We have had an amazing voyage. We left Rishikesh last Wednesday with our minds full of new ideas, our bodies well exercised, our eyes imprinted with new visions, and our bags bursting with souvenirs – and dirty laundry. It’s taken me a full week to get caught up enough in my daily life here to write again. (Plus, we dove into hands-on treatment training this week, which has turned our whole daily routine on its head in a very exciting, all-consuming way.)
We arrived in Rishikesh in the middle of the night in a howling rain storm after a full day of travel. Blessedly all of our travel details had been arranged for us by the Punarnava staff, including a friendly driver named Sunny who picked us up at the New Delhi airport and transported us in style the 7 hours to Rishikesh. His minivan was outfitted with understated beige and tan tassels around the sun visors that wiggled in unison with every bump, as well as a dashboard shrine to his guru (which we discovered lights up at night) and electric blue interior lights (which he turned on when we pulled in to a restaurant or any other stop that might provide an audience). When we finally arrived in Rishikesh, and he dropped us at one end of a massive metal foot bridge that was suspended 100 feet above the coursing Ganga below, and we fought our way against the driving wind in the near-darkness to the ashram on the other side that was to be our home for the next ten days. Our friends from Punarnava, Aparna and Nagaraj, met us with hugs and escorted our weary bodies to our rooms.
The Parmarth Niketan Ashram is charmingly worn around the edges. I don’t know when it was built, but you can imagine the myriad monks in training as well as more recent yogis and backpackers who have graced its halls. The rooms are very basic, although ours had a hot water heater in the bathroom, which was all the more welcome given that there was no heater in the room itself and it dipped well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit the first two nights. One of our favorite features at the ashram was the clock that tolled the hours – there was a bell tower next door that chimed every hour with a lovely round gonging sound, and just after that, the ashram “bell” would toll, sounding suspiciously like a man banging a large pot with a metal utensil – each night at a different speed, and not always as many times as the clock next door. Emily and I roomed together, and we would dissolve in a fit of giggles every time we heard it.
Upon waking the first day, we headed out to see the town by daylight. The front gate of the ashram let out onto a main street directly in front of the Ganga, and I immediately ran down the ghats (kind of like large steps) to the water’s edge. The Ganga’s presence is massive and fresh and joyful. I can’t explain why it is so magnetic and emotionally riveting to me – putting my hands in the water instantly brought tears to my eyes.
Each night, the ashram holds an aarti ceremony on the same ghats beneath an enormous statue of Shiva, with a fire ceremony and jubilant singing by the resident students of the ashram in their yellow robes. People come from all over the world and join the singing, which is amplified and carries easily over the water casting a spell over the whole town. Every night, I sat rapt watching the water and those boys, some of whom couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7, as they chanted the Hanuman Chalisa (presumably as they have done every night for years), some with their eyes closed in devotion, and I wondered what their inner lives are like. In some ways, as I’d watch two of them joke and push each other in between songs, I could have mistaken them for any boys found across the globe, and then with the next song they’d fall into introspective swaying and I’d remember that they are in training for a life so very different from anything most of us will ever know. They were captivating to watch.
Meanwhile, the singing would roll onward, sometimes in the call-and-response style of kirtan, sometimes a simple singalong. The finale of the evening was the aarti itself, honoring the river with the flames of lit camphor. Everyone would stand and face the Ganga and the ashram boys would light serpent chalices and platters and pass them among the crowd. We’d all take turns placing a hand on the nearest chalice and move the flame in circles to honor and thank the river goddess with our small lights in the waning sunshine, a tiny reflection of all the goodness that Mother Ganga brings to us. Then the chalice would be passed on to the stranger next to you, who by this time is starting to feel like family. This happens every night, rain or shine, a grand display of gratitude and joy and song. It was enough to send me into tears each and every night.
The second day we were there, we hired a driver to take us to Vashishtha’s Guha or Cave, reportedly the actual cave that this legendary sage lived in 9000 years ago. (Today, many yogis know him for the pose named in his honor.) Our teacher, Claudia, had put it on our “do not miss” list. We headed up the river for about 45 minutes of curving roads with switchbacks that offered beautiful views of the green Ganga weaving gently below us. Our driver, who spoke minimal English, eventually pulled over and headed down an unmarked trail on foot, passing cows on the narrow steep path, until we reached what appeared to be a small ashram. No one spoke English, and the place was devoid of tourists. We were instructed to remove our shoes at the patio and waved towards a door next to a huge banyan tree. It appeared that we were entering a building that was built into the side of the mountain, but beyond the door was a natural stone tunnel with candles lit at the far end. We stumbled towards them, questioning each other, “Is this it?” Moments later, our driver rushed in and said we had to hurry to catch the ferry across the river, so we laughed realizing that Vashishtha’s cave must be across the river. We caught the “ferry,” which turned out to be a big rowboat, and then took a short hike up the other side to another ashram. This one was very, very small and rural. It had some lovely homegrown-feeling shrines, including one to Shiva that was housed in a tin shed.
Our driver then took us to a restaurant for a late lunch, and as he turned the car back towards town, we started to wonder when we were going to get to the cave. After a belabored attempt to question him about its location, we finally realized that the small cave from the morning HAD been Vashishtha’s cave. We couldn’t believe we had blown right through it, after everything Claudia had told us about the amazing energy inside. Emily convinced the driver to take us back, regardless of the fact that the adjacent ashram was about to close, and we scrambled back down the path and sat for about 15 minutes in the cave. The silence felt ancient and heavy, and after our day of searching, we sunk into the quiet with enhanced reverence.
On a different day, we hired a guide to take us on a hike into the mountains above Rishikesh to the Neelkanth Mahadev Mandir, a Shiva temple. The hike was about 14 km, all up. There were many Indians taking this trail on a pilgrimage to the temple, and the atmosphere was celebratory. People were calling out as they traipsed up the path and other groups would respond. “Bum bum bolay!” echoed down the hillside, and as we caught on, we joined in which tickled the natives around us to no end. We encountered packs of curious, and at times demanding, monkeys and were grateful that our guide Prem brought monkey food to distract them away from our backpacks. For the last two miles, I chanted “Om namah Shivaya” to myself and prayed that Shiva would transform anything holding me back from wherever this path is taking me.
Outside the temple, we bought flowers and water as gifts for Shiva, and then we stepped into the stream of worshipers as they flowed inside, carrying us with them. After pouring water on the shiva lingam at the entrance, and placing flowers at each murti, and giving a coconut to the priest, and receiving a tillak in the shape of Shiva’s trident on our forehead, we found ourselves outside again. After hiking all morning up hill and paying respect to Shiva, the day felt auspicious and uplifting, made moreso by the festive mood of the crowd.
We’re getting more used to being a tourist attraction at the tourist attractions we visit. One time we came out of the ashram and found ourselves in a crowd of beautiful Indian women who appeared to be from out of town. We all smiled at each other appreciatively, and Emily started taking pictures of them and they started taking pictures of us. Everywhere it seems, people want to be in photographs with us – they will make hand motions to suggest being included in a photo with us, and then they will eagerly scramble to see themselves in the photo displayed in the camera’s monitor.
My hiatus from technology, specifically the Internet, was revolutionary – I highly recommend it. Many of us have become addicted to the constant information flow without even noticing it, but the withdrawal symptoms make it clear it is an addiction as sure as any other. Try this (especially if you don’t think you’re addicted): make a commitment to a certain period of abstinence (say, 24 hours, or even 48) and watch your cravings for stimulation or information as they arise and disappear. Just watch (and don’t give in). After about four days, I didn’t even miss it, and the free time available to connect with the world around me was welcome.
Spending a bit of time as a tourist was also welcome after a month of studying. However, Punarnava’s conference – ostensibly the reason for our sojourn – was truly inspiring and well worth its own blog post, so stay tuned…. In the meantime, consider lighting a candle or bringing a flower into your home today to honor mother nature in whatever manifestation you find her. Jai Ganga ma!