I will not be able to offer you any tangible reason for it, but Rishikesh has a very special place in our lives. We have walked all the way from Triveni Ghat to Laxmanjhula (our hunger for hiking is by now well documented). We have talked to local people. We have even visited medicine shops and hospitals and know where to find groceries! We have sat around Laxmanjhula looking with great fascination at the intriguing assortment of people.
There are two distinct Rishikeshes. One is the desi (and pious Hindu) section spanning from Triveni Ghat area to Ram Jhoola, the other one is the foreigner-friendly ashrams and establishments (mostly business-minded scams) near Laxman Jhoola that offer you a very international feel. There are organic Hindu spas and similar institutions offering a very religious healing both of spiritual and not so spiritual kinds. But all packaged in a manner distinctly different from the typical Hindu temple experience. You get to see a very cosmopolitan and swanky version of the industry of spirituality. There are rich and fashionable sadhus always ready with advice about the fleeting ephemerality of earthly possessions; there are yogis who offer yogic wisdom in exchange of a fistful of dollars.
The Beatles Ashram is once again in focus. But there are also institutions which seem very impressive or are rather beautiful. What happens inside them I will leave to your imagination.
We had stayed in a hostel once. It was full of guests from USA, Germany, UK and such other places. In fact, there were only three Indian guests including the two of us. They had a complimentary dinner party for all the guests and at that party this young man advertised a goat village that their “non-profit” organization was running. They apparently had arranged a goat “swayamvar” (a ceremony in which the female of apparently any species picks her mate with the male having only a passive role) and they wanted people to go there and have fun which hopefully does not include getting picked up by the said willing nannies and, of course, they wanted people to donate money.
(This photograph has nothing to do with the goat village. I simply could not resist!)
I don’t mind people doing business. Everything eventually gets commercialized. What was objectionable was that they told everyone that the hill people are no longer proud of their identity and want to leave their homes and work in the cities as service people; and these noble corporate charities are creating noble spaces so that the “natives” can stay at home and do goat farming and be proud by becoming tourist attractions! I have been to quite a few Garhwali villages and let me assure you the locals are very proud, very traditional and very self-sufficient. People are migrating in all directions, and pride and tradition are seldom voluntarily sacrificed. But these charlatans, coming from cities far away from these hills (this guy had migrated from Bangalore and I wondered what happened to his pride!) having no idea about life in these lovely yet gruelling places, have the audacity to sell the misery of the locals with such arrogant falsehoods!
Of course falsehood can take many forms. However, on a completely unrelated note, let me talk about the Ganga Aratis. We saw a lovely one in a very small ghat next to the very expensive Ganga Resort run by Garhwal Mandal Vikash Nigam (known popularly as GMVN).
(The building with the red tiled roof is the Ganga Resort)
[There are three properties run by GMVN in Rishikesh. The Rishilok Tourist Complex is the one providing budget accommodation; it is located in a lovely quiet spot in the centre of town. There is also the Bharat Bhoomi Tourist Complex located near the Bypass. Stay there only if you are morbid, for it practically overlooks the local morgue and autopsy centre. It is far away from every interesting spot.]
The small Arati I was talking about was truly small. A bunch of very young men did a completely non-commercial performance.
They were quite excited to have us as audience. Only a handful, four or five, locals were present. It offered a version of faith that is now being craftily commercialized every day. The Trayambakeshwar temple also has its own Arati. It is much like the one in Varanasi. Shorter in length, it has all the fanfare and trappings of a grand performance.
Let me tell you about our first experience of Rishikesh. The first time we visited Rishikesh we were in great pain. No alleviation seemed possible. And we were resigned to the fact that this would be our lot from then on. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t move. Both of us, quite naturally, suffered from terrible mood swings. This was only to be expected.
Let me give you the proper beginning. This was 2009. We had all of a sudden decided to trek. We had no inkling of what was to come. We gathered information from people who think climbing the Everest is mildly tiring. And we planned the 16 kilo (formula given in an earlier post) trek without any training. Before Kedar we had gone to Badrinath and managed to walk 12k. But the ascent to Kedar took out a lot. The descent (people take that to be the easy part) confounded our legs. The calf muscles started mooing continuously. The toes and other boned parts joined in the protest. Walking was acceptable, but stairs were torture. Rishikesh was supposed to be the rest that we needed.
The managerial-looking person at Kali Kamli Dharamshala took a good look at us. Then he went back to his newspaper. We mumbled politely. He took another look at me. Then after a slightly longer look at Jaya he decided we were worthy of his hospitality.
Wasting not a little time he gave us keys and directed us to a remote room on the second floor. We protested and were sternly told that what we demanded (a toilet with western facilities to humour our legs) was only available in that corner of the building. We were too tired to go on a further quest and bent our heads to his will.
Second floors are quite treacherous. They pretend not to be very lofty, but after a while they reveal their true elevated nature. And it is difficult to stay put in a Dharamshala room where there is no entertainment and you do not want to sleep all day. Of course, this is not the Dharamshala’s fault. We had books, we had pen and paper (I must mention that this was before the smartphone and tablet age that now runs our lives) but fatigue is a great enemy to constructive indolence. The only visual entertainment was the lone building on the hill on the far side of Ganga. [Since then we managed to learn that it was the Bhootnath temple.
We visited it on a later trip. If you are in Rishikesh, do try to go there. You get a lovely panorama from the top of the temple.
(The Ram Jhoola from Bhootnath Temple)]
After much deliberation our wanderlust won and we ventured down the stairs. Never in my life have I ever felt more like a pendulum. My feet allowed negotiating the stairs in a rhythm that mimicked penguins to perfection. On plain land everything became human once again. In that condition we started walking aimlessly through an ultra-crowded market and finally reached, after finding a couple of amazing havelis, the Ganga. Quite by accident we arrived at the place we had future plans to seek out – this was the Triveni Ghat.
Triveni Ghat will not impress you. It is a large ghat with a number of mythology-oriented statues, wide sets of stairs (not many and not steep as I noted with relief) and lots and lots of bulls and so-called Sanyasis.
I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable as my torso was making unique demands. But the way back was long and the demands of our legs could not be ignored. So we sat down finding a relatively empty and clean space.
We sat there for a couple of hours without speaking, just looking at the incredible variety of people that you can only find in India.
And slowly I found a serenity which I did not expect to attain. The pain remained, but it did not hurt any more. Eventually the sun disappeared, the weather became soft and the Arati started. It was a lovely warm affair. I have seen Aratis in many places – Varanasi and Haridwar being the principal ones – but this one was so intimate, so welcoming, I was truly overwhelmed. That has changed since, and the Triveni Ghat Arati has also become commercial.
However, on that evening against a gently flowing river the lamps worshipping the Ganga seemed brilliant.
The mantra was sung by a lovely voice which knew how to sing. There were a handful of priests. There was no regimentation, no fanfare, no irritating demands for donation – just a few men and their devotion.
Whether you believe in all that or not, this was soothing and was rather pleasant. We sat a little distance away as we did not want to take part, and did not want to disturb. But one elderly man, dressed in a shirt and trousers, came towards us and invited us to join the ritual with such warmth we simply could not refuse. We took the flowers. We did what needed to be done. We were rewarded with a fistful of Prasad. We were made to feel like we were a part of that evening.
I will never forget how we, two complete outsiders (they had no way of knowing our caste or religion or any such detail), were received with such conviviality. This, I told myself, is my country. Not the horror stories that you hear and see every day. But somewhere deep within, perhaps hidden deliberately, definitely targeted with much ferocity, there is a nation which wants to live with sympathy and solidarity.
Let us keep looking for that nation.