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Published: March 17th 2018
Return to India 3 Meditating in Rishikesh
16th January 2018 Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the much younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’) getting to know each other rather better as they travel through the north of this fascinating country.
Rishikesh, Devprayeg and Allahabad
It’s only about an hour from Haridwar to Rishikesh, our taxi winding in and out of traffic on the switchback road.
Way back in the ‘60s a group of guys headed this way with their wives and girlfriends seeking to dispose of some of their cash and searching for a new way of life. They came here to attend an advanced course in Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram. You’ll know who I’m talking about: The Beatles, of course. Me? I’m here with Mike, for no other reason than to further widen our knowledge of this fascinating country - travel broadens the mind and all that. You’ll be relieved to know we’re not likely to be white-water rafting or bungee jumping, popular pastimes hereabouts, for Rishikesh is high up on the gap-year, backpacker and hippy
On the road from Haridwar to Rishikesh
circuit. It’s also on the mighty Ganges and therefore, like Haridwar our last port of call, another important site of Hindu worship.
Should you chance to venture this way sometime, then Haridwar is a must for experiencing the uplifting drama of the daily Aarti ceremony - along with Varanasi, of course, where we plan to be in a few days' time. That said, Mike’s intricately detailed itinerary suggests we seek out the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, the largest of many ashrams, just across the suspension bridge here in Rishikesh.
It’s free to enter the Parmarth Niketan Ashram ghat, to sit on the steep stone steps by the river as the sun sinks below the horizon. A small enthusiastic and inquisitive crowd of worshippers and tourists gathers around the water’s edge this evening, patiently waiting for the aarti ceremony to begin. A traditional fire burns by the shore of Mother Ganga, its light sparkling rhythmically on the water and red-robed monks take their places on the ceremonial red carpet above us, chanting to the loud lilting strains of accompanying musicians. This is a markedly different experience from that at Haridwar where we viewed
Aarti at Rishikesh
Puja Swami Chidanand Sarawatiji Maharaj
the proceedings from across the river. Here in Rishikesh we are totally immersed in the proceedings with a group of a mere few hundred perhaps, rising spontaneously to greet Puja Swami Chidanand Sarawatiji Maharaj, President and Spiritual Head of Parmarth Niketan, as bells ring out that now familiar rhythm, drums boom, cymbals clang, flaming brass cups swing to-and-fro and water is offered in blessing to the mighty river. It’s this closeness, this intimacy, that puts this aarti at the top of my personal list of favourite memories.
The Parmarth Ashram has around 1000 rooms available to visiting worshipers and students, with prices upwards from 400Rs per night (£5). Training courses are available during your stay for such things as yoga in its many forms, stress management, wellness and acupressure as well as nature cure and meditation. Perhaps next time. Meanwhile we'll try another tuc-tuc ride on potholed roads back to our hotel, complete with bum massage on hard seats included in the price. On the other hand the next day’s two-hour taxi ride to the small town of Devprayag, 70km distant, is likely to provide a rather different experience.
Our serpentine road winds it’s precarious way
from Rishikesh climbing higher and higher above the mighty Ganga gorge, hugging the mountainside past bends riddled with potholes and monsoon landslides, our driver for the day darting into minuscule gaps between brightly painted lorries, white-water bound coaches and crowded tourist busses, Mike and I sitting in the back with our rucksacks between our knees, eyes closed and prayer beads clicking nervously. The taxi finally pulls over in sight of our destination, perched on the hillside across the river. It’s clear from here that there is no vehicular access to Devprayag. A narrow suspension bridge, reached via steep steps, provides for another frantic jumble of foot-traffic, cows, motorbikes and scooters.
Devprayag, as yet relatively unspoiled by tourism, sits at the confluence of two holy rivers: the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, to become the Ganga, (Ganges) and as such, it is a much revered place of worship for devout Hindus. 2,700ft up in the foothills of the Himalayas it’s opal rivers flow from distant glaciers near the Indian border with Tibet. There are only a few worshippers here today, bathing in the chilly holiest of rivers, receiving the blessing of Mother Ganga, cupping water over their heads with their
hands or totally immersing themselves. We’ll sit and ponder this placid scene for a while, enchanted by its beauty and serenity, before retracing our steps to our waiting taxi for the return journey.
But it is this journey itself that stirs my soul, this vast landscape of tree clad mountains shrouded in mist patiently awaiting a midday sun, layer upon layer of hills in ever paling shades of grey drifting mystically into the distance beyond a far horizon there, high, high, above us. A dream to sleep on. When you wake up I’ll take you back down the great Mother Ganges as far as Allahabad if you feel up to it. Hold on tight! It’s likely to be drama all the way. Allahabad
There’s a familiar sour smell pervading the air as we wander the side streets of Allahabad. The city’s sewage system was built by the British before they left and there has been no significant investment in the years since independence in 1947. Escalating population resulting from growing industrialisation and the influx of new blood from outlying villages can only further compound the problem.
Sari-clad ladies, bent-backed over
swishing brooms move street dust and trash from here to there and into piles, set alight and left to smoke in dense white clouds of pungent stench. Incense burns on street-side stalls to lure new custom and litter and rubble invade every potholed side- street. Fine houses and apartment blocks appear beyond high walls and padlocked gates, side-by-side with dilapidated buildings crumbling through lack of investment. Evidence abounds of incomplete projects, half finished or already falling down, piles of rubble and crumbling concrete. Electric cables hang listlessly to street-side poles in tangled knots like granny’s knitting. And everywhere dust, clouds of grey-brown dust, fill the air in a dense cocktail of mud and traffic fumes like an autumn fog. Cows and buffalo wander aimlessly through the streets of Allahabad along with flocks of sheep and tiptoeing goats. Stockmen herd them in masses along the roads, seemingly oblivious to the honking traffic: busses, cars, tuc-tucs, motorbikes and huge overladen and gaudily painted lorries. That’s India. It hits all the senses in one gigantic blast of disbelief!
And there’s the catch. It’s Marmite. You’ll love it or hate it.
Allahabad traffic is a Hitchcock scene of
Start 'em young
utter chaos. Motorbikes swarm like wood ants on the pile, sari-clad ladies sit side saddle on motorbikes, families three and four up nip by on scooters, zig-zagging in and out between honking, fume throwing cars and tuc-tucs, rickshaws laden with passengers, laundry, steel bars and piles of cardboard. That’s Allahabad: grey, outrageously manic and half the day is spent stuck in stationery traffic, belching fumes and blaring horns. For all that, the streets are all cleaner now than when we were last here, as government measures to remedy the problem start to bite.
A group of enthusiastic kids are having their nightly cricket practice on the playing field outside our Homestay window and a rowdy wedding celebration is going on in the marquee across the road, much to the annoyance of our delightful hosts, Purnima and Ivan. ‘It’s wedding season here in India right now, but there are new laws on noise pollution,’ Purnima tells us, as we join her for pre-dinner drinks by the open fire in the lounge. ‘These noisy weddings now have restricted hours and must finish by 10pm.’ But try telling that to an Indian at a wedding.
Motilal Nehru's family home - now a fascinating museum
has put paid to our planned Ganges river trip at sunrise, much recommended in the guide-books. Time for a change of plan. Ivan comes to our aid with a solution and a car and smartly attired driver appear shortly after breakfast with instructions to take us to a few of the highlights of Allahabad.
Allahabad is dominated by its immense, sandstone, sixteenth century Mughal Fort, strategically situated on the banks of the river Yamuna near its confluence with the Ganges. Like many of India's ancient forts, Allahabad is home to the Indian Army and there is limited public access. The fort is best viewed from the river.
Another more recent building is Anand Bhavan, the Nehru family home built by Motilal Nehru in the 1930s, which now houses a museum offering an interesting insight into the history of India’s transition to independence. Not to be missed if you are British, Indian, or just interested in the downfall of Empires. You’ll find the Jawahar Planetarium in the grounds too.
A bit further down the road is the Gothic and rather somber, All Saints Anglican Cathedral. It was built by the British of course, but
it’s not open today; Sundays only these days, so we’ll just take a look around the outside. Churches, Cathedrals, Temples, Mosques, they all offer us an open window to history worldwide, don't they?
Two or three inquisitive teenage lads follow us around as we take an evening stroll around the walled gardens of Khusrau Bagh, an impressive group of three impressive Mughal mausoleums dating back to the early 17th century. A mausoleum makes a pleasant change from temples, temples and temples here in India. It’s not long before the boys are asking to have their photographs taken, with us, and without us, and inevitably a crowd gathers, twenty or more smiling lads joyfully following nose-to-tail behind us like the Pied Piper’s rats. They all want to chat and practice their English no doubt. What a delight for two white-haired old fellas from another planet!
Early next morning we’re off to Sangam to join the enormous crowds gathering at the meeting point of three sacred rivers: the grey Ganges, the crystal Yuma and the now invisible, Saraswati - which we were unable to photograph, you’ll not be surprised to learn. Sacred to Hindus, Triveni Sangam
(the confluence) offers pilgrims the opportunity to bathe here on the shallow sand-bank, to wash away past sins and free them from the cycle of life. My guess is they must all come for the latter – there can’t be that many sinners.
Oarsmen man the flotilla of brightly coloured rowing boats moored by the shore as we arrive, plying their trade to take pilgrims along the river to the shallow sand-banks where the two (or is it three?) rivers join. And here the pilgrims take to the water in their tens, if not hundreds, of thousands today, arriving in crowded lorries and packed ancient busses, ladies from villages far-and-wide in trailers towed by tractors and many more that come great distances on foot.
As commanded by Ivan before we left the hotel, our driver strikes a deal for us at locals' prices and a rowing boat takes us out on rippling waters beyond the shore to witness the bathing ceremony, our oarsman ever watchful, weaving between the hundreds of boats and their excited crew. Masses of worshiping bathers line the river banks: sari-clad ladies, and men in their underwear, splashing, dunking and seemingly
partying quite happily as their sins are dispelled. These colourful pilgrims, young and old, rich and poor, stretch the best part of a mile to the confluence. Purple, red, yellow, green, orange and blue, a vibrancy of boats and bodies beyond the scope of a kaleidoscope, worshippers bustle and jostle to bathe here along the river and the shallow sand-bank, like the surge of anticipation of a football crowd on finals day. Many devout pilgrims will be here for 30 days, staying in neat rows of tented accommodation to fulfill their lifetime dream of salvation.
Brother Mike’s itinerary suggests that tomorrow we should be taking a boat from a mooring a short way along the Ganges from here, for a two-day river journey to Varanasi. Now, that's exciting! A tour guide will pick us up from our hotel after breakfast around 8am.
But this is India and things don’t always go to plan.
The grey haired nomad
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Rishikesh. Dewa Retreat -
A modern tourist hotel with great facilities.
Allahabad. Kanchan Villa Guesthouse
– Beautiful Colonial style Bengali
embellished home behind locked gates. Smart rooms, fine dining, homely, and interesting conversation in the company of hosts, Ivan and Purnima Lamech.
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