Rishikesh is a holy Indian city set along the banks of the Ganges river and people come from all over India to pay homage to Ganga, the river goddess. During the Shivaratri festival Indians come from near and far to gather the river’s blessed water and bring it back to their home town to make an offering of it at a Shiva temple. Throughout the festival, lasting a number of weeks, the town is transformed into a kind of holy carnival and after walking for days to Rishikesh from as far away as Delhi, people are understandably excited to reach their destination. Worshipers wearing beaming orange t-shirts, shorts, hats, towels and everything in between, take over the streets, marching along in large groups singing and chanting. We had experienced one day of this madness in Haridwar, en route to Rishikesh, and it looked like we were in for more celebrations here. We were due to have our Ashram stay Rishikesh experience and it looked like we would have to find our inner peace quickly!
Tourists come to Rishikesh mostly to chill out by the river, enroll in yoga, meditation and massage courses and to soak up the spiritual vibe that exists in the town. Ashrams are places in India dedicated to communal, spiritual living. All guests of the ashram sleep in basic rooms, eat a vegetarian diet together in the dining hall, practice yoga and meditation and abstain from both alcohol and smoking. It is a spiritual existence of few material possessions and promotes a clean, healthy way of life for mind, body and soul. Ashrams are dotted all along the river and hidden throughout the towns narrow streets, inviting travellers to come and experience ashram life. Some are more ‘touristy’ than others; in some communities, for example, you must adhere to a dress code of wearing only white, you must observe total silence during meal times, remain celibate, not consume alcohol or smoke and your day begins with morning prayers at 5am, while in other more lenient ashrams you are required to simply dress modestly, eat a vegetarian diet, not smoke or drink and attend the various classes if you feel so inclined. Being new to all this, we signed up for the latter at Parmarth Ashram.
Due to the festivities around the Shivratri festival, we had a mission and a half trying to reach the ashram to begin our spiritual quest. With the roads closed we had no choice but to walk through the crowds of pilgrims for almost ten kilometres with all our luggage in tow. It was far from ideal and the sun was blazing but undeterred we struggled on. The ashram was on the other side of the wide, fast-flowing river but unfortunately, while we could see it plainly we still had a long way to go. Approaching a large suspension bridge we breathed a sigh of relief and thanked whatever God was around these parts for getting us this far.
Unfortunately for us though, nobody was listening and the police officer told us that a one-way system was in operation on the bridges throughout the Shivratri festival and that this, the Ram Jhula bridge, was for coming back across the river, we had to continue on to the Lakshman Jhula bridge which was nowhere in sight and the road was beginning to incline steeply but on we went. The streets were packed with excited devotees and when coupled with an incredible amount of cattle which roamed the streets freely, monkeys that were clambering through the trees above and a large number of shirtless babas sporting long beards and tangled dreadlocks, what we were walking through truly was a sight to behold. With night closing in fast, we took a break for dinner and finally saw the next bridge in the distance, after a quick re-fuel we continued on our way crossing the second suspension bridge, negotiating the wet, muddy road ways lit only with our torch due to the power deciding to suddenly go out. After leaving Haridwar that morning with an expected thirty minute trip to get to the ashram in Rishikesh, we finally arrived at Parmarth Ashram at 10pm, soaked in our own sweat, covered in mud and absolutely exhausted from the hellish journey which took us nine hours longer than we had anticipated. “Yoga is at 6am and breakfast will be at 8am”, the manager told us, “you come here after, you rest now”. Sounded like a good idea to us!
Our ashram ran an early morning yoga course and provided us all our meals but because it was out of season there was no prayers, meditation, chanting or any opportunity to meet the ashrams guru, which was all a little disappointing since we were going into this with an open mind and ready to dive into the full-on Ashram life head first. It certainly felt like we were in one of the ashrams catering for tourists and so with yoga finished by 7am and breakfast done with by 9am, we found ourselves with a lot of down time and so it was off to see what else this holy town had to offer. Immediately outside the ashram gate was a large white statue of Shiva on a platform over the river.
The ghats (steps) down to the river’s edge at night-time were full of people taking part in the Ganga Aarti ceremony, an elaborate ceremony where the river is worshipped by devotees who sing and chant to live music while candles are lit and some are sent down the river in leaf baskets along with the prayers of the people. The ceremony takes place as the sun sets directly behind the large Shiva statue and both young and old get really into it; swaying, clapping and solemnly rocking out to the foot-tapping melodies provided by the young group of boys all dressed in yellow robes. This was the scene every evening along this stretch of the Ganga but during the day it was a different scene all together.
After their long pilgrimage the devotees have ‘a dip’ in the river, usually dipping up and down under the water three times and then cupping the river water in their hands they pour it first over their head and then proceed to drink it. “When in Rome”, I thought and one morning after yoga I wandered down to the river to have ‘a dip’ myself. I stripped down to my shorts, much to the bewilderment of the small crowd and in I went, lying down in the water and letting the strong currents pass over me. The water was cold but extremely refreshing and although I didn’t get much of a spiritual experience from my time in the holy river it did bring a few smiles to the many onlookers, so that was something!
Further south of our ashram where the gravel pathway ends is a dirt road that leads up to an old abandoned ashram complex and the huge iron gates are firmly chained shut, however in exchange for fifty rupees the gatekeeper will grant you access to the buildings, the reason?; this is where John, Paul, George and Ringo stayed in February of 1968 when they came to Rishikesh in search of spirituality and enlightenment on the banks of the Ganges. It was here in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram that the famous four-piece wrote many of the songs that featured on the White Album. The men from Liverpool came to the ashram with their partners on the recommendation of George Harrison who had visited some time earlier. Three of The Beatles stayed for two months at the Ashram in Rishikesh, writing loads of songs. Ringo Starr and his wife however lasted only a couple of weeks as they missed their children and didn’t take well to the vegetarian food. Rumours started to spread about the Maharishi’s demands for money and his behaviour towards some of the rock-stars partners which caused the band and their partners to leave the ashram and return to England. John Lennon sang afterwards, perhaps in regard to the Maharishi, ‘you made a fool of everyone’, but Harrison and McCartney both denied truth in the rumours. What really happened to The Beatles along the banks of the holy Ganga is uncertain, what is known is a great band produced a great album inside the grounds of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram and fans from far and wide still flock to see where their heroes found inspiration. This became more and more apparent as we walked around the overgrown buildings where the band had stayed. The walls of the buildings were covered in graffiti in languages such as English, French, Korean and German to name a few, all wishing their heroes well. A large hall, with the roof falling in was however the icing on the cake. A group of graffiti artists had come together and painted murals of The Beatles on the walls and sprayed messages and song lyrics for people to read. An invitation painted across the wall from the underground artists asked people to take photos and share photos of their amazing work and to make appropriate additions to what they had already done inside the dilapidated building. It was cool to see how still, forty-two years later, The Beatles continue to influence and inspire even in the ruined buildings of this overgrown, ruined ashram overlooking the Ganges River.
Walking away from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram towards the busy streets outside our ashram, we watched as the setting sun began to turn the skyline a fiery orange, matched only by the dress of the visiting pilgrims, and the cymbals, drums and singing began once again on the banks of the holy river. It would be our last time to see the Ganga Aarti ceremony before leaving this revered city with its temples, shrines, ashrams, pilgrim filled streets and holy Ganga River and we joined the crowd one final time, solemnly rocking out as the sun set once more over Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganga.
Brian is a travel writer, photographer, blogger, travel addict and adventure-junkie. Being outdoors, getting off the beaten track and outside his comfort zone is what makes him tick. Brian’s the dreamer in the relationship; when he’s not travelling, he’s dreaming about it! Keeping fit, cooking, music and red wine take up the rest of his time.
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