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'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Rishikesh - 17th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'...life goes on, braah.
La-la, how the life goes on!'

This blog could have been titled 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey' or possibly any of the other tracks on The Beatles 'White Album'. Most of them were composed during their encounter with transcendental meditation here in Rishikesh during March and April of 1968.

But, yes, 'life goes on' today much as it was when Paul McCartney wrote Ob-La-Di... all those years ago.

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Backpackers still flock here in search of 'enlightenment' and the town remains preoccupied with meditation and yoga. It's a kind of spiritual Disneyland for Westerners. Indeed, some of the tourists we encountered during our short stay - and they were here in vastly greater numbers than in Haridwar - apparently thought it was still the '60s or '70s. Their long hair and baggy, flower-power attire that no self-respecting Indian would ever dream of wearing was of a past era.

Although only an hour's taxi ride from holy Haridwar and similarly centred around the sacred Ganges, Rishikesh seemed light years away in terms of atmosphere and environment. This was an altogether more relaxed, somehow prettier, and distinctly more touristy place.

It's where, if you had the time and inclination, you could take any one of a hundred different yoga courses - it's renowned as 'the yoga capital of the world'. You could trek in the foothills of the Himalayas too, or learn to play the sitar like George Harrison, or even get rapidly drenched in a rubber raft on the river.

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Alternatively, you could do as we did and sit on your hotel balcony enjoying the sunshine and glorious views towards the range of green hills on our doorstep!

Our stay in Rishikesh was short, so we opted to take a long walk from our hotel to the evening aarthi ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram on the Ganges' eastern bank.

The town's west side is where most hotels and the town itself are located. The only way to reach the eastern side is by suspension bridges called jhulas (pronounced like jewellers). They're narrow, designed for pedestrians in two-way single file, but frequented by cows, monkeys, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes too. The happy result is that the east side has no cars - ideal for our walk.

It was less than a 10-minute stroll to the Lakshman Jhula (often spelt Laxman Jhula) from our hotel in the pleasant north-western part of town. In ancient myth, Lakshman was the younger brother of Rama - an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and he's said to have crossed the Ganges at this exact point using a jute rope bridge. Today, we followed in his footsteps by the now metal suspension bridge brightly painted in the colours of the Indian flag.

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Proximity to the Lakshman Jhula had an added advantage in that we could cross the wide, free-flowing Ganges avoiding the unattractive downtown area we'd driven through on our way here from Haridwar. From the bridge, we enjoyed remarkable countryside views both upstream and downstream, jostled all the time by the comings and goings of others. David even had a bottle of water sneakily snatched from his backpack by a monkey!

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Once on the far bank, we moved swiftly past tiny stalls selling the usual tourist tat and pilgrims' requisites, together with even smaller niches where you could book yoga lessons, flights, buses and river rafting. In the bustling streets, we passed children returning from school, foreigners with yoga mats slung on their backpacks, small ashrams, hostels and cafés with names like Freedom, Little Buddha, Soul and Nirvana.

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Then, like a breath of fresh air, we came out onto a wide footpath, really an infrequently-used road, fringed by stone walls, tall trees and shrubs on either side. There were very few people and even fewer vehicles, merely an occasional motorbike.

For about 1½ miles (2.4kms), this well-maintained, metalled roadway followed the contours of the meandering Ganges somewhere far below us and rarely visible because of dense greenery.

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In parts, one side of the path was lined with coloured concrete benches, mostly vacant but now and then occupied by old men passing the time of day or by sadhus in bright orange robes with turbans or woolly hats to match.

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The only other people were an itinerant stallholder selling crushed sugar cane drinks and a few visitors like ourselves heading in the same direction.

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More than an hour after we'd left (we walked at old men's pace), we eventually reached Ram Jhula, the town's other footbridge, almost a facsimile of the one we'd crossed earlier. Again, there were great views of the river and towards forested hills receding into the misty distance. A lonely cow and a crowded wooden ferry-boat waited by the bridge. The boat presumably carried people to parts of the town not easily reached by the bridges or otherwise requiring very long walks - we didn't stop to ask, this wasn't our destination.

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Another half mile (850 metres), past ashrams and temples on our left side and the river bank on our right, brought us to Parmarth Niketan. This is the largest ashram of the many in Rishikesh, where visitors come to stay inexpensively in its thousand or more rooms and to participate in its yoga, meditation and wellness programmes. An annual International Yoga Festival is held here in March.

In front of this enormous spiritual retreat, on steep ghats bordering the river, was the site of this evening's aarthi ceremony.

Near the entrance to the ghats was an imposing statue of Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, an avatar of the god Shiva (the destroyer of evil) and an ardent devotee of the god Rama. Here he's seen seated in semi-lotus position with his hands ripping opening his chest to reveal, close to his heart, the standing figures of Rama and his beautiful wife Sita.

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At first, we chose to clamber down the steps of the ghats to sit beside the river and to watch the ceremony from beneath. It transpired however that, unlike the formal ceremonies we'd witnessed at Haridwar, this celebration of devotion to Mother Ganges was to be smaller, more audience-friendly, altogether more intimate. We soon rose up and mingled with everyone else - the priests, old and young, dressed in their familiar yellow and crimson robes seated at river level, above and among the gathering, now inter-mixed with visiting Westerners and Indians alike.

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An harmonium, a sort of floor-level squeeze-box pumped by one hand and a tiny piano-like keyboard played with the other, sounded its tuneless melody. Finger cymbals, tabla drums and bells provided more interesting accompaniment.

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The priests chanted and sang lengthy mantras, amplified by large speakers on either side - they don't do 'quiet' at aarthi ceremonies! The audience joined in with enthusiasm, singing, clapping, swaying, with hands above their heads or in prayer. Flames were lit in cobra-shaped lamps and waved through the air in choreographed unison. Later, some of the flaming lamps were passed from hand to hand among the friendly congregation.

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Much of this celebration to the ever-sacred Ganges was performed by a sprightly, heavily-bearded gentleman - the ashram's 65-year-old president, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj - call him 'Swamiji' for short. We saw this man again at an airport a day or two later - he travels the world with his message of caring for people and the planet (he's also the spiritual head of the Hindu Jain Temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Clearly highly regarded and hugely respected, the aarthi's congregation followed his every word and, at the end of the ceremony, they followed hotly in his footsteps as he left the auditorium.

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Our evening observation at an end, we retreated to the Ram Jhula. Nearby, we ate dinner at the rather bare but highly-recommended Chotiwala Restaurant. Then, fatigued from our walk and enthralling time at the aarthi, we strolled back over the bridge to the west side and caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel.

It had been an energetic and interesting day and these two oldies needed to sleep before their next spiritual adventure - tomorrow's long ride to Devprayag, birthplace of the holy River Ganges.

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Accommodation

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The Dewa Retreat, glowingly described as 'a subdued spa resort with organic dining', is a fairly standard modern hotel located in the peaceful north-western part of Rishikesh. We particularly liked its location, away from the grimy, busy town-centre.

As well as regular accommodation for visitors, it offers traditional Ayurvedic herbal treatments and massages together with a yoga and meditation room. Regrettably, we didn't have time to sample any of these. There's also a swimming pool, around which a few guests sat - the water was cold.

The welcome from the staff was friendly and efficient, and our room was clean and comfortable. We enjoyed having a narrow balcony to take in the views over agricultural land close by and towards the green hills beyond. The restaurant served a wide variety of vegetarian food although, strangely and annoyingly, the waiters failed to mention that some items were produced in the organic café opposite and would take a lifetime to arrive.

On balance, this was a good choice for location and comfort, but at around £75 for a night's bed and breakfast in a double room, a bit expensive by Indian standards.

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Footnote:
Even though it's credited to Lennon & McCartney, John Lennon hated the 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' song, calling it 'Paul’s granny music'. A BBC poll some years later named it the single worst song of all time.

I remember this awful song vividly - if you don't, you can listen to it on YouTube by clicking here.

Oh, and here's a useless fact: 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' comes from a Nigerian tribe called the Yoruba and, of course, it means 'life goes on'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:48 Archived in India Tagged india ganges rishikesh Comments (2)

The energy giver and healer

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Devprayag - 18th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

India's high caste Brahmins say a prayer three times a day, just before sunrise, at noon and just before sunset, in which they praise water as the energy giver and healer.

No water in India is praised more highly than that of the Ganges and our spiritual journey would have been incomplete without a visit to where this holiest of all holy rivers begins its life.

Perhaps that's why we chose to go to Rishikesh - not so much to discover what all The Beatles fuss was about ('Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'), nor even to experience another evening aarthi ceremony (even though that alone was worth going there for). Rather, it may have been because Rishikesh was only a couple of hours from where the sacred Ganges is born.

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There's a popular misconception that the Ganges starts at the Gangotri Glacier, high up in the Himalayas. Well, it does - and it doesn't... The Gangotri actually provides the headwaters of the Bhagirathi (pronounced bag-ee-raaht-eee), one of two sacred tributaries of the Ganges that meet at a place called Devprayag (pronounced as it's spelt: dev-pray-ag). The other river is the Alaknanda (al-ak-nan-da), which flows from the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers near the Tibetan border. There's also another unseen, mythical one - more of which later.

It's at the prayag - the confluence - of these rivers in Devprayag ('Dev' means 'godly') that Ganga, the one we know as the Ganges, really begins.

On paper, Rishikesh is only about 70kms (42 miles) from Devprayag, or a little less from our hotel near the road out of the town to the north. At only 370 metres (1,220 feet) above sea level, however, Rishikesh is also over 560 metres (1,840 feet) lower, and there's mountainous terrain in between. We faced a taxi journey of more than two hours to reach our destination - but, wow, what a lovely journey it was.

Our scenic route followed the river flowing towards us far below in a deep ravine, the good single-carriageway road twisting and turning throughout the winding, uphill, downhill journey. All around were tree-covered hills, foothills of the mighty Himalayas, disappearing one after another into mist to the north, an ever-changing picture. There were very few places to stop in safety to take in the wonderful panoramic views but, whenever we could, David and I asked our driver to pull over and out came our cameras.

At these leisurely halts, we enjoyed sweeping vistas along the emerald-tinged waters sparkling in the late morning sun, down into the steep-sided ravines, and off into the hills and the hazy distance.

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The last stop was made a few minutes from our destination, overlooking from on high the little town of Devprayag. Backed by rocky, green hills, the cluster of white, blue and yellow box-like houses with a temple tower reaching skywards sat on a triangle of land jutting out into what had now become the Ganges. The white water of the Bhagirathi thundered down on one side and the slower, darker, silt-laden flow of the Alaknanda joined it on the other.

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Our driver took us on a little farther, eventually stopping at a sort of partly-covered terrace with a lay-by in front of it. His command of the English language wasn't terrific but we understood that he'd wait for us here, although he insisted we pay 100 Rupees (about £1.20) for parking - strange, I know, for it was just a lay-by, a pull-in place. I guessed he may have had to bribe a caretaker or a policeman or, perhaps, buy himself some lunch!

He pointed to where we had to go - to the other side of what we knew from our earlier viewpoint stop was raging white water. What he knew, but failed to tell us, was that, to reach that other side, we had to walk down hundreds of steps and then cross a bridge, none of which were visible from the terrace.

Through a stone archway, we jolted our knees down 20 or more extremely steep, deep steps. We reached a landing area at right angles to our path and could then see off to our left a long, flimsy-looking structure similar to, but narrower than, those at Rishikesh - a thin suspension footbridge painted in the familiar red, white and green of the Indian flag.

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Avoiding sleeping dogs, cows and fresh brown reminders of their existence littering the path, we continued down a long flight of uneven steps. Ahead were two women in colourful outfits, each with a weighty-looking bag slung over one shoulder and an even weightier sack of something on their heads. They negotiated this precipitous stairway with ease. The only excuse I can offer for our own comparatively laboured descent is that we had bottles of water and cameras in the rucksacks on our backs - oh, and we were a few years older than them!

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In the shade of a tree at the foot of the steps sat a bearded sadhu with his worldly goods in a red cloth bag. Next to him, on a pink plastic chair, a man wearing a heavily-padded jacket and a scarf tied elegantly around his head was reading a newspaper. In the background, the sound of a raging, bubbling torrent of white water was loud, not deafening, but loud enough to make conversation difficult. We braved the bridge. Fortunately, it was a calm day and, if the cow in front of us could do it, so could we.

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Beneath us, the Bhagirathi River flowed briskly through a high-sided, rocky valley. Downstream was a bathing ghat and what appeared to be the site of a recent open-air cremation (or maybe it was just building work in progress, who knows). The Bhagirathi, incidentally, was once an even more mighty river, today tamed by a hydro-power project upstream at the Tehri dam, but capable of producing the rushing waters tumbling beneath us nonetheless.

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Ahead of us was the little town with a shaded, narrow street running parallel to the river and containing hole-in-the-wall shops catering to the needs of its 2,000 or so inhabitants and pilgrims alike.

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While sauntering past the shops, we couldn't resist investigating sounds of children speaking together in rhythmic tones. We'd discovered a lesson in progress at the grandly-named but tiny Omkarananda Public School and were beckoned in by the teacher. Thirty or so pupils, dressed in blue uniforms complete with dark-blue knock-off Nike woollen hats, proudly stood to attention to say 'hello'. They listened intently to our 'Good morning, how are you?', responding 'Fine, thank you' and then waving 'Goodbye' with big smiles when we left a few minutes later.

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At the end of the lane, came more steps. These led down, past a blue and red shrine with what appeared to be images of the goddess Ganga, to the prayag we'd come all this way to see.

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Part way down to the confluence point, I was approached by a man who said he was a local pujari, a priest. He offered to take me down to the prayag to say a puja, a prayer to cleanse all my sins in the holy Ganges. Apart from the fact that no amount of cleansing could even scratch the surface of sins committed in my extraordinarily long life, I knew from experience that such offers seldom ended well. The mumbo-jumbo of the puja almost always resulted in demands for exorbitant fees and consequent unpleasant disagreement. He ignored my repeated, polite 'no thank you', until I told him sternly that my religion would not permit me to say Hindu prayers in a language I couldn't understand. He folded his hands in pranam, respectfully putting his palms together, and smiled knowingly as I continued on my way.

At the foot of the steps, was a sadhu with a curly beard and hair to match. He said he lived in one of the caves behind him. Perhaps he did, even though there was no sign of any furniture or bedding in there and heaven help him anyway during times of ice-melt and monsoon rains as the whole area would be totally submerged. He was selling rolled pellets of dough, which I believe pilgrims bought to offer as prasad - food for deities, in this case in the form of carp-like fish called mahseer, which are known to inhabit these churning waters.

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Here too was an army soldier from the Bengal Engineers stationed at Roorkee, a four-hour journey to the south-west. As a service to the temple, he was spending his leave using wood ash and some sand from the river to clean and polish a ritual kukri (a Nepalese-style of knife) and priests' metal instruments. I later saw him dousing his son with a bucket of icy water from the Ganges - another ritual similar to that being done by the husband to his wife in the accompanying photo. It seemed to be a lot safer than attempting to bathe in the rapidly-flowing water.

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As you already know, 'prayag' means 'confluence' but there's a similar word 'prayaga' that means 'a place of sacrifice'. I'm told that people are sometimes seen floating down the river here trying hard to take their last breath - some may have just been accidentally swept away 'by the will of Mother Ganga' but some do it of their own free will. The mythical River Saraswati mentioned earlier (there's another story about this too - read on...) is said to flow underground, making the prayag a confluence of three rivers and thus even more important - so much so that some choose this place as their prayaga and head to the next world.

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The confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers - birthplace of the Ganges

Back to the mythical Saraswati... In the depths of Hindu mythology, this is the third river at the start of the sacred Ganges. It's said to originate from a village near Badrinath higher up in the mountains and, at Devprayag, it stems from beneath the feet of one Raghunathji, whose much-worshipped image is to be found in his ancient eponymous temple here. Raghunath is also known as Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. (The 'ji' at the end of his name is a sign of respect - to some, for example, I'm Mikeji and my brother is Davidji.)

Raghunath is believed to have performed penance at this place after being cursed for killing the ten-headed, 20-armed demon king Ravana of Lanka (don't ask... I'll have to read the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' to find out more!). The temple with its tall, grey, oddly-shaped dome topped by a golden canopy is clearly visible in all views of the town and is reached by a near-vertical staircase of more than 100 steps. Fortunately, we'd heard that it was only open to visitors until 12.30pm and it was already after that as we passed by on our way back to the bridge and the hundreds of steps back up to our taxi!

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Our return to Rishikesh was by the same road, although travelling downhill it was a faster journey and the views as we descended were quite different. They were sometimes even more dramatic, towering hills all around dwarfing the mighty Ganges in the valleys beneath.

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Today would not be our last encounter with this important, sacred river. We were only a week into our month's adventure and, while we would now take a few days out to search for tigers, our spiritual journey would soon continue on the Ganges farther downstream.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:11 Archived in India Tagged india ganges rishikesh devprayag Comments (2)

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