Rishikesh, India March 2015

My favorite childhood book was a 1950s, pre-Harry Potter fantasy called “Knight’s Castle.” A group of four children set up an imaginary battlefield with toy soldiers from the time of Ivanhoe. They don’t know that one of the tin soldiers has magic power, and in the middle of the night the children are transported through time to a dreamlike kingdom. Their playfield has come alive.  

Welcome to Rishikesh, India! Laxman Jhula, to be precise.

If Hindus and Buddhists are right about reincarnation, I’ve been here before — that’s the kind of bone-deep resonance this place evokes. It’s one of the places I feel most at home in the world. I stayed this time for six weeks, along with a couple of brief side trips — a great week with my friend Conrad visiting the beaches and backwaters of Kerala, in India’s far south, and another side trip to Kajuraho to see the ancient temples famed for their erotic carvings (who knew you could do that standing on your head, or with a horse?).

I’ve written about Rishikesh before. If you want more info, that’s why God/Shiva/Al Gore invented the internet — or, I can send you my dispatch from 2009. In brief, it’s an ancient holy area in the foothills of the Himalayas. The sacred Ganges (Ganga) flows here swift and strong. Because we’re relatively near her mountainous source, the river still sparkles green, less polluted than as she snakes her way further south. (“She”: Ganga is always female, often “mother,” and is revered by many not as a river, but a goddess).

The city of Rishikesh itself holds minimal appeal for tourists, but the enclaves of Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, a few kilometres upstream, are the magnet. The Beatles arrived here in the late 1960s to study with their guru, putting the area on the map for westerners. The enclaves are named for the two graceful, long, steel-cabled footbridges that span the river, in honor of the brother/heroes of the great Indian epic the Ramayana. When the fab four arrived, they no doubt saw it as it had been for centuries: a sleepy, mostly forgotten area with crumbling ancient ashrams dotting the shores, a handful of wandering sadhus and local farmers, lots of cows, monkeys, and water buffalo, and little else.

It’s hard to imagine that now.

As Knight’s Castle continues, the children’s daytime play grows more elaborate, with unanticipated consequences. Because they add to their battlefield all sorts of modern gadgets – toy cars, an empty soup can, an oversized, discarded dollhouse — their magical night realm becomes a chaotic fiasco. Knights and maidens on horseback get snarled in traffic jams, there’s noise everywhere, urban crowding, bizarre anachronisms and juxtapositions.

Laxman Jhula, take two: what a hot mess! It’s been a circus for the ten years I’ve been visiting, but now the midway tent has burst its seams. The streets are thick with scruffy Western backpackers wearing groovy, fake/cheap Indian clothing (clothes no Indians ever wear), elbow to elbow with hordes of young middle-class Mumbai hipsters (trying as hard to look like Westerners as the Westerners are trying not to – why doesn’t everyone just swap clothes? It would be so much easier). Well-coiffed yoga practitioners tote around American “Whole Foods” bags and drop $100 or $200 a night for the authentic “ashram” experience (I still pay – overpay – about $12/night for my favorite, moldering room overlooking the bridge). Add to the mix the many thrill-seekers who come to bungee jump above, or white water raft down, the river; the still-present sadhus, sannyasins, and beggars; the local villagers (many now in the tourist business); the throngs of impoverished Hindus who flock here on pilgrimage to honor Shiva; masses of stoned, dreadlocked, young Israeli hippies; a constant sonic landscape of CD vendors piping their music into the streets; the monkeys that line the bridges stealing the tourists’ popcorn; cows, motorbikes, and horns blaring; temple prayers blasting with scratchy amplification; bells ringing to invoke the gods and goddesses; loud wedding parties that go all night.

Two years ago, I could still escape the mayhem by heading to the rice paddies and picturesque fields just above the town; they’re gone now, filled with yet more hastily built guesthouses, restaurants, and curio shops. Along the east bank of the river, where one row of buildings used to line the only road, structures now push up the hillsides, scrunched together like a bad tetras game, rising, teetering, four or five deep.

Clearly others love it here as much as I do, and if they’re drawn to bungee jump over a liquid goddess rather than attend satsang with a guru, who am I to judge? I avoid the smart new Coffee Day cafe (India’s most popular coffee chain) because I still like my masala chai in a small glass at a roadside stand of questionable hygiene — but I’ve been known to sneak into the trendy FabIndia clothing franchise every now and then.

Rishikesh has been “discovered.” It’s become a staple of the India-groovoid-travel circuit. As such, I’m not sanguine about the future here. It’s starting to homogenize with dozens of similar other Asian backpacker haunts – an unwelcome neutering of a place that relegates local essence to spice rather than main ingredient. But for now it still works, because of the heady bounty of Eastern spiritual experiences on tap – gatherings with teachers, kirtan (chanting of old Sanskrit songs and hymns), meditation sessions, yoga classes any time of day or night, the general vibe of spiritual pursuit and enthusiasm.

My days here are as full as I wish. A typical day might include an intensive Zen meditation training in the morning, satsang with a guru midday, and hmmm – what to choose in the afternoon — the Brazilian dance class with the Italian master? Tai Chi with the English practitioner? The daily lecture on non-duality with the Belgian monk, who everyone loves, including me?

It’s a thin line one walks here – not between the meandering cows and the racing motorbikes, but between the genuine thirst for spiritual nourishment and egocentric self-delusion. It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon from a few years back: two jaded urbanites are talking. One says (I’m paraphrasing), “At 10:00 I have yoga, at 11 I have therapy, and then at 12 I have a massage — I just don’t have time for myself anymore.”

Unless you’re completely unconscious, Laxman Jhula demands an examination of what it means to be “spiritual.” It’s normative here to be the disciple of a guru. Restaurants and shops display photos of the most popular of these gurus, much as western establishments hang snapshots of movie stars — and non-democracies boast photos of the party leader. The conversations one overhears in cafes are not about celebrity facelifts or politics, but the quantum nature of reality and the subtleties of nondual consciousness (okay, plus the world cup. Some things transcend all boundaries).

The ecstatic love-fest here amid the devotees of the various teachers can feel intoxicating and healing, even redemptive. At the very least, many people here love feeling spiritual, and I have come to regard this to be as distinct an emotional state as anger, joy, or guilt. But how this feeling merges into life is a trickier matter. I’ve met some wonderfully open-hearted and devout people here, quick to fall at the guru’s feet and hang on his or her every word, who treat the local townsfolk with irritation or indifference. Funny, how a deaf-mute Indian beggar can interfere with one’s bliss — what a buzzkill.

Still, the whiff of spiritual aspiration in the air, along with the incense, cow-dung, and masala spice, is strong enough that even those who don’t come explicitly for the spiritual smorgasbord are, I think affected by it. Acquaintances and strangers often greet each other with a smile and a “namaste” bow, or a hand placed gently on one’s heart. The homeless man with no legs radiates such joy that I feel blessed by him whenever we meet, and I want to learn his secret. There is a presence that infuses this place with something transcendent, the way a hidden ingredient makes a certain dish sublime, even if you can’t identify exactly what it is.

Knight’s Castle, part 3. The dreamland is about to spin out of control. But one of the children realizes a trick even more magical than the spell woven by the tin soldier: how to walk in both worlds. He learns to stay in the dream, but at the same time return to his “real” world for a crucial action that keeps the dream alive.

One of the most popular teachers here is a Brazilian man named Prem Baba. He’s a guru out of central casting – radiant face, beaming eyes and smile, long beard, long grey hair, flowing clothes. Most of his devotees are gorgeous (is there such a thing as an unsexy Brazilian? Surely there must be one, someplace, but I’ve yet to experience this personally). Prem Baba’s satsangs usually draw a few hundred people daily.

Like other teachers here, the gathering starts with chanting. One day when I attended, the musicians – guitar, flute, harmonium, tabla drums, singers – offered several traditional Sanskrit bhajans, and then began strumming the familiar chords of the closest thing we have on our planet to an international anthem of peace: John Lennon’s Imagine.

Maybe it was the self-delusion of group intoxication. Maybe it was the fabulous Brazilian undercurrent of the instrumentation. Maybe it was nothing more than the sweet fragrance of a rose in a sealed room, masking the stench of rot outside. But that morning, sitting cross-legged with a few hundred people from across the planet on the floor of a Hindu ashram, chanting with our voices strong, intentions earnest, and hearts bursting open, it was hard not to feel hopeful about life, about one another, about the future, about the unspeakable, exquisite beauty of what, at least at rarified moments, is humanly possible. It was hard not to feel in love.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
No religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

That’s why I come back over and over, and will until that last whiff of transcendence is snuffed out by the diesel fumes and sewage. In Rishikesh holding the vision of a better world doesn’t feel like imagining: It feels possible, here and now, amid all the filth and contradictions. I wander the streets here love-struck, my feet barely touching the unpaved streets, happy in my newest collarshirt shirt from FabIndia, as if I, too, can walk between the worlds.

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