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Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Rishikesh
March 2nd 2009
Published: May 3rd 2009
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New Age.

Sounds pretty good, you’ve got to admit.

A damn site better than old age, at any rate.

Two words, just six letters, promising to banish all past woes and conjure thoughts of inspiration, the dawn of a fresh era, as if everything gone before was fallacy soon to be cast out, summoning in a new epoch of understanding.

The truth is, unfortunately, that anything with New in the title is not to be trusted.

They all sound so enticing at first, everything just peachy, but before long the taste turns bad and you can’t fathom how you were ever sucked in: the New Romantics, New Man, New Labour, New Kids on the Block. All fresh-faced inspirations in their time, only to turn into washed-out has-beens faster than Simon Le Bon could capsize his next yacht, their lasting legacy no richer than Marky Mark tormented by ape-men in bad sci-fi remakes.

The New Agers, though, just go on and on.

They’ve been New now for longer than I can even remember. They do appear to entice those desperate for an alternative to old age, the vast majority of followers being 35 to 70, with a smattering of credulous teenagers. The properly old have finally given up on all that nonsense, thank you very much, and are just as happy with a nice cup of tea, while the 20-35 year old demographic are far too busy with the New House and New Car to bother with any of that Mumbo-Jumbo, their spiritual needs for now satisfied by their New Flat-Screen Telly. It’s only when the New Car loses it’s shine and the New House turns into a burden that the preachings of Tony and his brethren start to pall, and they begin to question if there might be more to life than the joys of Plasma, High Definition and Surround-Sound Stereo.

Some switch to a New Job, some go for a New Spouse, and others get a bit New Age. The really determined do all three.

And that’s when they move to Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is a small town in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, standing on the banks of the Ganges about 7 hours north of Delhi; but it’s as much an idea as a place, a spiritual home, a haven of peace and tranquillity from which to find your inner self. All manner of tantric happenings spring up here, a mecca for meditation, massage, yoga, astrology, acupuncture, iridology, faith-healers and trance music. And even after all that there’s plenty time left for a lot of general chanting and eating banana pancakes.

Luckily the faithful needn’t all turn up in the flesh, or the place would get a little crowded. It’s quite sufficient to burn the odd incense-stick in Ilkley, check out your chakras in Cheedle, or smother your sofa with sarongs in Swindon, though not if the neighbours are watching. Like the real Mecca, though, true believers can’t just sip herbal tea forever, and need to make the pilgrimage at least once a lifetime.

Rishikesh itself is not that New at all. There’ve been temples, ashrams and gurus in residence for really quite some time now. What really launched the place on the international scene was The Beatles rocking up in the late sixties to learn from the Maharishi Yogi, get stoned, and bang out another classic album. There had to be more to life than being feted international superstars, surely?

Unfortunately after only a short time they decided they actually quite liked screaming girls after all, and one-by-one took their leave. The incisive Ringo was the first to go, followed by the pragmatic Paul. Never underestimate the Rhythm Section. Finally it was down to an increasingly impatient John to persuade a reluctant George that, while reality left a lot to the imagination, there was more to life than playing sitar and howling at the moon. By way of consolation they let him keep the moustache, and agreed to allow a couple of his tracks to penetrate the Lennon/McCartney monopoly from now on. Meanwhile Ringo stuck to his guns and married a Supermodel.

Fortunately there are enough ex-Beatlemaniacs around who preferred the deceased over the living, and they trickle in to escape the pressures of the modern world, find their inner-selves, or just score some decent weed, Man, and the ashrams aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

That we ourselves made the trip was down to a chance meeting in a Delhi food-house. Due to my loose stools Debbie was at something of a loose end, and was casting about for something, anything, to get her out of this place. One evening she met an elderly French lady who charmed her, as only the French can, with sparkling eyes and boundless enthusiasm over this spiritual utopia where one could escape the clamours of Delhi and the pace of 21st Century living in general. Ironically it was then down to the modern pharmaceutical industry to clear my guts and smooth our path to this naturopath nirvana.

On arrival we found a small town standing on the steep banks of the Ganges, which fairly gushes through the centre on its exit from the mountains. The banks are connected by two pedestrian bridges, these built by the British way back when everyone could still think straight. Being the only lifeline between the two sides these bridges can get remarkably crowded, doubly so since the Indian definition of pedestrian includes bicycles, cows, donkeys and motorbikes, all unbelievably heavily laden. As if that wasn’t enough, you also have to contend with the constant attentions of beggars as you cross, wailing and gazing at you with pleading eyes.

There’s the usual variety of common or garden beggars, the homeless and destitute, the blind, deformed, and those with missing limbs, but in Rishikesh their numbers are swelled massively by the holy-men themselves, the Sadhus. These altogether more colourful characters have sworn themselves to ascetic lifestyles, shunning the material world to devote themselves entirely to the scriptures, travel the lands, and spread the word of the gods. They rely wholly on public donation to sustain themselves, and have thus transformed themselves into a brand new spectrum of classy holy beggars.

From a Western perspective it takes a bit of getting used to.

“God bless you my child, may the lord be with you and could you spare us a fiver? I’m dying for a good feed, me.”

I still can’t decide if this is a most noble cause or a pathetic waste of life. I suppose it depends how spiritual you choose to be. Unfortunately I’m tending towards the pathetic side, which is a real shame, as I otherwise quite fancy the idea of a life spent constantly on the move, a sort of psychedelic vicar-cum-hippy.

Round here it’s not only the holy men who prostrate themselves before the power of the tourist dollar. While the original monasteries and ashrams try to preserve their simple altruistic ideals, accepting only donations in return for room and board, outside on the street an endless gaggle of hotels, restaurants and souvenir stalls have sprung up to cater to the slightly less dedicated, as well as the more blatant full-on voyeurs like us. This allows you to happily dip your toes in the New Age waters without the need to immerse yourself fully in the joys of cold showers, basic food, rock hard beds and endless dawn supplication.

The locals still insist there’s nothing more cleansing than a quick dip in the waters of the Ganges, and a sip or three of its crystal-clear holy waters, despite the fact that just upstream folks are washing their clothes, discarding their rubbish and bathing their cows, who are themselves, of course, holy, and thus in no danger of giving you another nasty dose of the shits. They shake their heads in wonder as tourists snap open another bottle of expensive mineral water as millions of gallons of the stuff flow past in front of their very eyes. Candy from a baby.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the world, all this consumption and development lays waste to what was once a very lovely town. It’s hard to meditate to the sound of car horns and pneumatic drills, and our favourite days were when we escaped town altogether and headed for the hills, hiking to the nearby waterfalls or cycling mountain roads. Luckily our hotel, The Hill Top, was (as the more astute of you might have guessed) right up at the top of town, and from its rooftop restaurant we could wile away the mornings over an extended breakfast, removed from the hubbub below. The only sounds up here were the rustling of the hillside trees and the faint clang of bells from the worshippers below, one struck for every story as they circled the fairytale thirteen-floor wedding-cake temple at our feet.

The Beatles may have left long ago, but we still saw The Monkees, not just the thieving little rhesus macaques, but also the charming langurs, who people say monkey around. Altogether more chilled out characters, they’re still too busy singing, to put anybody down, and frolic through the trees in extended families before moseying into town, just trying to be friendly, at least until they reach the bridges, home of the feisty, pea-brained macaques who, having plainly forgotten the lyrics, proceed to go ape-shit , and beat the living bejeesus out of them.

An altogether more peaceful time is to be had at the end the day, watching the gurus and their pupils perform the intensely colourful and harmonious Ganga Aarti ceremony on the river bank at sunset, easily the most enchanting aspect of the town, and certainly enough for this daydream believer and his homecoming queen.

Despite its many faults we enjoyed Rishikesh and stayed for well over a week, testing the spiritual waters to at least ankle depth by taking on beginners’ yoga.

Amazingly yoga turned out to be very like skiing.

On the first day your Godlike instructor demonstrates a few basic moves, and then it’s over to you, at which point you discover that none of them are remotely humanly possible, ending up in a crumpled heap on the floor with bruised and battered ego. Over the next few days aches and pains develop in places you didn’t even know you had, but by the end of the week miraculously all becomes a breeze and you can’t understand how you’d ever struggled, glancing down disdainfully at the new boys and girls, freshly arrived.

All that was missing was the Apres Ski, the town’s religious status necessitating a complete alcohol ban, and what with the holy cow thing, a total absence of steak. You could ask for your water slightly chilled and your carrots well-done, but it wasn’t quite the same. Apres Yoga consisted of sitting in an endless string of bars disconsolately sipping cups of tea, reminiscing over the day’s contortions, and trying not to choke on the overwhelming atmosphere of smoke. It never ceased to amaze us that in a town dedicated to purity of mind, body and spirit, and the pursuit of health and happiness, everybody, but everybody, smoked almost anything they could lay their hands on. If it would burn it was rolled up or stuffed in a pipe, ignited and inhaled, the better to purify the soul.

Our yoga teacher insisted the Lotus position would liberate our livers, the Down-Dog would deliver us from dysentery, and the Sun Salutation would sort our Chakras, but even he didn’t claim a cure for cancer. We conceded that his teachings had undoubtedly made us considerably more bendy, and a good deal more relaxed to boot, but we’d stick to modern medicine for the rest and skip town before the Grim Reaper’s fumes got too much of a hold.

As we left Rishikesh, the morning’s rays crested the peaks and danced on the sparkling waters below, and George’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ swam through my mind. As I hummed along I reflected that our bitter-sweet visit could best be summed up by a line from that most famous Yogi of them all.

“Better than your average Bear!”

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