Situated close to Haridwar, Rishikesh invites for an extended stay, writes Bhagawati.
Rishikesh is a most ancient Indian town, dating back to the Vedic Age (1500 – 1200 BCE). Originally known by the name Kubjamrak, the word Hrishikesh was used in the Bhagavad Gita to refer to Krishna. According to legend, a sage called Raibhya Rishi was doing penance at the site of the holy city and was rewarded with the appearance of God in the form of Hrishikesh or Lord Krishna.
The town is located at a height of more than 400 metres above sea level. A large number of ashrams of various lineages have been established in and around Rishikesh, providing shelter for pilgrims and offering the teachings of yoga, meditation and Hinduism. It is a strictly vegetarian and teetotal town, and the gateway and start-off point for journeys to important religious places such as Devprayag, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri.
Setting out from Haridwar to reach Rishikesh, it’s either by renting a car with driver or embarking on an adventure in one of the ramshackle large rickshaws available for hire in Haridwar. They feature two benches facing each other and seat up to 8 people (if pressed, two more could hang onto the back), yet Anatto and I plus one small piece of luggage each fit just comfortably inside. After cruising along for about ten minutes, when the tarmac deteriorates, we find out that the suspension is shot and we try to sit in a manner that won’t jar our tailbones every time a wheel hits a pothole.
We take a break to visit the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram located to the left of the busy Haridwar-Rishikesh-Badrinath Road. Maharaj-ji apparently stayed here at times, his main ashram however, being in Kanchi, near Almora.
An old man sits at the entrance to the ashram and ladles prasad out of a large bucket straight into our hands, consisting of boiled black chickpeas with spices. Inside it is very quiet and clean; no other visitors are in sight. Seeing the structure that houses the murti of Neem Karoli Baba I walk towards it. Suddenly, the statue appears to be alive. Standing in front of it, I feel energy vibrating under my bare feet; the figure seems to be moving slightly and the fabric wrapped around it gently flutters in the slight breeze. It makes me feel somewhat dizzy and a feeling of pure joy remains with me.
Continuing our jumpy ride, we scramble out at Lakshman Jhula, grateful that our backs are still in working order. We find out that we had passed the turnoff to the location of the bungalow we are to stay in and have to double back in another rickshaw. The bungalow is a simple family-run guesthouse located on the western bank of the Ganges with a spectacular view onto the river itself.
Two iron suspension bridges connect the two banks; one is Lakshman Jhula and the other Ram Jhula, three kilometres further down south. It is said that Lakshmana crossed Ganges on jute ropes at the very spot where the bridge was built and opened in 1929.
The upper bridge area of Lakshman Jhula is a fair walk away from our present home but once we make it down the bottom of the hill, there are rickshaws for hire. We head for some refreshments to the German Bakery – Devraj’s Coffee Corner – the ‘in place’ to touch base with other visitors. Devaraj, the owner, has established a great book store within the premises – stocked with many interesting volumes of spiritual literature, including a vast selection of books by Osho, containing also the entire series of The Dhammpada.
It is here that during every visit we meet friends who happen to be in Rishikesh at the same time. Huddled over coffee and cake I see a woman with a familiar smiling face and ask for her name. She answers, “Shanti”. Still puzzled, I look at her and then she explains it used to be Rikta and then the penny dropped!
“I remember when I last saw you both,” she smiles, “on the Deccan Queen riding towards Mumbai and you said you would never return to Pune.” Which was in 1991… and now we sit together on the banks of Ganges catching up on each other’s lives, hearing that she teaches Reiki in Rishikesh and considers India her home.
At another occasion, again at Devaraj’s eatery, we see a familiar figure trying to cross the bridge against the throng of pedestrians coming towards him. It is Prem (aka Prem Bhaven) who many readers will also remember, and we hang out with him for days.
No visit is complete without seeing Prabhavati Dwabha who is a long-time Rishikesh resident and the life and soul of her orphanage and charming organic food restaurant, ‘Ramana’s Garden’ close to Lakshman Jhula. She continuously strives to help orphans and destitute children from Nepal and India with their upbringing, health and education, in addition to her ongoing projects in the rural Rishikesh area, feeding and clothing children from local villages, and offering medical help. Several articles about her activities can be read on Osho News. Visiting her for a spot of lunch we end up staying for hours with Dwabha telling us one hilarious and electrifying story after the other. Deep into storytelling I look up and see Avesh and Varsha entering the restaurant and we are immediately in the middle of yet another joyful reunion! They had just conducted one of their popular tours traveling with mostly sannyasins to locations Osho had frequented or lived in during his younger years, suitably themed ‘In Osho’s Footsteps’.
More and more Western visitors head to Rishikesh – many of them come with and listen to Mooji’s talks, others attend Prem Baba’s discourses. There are so many who possibly have enrolled in yoga classes and trainings; I deduct that from their alikeness – western, slim, young, well dressed – and most of them wired into earphones, iPods, mobile phones, laptops. I rarely see them communicate with each other – for example, sitting in a restaurant (most eateries offer Wi-Fi) they are shut off from their surroundings and glued to their devices. I wonder, are they aliens exchanging observations about earthlings?
We enjoy walking along the narrow streets lined with a huge variety of stalls, stopping here and there for some old coins, little motif stamps and coloured powders for body painting, coloured strings, and other curio. Passing a small restaurant a strange sentence at the bottom of the displayed menu catches our eye: “Only one person allowed in one dish.” Posters and signs in India deserve a separate article!
The next day we cross the Lakshman Jhula Bridge to visit the East Bank. Said bridge sways while we walk over the river – the concrete slabs that form the walkway look like tectonic plates pushing against one another. I am mildly curious if the support beams are ever checked for safety as the bridge is so old. Plump huge river carp gather below, staring up to the pedestrians, mouths wide open, ready to catch puffed rice that people throw down for good luck. Thousands of people move over the bridge every day; in addition there are cows and donkeys and infernal motorbikes, and not to forget the monkeys climbing around everywhere.
Many shops and small food kiosks are squashed next to each other on either side of the narrow lane. I buy a yellow scarf with typical religious symbolic patterns printed in red, and on the spur of the moment walk down the bank and step into Ganges to rinse it. An Indian woman whose husband is taking a dip nearby asks me to stand next to her and he comes out and takes a photo of us. Tourism reversed – she might think I am an exotic creature!
Any visitor to Ram Jhula is no doubt familiar with the famous Chotiwala eatery (‘the right one since 1958’ – a reference to the owner’s brother, who installed himself cheekily with the same name next door). The restaurant has been recently renovated, obviously under the tutelage of Coca Cola – a huge advertisement poster opposite the entrance provides the evidence.
Gay shining coloured lights frame the doorway even during the day, and a dressed-up choti wallah (short man) with heavy make-up sits in front of the premises on a kind of throne, luring people inside by clanging a bell. The waiters wear white shirts with long sleeves and black bow ties, while the busboys in smart little uniform jackets wear baseball caps.
On one side of the dining room there’s a large dolphin mosaic adorning the wall, a tribute to the blind Ganges River dolphin; it hunts by emitting ultrasonic sounds, which bounce off of fish and other prey, and is an endangered species.
After a rather satisfying meal we ask for directions to the post office as we wish to mail some postcards. We unearth it tucked away in an alley behind Chotiwala and approach the post office window where a sign informs us, ‘Stamps Sold Here’.
The man behind the counter inspects us silently.
Anatto, postcards in hand, asks, “Do you have stamps?”
The man in attendance shakes his head tragically and says, “No stamps.”
Anatto steps back, looks up at the sign which still reads ‘Stamps Sold Here’, and points to it, eyeing the man behind the counter.
The man repeats the silent head movements and says, “No stamps.”
We look at each other, a little exasperated. We turn, look at the man in unison.
Anatto asks slowly, “Where – buy – stamps?” – thinking maybe a bit of pidgin English will stimulate some response.
The man says, “Wait a moment,” and slouches off to another person sitting in the back of a dimly lit part of the post office.
A few minutes pass. The man appears again, carrying several sheets of stamps.
He asks, “How many?”
He proceeds to count out twenty three stamps for the eight post-cards and even has change when we pay…
A daytrip to Devprayag is next on the agenda. We decide to rent a car for the drive up North to this small town where the Alaknanda and Bhagirati rivers meet and take on the name Ganges. It is considered to be the place where the sage Devasharma led his ascetic life, giving birth to its present name, Devprayag. It is one of the five sacred confluences in the hills and an important place of pilgrimage for devout Hindus.
After a pleasant three-hour drive on a sunny morning through an area of natural beauty, our delightful driver Ganesh Diwali drops us off at the edge of town and we walk along the narrow windy roads to the dedicated spot.
An exhilarating view on the two rivers merging into each other awaits. The water has an icy green hue and is crystal clear; depending on the light, it sometimes shows a deep blue. After bracing ourselves we dip into the ice-cold strong current all the way up to our calves (we dare not go any further) and experience a very strong moment energy-wise. The resident priest is a bit of a bother; as I enjoy the feel of the water and its power, he keeps on chanting Hindu names of gods and goddesses into my ear and also throws in words like chapatti, and then intonates the term two hundred Rupees; it seems like an attempt on brainwashing!
We often take walks along the simple foot path along the riverbank between Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula which is lined with small dwellings where sadhus while their time. Locals as well as pilgrims frequent the same lane and we enjoy talking with three school girls who want their photographs taken. They are quite insistent about it and are happy when I oblige.
A sugarcane juice seller peddles his wares and several people rest on one of the many stone benches dotted along the path. An old white-haired sadhu turns when we pass, raises his head above the back of the bench he is sitting on, smiles and asks the obligatory, “Where from?” When I reply he smiles warmly and says, “Then welcome! Hari Om.”
He is one of the many in the general populace who genuinely seem to welcome foreign visitors. On this visit I am also glad to see all around a somewhat improved environment, a bit more effort in cleanliness, even a slight increase in material wealth.
When Anatto spots a well maintained Enfield parked on the side of the road, he all but hugs it. He used to drive one in Pune 1 days and it pleasantly reminds him of a time when he experienced the first really high peaks in his life.
Further upstream we access a wide flat area strewn with huge boulders where we can sit and watch Ganges flowing by. A few sadhus are nearby, several cows hang out together with us, the sun is gently warming and a profound peacefulness arises in stillness. Only a few chipmunks are visibly active.
And way further up is a beautiful bathing place called Poolchatti. It is a rather long walk or slightly shorter rickshaw drive and the serenity that awaits us is captivating. The water at the shore of the river is shallow and to take a full bath is an inexplicable experience that far outpaces any chilly feelings the body might have to endure. Although having stoutly refused to take a dip for years, once I surrendered to the river, there was no going back!
Having just emerged from immersing myself in the Ganges river and sitting in the sun to dry, suddenly a young western woman materialises, handing over a garish leaflet saying, ”We are going to have a rave party tonight, just a few hundred metres higher up – only 1,000 Rs.” A rave party?!
A new fad has taken over much of both upriver banks – small tent rafting camps have been established for people to engage in white-water rafting and stay overnight. Male visitors come with their girlfriends mainly from Delhi and the hoi polloi and seemingly limitless alcohol consumption are very much out of place here. And the screams of fear and/or exhilaration while people are rafting downstream in this sanctuary feel unruly and are rather annoying. Imagine about 360 inflatable rubber rafts with eight to ten people each in a constant stream towards Rishikesh…
Close to Poolchatti, on the other side of Ganges, we turn into Osho Gangadham, a small meditation centre where lunch is laid out, available on a donation basis. Visitors – among them quite a few sannyasins – sit together to eat the simple delicious food in the garden teeming with flowering shrubs.
Up on the hill in our bungalow, cold and stormy winds chill us in the morning, heat deflates us at lunch time; in the evening a cool breeze starts up and we revive a little; we love sitting on the balcony overlooking the garden with its many bushes and flowers. We are delighted when we discover a short-cut from the bungalow to the main road, a small trodden path winding through shrubs and jungle, quite deserted. And it is only after several days of hiking down that path that the owner tells us with dramatic flair that three of his dogs have been eaten by tigers roaming the area during the last couple of years.
We get in touch with a recommended ticket agent called Rajiv (part of our host’s family) to purchase train tickets for our next leg to Delhi. Rajiv seems to be extremely busy or a phantom; we are unable to reach him. Folks in Rishikesh widely recommended to just show up at Haridwar station as tickets this time of year are in abundance and there’s no need for travel agents and their hefty fees. We’re not sure about the accuracy of the information but decide to go for the experience.
The ticket counter for the train to Delhi isn’t open yet but Anatto gets to talk to the Station Master who shows him how to fill in a ticket request. With this proper form in hand we stand at the closed counter. All information is written in Hindi, except for one in English: ‘Tea Break from 11.00am to 11.15am’.
It is about 10.45am and inside the already closed ticket counter several men are visible, perched behind computers. One is standing at a filing cabinet speaking into four red phones almost simultaneously and taking down notes while the others just stare. Then one of the guys near the window starts looking around for something. Our curiosity is rewarded when he finds carbon paper and pads. He then does a dance with the carbon paper in hand, and reaches it to another guy who inspects it closely as if he’s never seen carbon paper before. After another few walks around the desks the man finally sits down. A third man inside, also in front of a computer, keeps popping seeds into his mouth. Suddenly several men and women enter the office carrying small tea kettles; it is getting as crowded inside as it is already outside and a tad more alive.
Finally the window opens at 11.15am sharp and the first man in line get his tickets but the man behind the counter has no change. The traveller pushes off in search of some small notes. The middle-aged lady next in line is quick to thrust her ticket request into the window. Here too – no change when she wants to pay. She looks around in panic. Anatto hands her some change so we might have a chance to get our tickets AND make it to the train before it leaves. Meanwhile the first man comes back with his change, pushes it through the window and gets his ticket. Lady gets her ticket and hurrah, we too get our tickets!
The train, despite the intelligence we had received about it being “empty at this time of the year, Sir,” is completely full. Yet again, as often on Indian Railways, we enjoy a very pleasant trip, this time in what is called ‘chairs’, and with surprisingly good food constantly being shoved at us, including ice cream for dessert. Way to go!
Bhagawati is a regular contributor
More articles by the same author on Osho News