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Published: April 28th 2013
Rishikesh has been called the “Yoga Capital of the World” and the “Gateway to the Himalayas”. In 1968, the Beatles stayed at the Maharishi Mahesh yoga ashram, during which they composed 48 songs, some of which appeared on the White Album. The riverside community remains a spiritual center to this day, where local pilgrims and backpackers bathe side by side in the sacred Ganges, with waters much cleaner and nearer to their Himalayan source than overly polluted but more well-known Varanasi. Nowadays, Rishikesh is also developing a reputation for outdoors sports such as river rafting and trekking.
I have made a point of spending some time in Rishikesh on all three of my trips to India. In 2005, it was my last stop on an overwhelming 3-month trip journey through Sichuan, Nepal, Tibet, and India. I spent my last few days of the trip suffering in a Rishikesh hotel room from the worst case of food poisoning of my life, as temperatures outside soared to 45 degrees Celsius in a heat wave that killed 125 people. The food poisoning had come on without warning in the middle of a yoga class I’d been taking
with a private local instructor. The illness cleared up at the last possible minute so that I was able to catch a bus to Delhi for my flight, and then recurred again during my stopover in Los Angeles on the way home.
My initial impressions of Rishikesh on that first trip were much like they were in other parts of the subcontinent; that is, an odd combination of love and disgust. Rows of sadhu beggars lined the alleyway that led to my hotel, squatting amongst puddles of cattle feces and lifting up their metal bowls unison ever time I walked by. Shops in town sold vials of sacred Ganges water to be carried home, or plastic jugs so that you could fetch your own supply. Every second shop sold new age mantra CDs, Ayurvedic remedies, or prayer beads. Some travelers dislike Rishikesh for its new age commercialism. Personally, I happen to enjoy purchasing the above-mentioned products. A path leading out of the town straddled the river, passing sandy beaches where men in robes with god-like beards and painted faced passed around chillums of hash and discussed philosophy. My hotel seemed to sell the
only beer available in the otherwise dry religious community, attracting a sprinkling of dreadlocked and tie-dyed backpackers to its grassy lawn.
Before I’d gotten sick, I’d had the opportunity to do what I’d wanted to most, which was to bathe in the River Ganges. Hindus believe that the Ganges connects heaven and earth, comparing it one of Shiva’s dreadlocks, and besides discarding the ashes of their dead in the river, they also bathe in it to ritually purify themselves. I had taken a pass on a dip in the river at Varanasi, where the water is so polluted that scientific testing has demonstration that it is toxic and unsafe for human bathing. However, Rishikesh is perfect for a dip. What I remember most clearly is the chilly yet refreshing water flowing over my face and I lay back. Then, when I sat up and opened my eyes, a plump, dripping wet Indian woman was standing on a rock in the river a few feet away from me, airing herself in the breeze, arms wide open to the sky.
My first trip to India was intense but
incomplete. It had sometimes seemed like too much to handle while I was there, but once I went back home, I felt that India somehow lived on in me, begging me to return. The time came for this in 2010. I was in the middle of a 6 month overland journey from Europe to Asia, and my girlfriend (soon to be wife) Emily flew all the way from Taiwan to meet me for two weeks. After spending a single night in the Tibetan quarter of Delhi, we went directly to Rishikesh. Our family-run hotel room came with a large balcony with a grand panorama of the river and community on the other side. At night Emily sat on a chair outside and recited Chinese mantras for her mother, who had passed away while we’d been apart. I was thrilled about the sudden company in the middle of an otherwise solitary journey. Furthermore, I was in love.
In the evening we observed the nightly puja (devotion) ceremony conducted by the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where observers chant lively songs of praise to the Ganges and gods that are associated with it, before a
large Shiva statue with water spurting from its head into the river. In the evening the weather was chilly, and cows huddled in the dark around piles of burning trash on the single street that runs between two communities along the river.
For my third and most recent visit to Rishikesh, I was in the company of my sister Leanne and her partner Matt. On our way from Delhi to Rishikesh, we hired a private car for the 6-hour journey because many roads were closed and buses were delayed due to major pilgrimages along most highways. Many of the pilgrims we passed seemed to be destined for Rishikesh and nearby Haridwar. Decked out in bright orange clothing, they were walking in honor of Lord Shiva and carrying sacred water from the Ganges back to their hometowns for use in rituals.
In Rishikesh, we stayed in the exact same room that Emily and I had, bringing back fond memories. The three of us bathed in the Ganges a few times, always in the company of many locals. At the Parmarth Niketan Ashram ghat, or bathing steps, the
current was particularly strong, with a metal chain provided to hang on to so that you are not swept away. At another somewhat secluded ghat, we bathed with some elderly women who took pleasure in holding our hands and bouncing up and down in the river while we all laughed wildly. I remember I used to assume that since bathing in the Ganges is such a sacred experience, it would also be a solemn one. That was, until I saw all the kids diving in, people having swimming races, and families playing jovially in the waters. In India, bathing is often a communal rather than private affair, and it can be fun.
In the paths around Rishikesh, we made friends with monkeys, cows, sadhus, and souvenir vendors. In the evenings, we enjoyed pleasant hours of catching up in local chilled out cafes, which only serve vegetarian food. It was my first time to meet Matt, and the first time I’d seen my sister in a year. Leanne and I had talked of going to India together for ages, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to introduce a favorite
place to a favorite person. Our shared Indian adventure commenced in Rishikesh, which I’d intentionally chosen as an ideal starting point for a wonderful shared experience for the three of us.
Rishikesh will always be special to me. It has been the setting for various stages of my life and relationship with India, myself, and other loved ones. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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