Abode of the GodsLike many great journeys in India, this one starts on a train.
I am on my way to the city of Rishikesh, taking the 7 a.m. Shatabdi Express from New Delhi Station. Sitting next to me is an Israeli sadhu (ascetic) called Shankar. Like so many people heading up this way, he's a disciple of Swami Sivananda, the former physician who came to Rishikesh at the age of 37 to start an ashram in a cowshed on the banks of the Ganges River (called Ganga here)—humble beginnings for an organization that would spread throughout the world as the Divine Life Society.
Our train stops at Haridwar, and from there I catch a bus for an hour-long ride heading north. As the hills loom larger through the bus windows, I can feel myself getting closer to Rishikesh, gateway to the Himalayas, as well as to the "Char Dham"—the four hillside pilgrimage cities of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri, where four holy rivers begin their journeys south to the plains.
Soon we arrive in Rishikesh, with its stunning jungle-clad hills—a carpet of soft, shady acacia trees and banana palms dotted with shrines and ashrams up to the highest hilltops. The grand centerpiece of Rishikesh is the great Ganges herself, the river and goddess who once flowed solely for the pleasure of the gods. Fast-flowing, broad, and powerful, the river conveys a sense of majesty at first sight; pockets of sandy beach alternate with rocky outcrops or patches of jungle along the water's edge. This place abounds in legends of yogis, rishis (seers), child saints, and sannyasis (renunciants) who have come to practice yoga in these hills, known locally as "the abode of the gods."
Legend has it that a great rishi called Raibhya practiced intensive yoga here by the Ganges and was rewarded by the appearance of the god Vishnu. Ever since then, Rishikesh has been a holy town, packed with ashrams to house the many visiting pilgrims. With its stories and legends preceding me, I take my small bag and start walking from the bus depot to where I'll be staying on this journey: the Shree Vithal Ashram, which is farther up the hill, toward the jungles. It's an oasis that the locals know to be "very shanti" (tranquil)—and the guidebooks, thankfully, do not know at all. The rooms are comfortable but simple, and food is eaten from thalis (compartmentalized plates) while you sit on the floor.
The last time I came to Rishikesh (two years ago), I stayed at the flamboyant and popular Parmarth Niketan Ashram on the other side of the river. With courtyards filled with religious statues and a constant stream of pilgrims, Parmarth Niketan seems like Grand Central Station compared with the serenity of Shree Vithal.
Nonetheless, the Parmarth Niketan Ghats (ghats are steps leading down to a river) are the central focus of Rishikesh every evening at dusk, when prayers are offered, and pilgrims flock there to participate. So I leave my room and make my way to Parmarth Niketan in time for evening aarti (prayers). To get there, I have to walk across the Ram Jhula, one of two suspension bridges that play a vital role in the daily life of Rishikesh. (These bridges, or jhulas, are named after Ram and Lakshman, the heroes of the Ramayana, who supposedly crossed the Ganges here at Rishikesh on their way up to the forests.)
The Ram Jhula sways a bit as I cross it, destabilizing me slightly, perhaps in preparation for the experience ahead. Across the river, temples greet me with their lines of carved deities, and music shops welcome me to the spiritual heart of Rishikesh with heavenly ragas. The alleys at either end of both bridges are crowded with small shops selling holy beads, replicas of deities, astrological charms, Vedic treatises, and Ayurvedic medicines, as well as clothing, shawls, and colorful fresh produce. There are signs everywhere—on trees, on walls, and in shops—advertising yoga and meditation classes, Vedantic discourses, and Ayurvedic massage.
I arrive in time for prayers, and on this occasion, I'm intrigued to see a Western woman sitting at the front, next to 60 Brahmin boys who sing hymns for the crowds, their hands clapping to the sound of the tabla (drums). The atmosphere is enthralling, sustained by the intensity of the devotion, and when prayers settle down, so too does Rishikesh. The alleys empty out, except for roaming cows and an occasional beggar, and I make my way back across the bridge to Vithal Ashram for an early sleep.
A Simple Place
The following day, I run an errand for an aunt in Delhi, who wants me to deliver a package to a swami there who hasn't consumed anything except honey and fruit juice for the past 20 years. The well-spoken swami presents me with a pamphlet titled The Shocking Truth About Water—which, I regret to say, I don't read, returning it politely and hiding my bottle of water in a bag before saying good-bye and going off in search of lunch.
On my way to Chotiwala, the most popular restaurant in Rishikesh, I pass the usual crowd of sadhus, who are such a distinctive part of the Rishikesh landscape with their Shiva tridents, begging bowls, and saffron robes. When I arrive at the restaurant, Chotiwala himself is out front, wearing pink foundation, glitter, and a sadhu's loincloth, his hair spiked into a long prong. Quite the character, he sits on a table like Ali Baba on acid, muttering and ringing a bell to attract customers.
As I call the waiter, I see the woman I noticed at the Parmarth Niketan Ghats the day before. I've learned that journeys often result in wonderful new connections, so I introduce myself. She tells me her name is Eliana and that she's a Transcendental Meditation teacher from Russia who feels more at home here in Rishikesh than in Moscow. We have a lot in common, so after lunch we take a walk to the famed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram, which lies farther downstream—toward the jungles, where wild elephants roam. I am eager to see this site, which was immortalized in 1968 with the arrival of the Beatles and in their song "Across the Universe." The ashram is no longer used, but we find some other foreigners on the same pilgrimage, in search of a lost era.
By late afternoon, Eliana has called certain swamis on her cell phone and arranged to include me in her evening havan (fire prayers). So I find myself sitting at the Parmarth Ghats once more, on a small islandlike platform, with lights shining on us, the Ganges flowing rapidly around us, and Vedic prayers amplified on loudspeakers across the water and into the hills. Navaratri, the festival of the goddess, has just started, and there seems to be no better place on earth to celebrate it than right here, right now, next to the Ganges herself.
After the ceremony, we have a snack with the swamis, up in one of the tiny rooftop restaurants overlooking the river. Then I go back to my ashram on top of the hill. This is a simple routine; Rishikesh is a very simple place, and I have to say I'm enjoying this feeling of being available entirely to myself—with no demands on my time whatsoever, except the occasional Ayurvedic massage that I schedule (strictly for health reasons, you understand).
But things are about to change.
Into the Hills
In the morning, I pick up my mother, who has come from our family home in Delhi to accompany me for three days. She is up for an adventure, and her first wish is to attend prayers at the famous Triveni Ghats on the other side of Rishikesh. There, pandits (priests) perform Ganges puja (ritual worship) every night; hundreds of devotees come to offer leaf bowls filled with petals and small oil candles to the goddess. The ritual is such an infectious celebration of nature, and the little flickering lights floating down the river are so magical, that several Western visitors in the crowd here tonight cannot resist joining in, flowers in hands, knee deep in Ganges water.
The next day, we take a trip to Neelkanth Temple, a breathtaking journey higher into the Himalayas, with glorious views of the paddy-covered mountains that surround us. This is where the blue-necked Shiva supposedly went to meditate after he'd swallowed all the poison in the world at the beginning of time, when the milky oceans were first stirred.
My mother now has a taste for the hills and wants to camp out. We see one of the usual signs posted in town offering pilgrimage, rafting, camping, trekking, and "side seen" (sightseeing) tours. We talk with a tour operator, who suggests a place called Brahmpuri.
Soon we're on the banks of the Ganges at Brahmpuri, one of the many entry points used by rafters who want to see the ghats, temples, and ashrams along the shore from a vessel plying the speedy currents of the holy waters. We're not up for the ride, so instead we enjoy the luxury of turned-down beds, elaborate meals, butler service, and absolute serenity—all in the Himalayan outdoors. Our hosts even place extra beds outside the tents so we can lie on our backs and watch the fireflies making new constellations in the stars.
In the morning, we walk sandy white beaches glittering with crystal flecks. Our prearranged taxi arrives at 10 a.m., and we drive to Vasistha Cave, about 45 minutes up the Ganges. I enter through the cave's mouth under an ancient fig tree. All I can see is the flicker of a single flame, floating in the darkness. There could be snakes at my feet for all I know but, eager to follow in the path of the great sage Vasistha, I sit down, close my eyes, and start to meditate.
Meditating inside the earth, I find, is like plugging directly into a primeval layer of awareness that existed before the creation of either thought or action. Settling down, my consciousness quickly seeks out the limits of the enclosed space, like a tuning fork that vibrates only with silence. It's a total-body feeling, and within seconds, I am saturated with the all-consuming stuff that enlivens awareness.
When I eventually open my eyes, the chamber is fully illuminated. The single flame I saw before is now revealed to be an oil lamp, resting on a rocky outcrop next to a moist Shiva lingam sprinkled with petals. A hair's breadth away, sitting absolutely immobile and unnoticeable until now, is a meditating sadhu dressed in white robes. This is what I came to Rishikesh for; I can leave now feeling totally fulfilled.
However, it seems there is one more experience yet to come.
The next day, our trip ends on a high—quite literally, at the sumptuous Ananda Spa Resort, on a hill overlooking Rishikesh. Flute players welcome us to the ethereal atmosphere of a former maharajah's annex, built to house the British, who ate beef and therefore could not be entertained in the main palace. We're taken for a gourmet meal and then shown around the lavish spa. There's such a grand sense of luxury here that it's a wonder the gods haven't struck this place down in envy.
I'm told that guests are welcome to meditate in the chamber of Ma Anandamayi, the renowned female saint who lived in this palace for many years. Never one to turn down such an opportunity, I ask to be shown to the chamber. The room is nearly all glass, allowing me to soak up the atmosphere of the hills even with my eyes closed. It's a blissful moment in a serene setting, a wonderful way to say farewell to the sublime Garhwal hills of Uttaranchal that surround me.
From the Ananda Spa Resort, we take a taxi to Haridwar Station with our luggage, including three bottles of Ganges water that will travel home with me. Next to us on the platform are some sadhus, a dwarf, a beggar, and a goat. Observing this typical Indian festival of the senses, I realize that the beauty of Rishikesh lies in the fact that it is more than a place. It is actually a perspective that people come looking for. It's always been understood that when you go to Rishikesh, your destination is ultimately the Self. This is why Rishikesh has been the North Star on many a seeker's compass, since time immemorial. The fact that it's also a place of awesome natural beauty and cultural intrigue is simply a happy coincidence for both yogis and travelers alike.
Indian-born Bem Le Hunte is the author of The Seduction of Silence, a novel set in the hills that surround Rishikesh.