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Note 16 - Back in Rishikesh

October 17, 2005


Note 16 - Back in Rishikesh

Dear Friends! My last Note (15) came out right on the day when the terrible, devastating earthquake hit the areas near the India-Pakistan border, very close to Kashmir, which I visited just over a week before the earthquake hit. Many of you have sent me messages asking if I'm OK. Fortunately for me, by the time the earthquake happened I was far away from the affected region, on a train, approaching my favorite Rishikesh.

It was an overnight train from Amritsar, where I spent a day and a half visiting the Golden Temple of the Sikh religion - their most sacred, holy site. Sikh pilgrims from all over India and other parts of the world come to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple. Sikhism is a very young religion, which came out in 14th-15th century, during the times when India was being torn apart by castes, sectarianism and religious factions. The first Guru of Sikhs declared the reality of one God with multiple paths to him, and the name of the God is "Truth". So the name "Sikh" came out from the "seeker of truth". This Guru passed on his knowledge and his inner spirit to the next one and so on until the 10th Guru. That one, instead of passing his powers and knowledge of "Truth" to the next Guru, collected all the writings by the previous Gurus and others who experienced the "Truth" and created a book which he nominated as the next Guru. So, since that time, the Guru of Sikhs is The Book, or rather, the writings of that book. The "original" of the book is located in the Golden Temple in the Amritsar, but Sikhs would bow down and respect any copy of the book, as the writings, not the book itself constitute the Guru. Nevertheless, the "original" book is handled with great rituals which always build up around "holy" objects in any religion. The book stays in the center of the Golden Temple, covered up, on a podium, with a few high Sikh "priests" serving the book. Three of them are constantly playing some traditional instruments and chanting, singing some beautiful melody with the words probably coming from the chapters of the book. Another servant sits next to the book with a long thin pole with some feathers on the end and occasionally symbolically swipes some invisible dust from the book surroundings. The other two or three servants accept and organize the donations that come in a constant stream from a permanent flow of the pilgrims that enter on one side of the Temple, pass by the area surrounding the book, bow, throw a few rupees onto the floor as a donation and then have to keep moving out under the pressure of the flow. One can get onto the second floor and there walk around the inner perimeter, listening to chanting or just sit in one of the corners or alcoves and listen, meditate, read prayers. The Golden Temple is truly golden. Most of it is covered in more than 800kg of gold, giving the Temple an unbelievable shine and color, especially in the morning light or when lit up by projectors at night. The Temple stays in the center of a large pool, known as a Pool of Nectar. The pool has been built up from a natural pool which supposedly had miraculously cured one of the early Sikh gurus, and that led to this place becoming the site of the Golden Temple. In fact, the name of the city Amritsar comes from the words Amrit Sarovar, which exactly translates as Nectar Pool. The Temple stands in the center of the pool and a long and narrow marble pathway connects it to one of the sides of the pool. The pool is surrounded by a wide white and black marble pathway all around it with the steps leading into the water for the holy baths. Surrounding the pathways are intricate high walls of white marble with pathways, arches, and beautiful towers. Two high minarets stand just outside the inner walls, but are still encircled by the outer walls which also contain free kitchen and living quarters for all pilgrims to eat and sleep. Anyone can sleep in the temple complex, there are no restrictions.

The geographic orientation of the Temple is quite amazing. It is aligned with exact diagonal between the usual orientation of the Muslim mosques and Hindu temples. And that is just one of the demonstrations of how Sikhism merged many concepts of Islam and Hinduism together. The "Single God" notion of Islam and many traditions borrowed from Hinduism are another demonstration of such a merge of two seemingly very opposite religions.

I became a "big fun" of Sikhs. I cannot say for everyone, but those I have met project a certain inner strength, calmness and sincerity that must be coming as a part of upbringing. Not surprisingly, my yoga teacher in Rishikesh is a real Sikh.

After spending the late night and almost full day in and near the Golden Temple complex, I boarder an overnight train to Haridwar - an old holy city on the Ganga just 20km south of Rishikesh. On a train I was sharing a 4-berth compartment with a mother and two sons. They were Sikhs and so were wearing little turbans that keep their uncut hair organized and covered. Never cutting their hair is one of the traditions of the Sikh religion. They shared their food with me - a simple oven bread and some cooked vegetables, which I gladly accepted as I was hungry and tired after a long day in the city. I also did not eat much for some time as my stomach was giving me some troubles - such a common thing for travelers in the third-world countries.

I arrived to Haridwar in the morning and shared an autoriksha ride with two older Israeli ladies to get to Rishikesh. It takes about an hour from Haridwar to Rishikesh by an autoriksha. As we crossed Ganga in Haridwar, as we started approaching Rishikesh, I had a very strong sensation of comfort, of coming back to something so well known and so desirable. I was recognizing all the landmarks along the road, all the familiar sights. Even the people looked different - more familiar. Once off the riksha, I sped up towards the Ram Jhulla bridge - one of the two hanging bridges over Ganga. That bridge would take me to the part of Rishikesh where I lived for 3 months this spring. Stepping onto the bridge, I realized that I am finally in my home, my "home away from home", my Indian home. I was passing some chai stalls, internet points, cafes, some beggars on the street, the sadhus in their orange robes and the Pilgrims and I would see familiar faces. And some of them would recognize me and wave to me or just pass me by with a welcoming "Hari Om".

I went to the same hotel, where I spent my last month in Rishikesh - the Krishna Cottage. The boys working in the hotel recognized me right away and we were all happy to see each other again. I got lucky as the hotel was full and only one room was freeing up later in the day. So, I left my things with the boys and went wandering the streets, writing notes, eating, meeting people, just living. No need to rush, no need to go look at something. I arrived home.

My first stop was at an Ayurveda doctor. A friend of mine from Moscow have recommended this doctor to me back in spring and I had a good experience meeting him back then. This time I came with my little stomach problem. He was happy to see me again, we chatted for a while and then after a quick check of my pulse, tongue and some discussion he gave me some pills saying that the problem will go away by the end of the second day. So it happened. By the end of the second day my stomach was back to normal and I was enjoying all the foods in all of my favorite dhabas of Rishikesh. Later in the evening I found out that my friend Rodrigo, whom I first met in Rishikesh back in March and later this year met in Ladakh, is staying in my hotel, as well as another friend, Richard from UK, whom we met in Ladakh. The next day I run into Maria - she is from Russia, but spends most of her time in Rishikesh writing and translating books on yoga, eastern philosophy and eastern spiritual leaders. We also met in Rishikesh in spring and kept in touch as I was helping her with some photography for yoga articles and books and after a while we became quite good friends.

I really did not plan to come to Rishikesh for a long time - just to "touch base", see my teachers, relax and then go on to Varanasi - the most Indian city in India, the city of Shiva and of Ganga. From Varanasi only one day on a bus separates you from the Nepalese border which I need to reach before 19th of October when my Indian visa expires. But as it always happens to me in Rishikesh - it did not let me go so soon. I went to my travel agent Rajesh - a wonderful and honest guy, whom I can recommend to anyonetravelingg to Rishikesh. Rajesh greeted me like a brother, with an open smile, a strong handshake and a brotherly hug. But no-matter how hard he tried, there were no places on the trains to Varanasi for the next week and a half due to a major religious festival. So, after some thinking, I realized that the only option left is to fly to Nepal, Kathmandu from Delhi. That has been arranged by Rajesh at a very good price of just over $100. And luckily my flight is scheduled for the 18th, just a day before my visa expires. That got me settled in Rishikesh for about an extra week and I dissolved into relaxing flow of the town. A visit to a hairdresser came next. I stopped by the place where I used to cut my hair back in spring. After about a minute of working on my head the barber said - "This is your second time in Rishikesh. I remember you well." I was quite impressed as this place is on a very busy, main street with a constant flow of customers coming through for a shave, haircut or a head massage. At that point suddenly realized that besides just giving a feeling of home, Rishikesh also started growing all the attributes of a homely place. Here I have my doctor, my travel agent, my barber, my teachers of Hatha yoga and yoga philosophy, friends who live in the neighborhood, my favorite breakfast dhaba and my favorite dinner dhaba, my favorite book shop where they would package for me anything I want to send back home, my internet place where the owner greets me with "moy drug" which means "my friend" in Russian, etc... It is amazing how quickly all those attributes came about and how much comfort they provide in otherwise very different environment. Many of my friends here spent a lot of time in different parts of India and other Asian countries but most would agree with me that Rishikesh with the Ganga and the surrounding hills and the whole atmosphere creates the strongest "at home" experience and feeling. I believe that in part this is highly connected with the spiritual nature of the city, where so many people come to study, to learn, to be happy on the shores of Ganga, to become better or to learn to accept the life. I believe this is a happy city and a very harmonious city. Many old people living in the ashrams, singing, chanting in the evenings, walking up and down the streets, chatting to each other - everyone relaxed, at ease. You never hear people screaming at each other and rarely see an unhappy face. They come to "mother Ganga" and maybe in a tiny bit it actually purifies the souls as the smiles dominate the frowns.

I was going back home in the evening from a yoga class. On a small footpath along the Ganga, in the darkness, I was passing an old house where in the middle of the last century one of the founders of modern vedic sciences lived - Swami Sivananda. This days some pilgrims, followers of his teachings come to visit this place. As I was passing by, an old men exited the house-yard through a little gate. "Namaste, Hari Om!", the man said. "Hari Om" was my reply. As I was walking further away, I've heard - "May your live be long and healthy, god bless you!" addressed towards me. I wished the man the same and continued on my way. But somehow, I was just a bit happier at that moment. Maybe sometimes, in our daily lives we should more often wish well to some total strangers and some day we get the same in return.

When I arrived to Rishikesh, at least five or six people brought me an unfortunate news. Our favorite yoga teacher, Surinder Singh is no longer in Rishikesh. Someone in South Africa or Zanzibar offered him a very well paid contract for a year or two and now he is far away on the other continent. There are a few other good yoga teachers in Rishikesh, but some are too advanced and some only teach in a preset course, so I did not have many options. Maria recommended me to check a couple of the better teachers and so I went. The first class of one of the teachers was an unusual one. This class was dedicated to pranayama - a set of breathing exercises. As this was a relatively advanced class, the teacher gave a number of warnings that the class will be very intensive, would include some very high-heart rate activity, during which all students will sit for over an hour with eyes closed, listening to the teacher and precisely executing the instructions. Nobody is supposed to walk out - if you cannot handle the pace, just lay down and relax till the end. The exercises consisted of a variety of very rhythmic breathing sometimes picking up pace and keeping the high pace for quite a while - one may call it hyperventilation of the lungs. Then some silent pauses. Then the exercises again. During the longest and most intensive sequence I and, as I found out later, many other people felt that my body is no longer under my complete control. Every single bit of me was completely dedicated to the act of breathing in and out. The arms, the fingers were practically seized up. Then suddenly, when I thought I cannot handle it anymore, the exercise stopped and the silence came. At that moment I realized that I'm smiling with the widest possible smile, not able to stop smiling and laughing quietly. I was experiencing the strongest emotions of joy. Probably the strongest, the clearest in my life. At that precise moment the teacher said - "You may experience some strong emotions at this moment. Do not hold them. Cry if you feel like it, or laugh." I was laughing quietly. I heard somebody crying nearby. After some time it was over, but even now I clearly keep in my mind the feelings that I've experienced at that moment. This is unforgettable. The next time I went to the same teacher, it was the usual yoga class. However, unlike the classes that I had before, where teacher relatively quickly moves the students from assana to assana, this teacher went over just a few assanas (yoga postures) during the class working on each assana for a long time until the students are able to correct or at least understand even the smallest mistakes. This is the Iyengar style of Hatha yoga. I enjoyed the class, but it was quite advanced for my inflexible body. I went to a couple more classes by different teachers, but no one captured my attention as much as my favorite teacher did. But he is in Africa....

I also visited Swami Dharmananda, whose lectures on Yoga Philosophy I attended in spring. He was still teaching the same course and I enjoyed dropping by for a couple of lectures. On the first lecture he gave me a special "welcome back", by asking if I wrote any more poetry while I was away. I have to admit here, that during my spring stay in Rishikesh, I wrote a couple of small verses - the first ones in my life. As they were somewhat connected with the experiences of Rishikesh and the teachings, I showed them at that time to the Swamiji and he read them to the class. This time I shyly replied that I could not have possible written any poetry as I was away from Rishikesh. During the summer months he produced his set of lectures on DVDs and I bought the whole set to bring them back home. Hopefully the mail will deliver them safely.

Today is the last day in Rishikesh and yesterday was a really good day. In the morning I attended a lecture by Swami Muktananda. I belive, I wrote about visiting his lectures in one of my Notes from the spring period in Rishikesh. Some people say he is one of the truly enlightened, and some don't believe in this stuff at all, but he certainly projects such a deep sensation of peace and calm and harmony, that just by being on his lecture one can feel at least a little bit of that peace trickle down to himself, if only for a short while. And with this calmness, after the lecture was over, I went up the Ganga to one of my favorite spots, to sit and look et the waters flow by. Then, a quick dip into the Ganga, and then, after some warming up in the sun another dip into the waters and I'm on my way back to my neighborhood. Swami Dharmananda, whose lectures I attended during springtime, once told us a little story about the "holy" waters of Ganga. Ganga, or "Mother Ganga" is deeply respected in indian religion, being considered of a very holy, purifying nature. In particular, there is a believe, that once you enter the waters of the Ganga, all the sins are gone from you. Well... It's not exactly like that, my teacher said. Ganga indeed would not let sins enter into its waters with the body, so when people enter the Ganga, all their sins jump away from them and sit on a nearby tree or a rock. So, while you are in the Ganga, you are indeed a sin-free person. Yet, once you exit the waters, the sins immediately jump back on to you. And it feels so true, as the cold waters and the current make you forget everything else in the world while you are there. All the thoughts and desires are gone. But once you get out - that's a very differents story.

So, after a refreshing dip into Ganga, I headed for a music concert that was advertised all over Rishikesh. The most famous tabla player of India accompanied by a very famous sitar player were gigving a concert in one of the "upscale" ashrams. The music was unbelivable. The tabla player, an old man who almost had difficulty walking to the stage was playing with such an enthusiasm, such dynamism, in such a perfect understanding of his sitar partner. The smile of this probably 70 year old man made him look 25. This was the best indian music concert I've ever been too. The sitar was a virtuoso and they created such a perfect dialog and such a perfect support for each other that you could listen forever.

As I walked back to my hotel, it was a full moon and the path was clearly lit by the moonlight. I was happy to be in Rishikesh once again! That's about it for Rishikesh this time and for India as well. Tonight the train to Delhi and a connecting flight to Kathmandu will take me from India to Nepal. Or so it is planned...

Just to entertain you a bit after a long read, I have collected roadsigns while traveling on buses and jeeps on curvy mountain roads of North India. The signs are posted frequently on the sides of the road by the road maintenance organizations. All of them are aimed to make a memorable note to the driver.

Here they are:

Wishing everyone of you a happy day :)