Rishikesh and Haridwar
22.03.2010 - 26.03.2010
In our last days before going to Nepal we visited Rishikesh, a new age spiritual center set along the Ganges River. It is the place were the Ganges exits the foothills of the Himalaya and meets the plains. Upstream from the city there are many Ashrams (spiritual community or retreat) set alongside the river where pilgrims, devotees, and spiritual tourists gather. It is also the self proclaimed “yoga capital of the world” and the gateway to the Himalaya. There are plenty of opportunities for adventure here from white water rafting, mountain biking, and trekking. On both sides of the Ganges were interesting areas with a mix of ashrams, accommodation, restaurants, and shops. It was similar to Varanasi but a lot more laid back and the Ganges was a whole lot cleaner. Linking both sides of the river were two huge “pedestrian” suspension bridges. Despite this designation, cows and motorbikes made it onto the already overcrowded bridges. On one side of the river there were nice beaches were you could relax after taking a dip in the river.
A dip in the Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins and impurities, I feel bad for the people down stream!
Crowded Suspension Bridge and Shri Trayanbakshwar Temple
Shiva Statue over the Ganges
“Ganga Aarti” Evening offering at a riverside ashram
We set ourselves high above the river in a quiet area called High Bank at the Bhandari Swiss Cottage. There were a few other hotels, restaurants and an ashram that gave our secluded area a commune type feeling. In the 1960’s the Beatles visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram and put Rishikesh on the map for the spiritual hippie type crowd that it draws. You are never far from opportunities to learn to play the sitar, mediate, chant mantras, get a massage, try any type of yoga including laughing and humming yoga, or have your palm read. I went in for some basic yoga but that was about the end of my new age spirituality. Exploring the Ashram the Beatles went to was a lot of fun. It has been abandoned and now the surrounding forests have taken over. Apparently there is some conflict on what to do with the land and it is currently in the hands of the forest department and not officially open to the public, we had to bribe a lazy security guard to unlock the gate.. There were many little apartments or houses that were tiny round stone buildings with a small staircase leading up to an eggshell dome and a small patio. It is rumored that John, Paul, George, and Ringo stayed in these and the John was in #9. Number nine, number nine, number nine…. It is also said that his is were they wrote much of the white album. It was a large facility that was fun to explore. A few other tourists told us they spooked a leopard out of the bush and it was we were told that people have seen leopards as well as wild elephants while exploring the large facility.
The main event in our trip to Rishikesh was to visit the town of Haridwar were the Kumbh Mela was happening. This is an immense Hindu Gathering happening once every 12 years at 4 different locations. The gathering draws pilgrims from all over the sub continent and the world. The main event is bathing in the river but pilgrims come and live in tent cities that stretch out for miles during the 3 month long gathering. Many Holy men and gurus are always in attendance and there are religious discussions, singing, and mass feedings of the poor who have made the long journey. The exact timing of the event in Haridwar is linked to a certain time when Jupiter and the Sun are both in the zodiac sign Aries. The last Kumbh Mela drew more then 17 million pilgrims. In 2001 the Great Kumbh Mela, which comes after 12 regular ones or every 144 years, occurred and over 60 million people attended. It is said to have been the largest gathering of human kind ever. We were actually afraid of visiting Haridwar when we fist learned of the gathering shortly after entering India. I had pictures in my head of a Woodstock like situation were the masses poured in, transportation came to a halt, and food and water would need to be rationed out by the government. After talking to a few travelers we learned that it was actually really well organized, a real shock for India, and that it was easy to travel and find accommodation.
With this information we decided to give it a go and were glad we did. We could clearly see the effects of the mass influx of people with the tent cities. The amount of police and military presence was impressive. They had built kind of human corrals like you may see at the ski lift that stretched out all over town controlling traffic. Most of the activity was along the river. There were 4 main footbridges crossing the river from the main road and the tent cities to the site of the old town and the bathing Ghats. The Ghats themselves covered a huge area and there was even a concrete island in the river that was completely occupied by masses of people. Police were everywhere and if you were not down on one of the Ghats they made sure you kept moving.
We wondered around the Ghats a little bit before moving into town. The amount of deformed and diseased beggars on the streets was hard to take. There were also tons of the Sadhus, or holy men trying to reach enlightenment, walking the streets. They are usually clad in saffron robes and rub ash, traditionally ash from cremations, on their skin. Most have long dreadlocks and beards and sometimes carry a trident. The Naga Sadhus take it as far as to not wear clothing even in the winter. So, while relaxing in a open air street side café sipping chai we were treated to a few naked old men walking by covered in ash.
We visited Haridwar on one of the designated bathing days and there was an impressive amount of people but it was far from what I imagined when we read the figures of 17 million people. Even so it was amazing to see so many people come together to celebrate their beliefs. India once again proved to be unlike any other place on earth. Mark Twain visited the Kumbh Mela in 1895 and said “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
Massive Shiva statue, Haridwar
The Amount of roadside stops and police presence in and around Haridwar was impressive, and appreciated
A small representation of the Tent Cities
Crowds on the bridge leading over the river, the Island, and the main ghat
“Cause we are all in this together, and we love to take a bath” Kumbh Mela, Haridwar
It was frowned upon to take pictures at the Kumbh Mela and their had been reports of angry Sadhus smashing cameras so I did not take to many shots. If you want to see more look it up online. The whole thing was really interesting to us and after the fact we did read a lot more about it on line.
We took it easy for the next few days in Rishikesh before heading out by train to Delhi. Our experience getting into Delhi was much easier than when we came through before even though we did not arrive until 11:00 at night. We were fortunate to get an honest rickshaw driver who brought us directly to the hotel we asked to go to knowing he would not get a commission. I unfortunately had come down with another cold that I suffered on the train and in Delhi. I managed to gather enough strength and motivation to go out to see a movie and India gave us a nice farewell present to remind us of the patience that one needs to survive. As with everything else the movie started about 45 minutes late and broke down halfway through. Nobody said anything or offered any apologies and it was left to us to figure out what to do about it! We loved or time in India and think that after Nepal we will return to explore the far northern reaches were the Himalaya extend into India.