After six days of sadhana in the ashram, I take a walk to Ganga with my Canadian friend MJ on Beltane Eve. It’s a warm night, and glowworms lead our way as dusk sets in. When we get to my favourite Ganga beach, I notice a fire in the bushes on the hill behind us. It basks everything in a golden glow, and it feels as though this is our own personal Beltane fire. This is especially beautiful because it’s MJ’s first proper visit to Ma Ganga, and I watch her offer some incense, water, fruit and a prayer in the water. MJ is one of those rare people who profess that they have no particular spiritual beliefs or knowledge, but glide effortlessly into the world of ceremony and ritual as if they had done it their whole lives when introduced to it. We spend some time sitting in the sand as it gets dark, and it is nice to just be outside.
For Beltane Day, I have decided to visit Devprayag. I don’t know anything about this place, actually - it’s just that a woman from America e-mailed me a while ago and told me that I must see
this place. I ask MJ to come along and we hire a young handsome driver to take us there. The drive along the Ganga is beautiful, passing rolling green hills, little tea and snack shops by the roadside, a lot of roadworks and amusing roadsigns like 'If you are married, divorce speed.'
Once we arrive in Devprayag and walk down the many stone steps to the sangum, we instantly realize why we are here at Beltane, the Festival of Love, where God and Goddess unite. A brown river and a blue river meet to form a great, sacred whole: the Ganga. It’s an amazing place. Before we get to the water, we visit a temple containing many shrines to various deities, including a wonderful Shiva lingam. As we get closer to the water, I see some steps leading up to a little enclosed platform containing the statue of a colourful deity. We go up and it’s Ma Ganga, seated on a crocodile, watching over her waters with a lotus flower in one of her four hands. We have a magnificent view of the rivers from the platform, and the place is perfect for a spontaneous Beltane ritual. I offer
Ma Ganga some fruit and we light incense, walk around the four directions three times, chant Sanskrit mantras and offer our Beltane prayers. A couple of sadhus come up the stairs and watch us curiously, as do a group of kids and our young driver, glued to his mobile phone, evidently very bemused at the sight of his two foreign passengers performing rituals to Hindu gods. I wave some incense over his head, which makes him laugh.
After a while, we walk down to the actual sangum, a large stone platform meeting the two rivers. Just before we reach the water, we pass a cave, in which a dreadlocked bearded sadhu in an orange robe sits on a blanket. He smiles and waves me towards him, so we enter the cave and sit down. It’s nice and cool in here, and apart from two mattresses, the cave contains a black stone Shiva lingam, a fireplace, and lots of pots and pans. This is the cave of the Devprayag pujari, the local priest, and he allows passing sadhus to stay the night until they carry on to the next sacred site. The moustachoed pujari arrives, too, and we exchange pleasantries
before going down to the rushing body of water. It’s awesome and feels very alive. We put our feet in the water and wash ourselves, and the moustachoed pujari offers us a long blessing during which we have to repeat the names of many deities we have never heard of, as well as the names of our family members to wish them a long and happy life.
As we are about to leave, the sadhu in the cave calls me in again, so we go and sit down. We find out that his name is Saraswati; he is a follower of Shiva from the North of India on his way to Badrinath - by bus, not on foot, as is usual for sadhus. I notice a big black travel bag and he says that he is an Ayurvedic doctor and that the bag contains his medicines. As we spend some time in the cave, just sitting with him, something strange happens. He watches us through kind, alert, twinkling eyes and with a beautiful smile. We can’t really communicate much, but we don’t need to. He has an amazing presence: a blissful, joyful energy radiates from his being that puts
us totally at ease and places a stupid grin onto our faces. He makes us feel so happy and relaxed by simply being there that we don’t want to move from the cave. He must have done a lot of meditation in his life to radiate that amount of bliss. Afterwards, both MJ and confess to each other that we wanted to kiss him - not in a sexual way, we just felt like hugging him. For a second (ok, maybe a minute), I seriously consider giving up all of what's left of my worldly possessions and travel from sacred place to sacred place with him.
We finally tear ourselves away after a couple of hours and a last dip into the Ganga. We start to climb up the hill and I notice that something is burning a hole into my pocket, metaphorically speaking. Suddenly, I know what it is. ‘Wait a moment’, I say to MJ, throw my sandals off and run back down the stairs to the cave. I have a beautiful photograph of Shiva and Parvati from my favourite shrine in Kathmandu in my bag, on which I have written my wishes for Beltane. I was
going to leave it as an offering in a temple - yet, somehow, I feel that I must give it to the sadhu. I go back into the cave, hand him the photograph and disappear again.
On our way back to Rishikesh, we stop at Vasistha's cave, a large cave by the Ganga which has been used for meditation by countless yogis, including the great Sage Vasistha, for many thousands of years. Today, there is an ashram near the cave and a small, covered entrance area with a door and a fire pit outside, used for rituals. A tunnel leads about 20 meters or so into a larger cave, and it is so dark in there that you have to feel your way into it at first. At the end of the cave is an ancient rock altar, containing a wonderful Shiva lingam resting inside a Shakti yoni, lit with candles. Wrapped around the linga is a metal serpent, and a small stone Shiva sits behind the linga. We pour some water over the lingam and it trickles down to the ground, light some incense and begin to chant mantras to Shiva. It is still and cool inside of
the cave, and an ancient sacred and peaceful feeling resonates all around us. It's like being in Parvati's womb, black and enveloping and comforting. Blissed out, we end the day by taking a refreshing bath at the nearby Ganga beach and return to Rishikesh for dinner.
Meanwhile, the big question is: are Rishikesh and Ma Ganga going to let me leave? The next blog entry shall reveal all......
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