The word “residence” here required a stretch of the imagination, and some repeated swallowing. A swallowing of my disbelief; a swallowing of my discomfort at being dropped into such penury firsthand; a swallowing of a guilt I wouldn’t have predicted I would feel, but did, faced so matter of factly with the inexplicable inequity of our mutual lives. With his wife and eight children (seven daughters, one son), Prakesh lived in what even the most unscrupulous realtor could not describe as a “hovel.” Part stone with gaping mortar holes, part corrugated tin, part rotting wood, Prakesh’s home had two rooms, a dirt floor, one light bulb, a few cots, and a smattering of tattered blankets and cloths. “Rooms” suggests a structure too formal: no actual door, no windows, and only a jagged gap in the wall to walk from one section to the next. It seemed more like a cave, and a crowded one at that, than anything else. Prakesh’s wife and one of the daughters cooked chapatti (bread) and root vegetables over a small fire in a corner in the back, sitting on old burlap sacks.
Prakesh himself was a gentle, smiling man, with a thick grey-white beard, bad teeth, dirty clothes, and a gracious, even dignified, manner. His fee for my three items of tailoring: 70 rupees ($1.40). As we spoke he squatted on the floor and smoked a toothpick-thin, hand-rolled cigarette; he sewed on an ancient Singer machine, also placed on a sack on the floor. I ended up visiting several times, and – here’s one of the deepest knots of the mystery – they were a lovely, relaxed, happy family. They offered a meal or tea each time I visited. The youngest girls played with me in a way that spoke to a sense of safety and delight in the world. The one boy, in his early 20s, spoke of his gratitude for all that his family had, his lack of worry in daily life.
In the dim light inside, the only piece of furniture I saw, next to a blue tarp that served as front door, was, incongruously, a kitschy vanity unit. It had a large mirror and a few crammed shelves underneath, with a weather-beaten, grimy wood veneer. The mirror was shaped like a giant heart. A carved swan’s neck and head gracefully curved up either side, and then in, to shape the oversized valentine. The mirror, although dusty, was neither broken nor cracked. Incongruous? Wildly. But this is India, and incongruity is the norm. I could easily imagine the mirrored heart that marked the entrance to Prakesh’s home in a tacky 1950s Las Vegas honeymoon motel – or, at the ticketbooth of a ten-cent Tunnel of Love in some ironic, and indefatigable, amusement park of humanity.