Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Rishikesh - 17th January 2018
16.01.2018 - 18.01.2018 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The only other people were an itinerant stallholder selling crushed sugar cane drinks and a few visitors like ourselves heading in the same direction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.