5 March 2018 – A lot of people go to India on a spiritual quest to find themselves. Not me – I’ve been here twice before and not found a trace of myself in this mayhem. I came to India because I love India, just like that. I love the madness and the weirdness and the heat, and I don’t even mind the dirt. I love the food and the trains, and the noise doesn’t bother me. I love the way deep religious devotion is entwined with daily life. I love wearing what basically amounts to pyjamas all day long and I love expecting the unexpected. Travel in India is a lesson on giving up any plans you may have, and just going with the flow.
I got up early on my third day in Delhi and went to the huge bus terminal at Kashmiri Gate. Luck was on my side and I arrived just in time to board a bus going to Rishikesh, a town in the hills above the Ganges River made famous by a visit from The Beatles in the 1960s. They stayed at an ashram and wrote most of the White Album, and the place has never been the same since. Spiritual seekers the world over starting flocking to Rishikesh, now known as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, split down the middle by the mighty Ganges and united by two suspension bridges dramatically spanning the river, Rishikesh is home to countless temples and ashrams offering every kind of yoga class, chanting, and meditation session possible; plus detoxification rituals and ayurvedic treatments and courses.
The bazaars overflow with chakra beads, crystals, yoga gear, incense, oils, natural healing remedies, organic food, and books on yogic philosophy and religious instruction. In short, Rishikesh is brimming with healthy spirituality.
Although I really like yoga I’ve never had much interest in any of that other stuff, so sitting on the bus I idly wondered if Rishikesh would be the right choice for me. I planned to stay at an ashram, where guests follow a schedule that starts early in the mornings with meditation and yoga. I was hoping I could just benefit from the exercise and then skip the profound conversations around the ceremonial fire about awareness and finding the deeper meaning in everything. But I discovered I wouldn’t get away with that only moments after I arrived at an ashram I’d read about online. The resident Guru invited me to join him in the garden to make a small offering of flowers at a shrine and to tie gold and scarlet threads around a Tree of Intention and I reflexively replied ‘Do I have to?’. The Guru beatifically ignored that and grimly led me to the garden anyway. Combined with the fact that the ashram’s accommodation was full and they’d offered to stick me in an apartment at the top of a deserted building over an echoing parking garage next door, I decided that ashram-living was not for me and I’d be better off doing any soul-searching on my own terms.
Now I was homeless in Rishikesh, so I looked around at a few hotels and picked one on a busy street not far from Lakshman Jhula, one of the suspension bridges. I liked this place; there were friendly people running it and it was right across from a cafe where I could eat my breakfast and drink my ginger lemon honey tea every morning. There was a cow with a broken and badly healed leg who lived in the street nearby and regularly came to the door of the restaurant downstairs to wait for the manager to offer it some leftovers. Nothing says India like a cow begging for table scraps at your hotel.
As I settled into my room I wondered – by not staying at an ashram would I miss out on the best of Rishikesh? But as it turned out, this traveller-friendly town has something to offer just about everybody, including hardened sceptics like me. So I decided to go with the flow.
As I explored my new neighbourhood and sat drinking green juice in a riverside cafe, I realised that this is one of those places where you can start to feel at home almost immediately. And it didn’t hurt that my new friend Kim who I’d met in Delhi was here too.
First things first, Kim and I hired a jeep-taxi to take us to Shivpuri beach. Rishikesh might seem an unlikely place to find a beach, and the Ganges an even unlikelier place to sunbathe and swim, but Kuldeep who served me breakfast most days had informed me that it was a beautiful spot. The road out of town is steep and curves around the forested hillside. Bouncing around in the jeep we admired the stunning view and plunging drop to the river valley far below, until the driver eventually stopped on the shoulder and pointed to a path disappearing down the hill.
When we’d scrambled to the bottom we came out on a wide expanse of white sand dotted with boulders, stretching bright and nearly empty to distant mountains on either side. We looked at the crystal clear green water of the Ganges rushing past in front of us.
We were thrilled; it was perfect. We wandered down to the shore and stuck our toes into the cold water, and staked out a spot to lie on the sand.
As everyone knows, the Ganges is a holy place for deep spiritual reflection; but it’s also a place to slyly photograph foreign women in swimsuits and we kept a wary eye on groups of men casually wandering past us, their phones in hand.
One day we did a little hiking. Or we tried to; it ended in hitchhiking when we discovered that we’d gone in exactly the opposite direction to the waterfalls we were looking for. But by way of three separate rides from helpful locals we still managed to get to the falls, which spill into little rockpools where we sat and drank chai brewed at the water’s edge.
We wandered around town watching people and animals; irresistibly drawn to the markets I shopped for all manner of beads and scarves, and had a beautiful henna design painted on my hand.
But amidst these more worldly pursuits, I made time for the spiritual side of things too. I went to some drop-in yoga classes and I sat quietly during meditation, zoning out my busy thoughts. I drank detoxifying teas and endured a couple of oily ayurvedic massages. One evening I went with Kim to the famous Parmarth Niketan Ashram to watch Ganga Aarti, or ‘river worship’. Led by the ashram’s founder, devotees, students and visitors alike gather on the ghat (steps) leading down to the Ganges to chant and sing mantras as the sun goes down, lighting ceremonial fires and eventually setting small bunches of flowers or candles adrift in the river.
It’s a beautiful way to end a busy day.
And then Holi rolled around. A holiday that marks the arrival of spring, Holi is celebrated throughout India with music, dancing, drumming and most of all – colour.
Throngs of hysterically happy people flood the streets throwing handfuls of vibrantly coloured powder in their wake, streaking each other’s faces and rubbing it into hair and clothes, shouting ‘Happy Holi!’.
Even cows and dogs joined in on the action, although possibly against their will.
Eventually though, I knew it was time to travel on. I went down to the ghats and bought some aloo tikki from a street vendor and ate it sitting by the river.
Chiming temple bells, the soft hum of devotees chanting mantras, and burning incense drifted on the air.
Turning down an offer to have my ears cleaned by a man carrying a tray filled with tiny brushes and spikes (as I’ve said, this is a very health-conscious place) I thought about my time in Rishikesh. It had turned out to be even better than I expected; just in a different way. Living full-time at an ashram might not be for me but I’d taken the parts of that lifestyle I liked, and enjoyed them on my own terms. I’d tried yoga and meditation in a new and beautiful setting. I’d admitted that I really don’t like ayurvedic massage. I’d happily celebrated the coming of a new season and found out the Ganges makes for a beautiful beach day. I’d even disposed of a cockroach I found in my bathroom, by myself. Now that’s personal growth, right there.