Laughing, yelling, singing and chanting, a steady stream of humanity moves toward the river’s edge. Waves of vibrant sarees pulse in and out of timeworn temples and shrines, while eager shop owners vie for attention. As predictable as vegetarian curry is for lunch, their products and services include rafting trips, yoga courses and souvenirs.
Hoping to get in on the action, cheeky monkeys launch surprise attacks on tourists, lapping at their ice cream while “holy cows” do their best to clog main arteries with their lackadaisical, hefty backsides. Above it all, the smell of freshly fried samosas and tandoor naan mingle with aromas of sweet pastries from one of many German bakeries.
Welcome to Rishikesh.
Nestled against the foothills of the Himalayas and situated on the sacred Ganges River, Rishikesh is famous among Hindu pilgrims and Western spiritual seekers alike. The western craze began after 1968, when the Beatles visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to learn about meditation and ultimately write many of the lyrics for their famous “White Album.” This publicized visit created a waterfall effect of Westerners searching for self in the “Home of Yoga.”
But long before the West’s glamorization of Rishikesh, Hindus have been visiting. Legends of saintly penances performed on the banks of the Ganges, apparitions of beloved deities and the location where the Vedas, sacred Hindu scriptures, were revealed to cave-dwelling monks, are just a few reasons why many Hindus embark on this meaningful pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
Some arrive by plane – wealthy urbanites from the big cities of New Delhi or Mumbai. Others, less fiscally inclined, arrive after lengthy train or bus rides – a 40-hour transit considered “short” by many other pilgrims. And then there’s the most humble devotee of all. Arriving on their own two feet, the poorer levels of society can be found alongside the road with battered tins of water and lentils balanced atop their heads. They often travel for weeks, even months, to reach this holy location.
Divided into two areas, Rishikesh downtown carries little spiritual significance. But just upstream, the riverside communities around the Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula bridges are where most of the ashrams, temples and tourists reside. These jhulas, suspension bridges, hover high above the Ganges River and provide the only crossing for pedestrians.
Like ants to an anthill, hundreds of people pour onto the bridges. Pushing themselves and family members forward, there is little regard to personal space in this frenzied attempt to reach their respective sides. Designated as “foot traffic only,” hasty scooters and overloaded motorcycles invariably find entry. Using their magical light saber, a horn, drivers truly believe people will disintegrate with each aggressive honk!
Ding ding! Dozens of bells do their best to rise over the chaos below. With 13 floors devoted to countless gods and goddesses, the iconic Tera Manzil temple heaves with believers. The sweet smell of rose and sandalwood wafts through the corridors, and the recurring sounds of families’ final rupees clink against the bottom of copper offering dishes.
Below, in the Mother Ganga, other pilgrims bathe. Wading into the cool waters, many for the first and only times in their lives, they splash water thoughtfully over their limbs and pray for nullification of sins. Others pray for enlightenment.
Just down the river a nightly display of devotion, the “ganga aarti,” is about to begin. Performed on the steps of the famous Parmarth Niketan Ashram, below a towering statue of Lord Shiva, processions of chanting, saffron-robed monks move toward the river’s edge. Seated around a fire, the monks sing and perform rituals to Agni, the fire goddess.
“Woo hoo!!” Screaming at the top of their lungs, raft after raft of enthusiastic tourists float past. A part of the community since the sport began, now hundreds of rafting companies call Rishikesh home.
Bungee jumping and trekking have further developed the adventure market, calling to another type of tourist; the young, wealthy city slicker. Living on parental credit, their goals hardly parallel anything spiritual. They are more concerned with the perfect Facebook picture and the inflated stories they can share with friends.
The subsequent tourism dichotomy is baffling. Traditionally veiled women of Rajasthan, hidden under yards of bright fabric and ornate bracelets, walk next to 20-something divas from New Delhi in tight jeans and AC-DC tank tops. Just beyond, well-dressed middle-age men disembark chauffeured vehicles, round potbellies boasting wealth and excess, while humble sadhus and swamis (holy men), swathed in bright orange robes, beg for a handout in the dusty streets. Throw a few unwashed, Ali baba pant-wearing Westerners and suave Indian raft guides trying to score alcohol in a dry city, and you have a taste of what makes Rishikesh one of the best places in the world for watching people.
And then there was me – a 30-something transient in lycra yoga pants and a thin cotton tunic. I arrived with the hope of filling the spiritual reservoir and discovering the benefits of yoga. Me, and just about every other Westerner.
It’s 5 a.m. The first of a series of annoying alarms sounds off. Snoozing the first three or four, I finally surrender to their electronic summons. Peeling my body from the sweaty sheets, I swing my feet onto the slightly cooler concrete ground. Sitting up straight, my back cracks louder than the rickety wooden bed frame and my knees and glutes scream for mercy.
Rubbing my eyes, I clear just enough of their sleepy film to reach the kitchen. Good morning, stovetop coffee maker. What? Not all yogis need to give up caffeine.
At 6:15 a.m., I join my fellow students in the yoga hall. Large and airy, the second-floor yoga hall is flanked on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows. A light orange drapery filters out the harsh sunlight, while a half dozen oscillating fans do their best to keep the 110-degree heat of Indian summer moving (power outage permitting, of course).
“Ekam … Dve … Treeni” (One, two, three).
Bending forward, my toes seem farther away than enlightenment. Trying to suppress the feelings of envy I hold for my flexible neighbors, discomfort and doubt creep in like a slow, debilitating leak.
Closing my eyes, I try to bring awareness to my breath. In … and out. In … and out. Physical poses are only a piece of one’s practice. Yoga is the union of mind and body. It is a discipline. It is an evolution of peace, serenity and bliss that grows with meditation and manifests in action.
“Yoga is a lifelong journey,” I repeat to myself. “And this is only the first chapter.”
Om … Santi … Santi … Santi.
* Regina spent three months in Rishikesh and received her 500-hour RYS Yoga Teacher Training Certificate at the Association for Yoga & Meditation (AYM). To read more about her experience, see backpackerswanted.com.