September 20, 2007
We finally made our way to Rishikesh, in the Himalayan foothills. The sacred River Ganga (Ganges) flows through the valley here, flanked by steep slopes of thick, lush foliage. Two famous walking bridges stretch across the river: the Ram Jhula, in the area where we are staying, and about 1km further upriver is the Lakshman Jhula, which is a more popular area with westerners.
On the one hand, the river seems much lower than we remember, and the ubiquitous monkeys have dwindled to a handful. (Thankfully, though, there are few mosquitoes, too!) There are more shops, hotels, and people than ever, and signs advertising condos and spas are everywhere.
On the other hand, the river is as serene and beautiful as ever, drawing us into a reflective, contemplative–and deeply appreciative–frame of mind. And our friends tell us the river is higher than last year, when they watched dump trucks drive out into the middle of the riverbed to fill up with the exposed gravel!
We’re staying at Omkarananda Ganga Sadan guest house, in a large third story room right on the river. For now, we are spending lots of time on the balcony, just watching the Ganga flow, observing the day-to-day life on the river, and taking in the surrounding beauty.
We are so happy and peaceful here that we have decided to skip the next portion of our planned itinerary. Rather than go to Brindavan now, we’ll stay here in Rishikesh until early October when we go Kainchi, in the Kumoan hills, for the 9-day Durga Puja festival. But of course, that could change, too! We’ll keep you posted.
In any case, we are happy and well in our digs here. Both healthy, no physical complaints. We are sleeping amazingly well, though our beds are wood platform boxes with 3 inch mattresses. Meals can be taken at our guest house, and are very healthy, clean, and delicious. Cost about $1.50 for rice and dal, vegetable dish, flat bread. Shivaya’s Hindi is much better than he admits, and is getting us around very well. I’m having a blast reading the signs written in Devanagari script.
We’ll try to check e-mail every few days, if possible, and will respond to any messages as soon as we get back to the internet cafe. We send you love and peaceful vibes, and blessings from Ganga Ma.
More to come…
So much love,
Uma and Shivaya
P.S. for the musicians: Here is a beautiful kirtan song to the Ganga that came drifting across the river over the loudspeakers from an ashram on the other side. I jotted it down in sargam notation so I wouldn’t forget it. (low Ni, 4 beats per line) Hope it makes sense. Enjoy!
S – R – G – –
Gan – ge – Ma – –
G – G – MG / RG / S
Gan – ge – Ma / a / a
N -S – R – –
Gan – ge – Ma – –
P – P – PG / RG / S
Gan – ge – Ma / a / a
September 26, 2007
Here are some excerpts from the journal I’ve been keeping. I’ll add to it as I am able, as we go along.
Today we walked across Ram Jhula bridge to Chotiwalla (a famous restaurant that has been here since 1958) for breakfast, then up the sadhu path along the river, to the ashram of Mustram Baba. Shivaya spent much time here with Mustram when he was alive. He showed me around–to Baba’s kutir (hut), where he gave darshan, Baba’s cave where he lived, and what used to be the “gufa” that Shivaya was given to live in when he came here. It was a rock ledge with a large overhang–sort of an open-sided cave. A rock wall has since been built up to the edge of the ledge. This is where Shivaya had darshan of Ganga Ma, the goddess of light rising up out of the river.
Shivaya bathed in the Ganga, and I waded. We hung out on the beach at the ashram for a couple of hours, very shanti. A young sadhu took us to Mustram Baba’s samadhi temple, where his ashes are, and an adjoining puja room with a photo of the baba. I got photos of the cave, gufa, and puja room. We took a boat ride back across the river to our room.
The sun is slowly going down behind the mountains now, and the light casts a golden glow on the water and the ashrams and temples along the banks. Mantras are being chanted into a loudspeaker directly across the river from us.
As we arrived here yesterday, it was just before sundown, also. The Hanuman Chalisa was ringing out through the valley–a perfect welcome.
Ganga aratis at the various temples followed, little bowls filled with flowers, incense, and candles were launched from the ghats, floating downstream to the strains of melodious salutations to Ganga Ma.
We found Swami Dayananda’s ashram yesterday. We arrived just after lunch, and everyone was sleeping! We sat by the Ganga a while, and went into the mandir (temple) there. Then on to Rishikesh town, to visit Shivaya’s old friend, Subash. Sweet man, Maharajji devotee. Then lunch in an A/C restaurant, just to get out of the awful heat.
Next, a motor-rickshaw ride to the Neem Karoli Baba ashram and Hanuman temple. It was Tuesday, Hanuman’s day, and they sing the Sundarakand (part of the Ramayana), followed by arati. We arrived a little after 4 pm, and 3 hours later the Sundarakand was still going! It was utterly hot, and we were dripping sweat—clothes sticking to us. We decided to leave just as the Sundarakand ended.
Throughout, as I sat in the temple, hundreds of people paraded through to have darshan of Hanumanji, some staying to join in the singing. So many, especially little kids and young people, checked me out–some sneaking a peek, others staring wide-eyed and unabashed. If I smiled or pranamed, they burst into giggles. (White lady with the super short haircut, I guess.)
At one point, I went outside to cool off, when the electricity went off and the fans in the temple stopped working. One young man came over to me and offered me prasad, and another man brought his little boy over to pranam to the “mataji.” (Made me feel a little old, but flattered.)
Today it is cooler. The whole valley is filled with fog and mist. Very serene. Yesterday, it was filled with smoke, and I was a little concerned.
The fog is gone today–bright HOT sun by 7 am. We closed up the room, and will stay in today, doing our best to keep cool under the fan. So far so good.
Now, the mantras and pujas from ashrams across the river are in full glory. The loudspeakers start around 4 am each day, and go throughout the day, with a few short breaks. One particular ashram has pujaris with very loud, whiny voices. It was touching at first to hear the mantras all day, but now it has become a little tedious…
It all fades into the background, though, when I look up the valley and see Ganga Ma again, flowing, flowing, ceaselessly, tranquility emanating as she nourishes life and spirits throughout the land.
Finally, after 2 days of scorching heat, it was nice and cool this morning. And a wonderful thing has happened: the nonstop loudspeakers have stopped. Last night was completely quiet, and it was so peaceful sitting outside.
We finally left our room today. We had breakfast out, then walked the sadhu path in the other direction, toward Rishikesh town. We found a little clearing in the jungle, where 2 sadhus sat, smoking a chillum. We sat down with them for a while, as Langor monkeys jumped around in the trees above us. (Langors are the beautiful gray monkeys with black faces. Apparently, they tend to stay away from people, so you don’t see them in the marketplace, like the impish yellow Rhesus monkeys.) Very shanti, sweet time. I felt another level of surrender–into the pace here, into the fact that I AM here, not to mention the fact that I was sitting in a jungle with real sadhus!
I was flashing back to the Indian temple we happened upon unexpectedly on our way to a wedding in Texas. It was an auspicious day, Ugadi, the new year and first day of spring. The priest gave a talk about how this is an auspicious year, and whatever we ask for with true devotion, we will get. I asked to come to India!! My prayer was profoundly answered…
September 30, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
After lots of rain, the heat has broken. The Ganga was swollen and raging for days. Since yesterday, it has been sunny again. The ferry boats, which had stopped due to the swiftness and roiling of the river, are running again. The rain gave us time to read, study Sanskrit, and of course–watch the river!!
The rafting boats are out in full force–a somewhat sad comment on the changing attitude toward the sacred river. No different, I suppose, than the fact that everyone throws their trash into the river. Every kind of trash: plastic, wood, paper, metal, etc., etc. Biodegradable garbage, which the Ganga might tolerate, is instead thrown out for the pigs and cows who roam freely. To be honest, they get their share of plastic and paper, also.
In fact, the little dwelling just to the right of us has a garbage dump for a front yard. The steps of the ghat in front of us are swept clean every day. That dirt and trash goes directly into the river. Throughout the day, people walk across the ghat to the rail just below our room, and throw their trash over it, into the yard next door. Several families of pigs spend the day there, rooting around, eating whatever they can, among all the plastic bags and other trash. Cows wander over and rummage, as well. The wall of the ghat also serves as a partial shield from view for people using the yard as a bathroom, which happens frequently…
This amidst the picturesque setting of mountains, trees, and river, as well as ashrams and temples whose architecture ranges from quaint to absolutely breathtaking. Fortunately, some friends we ran into today say that there are “green” movements in certain parts of the country, and even trash collection in a few places.
We have discussed numerous travel plans; among them Gangotri, Badrinath, Deoprayag, Rajasthan for the camel festival.
Some folks who stayed here went to Gangotri, and came back to tell us about it. The road had been partly washed away in the monsoon, and was being repaired with rocks and boulders. After reaching Gangotri, having survived the perilous journey by car, they began the trek to Gaumukh, to the glacier that is the source of the Ganga. The 14 kilometers is an uphill incline, and when they reached the top, they discovered that the lone guest house that served pilgrims for years had been swept away in the monsoon. They were able to find a sadhu who let them sleep on the mud floor of his hut for the night.
We’ve decided not to go to Gangotri.
Some others travelers told us that the road to Badrinath is impassible, due to landslides. Guess we won’t go there either.
Deoprayag is just a day trip–about 2 1/2 hours drive from here. It is where the holy rivers Bhagirathi and Alakananda join, forming the river that is from there known as Ganga. The Bhagirathi is the one that comes from the glacier at Gaumukh, and is considered the actual source of the Ganga. But officially, the name Ganga apparently begins at Deoprayag.
The days of rain have delayed us from going to Deoprayag, but now that the sun is out again, we will look into a day trip this week.
We will also check into train schedules to Haldwani. We will go there in a week’s time, and from Haldwani get a car to Nainital (a lake resort town in the mountains), and on to the Neem Karoli Baba ashram in nearby Kainchi. The 9 day festival in celebration of the Goddess, known as Durga Puja, begins on the 12th of October. We will spend those days, and probably a few more, at the ashram.
The ashram is run by Sri Siddhi Ma, an elderly woman who spent many years with Neem Karoli Baba in service and devotion, and is now considered a saint in her own right–and his successor by some.
I have not had the fortune to meet Siddhi Ma, though Shivaya has known her for many years. I am looking forward to our first meeting with great pleasure.
In any case, our time in Rishikesh has been spent having deep, long darshan of the magnificent river. Rather than socializing or going to ashrams, we have drifted into an ever-deeper communion with the spirit and energy of Ganga, releasing to her the daily sheddings of unnecessary concerns. (Our own trash, I guess!) Yesterday, I said to Shivaya, “Being here is really about releasing.” He replied, “Yes, every day you release the day before.” So be it.
We’ll be in touch again before leaving Rishikesh, since I don’t know when I’ll be near a computer again after that.
Lots of love,
Uma and Shivaya