At first Rishikesh seemed a disappointment; perhaps because of where we had come from. The hills surrounding the town are less impressive than the spectacular snow capped mountains we had just witnessed. But I love the Ganges, which is the focal point of the town. Coming out of the mountains, it is clear, fresh and cold even though the air is hot; the current is fast. Two suspension bridges for pedestrians cross the river, and are always crowded with people; motorbikes also force their way on, as do the odd cow who has lost it way. We decide to stay on the other side of the river and have to lug our cases across and then some distance to our hotel, in an area aptly called Swarg Ashram for its large concentration of ashrams.
The ashram are the most interesting feature of the town for me. Most are two storey complexes surrounding an open garden. To give a sense of proportion there are literally hundreds of rooms. The ashrams are set up with individual units including kitchens for Indian families who stay for what seems to be extended periods. Westerners also come and stay in the ashrams to do yoga and be in the presence of the resident swami. They also participate in the puja ceremony in the evening on the river across from the ashram, and sing devotional songs alongside the young monks dressed in their yellow robes, and led by a female disciple accompanied with tabla and harmonium, until SwamiJi arrives to take the lead.
I find it all more attractive than Gerard. I feel the spiritual energy – from the ashrams and the pilgrims, the sadhus who have meditated in the surrounding hills for many years. Of course the ones we see on the street with their hand out all day and everyday are obviously more interested in begging than spiritual advancement, but the devotion of the pilgrims who come here often at great cost and hardship seems genuine.
The town is simple, easy for me to navigate by myself, but without much variation. Just one street – a bazaar with an array of shops that are part religious memorabilia that you always find wherever pilgrims are, part new age bookstore and aureveydic medicine. It is pleasant but without the excitement of Varanasi.
We hang around several days longer than planned because we learn the Dalai Lama is visting – first to Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, and then in the evening to Rishikesh to speak at SwamiJi’s ashram (next door to our hotel) and stay the night. It is a rare opportunity for us to see him without throngs of people – or so we think. But on the day of his arrival it becomes clear this may not be the case. The town becomes abuzz with activity. Tibetans arrive in traditional dress, the police multiply joined by a special force with metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs. Gerard remarks, “It is sad that this is necessary for a man who promotes peace.”
There have been many moments during the last couple of month when, like Gurdjeff, we could have subtitled our trip “Meetings with Remarkable Men”. The climax may be the Dalai Lama. While waiting we meet two fascinating men from Vancouver. One has written a book about his intimate conversations with the Dalai Lama since he first met him in 1972. The other more recently discovered Him, after lengthy drug rehab four years ago, and subsequently founding his own rehab center in Vancouver. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
It turns out to be a long wait to see the Dalai Lama – but worth it. Literally thousands of us have to cram through a metal detector to await him in a small place by the river where the puja is performed nightly. Eventually he arrives, flanked by spiritual dignitaries and security. We are able to see him better than we’d hoped. Gerard commented that he seems old and very frail. I feel sorry that he has to sit through all of this ceremony when he probably would much rather be by himself, meditating. The next morning, we were briefly able to see him even closer, while walking to a function focused on saving the River Ganges. But without passes, we couldn’t attend. most of the other speakers ranted about the HOLY GANGES. Then when it was the Dalai lama’s turn to speak, he said, “All rivers are sacred; water is holy.”
We’d made plans to spend at least one day at Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, but due to several obstacles, namely, no vacancies in hotels and the roads being blocked by police security for the going and coming of the Dalai Lama, we have decided to move on to Dehra Dhun.