Sunday, July 31, 2011


Before this blog post begins, I have an apology to make.  Mr. Craig Williams, if you are reading this, I am so sorry.  Against your good advice, I went to Rishikesh.  But though I certainly understand why you cautioned against it, I am very glad I made this trip.  Below are the details.

For our final weekend in the Himalayan foothills, we ETAs, restless travelers that we are, decided to leave Mussoorie for a bit.  The debate on where to go lasted a long time: Haridwar (the extremely spiritually significant city where the Ganges emerges from the Himalaya) and Rishikesh (also a holy city, where Vishnu appeared under a mango tree, to which thousands of yoga obsessed hippies flock) were the first options that came to mind, but we were told that this was a bad time, as this was a very busy pilgrimage time for both cities.  Chopta was a beautiful Himalayan paradise, we were told, but we were also (eventually) told that it would take fourteen hours to get there.  Ultimately, we decided to take the road most travelled: the winding road to Rishikesh.

A few words about Rishikesh before I begin.  As I said before, Rishikesh is a very holy city in the Hindu religion.  Due to its place of significance in Hindu mythology, it is home to several large temples and numerous ashrams known for their top-notch yoga and meditation courses.  Rishikesh is in fact where the Beatles spent some time, after deciding that they needed some spirituality in their lives.  And if the Beatles are doing it, it’s gotta be legit, right?  It is for this reason that crowds of spiritually starved Western hippies descend upon Rishikesh every year, hoping to purge themselves of Western materialism.  And smoke a little hash while they’re at it.  Due to these kinds of visitors, Rishikesh has earned a bit of a reputation with travelers.  Nevertheless, I was curious to see what the city was really like.

Ganga banks

After our (for me at least) nausea inducing drive down from the tranquil hill station of Mussoorie, we arrived just outside of hot, humid Rishikesh.  (Due to the huge influx of pilgrims, cars were not allowed all the way into the city.)  Instantly, the sweat started flowing.  Once we gathered together, we began our walk into the holy city.  Accompanying us were countless pilgrims, nearly all young men, all wearing bright orange.  We were exceedingly interesting to many of them; or at least, that’s the sense I got from the many video and camera phones that magically materialized in the hands of those surrounding us.  I am sure our sweaty American faces are now gracing the facebook pages of many fine young gentlemen.   But these men were not actually in Rishikesh to see us.  Nearly all of them carried small bottles, which would soon be filled with water from the Ganges.  The pilgrims would then carry the water up to a temple dedicated to Shiva, high on a hill behind Rishikesh, and leave it as an offering.  As it was Shiva’s birth month, it was a particularly auspicious time to make this pilgrimage. 

Shiva on the Ganga

After checking into our hotel (which took a little while to find), we walked to one of the many temples along the Ganges.  Soon after taking pictures of the enormous Hanuman and Shiva statues, we were ushered down to the ghats.  Before we knew what was going on, we found ourselves taking part in a pooja.   The priest chanted beautiful Sanskrit prayers, placed flowers into our hands, which we subsequently placed into the Ganges, and marked our foreheads with red powder and grains of rice mixed with Ganges water.  I still am not sure how to feel about this.  I felt a little bad: I, the non-Hindu, was up front and center.  All of the people who had actually come to the temple for the pooja were behind me.  I did not know what to think.  Was my participation valuable and welcome, or was I intruding?  When the priest plunked us down in front of him, was he sincerely welcoming us into his service, or was he simply hoping for a Western sized donation at the end?  I still don’t know.  For now, I’m trying not to over think things.  I am happy to have been included in this event, which I found both interesting and beautiful.  I can only hope that my interest and earnest participation was accepted as such.

Soon after our arrival, we discovered that Rishikesh’s balance between holiness and tourism is constantly shifting.  This was not tourist season.  Contrary to the large signs around our hotel, there were no yoga classes, no elephant safaris, no trekking tours, and no rafting trips.  We also found that walking around the city was not practical.  It was far too crowded, and, as a big group of videshis (foreigners), we were far too conspicuous.  We weren’t even allowed to visit the abandoned Maharish Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where the Beatles had once “om”ed, along with their lady friends.  We opted instead to take a walk up a hill to a waterfall a few kilometers outside the city.   Though I realize I did not need to come all the way to India to see a waterfall, I felt the hike was well worth it.  Rishikesh is much more peaceful when viewed from several kilometers above.

Bird's eye view of Rishikesh

That night, we went back to the same temple we had gone to the night before.  There we heard more beautiful Sanskrit prayers, accompanied by harmonium and tabla players.  We also saw what looked like a big school group of white girls, many of whom were wearing shoulder and leg baring garments.  I suppose this type of crowd is what gives Rishikesh a bad name.  That evening, we got a small glimpse of the spiritual commercialism that is also an undeniable part of Rishikesh.  I’m a little ashamed to say this, but I was a little relieved to discover that I’m not the most ignorant videshi out there.  

Pooja crowds

More than anything, this weekend showed me that the real Rishikesh is very different from the Rishikesh I had created in my mind.  I had been told that Rishikesh was a hotbed of commercialism, where trustafarians hoping to buy a little spirituality would come to hide from the world, do a little yoga, and maybe purchase some bangles.  This however, was not tourist season, but pilgrim season.  We were seeing Rishikesh for what it really is: a sacred Hindu city.  It appears in the Ramayana as the Rama’s place of penance after killing the demon Ravana.  It also appears in Skanda Purana.  What I’m trying to say is, Rishikesh was a spiritually significant place long before the Beatles checked in to Rishikesh’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram.  So, despite my disappointment at missing the Beatle Ashram, at the cancelled yoga classes, and the unraftable waters, I am very glad that we went during the pilgrimage time.  We got to see Rishikesh relatively untainted by commercialism.  Sorry Paul, George, John, Ringo.  Maybe next time.


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